Saint Paul, MN

The Shooting of Christmas Wreath Salesman Oscar Erickson

Matt Reicher

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Mugshot of Fred Barker, man who shot and killed Oscar EricksonMinneapolis - St. Paul Magazine

SAINT PAUL, MINNESOTA - One of the many unfortunate byproducts of the gangster era was everyday people getting caught in the crosshairs of criminal behavior. When that happened, unsuspecting bystanders had their lives changed forever, or worse, saw their end due to a flurry of bullets. A person rarely had a second chance to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On Friday, December 16, 1932, twenty-nine-year-old Saint Paul resident Oscar Erickson’s luck was finally making a turn for the better. After being unemployed for many months due to a bout with appendicitis, the former cook was finally going back to work. He’d taken a job selling Christmas wreaths door-to-door for a florist in the city and optimistically believed it was a small step in the right direction for him and his 20-year-old wife, Delvina.

Loading wreaths into the trunk of his car, Erickson and his boss Arthur Zachman set out to knock on doors in the Como neighborhood and sell the Christmas spirit to homeowners. Unfortunately, after talking to the first couple of residents, the two men realized that a different salesperson had already canvassed the area. Erickson and his boss decided to pack themselves into the car and make their way to a nearby area adjoining the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.

A short distance away, members of the Barker-Karpis Gang were in a high-speed get-a-way from recently robbing the Third Northwestern National Bank on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. They’d planned to switch cars at a location in Como Park. The tire on the getaway car, flattened in the gunfire after the heist, came off entirely at Snelling Avenue and Larpenteur — a short distance from their destination. The stolen Lincoln limped into the park on its rim.

The gang had stashed a second car there and soon began moving their stolen goods from one auto to another.

Erickson and his boss, unaware of the robbery, drove by the location near Monkey Island around the time the gang was removing their stolen bounty, $22,000 in cash and $100,000 in securities — and the license plates from the getaway car. He slowed down as he passed the well-dressed men, either caught up in a moment of curiosity about the strange men’s intentions or honestly wondering if the group needed help.

Gang member Fred Barker, thinking that the slow-moving car was getting their license plates, shouted “Get going, or else!” at the vehicle. The newly minted wreath salesman didn’t move fast enough. Barker reached for his pistol and started shooting at the passing car.

One of the bullets struck Erickson in the head, and he immediately slumped down into the driver’s seat. Zachman pulled him over to the passenger’s side of the car and drove the bleeding and unconscious shooting victim to the local police station. Erickson was then rushed by a police ambulance to the hospital. He remained in a coma as doctors tried to save his life. Unfortunately, he succumbed to his wound, dying from a cerebral hemorrhage before the dawn of the next morning.

His grief-stricken young wife of two years told reporters that she had learned that her husband was dying while talking with a friend about his Christmas gift. Mrs. Erickson spoke about the financial struggles the couple had faced in their brief marriage, including the doctor bills from Erickson’s recent bout with appendicitis. She went on to talk about the happiness her husband felt at getting a new job and his belief that their bad luck was going to change.

Barker, who would lose his life in a shootout with FBI agents in Florida a little more than three years later, never had to answer for the murder. He didn’t kill a competing gangster or a lawman trying to stop him. Barker cruelly murdered a man whose only crime was driving his car by the scene at the wrong time.

Police Chief John O’Connor had instituted the Layover Agreement in St. Paul years before to ensure that serious crimes like the shooting death of Oscar Erickson never happened within the city limits. A growing roster of corrupt officials and increasingly brazen criminals began to defy the unofficial rules with increasing abandon.

Citizens that had once confidently walked alongside the public enemies on the streets of the city began to fear for their safety. Something had to change.

Erickson’s murder led to one of the area’s first significant public calls for reform, and although it took a few more years to bear fruit, it signaled the beginning of the end for the era of the gangsters.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Erickson moved to Minneapolis to live with her sister while she searched for a job as a telephone operator.

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Present day site near Como Town where Oscar Erickson was shot and killedGoogle Maps

Sources

  • Bergerson, Roger. "1932 Bank Robbery Ends with Christmas Tragedy." Park Bugle – The Bugle is a Community Newspaper Serving St. Anthony Park, Lauderdale, Falcon Heights and Como Park. Last modified December 16, 2013. https://www.parkbugle.org/1932-bank-robbery-ends-with-christmas-tragedy/.
  • Maccabee, Paul. John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936. 1995.
  • Minneapolis Star. "One of Gunmen Identified by Bank Employees." December 17, 1932, 1.
  • Shinomiya, Sharon. "Como Park History Tour: With More Details." District 10 Como Community Council. Last modified May 4, 2009. https://district10comopark.org/uploads/Como+Park+History+Tour+Long+Version+for+D10.pdf.

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Freelance historian writing about Minnesota's beer and brewing history for Minnesota Then.

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