ST. PAUL, MN - Early in the twentieth century. St. Paul was a safe haven for society’s worst. Some of the country's most hardened criminals traveled to the area to hide from law enforcement until the "heat" on them cooled. They did so because of an understanding between law enforcement and lawbreakers, commonly called the O'Connor Layover Agreement — after St. Paul Police Chief John Joseph ‘The Big Fellow’ O'Connor.
He was appointed to the position on June 1, 1900, by Mayor Robert A. Smith. As one of the nation's top detectives, O'Connor's promotion was seen as a positive development for a city plagued by crime. He had a reputation for being decisive, a quality his predecessors lacked. O'Connor's stature and size also made him a formidable ally in the eyes of local citizens.
There were three simple rules criminals had to follow in order to be left alone. When they arrived, they had to check in with the police, pay bribes, and promise not to commit serious crimes. As long as these three things occurred, officials looked the other way. Local police went as far as to protect returning criminals who committed crimes outside the city, even from federal agents, who lacked the jurisdiction to investigate local crimes.
Soon after the layover agreement was established, gangsters from around the nation began showing up in St. Paul. A go-between was needed to ensure that criminals understood the rules and paid bribes. William "Reddy" Griffin was the first gatekeeper. After his death from a stroke in 1913, "Dapper" Dan Hogan became his successor.
During this time, residents crossed paths with underworld celebrities without fear, and local businesses benefited from criminals' ill-gotten financial gains.
Though it reduced significant crimes to almost nothing, O’Connor’s system encouraged petty crimes like gambling and prostitution. Police kept these petty crimes from becoming big problems. Interestingly, criminals in St. Paul policed each other to ensure petty crimes remained small. They didn’t want to ruin what they considered a good thing. If officials overturned the agreement, the "heat" would likely become too hot to overcome, and the criminal's financial windfall would probably end.
While O’Connor’s city remained mostly crime free, neighboring towns weren’t as lucky. In 1916 Minneapolis mayor William Nye complained to anyone who would listen that his city couldn't stem its tide of crime because of the illicit goings-on in St. Paul. Despite the issues, O'Connor's status as an incredible detective and adept criminologist remained unscathed.
The situation remained relatively stable until Chief O'Connor retired on May 29, 1920. He was an overbearing and loud man whose dominating personality helped minimize lawlessness within city limits. However, his replacements were far less imposing. The lack of a dominant presence to watch over St. Paul’s hiding-in-plain-sight criminals emboldened the underworld element to commit increasingly egregious acts within its borders
Four prominent St. Paul citizens were kidnapped and held for ransom between 1933 and 1934, including Hamm's Brewery President William Hamm Jr. and Edward Bremer, heir to the Schmidt Brewery fortune. Because of the high-profile nature of the crimes, the Federal Government was given great authority to act. This jurisdictional change helped end the layover agreement. Federal officials swarmed St. Paul with a vengeance, intent on stopping underworld criminals. Furthermore, under their watchful eye, local officials could no longer look the other way.
After the layover system had all but collapsed, the cozy relationship between local law enforcement and local underworld moved to the forefront. Left to fend for themselves, criminals became increasingly brazen. Ordinary citizens got caught in the crossfire.
Fed up St. Paulites, including St. Paul Daily News editor Howard Kahn, joined the fight against corruption. They not only targeted criminals, but local corrupt local officials. FBI detective Jamie Wallace wiretapped police in St. Paul for one year, finding a number of trusted keepers-of-the-peace had acted criminally. In July 1935, the St. Paul Daily News printed a story about corruption within the ranks of local law enforcement. Soon after several members of the city’s police force were either convicted of a crime or resigned.
A new guard of reputable law enforcement officials replaced the old guard of criminals, officially ending the layover agreement for good. The corrupt behavior of past administrations finally ended in 1936, and the people of St. Paul stopped turning a blind eye to criminal activity and those that allowed it to take place.
- Kenney, Dave. Northern Lights: The Stories of Minnesota's Past. 2nd ed. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003.
- Maccabee, Paul. John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920–1936. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995.
- Pegler, Westbrook. "Fair Enough." Reading Eagle, February 19, 1934, 11.
- Reicher, Matt. "O'Connor Layover Agreement." MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/thing/oconnor-layover-agreement.
- Rice, Ellen. “Who Gave St. Paul the Right to Be a Haven for Hoodlums?” Section 216. http://www.section216.com/history/hoodlums.pdf.
- St. Paul Daily Globe, June 3, 1900.
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