Kidnapping of Hamm's Brewery President William Hamm Jr. (June 15-19, 1933)

Kidnapping of Hamm's Brewery President William Hamm Jr. (June 15-19, 1933)
Photo of Willam Hamm Jr. at kidnapping trial Dick H. (Find a Grave)

Members of the Barker-Karpis Gang kidnapped Hamm's Brewery President William Hamm Jr. as he walked from his office to have lunch with his mother. At about 12:45 PM on June 15, 1933, four men seized the grandson of Theodore Hamm near Greenbrier Street and Minnehaha Avenue East in Saint Paul and pushed him into the back seat of a nearby black sedan. Mr. Hamm was forced to lie down on the floor of the car and a white hood was thrown over his head. The car then drove off.

The Hamm kidnapping took place only two-hundred feet from his office.

After traveling about thirty miles out of Saint Paul, the sedan stopped near the Wisconsin border. Another automobile with several more men in it soon joined them. While still on the car floor, the gangsters forced Hamm to sign four notes authorizing a large ransom payment for his safe return. He then chose William Dunn, vice president of sales for the brewery, to act as the kidnappers’ point-of-contact on his behalf.

The kidnappers took Hamm to a home in Bensenville, Illinois, and put him in a dimly lit room with boarded-up windows on the house’s second floor. The room’s furniture consisted of only a chair, bed, and a small table with an electric lamp. Hamm was instructed to call out if he needed anything. While they brought him everything he needed, he was also required to turn his face away from his kidnappers whenever they entered the room.

While hidden away in Bensenville, kidnapper Alvin Karpis gave the kidnapped brewery president editions of the Saturday Post to pass the time. Lacking access to Hamm’s beer, Karpis removed the labels from other bottles before giving them to Hamm to drink — he didn’t want to offend his kidnapped guest by giving him beer from a competing brand.

Despite the gang’s insistence the police not become involved, Hamm’s mother was adamant they helped find her son. A kidnapping task force placed a wiretap on Dunn’s phone and waited to hear from the crooks.

At 5 PM that day, Dunn received a phone call from the kidnappers. Dunn needed to get together $100,000 in unmarked five, ten, and twenty-dollar bills and wait for future instructions. Three hours later, Saint Paul Police Chief Thomas Dahill was notified. At 2 AM the next morning, Dunn received a second call promising the delivery of a ransom note within moments. Ten minutes later, a taxi driver pulled up to his address and handed Dunn and Detective Tom Brown a message signed by Hamm that repeated the $100,000 demand.

The driver was paid $2 to deliver the message.

It read:

“You know your boyfriend is out of circulation. You are to pay off $100,000 in a manner explained to you this afternoon…If you fail to comply with our demands, you will never see William Hamm Jr. again."

The family moved to meet the demands, withdrawing the ransom sum from a Minneapolis bank in preparation for a potential exchange. A Hamm’s company truck with its doors removed remained at the ready to deliver the money.

At 9 AM Saturday, Dunn received another phone call. He was told to drive to the home of Hamm Realty employee L.J. Sullvold to get the ransom delivery instructions. Sullvold, who’d been phoned with the information, told Dunn to drive the money along Highway 61 toward Duluth in a car with the doors and trunk lid removed at a speed of no greater than twenty miles per hour.

Along the route, Dunn would be joined by an automobile that would flash its headlights five times to start the exchange. Upon seeing the signal, Dunn was to drop the bag of money on the road’s side and continue north to Duluth. Once in the Zenith City, he was to get a hotel room and wait for Hamm to arrive.

Later that day, Dunn did as instructed, driving north on Highway 61. He left the money on the roadside as instructed and headed to Duluth to register a room at the Hotel Duluth. He expected Hamm to be waiting for him upon his arrival, but he wasn’t there. Saint Paul Detectives Brown and Tierney met up with Dunn at his hotel room, and the three men waited for the kidnap victim to show up.

On the afternoon of Sunday, June 18, 1933, his kidnappers walked into his room and told Hamm they had good news. The ransom was paid, and he was going home. At 5:30 the next morning, after a long drive, the blindfolded Hamm was dropped off on the side of Highway 1 near Wyoming, Minnesota.

After releasing him and instructing him to stay on the side of the road while they escaped, his captors told Hamm, “If (he) ever want(ed) anything or they could do anything, for (him) to let them know.”

Hamm sat on the side of the road until he was sure his kidnappers were gone. He then walked onto the nearby Verges family farm and asked for help. Using their phone, Hamm called home and spoke with the family chauffeur. A short time later, Chief of Police Thomas Dahill announced to the press he was leaving for Wyoming to pick up Mr. Hamm.

After the kidnapping, Hamm lived with the fear he could be taken again and took precautions to ensure his safety. Though publicly calm about the ordeal, the experience changed Hamm. The man who had once embraced celebrity now preferred to live his life outside of the spotlight. He continued to use the bluff stairs near the brewery each workday but now did so while accompanied by armed escorts.

Hamm was a pleasant, well-liked personality who became nervous and introverted in public after his harrowing experience. His home became akin to a feudal castle, replete with guards hired to investigate every noise. Efforts to become less of a public figure even carried over into his work life, as Hamm now chose to wear overalls instead of suits to blend in with the other employees at the brewery. Three years of courtroom trials forced him to relive the kidnapping over and over again.

“Poor Billy, after that kidnapping, he drove a Chevrolet and wore bib overalls,” recalled Scrivener, a brewery employee. “He’d walk through the plant, and you’d think he was just one of the workers.”

The ordeal was a brazen attack on overworld society by the criminal element in the city. The waning days of Prohibition had forced the underworld to consider crimes that weren’t intoxicating liquors-related. Kidnapping Hamm, a member of the wealthy Hamm family and unofficial “Prince of Saint Paul,” provided a chance for a big financial score. While the gangsters received ransom money, and Hamm was returned unharmed, the crime, coupled with the Edward Bremer kidnapping months later, galvanized a populace against the country's criminal element and soon spelled the end of the era of gangsters.

Saint Paulites had become an unwitting party to the increasingly violent crimes, and if for no reason other than self-preservation, needed to fight back. Saint Paul Daily News Editor Howard Kahn championed their cause, pushing for removing the corrupt officials who allowed criminals to move about the city unscathed under the rules of the O’Connor Layover Agreement.

Local citizens heeded Kahn’s calls for change, voting out those who had benefitted from the lawlessness and replacing them with people willing to take on the criminals. Those newly installed officials helped to remove employees complicit in the illegal acts of previous administrations. Within a couple of years, Saint Paul’s crime rate had fallen well below the national average for a city of its size.

A series of significant crimes in the country in the early 1930s, including the kidnapping of Hamm, resulted in the federal government’s first official “war on crime.” Those events were the catalyst needed to finally arm federal investigators with the tools to engage the nation’s public enemies. President Hoover’s June 22, 1932, signing of the “Lindbergh Law” allowed the FBI to spearhead the apprehension of interstate kidnappers.

In November 1933, Hamm testified he was taken from Minnesota into Wisconsin during his kidnapping, invoking the “Lindbergh Law” and allowing federal investigators to take the lead in the search for the perpetrators. Later the Silver Nitrate Method was successfully used for the first time to garner the fingerprints of Hamm’s captors.

A nationwide manhunt ensued. It took time, but the labor of all involved eventually bore fruit. On May 1, 1936, Alvin Karpis, member of the Barker-Karpis gang and the country’s “Public Enemy #1” at the time, was arrested in New Orleans for his role in the Hamm kidnapping - among other crimes. In July of 1936, he was sentenced to serve life in prison at Alcatraz for his involvement. His capture essentially ended the reign of the criminals of the depression era.

The traumatic event now completely behind him, Hamm would have to live with the label of “kidnap victim” for the rest of his days. Although shaken by the experience, he managed to recover to live a meaningful life with many personal and professional successes

William Hamm Jr. passed away on August 21, 1970, at the age of 76.


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