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Barker‒Karpis Gang

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Reward poster for Alvin Karpis and Fred Barker

Reward poster seeking Karpis and Barker for the 1931 murder of Sheriff C. R. Kelly, the crime that drove the gang from Missouri to St. Paul.

The Barker‒Karpis gang, a revolving cast of Midwestern criminals, shuttled in and out of St. Paul in the 1930s, committing robberies and kidnappings under the protection of a corrupt police force.

In 1932, the Barker‒Karpis gang rented a house at 1031 South Robert Street in St. Paul, posing as a family of speakeasy musicians. Fred Barker and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, the gang’s principal members, had entered St. Paul, then a haven for criminals, after killing a Missouri sheriff. Other members included Fred’s brother Arthur (called Doc) and his mother, Kate (called Ma).

Later that year, the gang robbed Minneapolis’s Third Northwestern Bank. While they emptied the vault, a teller activated an alarm, and two officers—Ira Evans and Leo Gorski— responded. The gang’s lookout, Larry DeVol, fired into their patrol car, killing Evans and wounding Gorski.

A few months later, the gang planned the kidnapping of William Hamm Jr., president of Hamm’s Brewing Company. On June 15, 1933, Doc Barker and Charles “Fitz” Fitzgerald approached Hamm as he walked home for lunch. They wrestled him into Alvin Karpis’s car, placing a pillowcase and goggles over his head. En route to their suburban Chicago hideout, they forced Hamm to sign ransom notes demanding $100,000 (more than $1.8 million in 2018).

William W. Dunn, the brewery’s sales manager, quickly became the gang’s contact. He was instructed to bring the ransom money to Duluth and wait for five rear headlight flashes before dropping it beside the road. After receiving the ransom, the gang released Hamm and headed to Chicago.

After returning to St. Paul in August, the gang planned to rob the payroll of Swift and Company, a meatpacking plant, as it was transferred from a Minneapolis vault to St. Paul’s stockyards. While robbing the messengers, Doc and Karpis shot accompanying officers John Yeaman and Leo Pavlak. The gang stole $33,000 and escaped in an armored car, aided by a smokescreen.

Over the next four months, the gang planned their final major crime: the kidnapping of Commercial State Bank president Edward Bremer. On January 17, Bremer was driving to work when he stopped at the corner of Lexington Parkway and Goodrich Avenue. A gang-driven car blocked his path while another pulled up behind. The kidnappers opened Bremer’s door; when he struggled, the kidnappers pushed him to the floor. They then abandoned Bremer’s sedan, forcing him to sign ransom notes.

Within two hours, Bremer family friend Walter W. Magee received ransom instructions. The $200,000 was requested in $5 and $10 bills. When ready, Magee was to print “We are ready Alice” in the Minneapolis Tribune's personal ads.

Magee ran the ad, but the gang did not respond. They delivered several other ransom notices to people close to the Bremer family, but because of the blood left in Bremer’s car, his family suspected he was already dead. Edward’s father, Adolph Bremer, demanded a note in his son’s handwriting before he would pay. The next day a bank cashier received the requested note.

The gang finally delivered instructions for ransom payment to priest Father John Deere, another friend of the family. On February 6, Magee, following the instructions, located a car with Shell Oil stickers in St. Paul, transferred the ransom into the car, and trailed a bus for Rochester. After seeing a cluster of red lights on a hillside, Magee turned down the next gravel road, driving until he saw five headlight flashes. He placed the money beside the road and drove off.

The gang released Bremer after twenty-one days of captivity. They drove to Chicago to launder the ransom but realized the FBI had recorded the serial numbers on the bills.

The next spring, a Wisconsin farmer found a discarded gas can that the gang had used to refuel their car between Chicago and Minneapolis. FBI investigators lifted Doc’s fingerprints from the can to connect the gang to the kidnappings.

Gang members scattered across the US to escape the FBI. Fred and Ma Barker holed up in Ocklawaha, Florida, where the FBI eventually located them. On January 16, 1935, both Barkers were killed in a shootout with FBI officers. Karpis remained on the run until the FBI arrested him May 1, 1936. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and served twenty-six years in Alcatraz.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Kidnapping of Edward George Bremer, St. Paul, Minnesota: History and Early Association of the Karpis-Barker Gang Prior to the Abduction of Mr. Bremer, by Federal Bureau of Investigation, I.C. #7-576, Washington, DC: FBI, 1936. https://vault.fbi.gov/barker-karpis-gang/bremer-investigation-summary/Barker-Karpis%20Gang%20Summary%20Part%201%20of%201/view

History Channel. Ma Barker: Crime Family Values. YouTube, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCpA_Im5JQY

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.

Mahoney, Timothy. Secret Partners: Big Tom Brown and the Barker Gang. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013.

USP Alcatraz. Alcatraz Convict - Alvin Karpis (AZ-325), Public Enemy #1. YouTube, 2017.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieeHO7uXsZs

Related Images

Reward poster for Alvin Karpis and Fred Barker
Reward poster for Alvin Karpis and Fred Barker
Fred Barker, 1930 mugshot
Fred Barker, 1930 mugshot
Kate “Ma” Barker
Kate “Ma” Barker
Fred Barker in 1931.
Fred Barker in 1931.
Edward George Bremer, 1934
Edward George Bremer, 1934
Adolph Bremer with Edward Bremer, his son
Adolph Bremer with Edward Bremer, his son
Reenactment at scene of the Bremer kidnapping
Reenactment at scene of the Bremer kidnapping
Edward G. Bremer’s 1932 Lincoln sedan
Edward G. Bremer’s 1932 Lincoln sedan
Removed fingerprints
Removed fingerprints
FBI Agent Melvin Purvis
FBI Agent Melvin Purvis
Arthur “Doc” Barker, left, with jailer, William Gates
Arthur “Doc” Barker, left, with jailer, William Gates
The Barker cottage on Lake Weir
The Barker cottage on Lake Weir
Alvin Karpis in St. Paul, 1936
Alvin Karpis in St. Paul, 1936
Alvin “Creepy” Karpis in 1936.
Alvin “Creepy” Karpis in 1936.
Alcatraz Penitentiary
Alcatraz Penitentiary
J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover
Alvin Karpis
Alvin Karpis

Turning Point

The gang kidnaps Edward Bremer, whose family has connections to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt pressures the FBI to find Bremer’s kidnappers and Bremer’s family delays ransom payment. Both factors contributed to the gang’s downfall.

Chronology

1930

Alvin Karpis and Fred Barker meet while serving burglary sentences at the Kansas State Penitentiary.

1931

Karpis and Barker rob a store in West Plains, Missouri. When approached the next day by Sheriff C. R. Kelly, they kill him and flee to St. Paul, expecting police protection.

1932

Nick Hannegraf recognizes Alvin Karpis and Fred Barker, his mother’s tenants, in an issue of True Detective Mysteries magazine. Although Hannegraf reports them to police, the gang flees after receiving a tip-off.

1932

Barker and Karpis believe Ma’s boyfriend Arthur Dunlop, not Hannegraf, tipped off police. They kill Dunlop, leaving his body beside a lake in western Wisconsin.

1932

On December 16, the gang robs Third Northwestern Bank in downtown Minneapolis. During their retreat to Como Park, they kill Oscar Erickson, a man selling wreaths in the neighborhood.

1933

On June 15, the gang kidnaps William Hamm Jr. They recruit Fred Goetz and Byron Bolton, members of Al Capone’s Chicago syndicate, for the kidnapping.

1933

During the Hamm kidnapping, the gang rents a house the Tangletown neighborhood of St. Paul bordering Macalester College,

1933

Anxious to find Hamm’s kidnappers, FBI agent Melvin Purvis arrests Roger Touhy and three other Chicago gangsters. They would be tried for the kidnapping and found not guilty.

1933

On August 30, the gang robs the Swift and Company, stealing the payroll as it is transferred from a Minneapolis vault to the stockyards in St. Paul.

1934

Following the final meeting before the Bremer kidnapping, the gang shoots and injures radioman Roy McCord, mistaking him for a police officer. The gang considers postponing the kidnapping until things quiet down.

1934

On January 17, the gang kidnaps Edward G. Bremer. They release him twenty-one days later.

1935

Fred and Ma Barker are killed in an FBI shootout at their home in Ocklawaha, Florida. The FBI tried to justify Ma’s death by billing her as the mastermind behind her son’s crimes.

1936

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover personally arrests Alvin Karpis in New Orleans.

1935-36

Members of the Barker‒Karpis gang are tried and sentenced in St. Paul for the Bremer and Hamm kidnappings. Doc Baker and Karpis both receive life sentences and eventually are sent to Alcatraz.