By Clay Schuldt
On Aug. 11, the Caledonia Public Library hosted a presentation by author Chad Lewis who had recently written two new books: “The Minnesota Road Guide to Gangster Hot Spots” and “The Wisconsin Road Guide to Gangster Hot Spots.” Both books chronicle the strange history of 1930s crime in the Midwestern states.
Originally from Eau Claire, Wis., with a background in psychology, Lewis has written several non-fiction history novels detailing bizarre occurrences in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. In his speech Lewis explained to his library audience that he began researching gangsters in Minnesota and Wisconsin following an unexpected trip to Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wis., that started Lewis on his mission to research and write about gangsters in the Midwest. Little Bohemia Lodge is the site of perhaps the most famous gangster shootout of all time.
On the early morning of April 23, 1934, the FBI engaged in a major shootout with known gangsters John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Homer Van Meter, Tommy Carroll and John “Red” Hamilton, who were all staying at the Little Bohemia Lodge.
Following the intense firefight at the lodge, Dillinger, Van Meter and Hamilton escaped and high-tailed it back to St. Paul.
Why did they head back to St. Paul?
They headed to Minnesota because in the early 1930s St. Paul was a safe haven for America’s public enemies.
Lewis explained that during the 1930s the chief of police for St. Paul, John O’Conner, invited criminals to the city with the promise that they would not be arrested as long as they did not commit any crimes while in town. By some estimates St. Paul had the highest criminal population in the nation, but legally speaking it was the safest place for the average citizen to live.
Noted bank robber Alvin “Creepy” Karpis said if he was looking for a friend he had not seen in awhile, he’d immediately think of two places: prison or St. Paul because they were probably in one or the other.
However, Lewis said that state’s capital was not entirely without crime – it was just directed toward other gangsters. One of the first car bombings in history occurred in St. Paul in 1928.
Prohibition bootlegger “Dapper” Dan Hogan was killed by a car bomb explosion at his home on Dec. 4, 1928. While the person responsible for the bombing was never brought to justice, Hogan’s home still stands today in St. Paul on West Seventh Street. “You can still go into the same alleyway and go into the same driveway as Dapper Dan did,” Lewis said. “Just make sure you check under your car before you do so.”
Lewis also gave an account of several bank robberies that occurred in Minnesota from Brainerd to Willmar. Many of these sites still contain remnants of their gangster past. In the downtown area of Brainerd, near the site of the old First National Bank, it is still possible to spot bullet holes in the surrounding buildings from a robbery that occurred on Oct. 22, 1933.
Following his presentation, Lewis opened the floor to questions and personal stories. Lewis closed his presentation on gangsters, saying, “Even though the gangsters are no longer there, the buildings and the history is still there. How much longer, I don’t know, so I always encourage people to visit these places before they are gone.”
Lewis did take time to answer questions about some of his research into the paranormal as well. Currently, he’s is researching information on a legendary creature that is rumored to live in Lake Pepin.
Similar to the Locke Ness, many locals claim Lake Pepin is the home of a large, underwater creature that has been nicknamed “Peppy.” Lewis told his library audience that while Locke Ness had been fairly well documented, the Lake Pepin creature was still a mystery.
Lewis admitted he has developed mixed feelings about whether or not he believes in the monster but, with his background in psychology, he finds it fascinating that so many continue to believe in the unexplained.
The author still maintains an open mind on the subject of ghosts, as every culture seems to have their haunting stories.
In addition to writing about gangsters Lewis is the author of several books on the paranormal, including “The Most Gruesome Hauntings of the Midwest,” “The Minnesota Road Guide to Mysterious Creatures” and “The Wisconsin Road Guide to Mysterious Creatures.” Many of Lewis’s books may be checked out at the Caledonia Library.