Crime, particularly that which occurred during The Great Depression and Prohibition, has intrigued me for years – ever since a brief stint with the Fort Dodge Police Department.
Training for that job 50 years ago consisted of reading the unsolved crime case files in the attic of the old downtown City Hall. I took that training to heart.
One particular unsolved crime from the early 1930s caught my fancy. It seems a well-known Fort Dodge doctor had been murdered as he left home and got into his Model-T Ford in one of those underground, drive-in single car garages. The investigation led authorities to the conclusion that the doctor had been murdered by a gangster from Kansas City, who had murdered the wrong man. Subsequently, the alleged killer met his death in the famous Kansas City Massacre and the Fort Dodge investigation was ended.
That’s a summary of the case, although as I recall there were several pages of transcript. I studied them all.
I was hooked.
I’ve had several occasions to write about some major crimes from long ago – this week, for example, I finished a piece on the 80th anniversary of the Bonnie & Clyde shootout at Dexfield Park near Dexter. That is a “bonus” piece to a history series I’ve been writing for the Dallas County News/Northeast Dallas County Record.
It’s doubtful many people are still living who recall those lawless days – if they are living and old enough to recall they’d be well into their 90s if not 100 or more.
So, the closest I’ve come to that era is through books, with a couple of exceptions.
My late brother’s first wife claimed to be related to Machine Gun Kelly, who actually survived lawmen’s bullets and died at Leavenworth Prison in 1954
But, the closest I came to any first-hand recollections was as a young man, just out of the Army. I took a job as a sportswriter in Wausau, Wis.
The news staff included a veteran, legendary newsman named Win Freund. I could sit and listen to Win’s tales all day long, and Win liked to tell tales.
This was about 45 years ago and Win’s newspaper career was winding down. He’d been on the staff of the Wausau Record-Herald since the late 1920s.
The crime beat was Win’s, as were most of the important news stories of the day.
On April 20, 1934 John Dillinger and three of his crime pals – Baby Face Nelson, Homer Van Meter and John “Red” Hamilton – had found their way north from Chicago and taken up residence at the Little Bohemia Lodge, located in Manitowish Waters. That was about 70 miles, or so, north of Wausau.
When news went out about the gang’s shootout with FBI men, Win was one of the reporters racing to the scene. He was there in the immediate aftermath of the shootout. He was among the first to see the bullet-riddled lodge (the bullet holes still remain as the lodge is kept much the way it was on that infamous day).
Win was one of the first to write a detailed story on the shootout and the innocent men mistakenly shot down by FBI agents. He loved to tell the story to anyone who would listen.
He found a good listener in me.
One day, though, in Wausau, while workers remodeled an old “hotel,” they discovered a discrepancy in measurements of the property. After scratching their heads, they determined there was a hidden compartment in the basement.
After measuring, they found a spot in an upstairs closet. Breaking through the floor of that closet, they spied an old whiskey keg in the hidden basement space.
Win wrote a story about it, noting that Dillinger and his gang had used that hotel several times on their runs from the law. He came to the conclusion that the whiskey belonged to Dillinger for consumption during those months on the lam.
This time, though, it was me who set Win straight.
Dillinger, you see, didn’t drink. Not a drop. He couldn’t afford to have his facilities impaired in any way as he spent every waking moment trying to stay a step or two ahead of the law.
More than likely, I told Win, that keg of whiskey was a product of prohibition and had nothing to do with Dillinger.
He finally agreed with me.
But, he still had plenty of tales to tell of the days Dillinger spent traveling from Chicago to St. Paul through northern Wisconsin.
And, he had me, eager to listen to every one of them.