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It's been almost a century since Prohibition-era gangsters hid in plain sight in Minnesota's capital city. But Paul Maccabee, author of the local classic "John Dillinger Slept Here," said St. Paul's love affair with its three-decades-long connection to the underworld continues to this day.

Eye On St. Paul caught up with Maccabee at a coffee shop near Grand and Lexington on the week before Halloween — not far from where Dillinger escaped arrest in a hail of bullets — to ask why crooks like George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis still haunt St. Paul history.

This interview was edited for length.

Q: What do you find intriguing about St. Paul's history harboring gangsters?

A: Here's one of the surprises I found in the FBI files in Washington, D.C.: I figured that the good people of St. Paul — perhaps your mom and dad or my grandparents, who lived here in the 1930s — didn't know about the [St. Paul Police Chief John] O'Connor layover agreement between the crooks and the cops [city police looked the other way when gangsters came to St. Paul, if they didn't commit crimes here]. But John Dillinger would take his girlfriend Billie Frechette to the movies on this block. He was the most wanted man in America.

They knew, No. 1, that Dillinger wasn't going to hurt them, because that was the deal. The citizenry of St. Paul was fully aware that Baby Face Nelson was living among them, that Ma Barker's kids — who were psychopaths — were here. In part, it was because it was a thrill to see them dancing, having a drink [at nightclubs]. It was exciting.

So, that was a big epiphany to me. Literally everybody in St. Paul knew.

Q: Why did you start researching this?

A: I was an investigative reporter at the Twin Cities Reader and someone in the newsroom said, "The Godfather has died." And I thought, what, [New York City Mafia boss John] Gotti? And they said, "No, the Godfather of Minneapolis, Kid Cann [Isadore Blumenfeld]." I'm from Boston. I had no idea. He ran this town when [Hubert H.] Humphrey was mayor. I had to learn more.

I have hundreds of thousands of pages of files now in my basement.

Q: What was something you learned in those files?

A: According to the official FBI history — their press releases, the books, the TV show with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. — Ma Barker planned [the Barker gang's] crimes. She planned the kidnapping of William Hamm and Edward Bremer in St. Paul. So, I looked at all the files and I found out the FBI was lying.

There was a bank robber who was interviewed and asked if Ma Barker planned all those crimes, and the bank robber said, "That sweet old lady could barely plan breakfast."

I discovered in the files that Ma Barker had nothing to do with it. Tom Brown, former police chief in St. Paul, who was the head of the Kidnap Squad, helped plan it. He got $25,000 of the $100,000 Hamm ransom.

Q: Why did the FBI create the Ma Barker lie?

A: When the FBI was investigating the kidnappings of Billy Hamm and Ed Bremer, not too far from here, they were pretty much in the dark. They had no idea what was going on because the police were an obstacle in St. Paul. The FBI got a tip that the Barker boys are in Florida at a vacation cottage. So the FBI fly to Florida, they circle the building, they shout in something like, "Freddie [Barker], come out with your hands up." And Freddie, like in the movies, says something like, "Oh yeah? You dirty coppers will never catch me alive."

The FBI opens up with machine guns and blow the house apart. They send in one of their guys and he finds Freddie lying dead. And next to Freddie is a grandmother, the corpse of an old lady. The FBI doesn't know who she is and then they identify her by her fingerprints and they realize, "Oh my God, we've accidentally killed Freddie Barker's mother."

Hoover was very sensitive to headlines. From the second they identified the dead body of Ma Barker, the FBI says she planned it. She was a terrible mom. She knew exactly what her boys were doing. But she was no criminal mastermind.

Q: So, in the same way you say the women who were with the gangsters loved their fame and lifestyle, St. Paul residents did, too?

A: It was kind of like Las Vegas along University Avenue. You'd hear Cab Calloway, who was one of the biggest jazz/swing stars of the time, and you'd go with your wife. It would be during Prohibition and the clubs that catered to the gangsters, like the Hollyhocks Club on Mississippi River Boulevard, couldn't have survived if people like your mother and father didn't go there. It was kind of wicked and it was kind of naughty.

Q: Why do these stories still resonate with people nearly 100 years later?

A: I think there's a romanticization of the gangsters of the period. Part of it's the movies — you had Johnny Depp, voted the sexiest man alive by People magazine, playing John Dillinger. We look back on the gangsters of the period with the patina of nostalgia.

But of course, that's foolish, right? One thing I try to do in my book is not make them into anti-heroes. But Hoover wanted more money from Congress, more power, more weapons and a bigger bureau. So, Hoover used his PR office, his newsreels ... and when he took them down, Hoover and his men would be heroes.