St. Paul gangster's kidnapping trial came to dramatic end

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Curt Brown, Star Tribune
·5 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The defendant stood with his arms behind his back, so the federal judge in St. Paul couldn't see his left hand. But courtroom witnesses caught a glimpse of a small white object between Jack Peifer's fingers on July 31, 1936, at the end of his kidnapping conspiracy trial.

"I thought at first the pill might have been an aspirin tablet," said Herbert Wenzel, an office worker with the Works Progress Administration who was attending the trial with his assistant.

Peifer, 43, had been found guilty and sentenced to 30 years for hatching the plot to kidnap brewing heir William Hamm Jr. for a $100,000 ransom — keeping $10,000 for himself. Just as District Court Judge M.M. Joyce denied his motion for a new trial and lectured him about his wrongdoing and its effect on his family, Peifer pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket, covered his mouth and swallowed a capsule of potassium cyanide.

He died two hours later in a Ramsey County jail cell. It was the beginning of the end of St. Paul's storied gangster era.

The son of a Litchfield, Minn., tavern owner, John Peter Peifer had followed in his father's footsteps — and then some — as Prohibition ended, the Depression dragged on and gangsters and crooked cops ruled St. Paul in the early 1930s. Described as a fixer and gambler, Peifer owned the Hollyhocks Club on a bluff overlooking the river from Mississippi River Boulevard in St. Paul.

"There the well-heeled from all over the Midwest came to enjoy thick, juicy steaks and decent wines before heading upstairs for craps, blackjack, and roulette," writes Carolyn Cox in her new book, "The Snatch Racket: The Kidnapping Epidemic that Terrorized 1930s America."

Of all the mobster-friendly towns in the early 1930s, from Atlantic City to Reno, "The most notorious of all was St. Paul, Minnesota," according to Cox. "Hands down."

Under the unwritten rules of the day, criminals were welcome in St. Paul as long as they checked in with police when they arrived in town, paid the cops bribes and avoided violent crime within city limits. Peifer skimmed 20% of his Hollyhocks profits and delivered them to police and city leaders in a bag each week so his underworld customers needn't worry.

In April 1933, Peifer met with gang leaders Alvin "Creepy" Karpis and Fred Barker at Hollyhocks and floated his scheme to kidnap Hamm, 39, president of the Theodore Hamm Brewing Co. and widely considered the Midwest's most eligible bachelor. Peifer arranged for a cottage on Bald Eagle Lake near White Bear Lake where the conspirators planned the crime, often going into St. Paul to spy on Hamm's daily routine and map their escape.

"We got to know so much about [Hamm] that I was sick of him long before the kidnapping," Karpis later wrote in his memoir, after being paroled from a life sentence at Alcatraz prison for his role in the kidnapping.

The gang snatched Hamm on June 15, 1933, while he walked to his mother's Dayton's Bluff house for lunch. They hid him near Chicago until his wealthy beer family forked over the $100,000 — worth nearly $2 million in today's dollars. Within four days, they dropped Hamm off in Wyoming, Minn.

"It was a smooth, professional, by-the-book snatch, well planned and executed," writes Cox, a retired Washington, D.C., lawyer who scoured the FBI's kidnap files from 1932 to 1937. She found it odd that Peifer decided to kidnap Hamm in St. Paul when he was supposed to enforce the system that protected criminals in the city in exchange for them avoiding shenanigans there.

The FBI at first wrongly pinned the Hamm kidnapping on a Chicago gang, which was acquitted. Agents found Karpis' fingerprints on ransom notes, but it took three years — and the kidnapping of St. Paul banker Edward Bremer — before Karpis was busted in New Orleans. In the meantime, Barker and his mother had died in 1935 in a shootout with police in Florida.

Peifer insisted he was innocent, calling the case against him "the biggest frame-up I have ever heard about." Some websites question whether he killed himself to avoid doing time, or if he was snuffed out because he knew too much.

"Peifer was yellow and if he had been held long enough he would have talked," Karpis told the FBI, fingering Peifer with the kidnapping. What Karpis said, according to U.S. Attorney George Sullivan, "left no doubt that there are several men in St. Paul who are mighty glad Peifer died."

Peifer had married 31-year-old Violet Nordquist in South Dakota the year before. When a reporter told her he was dead, she hailed a taxi, went to the jail and then the morgue. As she stroked his hair there, she said: "Jack, dear, this is what you get for being so good to people."

At Peifer's flower-filled funeral a few days later, the Minneapolis Tribune reported, Violet "with visible effort, kept control of her emotions, though she appeared fatigued after a two-day vigil beside the silver metallic casket where her husband lay."

Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.