chapter  2
20 Pages

‘A citadel of crime’

Saint Paul, Minnesota and the O’Connor system
WithJames A. Densley

This chapter examines the forgotten underworld history of Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA. For the first three decades of the twentieth century, Saint Paul was an assembly point for the FBI’s most-wanted criminals, including ‘Public Enemies’ John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Babyface Nelson and Alvin Karpis. It also was the best place in America to hire a hit man. In the words of United States Attorney General Homer Cummings, Saint Paul was the ‘poison spot of the nation, a haven for criminals, a citadel of crime’. The reason, this chapter argues, was Police Chief John J. O’Connor’s layover agreement that harboured violent offenders provided they (1) checked in with police upon arrival, (2) committed no serious criminal activity within the borders of the city, and (3) paid all necessary bribes. The O’Connor system, as it became known, further redefined crime by failing to enforce Prohibition-era liquor laws and prosecute other vice crimes, such as gambling and prostitution. Proponents of the O’Connor system argued the quid-pro-quo agreement eliminated major crime and kept people safe. The reality is that it displaced and facilitated crime, putting people in danger. This chapter thus explores what happens when the cops are more corrupt than the criminals and the politicians covet re-election over reformation. It concludes with resolutions, because when kidnappings and killings in Saint Paul increased, journalists exercised their free-press rights at great personal risk to eventually bring down the O’Connor system. Implications for contemporary criminal justice policy and practice are offered.