Feature Articles

July 2001

The St. Paul Incident

(Part 1)

By John William Tuohy

     William Hamm, "Terrible" Roger Touhy, "Creepy" Karpis. Their names are largely forgotten now, as is the dramatic incident that brought them together, and, for a brief few weeks, kept the eyes of the world on a gray and somber St. Paul's court room. Their worlds collided on June 14, 1933, an unusually hot summer's day in St. Paul.

     William Hamm, President of the Hamm Brewing Company, left his imposing office adjacent to the brewery, and, as he always did at exactly 12:45 each workday, started the slow walk up the imposing hill to the family mansion on Cable Avenue in St. Paul.

     He was a good looking man of 39 years. Tall, he stood 6 feet 4 inches, Hamm had the reserved arrogance of inherited wealth, a fortune estimated to be at least $4.5 million in cash and probably double that in real estate and other commercial holdings around the St. Paul area. Separated from his wife, and a member of one of the city's oldest leading families, Hamm was said to be the most eligible bachelor in the Midwest.

     After two blocks, two men, probably Alvin Karpis and Freddie Barker, walked up to Hamm and stood in front of him. One man extended his hand and asked, "Mr. Hamm?"

     When Hamm reached to clasp hands, the second man grabbed him around the chest, locking in the brewer's arm, and shoved and pushed Hamm to the back seat of a large black coupe with a uniformed driver in the front seat.

     Hamm was shoved face down on to the floor of the back seat, a hood was slipped over his head, and the car took off.

     The car stopped some twenty miles northwest of Chicago in front of a prosperous looking house on the main street of Bensenville Illinois, at the home of Edmund Bartholmey, soon to be appointed the local postmaster.

     Hamm was pulled gently out of the car "by the icy cold, but small hand of what I think was a women," Hamm remembered. He was guided up a set of stairs into a small bedroom where he was allowed to take off the goggles. The room's window had been boarded up, and there was a chair and bed with a small table with a lamp and an unshaded electric light.

     Over the next few days, only Fred Goetz, another wise dangerous outlaw, talked to Hamm although Hamm never saw his face. He remembered that he was fed adequate though simple meals, and when he ate, he was forced to face downwards while Goetz discussed his views on prohibition and the new Roosevelt administration.

     Once, Goetz asked Hamm, "I see your advertisements about your booze, let me ask you something, is your stuff really special?"

     Hamm though about it for a second and replied, "Naw, it's all pretty much the same under the label."

     "Look," Goetz said, "you seem alright to me, Mr. Hamm. But we had to snatch you. You see, I'm a man with champagne taste and beer income."

     The kidnappers, as time would reveal, were the Barker-Karpis gang, although exactly why Alvin Karpis and Freddie Barker decided to kidnap William Hamm, leading citizen and industrialist in the Twin Cities area, will probably never be known. Certainly Hamm's wealth was one factor, and another was that for years, since the prohibition had all but closed down Hamm Brewing, there were whispers in St. Paul, that the respectable William Hamm was in business with the Keatings mob, St. Paul's leading bootleggers, selling legal near-beer out of its front doors, while shipping the illegal bootleg beer out the back door.

     Apparently, according to gangsters Roger Touhy and Alvin Karpis, the Keatings used their muscle to get Hamm's illegal brew into the St. Paul and Wisconsin area speakeasies and Hamm's otherwise, legal operation took over from there, distributing the brew and making collections. A business dispute between Hamm and Keating, the details of which are lost in time, resulted in the Karpis-Barker gang, working with the Keating's permission, snatching the brewer off the streets.

     The day after Hamm was abducted, William Dunn, Hamm's business manager, took a call from Alvin Karpis who told Dunn that he had kidnapped his boss and would release him for $100,000, in cash, small bills and then hung up.

     The day the ransom money arrived, June 18, 1933, Goetz came to Hamm and said: "We have good news for you, Mr. Hamm, the ransom's been paid and you're going home"

     He was given fresh clothes, a clean shave, blindfolded again and placed on a car floor and driven for ten hours before he was pulled out of the car and left in a vacant field in Wyoming, Minnesota on Highway 61, about half way between St. Paul and the spot where the ransom money had been dropped.

     Hamm listened for the car to pull away, and then removed the taped goggles from his eyes and ran to a nearby farmhouse for help.

     The next day, an army of newsmen, photographers and curiosity seekers blocked the main entrance to Hamm's estates upon his return.

     During a news conference, Hamm told reporters that he had been treated well and, "They said that if I ever want anything or if they could ever be of any service to me, just to let them know."

     A reporter asked the obvious question, "Did they leave a forwarding address?"

     "No," Hamm replied. "No, I'm afraid they neglected to do that."

     Despite Hamm's casual attitude towards the entire incident, the public was outraged by the kidnapping, made all the worse by the fact that Hamm's mother had died during his abduction and over in Kansas City, mobsters, in an attempt to either free or silence one of its own, had ambushed and brutally gunned down the captured hood and several lawmen in a daring daylight massacre.

     In the public's mind, things had gone too far and somebody had to pay the price for the disorder and lawlessness that gripped the depression-racked nation, and Roger Touhy, Chicago gangster, fit the bill.

     Touhy was the son of a Chicago policeman, a former altar boy and class valedictorian, who invested a small fortune he had earned in oilwell speculation into a bootlegging business in 1925.

     Staking out the booming northern portion of Cook County, the county that surrounds Chicago, as his own, by 1932 Touhy controlled a multimillion dollar bootlegging and gambling operation, run out of his suburban Des Plains home.

     Now, in July of 1933, Touhy and four of his men left Chicago for the resort lake region of north woods of Wisconsin, intending to stay at Rohrbachers resort, about a mile south of Lac du Flambeau, in Minocqua, a resort village known as the Island City.

     They were going there, among other reasons, to find and then murder George Maitland, the elderly Black housekeeper who was the sole witness in the killing of a Capone enforcer named John Renelli by one of Touhy's gunmen several weeks before. The Touhy's had learned that Maitland was hiding out at Renelli's brother's place, the Chicago Tavern, in the Lake region.

     Another reason for the trip north, was to reclaim bootlegging territory lost to, interestingly enough, the Keatings-Hamm operation, which had started to compete with Touhy's expansive Wisconsin operations. Threats were made on both sides and tensions were high.

     All of it was just more details that were dragging Touhy further into the underworld, when all he wanted to do was to get out.

     He had promised his wife, Clara, that by the end of 1933 he would close down or sell off his expansive illegal operations, bootlegging, labor racketeering and gambling, take their millions and move her and their two sons out of Chicago. Clara wanted to go someplace warmer, Florida or California, Roger wanted Colorado.

     Touhy knew that it was time to get out of the rackets anyway, while he was still alive.

     He was locked in a bloody, two year, street war with the Capone syndicate over control of Chicago's billion dollar a year labor rackets.

     Backed by the national teamsters and Chicago's corrupt Mayor, Anton Cermak, Touhy had, in a case of the mouse eating the lion, actually chased the mob out of most of Chicago's teamster locals and inflicted serious damage to the syndicate, including the near fatal shooting of mob boss Frank Nitti.

     Then, suddenly, everything turned for the worse, the mob killed Cermak in a bold public assassination, costing Touhy his vital political clout. Then, the Teamsters National Council panicked, and surrendered to the Capone syndicate.

     Touhy continued the war anyway, financed in large part by a string of nationwide mail robberies that added almost a million dollars to his war chest. But now, United States Postal Inspectors were weeks away from cracking the case and sending everyone in the Touhy operation to jail, that is, if the syndicate didn't kill him first.

To be continued

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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