Four reasons the Midwest is fascinated by gangsters
Over the last three weeks, InForum published “The Capones of North Dakota,” a look at the famous gangster connections to the upper Midwest. After the stories ran, you surprised us.
The story started small enough. I found a little write-up in a book about a young woman named Stella Hildre, a teenager in the tiny town of Petersburg, North Dakota, in the 1920s. Word had it that Stella once served Al Capone dinner at the family cafe. She didn’t brag about it. In fact, her own children didn’t really know the story until much later. I figured it was worth a story for Back Then.
I began to research her story - get photos, find verification, etc. Then, as often is the case, with historical stories, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole like Alice herself. But in this case, “Wonderland” was the newspaper archives, the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the Library of Congress, and conversations in grocery store aisles and over the radio airwaves.
That one story about Al Capone soon became three. During my immersive dive into the rabbit hole, not only did I learn more about Stella waiting on Capone (he dined on steak and liked it enough to give her a big tip), but I also learned Al’s older brother was a federal prohibition agent in North Dakota and Al himself had been frequently spotted in Minnesota lakes country, even reportedly calling the drive from Bemidji to Park Rapids his favorite.
After the stories were published, I was surprised by how many of you had your own gangster stories. Many admitted right away that you questioned whether the stories were true or not.
I heard things like:
"I once heard that Capone went fishing in the next county over," or "my grandfather said he was once spotted in a speakeasy north of town."
Maybe they were just rumors repeated enough to feel true.
Like a century-old version of the sleepover game "Telephone," some of the rumors might have evolved and grown over the years while others are largely unchanged from the FDR years. The problem is, at this point, we can't tell which is which.
Honestly, it doesn't really matter which are true and which are not. It's just fascinating that so many of us are still so fascinated by gangsters. I had to wonder what was it about Al Capone in the Midwest that captivated people 100 years ago and still today. After reading the findings from sociologists, psychologists and historians, you’ll see the reasons make a lot of sense.
Prohibition was unpopular
While the passage of the Volstead Act creating prohibition received supermajority support in Congress in 1920, in the years to follow public opinion was not on its side. According to the Literary Digest Prohibition Polls , in the early 1920s, just a couple of years after passage at least 40% of the population wanted to modify prohibition in some way (some people suggested making wine and beer legal). And every year, the call for a full repeal got louder. By 1932, a reported 74% of the population wanted prohibition to be repealed.
The glamorization of the mob was born during prohibition. When everyday Americans failed to find liquor legally, they could find it from what was then small, criminal groups, even in small states like North Dakota. But those small groups soon solidified into a larger, networked institution of organized criminals - the mob.
In an interview with The New Yorker, James Finkenauer, an emeritus professor from Rutgers University and the author of “Mafia and Organized Crime: A Beginner’s Guide,” said because Prohibition was so unpopular the men who stood up to it were heralded as heroes, not criminals.
“It was the start of their image as people who can thumb their noses at bad laws and at the establishment," he said.
A Depression distraction
Consider the time period when the gangster life was on the rise. The Roaring ‘20s were fading as the Great Depression took hold. And in the case of the upper Midwest drought added to the despair. In the early 1930s, there was a period of severe dust storms that caused major agricultural damage to American and Canadian prairie lands. Life in the “Dirty Thirties,” was tough for many in the Dakotas and Minnesota.
So imagine the delight when word started to spread that “nicely dressed” men from the big city were driving through town and spending money without a care in the world. The mobsters seemed bigger than life, untouched by the harsh realities of normal Americans.
Watch a summary of "The Capones of North Dakota"
Help from Hollywood
America got its first pop culture fix of mob life in the 1930s as Hollywood started cranking out gangster flicks starring the likes of Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. The gangsters were often portrayed as self-made men who came from poor, immigrant families and started with nothing. But through determination, grit, and moxie they became wealthy and powerful men, albeit by illegal means.
But as the gangsters went from rags to riches, moviegoers could look at what life could be like if you choose to live outside the confines of normal society. As misguided as it might have been, movie mobsters were seen not as murderers and hoods, but as macho men who charted their own paths.
Maybe that was a reassuring message for Midwestern farmers who must, at times, have felt powerless. Mother Nature - with her drought, frost and pests - might have more to do with a successful crop than anything within the farmer's control. And what about the Midwestern factory worker who was at the mercy of the time clock and domineering foremen? Gangsters did what they pleased when they pleased without punching in.
And mob movies and TV shows haven’t really gone away. From "The Godfather" to "The Sopranos" to "Boardwalk Empire," the appeal of mobsters is still very real nearly 100 years after they were first spotted in this region.
Truth can be stranger than fiction
And finally, perhaps the stories about Al Capone in the Dakotas and Minnesota are still being told for a very good reason - they’re true, at least some of them are.
As I said earlier, I’ve loved the last couple of weeks of chatting with so many of you about your Al Capone stories. I've received emails and phone calls. I was stopped in the frozen food section of Hornbacher’s the other day and I had so much fun talking to people calling into "The Jay Thomas Show" on WDAY-AM. Their stories about gangsters close to home and Jay’s enthusiasm for the subject were infectious. How can I not keep looking into Capone's ties to our region?
If you didn’t get a chance to read all of our stories, you’ll find them linked within this story. Or watch the compilation video from Forum videographer Chris Flynn. Finally, I’d like to thank all of you for your suggestions and ideas for follow-up stories. I have written them all down. If you didn’t get a chance to share stories, rumors, or family history with Capone, please email them to me at email@example.com . I hope to revisit Capone and his local connections more in the future.
Let’s just hope I have better luck than Geraldo Rivera .