The Kidnapping of William Hamm Jr.
A brazen daytime abduction of the Hamm's Brewery vice-president
While walking from his office to have lunch with his mother, a routine occurrence, members of the Barker-Karpis Gang kidnapped Hamm’s Brewery President William Hamm Jr. On Thursday, June 15, 1933, at about 12:45 in the afternoon, the grandson of Theodore Hamm was grabbed by two men near Greenbrier Street and Minnehaha Avenue East in Saint Paul and forced into the back seat of a waiting black sedan. One of the abductors threw a white hood over Mr. Hamm’s head and forced him to lie down on the floor by the two men while a third abductor drove the car away.
The entire ordeal had taken place only two-hundred feet from Hamm’s office.
The men weren’t rough with Hamm and didn’t display weapons during the initial encounter, but their intentions were clear. After traveling about thirty miles out of Saint Paul, the sedan stopped near the Wisconsin border, and the group was joined by another automobile with several more men in it. While still on the car’s floor, the gangsters forced Hamm to sign four notes authorizing a large ransom payment for his safe return. He then chose William Dunn, vice president of sales for the brewery, to act as the kidnappers’ point-of-contact on his behalf.
The kidnappers took Hamm to a home in Bensenville, Illinois, and put him in a dimly lit room with boarded-up windows on the house’s second floor. The room’s furniture consisted of only a chair, bed, and a small table with an electric lamp. Hamm was instructed to call out to his captors if he needed anything. While they brought him everything he needed, he was also required to turn his face away from his kidnappers whenever they entered the room.
While hidden away in Bensenville, Alvin Karpis, one of the kidnappers, gave the abducted brewery president editions of the Saturday Post to pass the time. Lacking access to Hamm’s beer, Karpis removed the labels from other beer bottles before giving them to Hamm to drink — he didn’t want to offend his kidnapped guest by giving him a beer from a competing brand.
Despite the gang’s insistence that the police not become involved, Hamm’s mother was adamant that they help find her son. A kidnapping task force placed a wiretap on Dunn’s phone and waited to hear from the crooks.
At 5 pm that day, Dunn received a phone call from the kidnappers announcing Mr. Hamm’s abduction. Dunn needed to get together $100,000 in unmarked five, ten, and twenty-dollar bills and wait for future instructions. Three hours later, Saint Paul Police Chief Thomas Dahill was notified of the abduction. At 2 am the next morning, Dunn received a second call promising the delivery of a ransom note within moments. Ten minutes later, a taxi driver pulled up to his address and handed Dunn and Detective Tom Brown a message signed by Hamm that repeated the $100,000 demand. It warned to “do what they tell you.” The driver was paid $2 to deliver the message.
“You know your boyfriend is out of circulation. You are to pay off $100,000 in a manner explained to you this afternoon…If you fail to comply with our demands, you will never see William Hamm Jr. again.”
Per previous conversations, the kidnappers had pledged to deliver instructions for the ransom delivery by 5 pm Friday. However, that self-imposed time limit passed without hearing from them. In response to the sudden lack of communication with the abductors and at the Hamm family’s request, local police chose to drop out of the search. They hoped that pulling back would help to ensure Hamm’s safe return. The family moved to comply with the demands, withdrawing the ransom sum from a Minneapolis bank in preparation for a potential exchange. A Hamm’s company truck with its doors removed remained at the ready to deliver the money.
At 9 am Saturday, Dunn received another phone call. He was told to drive to the home of Hamm Realty employee L.J. Sullvold to get the ransom delivery instructions. Sullvold, who’d been phoned with the information, told Dunn to drive the money along Highway 61 toward Duluth in a car with the doors and trunk lid removed at a speed of no greater than twenty miles per hour.
Along the route, Dunn would be joined by an automobile that would flash its headlights five times to initiate the exchange. Upon seeing the signal, Dunn was to drop the bag of money on the road’s side and continue north to Duluth. Once in the Zenith City, he was to get a hotel room and wait for Hamm to arrive.
Later that day, Dunn did what he was told, driving north on Highway 61. He left the money on the roadside as instructed and headed to Duluth to register a room at the Hotel Duluth. He expected Hamm to be waiting for him upon his arrival, but he wasn’t there. Saint Paul Detectives Brown and Tierney met up with Dunn at his hotel room, and the three men waited for the kidnap victim to show up.
On the afternoon of Sunday, June 18, 1933, his abductors walked into his room and notified Hamm that they had good news. The ransom had been paid, and he was going home. At 5:30 am the next morning, after a long drive, the blindfolded Hamm was dropped off on the side of Highway 1 near Wyoming, Minnesota.
After releasing him and instructing him to stay on the side of the road while they escaped, his captors to Hamm that, “If (he) ever want(ed) anything or they could do anything, for (him) to let them know.”
Hamm sat motionless on the side of the road until he was sure that his kidnappers were gone. He then walked onto the nearby Verges family farm and asked for help. Using their phone, Hamm called home and spoke with the family chauffeur. A short time later, Chief of Police Thomas Dahill announced to the press that he was leaving for Wyoming to pick up Mr. Hamm.
Interestingly enough, the story does not end here. The Barker-Karpis gang thought they had pulled off the “perfect crime.” The blame for this crime initially fell on rival gangster Roger Touhy and his crime syndicate. The FBI took the ransom notes used in the crime and, for the first time, was able to pull fingerprints off of the notes using the Silver Nitrate method. Scientists, taking advantage of the fact that fingerprints contain perspiration, painted the notes with a silver nitrate solution. They were then able to see everyone’s fingerprints that had touched the notes and compare them against crime databases to find the criminals involved.
After the kidnapping, Hamm lived with the fear that he could be abducted again and took precautions to ensure his safety. Though publicly calm about the ordeal, the experience changed Hamm. The man who had once embraced celebrity now preferred to live his life outside of the spotlight. He continued to use the bluff stairs near the brewery each workday but now did so while accompanied by armed escorts.
Hamm was a pleasant, well-liked personality that became nervous and introverted in public after his harrowing experience. His home became akin to a feudal castle, replete with guards hired to investigate every noise. Efforts to become less of a public figure even carried over into his work life, as Hamm now chose to wear overalls instead of suits to blend in with the other employees at the brewery. Three years of courtroom trials forced him to relive the kidnapping over and over again.
“Poor Billy, after that kidnapping, he drove a Chevrolet and wore bib overalls,” recalled Scrivener, a brewery employee. “He’d walk through the plant, and you’d think he was just one of the workers.”
The ordeal was a brazen attack on overworld society by the criminal element in the city. The waning days of Prohibition had forced the underworld to consider crimes that weren’t intoxicating liquors-related, and kidnapping Hamm, a member of the wealthy Hamm family and unofficial “Prince of Saint Paul,” provided a chance for a big financial score. While the gangsters received ransom money, and Hamm was returned unharmed, the crime, coupled with the Edward Bremer kidnapping only months later, galvanized a populace against the criminal element in the country and soon spelled the end of the era of gangsters.
Saint Paulites had become an unwitting party to the increasingly violent crimes, and if for no reason other than self-preservation, needed to fight back. Saint Paul Daily News Editor Howard Kahn championed their cause, publicly pushing for removing the corrupt officials that had allowed the criminals to move about the city unscathed under the O’Connor Layover Agreement’s rules. The populace soon heeded Kahn’s calls for change, voting out those that had benefitted from the lawlessness and replacing them with people willing to take on the criminals. Those newly installed officials helped to remove employees complicit in the illegal acts of previous administrations. Within a couple of years, Saint Paul’s crime rate had fallen well below the national average for a city of its size.
A series of significant crimes that occurred in the country in the early 1930s, including the kidnapping of Hamm, resulted in the federal government’s first official “war on crime.” Those events were the catalyst needed to arm federal investigators with the tools to properly engage the nation’s public enemies. Two played a role in the Hamm kidnapping trials. President Hoover’s June 22, 1932, signing of the “Lindbergh Law” allowed the FBI to spearhead the apprehension of interstate kidnappers.
In November 1933, Hamm testified a trial that he was taken from Minnesota into Wisconsin during his abduction, invoking the “Lindbergh Law” and allowing federal investigators to take the lead in the search for the perpetrators. Later the Silver Nitrate Method was successfully used for the first time to garner the fingerprints of Hamm’s captors.
A nationwide manhunt ensued. It took time, but the labor of all involved eventually bore fruit. On May 1, 1936, Alvin Karpis, member of the Barker-Karpis gang and the country’s “Public Enemy #1” at the time, was arrested in New Orleans for his role in the Hamm kidnapping. In July of 1936, he was sentenced to serve life in prison at Alcatraz for his involvement. His capture essentially ended the reign of the criminals of the depression era.
The traumatic event now completely behind him, Hamm would have to live with the label of “kidnap victim” for the rest of his days. Although shaken by the experience, Hamm managed to recover to live a meaningful life with many personal and professional successes.
William Hamm Jr. passed away on August 21, 1970, at the age of 76.
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- “Remembering: Theo. Hamm Brewing Co.” Pioneer Press. Last modified November 13, 2015. https://www.twincities.com/2009/10/03/remembering-theo-hamm-brewing-co/.