John Dillinger, Ma Barker, Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis, these are just a handful of the infamous names you’ll hear on the Wabasha Street Caves tour in Saint Paul Minnesota. It’s hard to believe that this seemingly sleepy town was once a hotbed for bootleggers, thieves and murderers, but after spending three hours with the Wabasha Street gang, you’ll be swooped up into a stranger-than-fiction tale of love, intrigue murder and corruption.
My journey of intrigue began with a walking tour of the Wabasha Street Caves site. Dating back to the 1840’s, located some 100 feet below the streets of Saint Paul, these man-made, sandstone caves were originally mined for silica (used for glass production). Once carved out, the caves were an ideal environment for mushroom growing, and cheese-making, harmless activities. No one could surmise that these caves would become headquarters for some of the most dangerous and deadly gangsters across the Midwest.
If there’s one thing to take away from a Wabasha Street Caves tour, it’s the importance of the O’Connor System. The O’Connor system was an informal agreement between a crooked chief-of-police, John O’Connor and the gangsters of Saint Paul. The agreement was as follows: Never commit crimes in Saint Paul, check-in with your designated contacts and keep O’Connor’s hands greased. In exchange for their cooperation, gangsters like John Dillinger, the Karpis-Barker gang and others could do business at the Wabasha Street Caves without incident, away from the prying eyes of the FBI.
If you take this tour, wander into the Fireside room and examine the mantle carefully. You will see remnants of what is said to be Tommy-Gun bullet holes. Legend has it John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp in Public Enemy) got into a bit of a disagreement with a couple of gangsters and shot them dead. The young waitress who discovered the bodies called police, who told her to wait for them in front of the caves. Police arrived to a shaken woman, and immediately proceeded to the Fireside room. Returning a few hours later, they brought the young woman back inside to show her what appeared to be an undisturbed scene. No dead bodies and no Dillinger. They turned to her and warned her to think twice before making a false police report. Where did the bodies go? What happened to the murderer? There are myriad theories, and you’ll have some fun hashing out the possibilities with your cave guide.
After an hour in the caves, my TBEX tour group made their way back out into daylight to start the next leg of our journey – A narrated bus tour to all the gangster hideouts, accompanied by a loud-mouthed, voluptuous buxom blonde playing the role of Minnesota’s top madam. For the next two hours, “Nina Clifford” rattled off tales of kidnapping, bank robberies gone wrong, Bonnie and Clydeesque escapes, and good old fashioned Tommy-Gun shootouts, all in syncopated hilarity.
To be honest, I’m not usually into pageantry, but our tour guides’ depiction of the infamous brothel owner was so convincing, and her story-telling so captivating, I couldn’t help but feel swept up into the world of Minnesotan gangster culture. As the bus meandered the well-to-do neighbourhoods of Saint Paul, Nina shared tale after tale of brazen underhandedness; Bootleggers scuttling across the Canadian border to buy “hay” (alcohol) and gangsters spending their days and nights at the Green Lantern Saloon where Danny Hogan, “one of the most resourceful and keenest criminals” ran an illegal gambling casino, a speakeasy and liaised between the Minneapolis police department and Minnesota’s most deranged gangsters.
The Wabasha Street Caves & Gangster tour was just one of the many offerings for TBEX travel bloggers, and it was was worth every moment. Our guide was worth way more than the price of admission (free for TBEX’ers), and after spending two hours with a high-priced madam, we all thanked the way you thank any woman who bears all the secrets of the city’s most powerful men, by slipping a few greenbacks down her cleavage.
If you are interested in learning more about Minnesota’s most infamous gangsters, check out these books: