The National Prohibition Act went into effect in January 1920. Authored by Andrew Volstead, it made it illegal to manufacture, transport, or purchase alcohol in the United States. The goal of the act, called a "great social and economic experiment" by then-president Herbert Hoover, was to curtail lawlessness, but the actual effect of the legislation was the opposite, introducing an era of significant crime and corruption. Saint Paul, thanks in no small part to the O'Connor System, became a hotbed of illegal liquors-related criminal activity.
Legal or not, people enjoyed alcohol during Prohibition, and bootleggers ensured that it found its way to them. In Saint Paul, the king of the bootleggers was Leon Gleckman. Born in Minsk, Belarus on June 1, 1893, Gleckman emigrated to the United States with his family in the winter of 1903, initially settling in Port Huron, Michigan. An incredibly bright and savvy man, Gleckman gained his status by helping friends win critical political appointments and highly coveted positions in law enforcement. At the peak of his criminal prowess, he ran Saint Paul as a dominant underworld figure.
Society-at-large revered bootleggers. As purveyors of underground liquor, they provided access to something that many didn't want to be taken from them in the first place. Regionally, Gleckman, considered "The Al Capone of Saint Paul" in the late 1920s and 30s, was the king of the bootleggers. Early on he was a member of an illegal bootlegging organization that operated under cover of the Minnesota Blueing Company on University Avenue. It was a shell business that contained more than a dozen large stills and brought in over one million dollars a year.
Gleckman, a nefarious crime boss, was treated with kid gloves by local newspapers. He was described in print as a "politician," "political leader," and "head of a finance company," rarely anything resembling his actual status. He was a criminal, plain and simple, one that had his fair share of encounters with the law. The first was in 1922. Gleckman was arrested on charges of liquor conspiracy as a member of a "Twin Cities million-dollar run ring" after a Prohibition Bureau raid at the Minnesota Blueing Company. He pled guilty and was sentenced to serve eighteen months at Leavenworth Prison.
The harsh sentence surprised Gleckman. Believing that his lawyer hadn't thoroughly explained the seriousness of the charges against him, he attempted to recant his guilty plea. On Christmas Eve 1926, after years of appeals, Gleckman learned that his conviction for liquor conspiracy had been upheld and he was to begin his prison sentence. He surrendered to authorities on March 10, 1927. The next day, accompanied by U.S. Marshals, he boarded a train at the Saint Paul Union Depot and headed to Leavenworth Prison.
Prison records described inmate Gleckman as self-assured, respectful, and articulate. A model prisoner, he was released for good behavior on February 20, 1928. Gleckman soon returned to Saint Paul and carried on his enterprises, setting up shop at the Saint Paul Hotel in downtown Saint Paul in January 1930. His return to power accelerated after the June 1930 promotion of detective Tom Brown to the city's police chief. From 1930 to 1932, with Chief Brown's help, Gleckman controlled much of the gambling in the city. He laundered profits through a series of legitimate businesses, including Republic Finance Company, an auto loan business he headed as its president.
Gleckman maintained criminal operations from a posh hotel suite while living a comparatively ordinary personal life in Saint Paul with his wife and children. The family lived in a modest four-bedroom house in the city’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. Gleckman owned one car and walked to work when the weather allowed. He spent evenings at the local movie theater with his wife. For years Gleckman adeptly managed his double life. However, on September 24, 1931, his two worlds collided for the first time when local gangsters abducted him. Eight days later Gleckman returned unharmed.
In early 1932 Federal authorities took steps to end Gleckman's criminal career much the same way they'd stopped Al Capone's reign the previous year. In November 1933 an indictment was levied against Gleckman in federal court on charges of income tax evasion. Federal attorneys alleged that he'd failed to pay over $100,000 in taxes from unreported income between 1929 - 1931. The trial ensued on April 25, 1934, and arguments completed, went to the jury on May 17. After two days of deliberations, jurors remained hopelessly deadlocked 9 - 3 for acquittal. On May 19, 1934, the judge reluctantly declared a mistrial.
The retrial began on November 12, 1934. During the second trial, prosecutors were able to both the refute the first trial's suspect witness testimony and introduce new evidence cementing Gleckman's guilt. On November 28, 1934, he was convicted of two counts of tax evasion occurring between 1929 - 1930. Gleckman was sentenced to serve eighteen months in Leavenworth Prison and pay a $10,000 fine plus court costs. He appealed, alleging twenty-six errors in law during the trial and remained free on bond. On November 27, 1935, The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Saint Louis affirmed his conviction. The Supreme Court refused to hear Gleckman's appeal.
The appeals process was exhausted. Investigators had proven that Gleckman's reported income in 1929 and 1930 was significantly less than actual earnings. On March 25, 1936, he surrendered to U.S. Marshals and began serving his sentence. While Gleckman was at Leavenworth, federal officials learned that he'd paid a juror to try and sway the outcome of his first trial. He was brought to Saint Paul on April 13, 1937, to face new charges. On May 1, 1927, he and his brother were found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to serve six months in a Minneapolis workhouse. Gleckman's sentence was scheduled to begin after his June 10, 1937 release.
He eventually settled his tax debts and moved to New York. In November 1939, Gleckman pled guilty to criminal conspiracy before a Federal judge in Brooklyn. On January 19, 1940, he was sentenced to six months in jail. Gleckman soon after returned to Saint Paul. On July 13, 1941, with another federal jail term imminent, he headed to Keller Golf Course to play golf and socialize with friends. At 1:30 a.m. the next morning, while driving home from the golf course, Gleckman crashed into a Union Depot support pillar at the intersection of Kellogg and Wacouta. The impact fractured his skull, and he died on the way to the hospital. The coroner listed the cause of death as “probably an accident.”
Bibliography available here.
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