Showing posts with label St. Louis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label St. Louis. Show all posts

19 January 2020

St. Louis's Pillow Gang gets their quirky name

Ninety-two years ago tonight, a triple shooting in St. Louis's Dogtown neighborhood gave one of the city's three Mafia factions one of the more quirky nicknames in American criminal history. The main target of the attack, a powerful mafiùsu named Charlie Fresina, was struck by a .45 caliber submachine gun bullet in his lower hip. In the preceding weeks as he recovered, Fresina used a pillow to cushion his rear end when he sat down, leading sarcastic St. Louis police to dub his crew "The Pillow Gang."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Mafia dicìna (crew) that would eventually be known as the "Pillow Gang" got its start in the early 1910s as a small-time Black Hand extortion ring run by Pasquale Santino, a Sicilian immigrant who used threatening letters to separate wealthy Italian businessmen from their money. After a series of arrests, Santino left St. Louis briefly and worked as a railroad foreman in eastern Ohio. After returning to town around the start of Prohibition, Santino began putting a crew of tough Sicilian mobsters together; like Pasquale himself, most of them were from the southern province of Girgenti (modern-day Agrigento). The one exception was Charlie Fresina.

Born Carmelo Frisina in 1892 in Castiglione di Sicilia, a small town located in the shadow of northeastern Sicily's Mount Etna, he immigrated to America at the age of sixteen. Frisina worked his way up from a vegetable peddler to a steamship agent and from there into the local Mafia. As he and the Santino crew began making big money in the illegal alcohol business, Frisina anglicized his name to Charles Fresina in order to shield his wife and children from his criminality. He would also later use the alias of "Freese" (pronounced Free-zee). Fresina was brilliant and industrious, quickly working his way into the number-two position in Santino's dicìna. By the early 1920s, the Santino crew had joined forces with the so-called "Green Ones," a crew of ex-Black Handers from western Palermo province led by Vito Giannola and Alfonse Palazzolo, to wrench control of St. Louis's Mafia family away from incumbent boss Dominick Giambrone.

In the aftermath of their victory, the Green Ones appropriated leadership of the family for themselves, with Giannola becoming càpu (boss) and Palazzolo suttacàpu (underboss). Their actions immediately created tension with the Santino crew. Also now added to the mix was a bootlegging gang headed by the Russo brothers, who were known as the "American Boys" because they were all native-born. While the St. Louis mob family had a traditional pyramidal leadership structure, the three different factions operated with a degree of autonomy not seen in other American Mafia groups of the era. Indeed, this peculiar arrangement led to constant bickering amongst the crew's leaders. Their organization as a whole suffered a big black eye in the view of other Mafia bosses around the country after losing a violent gang war to the South City-based Cuckoo Gang in 1926; Vito Giannola and the rest of the family's leaders were forced to give humiliating reparations to the Cuckoos as a condition of peace.

Their gangland defeat resulted in increased inter-family squabbling, as blame was shoved from faction to faction. The St. Louis Mafia inevitably devolved into civil war in the late summer of 1927 after two key members of the Russo Gang, Anthony "Shorty" Russo and Vincent Spicuzza, were lured to Chicago and killed by a Green Ones hit squad led by Alfonse Palazzolo. The Santino crew joined forces with the Russos to fight the Green Ones. Pasquale Santino was instrumental in luring Palazzolo to his demise at the hands of the Russos on Tenth Street, but he himself would die on November 17 after being shot in a grocery company office at Seventh and Carr streets. Police believed that he was killed by a Mafia assassin brought in from Chicago by the Green Ones specifically to do the deed.

Pasquale Santino (NARA)

The murders, nearly a dozen in all, continued throughout the fall. Three days after Christmas, two members of the Russo Gang caught Vito Giannola at his girlfriend's North City house, chased him into an attic crawlspace, and proceeded to empty a Thompson submachine gun into St. Louis's Mafia boss. Giannola's dramatic assassination momentarily put leadership of the family up for grabs. What follows is an excerpt from my 2010 book Gangs of St. Louis;

At the beginning of 1928, the Sicilian underworld was in a state of flux. The Russo Gang and its allies were waxing victorious after their decisive strike against the Greens. Fully aware that the war wasn't over yet, they stayed vigilant but were puzzled as the days rolled by with no retaliatory strikes from the opposition.

The Green Ones held a conference soon after Vito Giannola's funeral. John Giannola stepped down from his position in the crew, either by choice or with some persuasion. At this meeting, twenty-six-year-old Frank Agrusa was dubbed the new boss. Having spent many years under Vito's tutelage, Agrusa was a perfect choice. Learning from his predecessor's mistakes, Frankie knew that low profile was the way to go. While Vito liked to swagger down the street and let everyone know he was a gangster, Agrusa was the exact opposite. Frankie's new right-hand man was his longtime friend and partner Vito Impastato. Advising the new boss would be Tony Fasulo, who had taken Ben Amato's place as consigliere after Pasquale Santino's murder. Dominick Italiano replaced John Giannola as the Green Ones' East Side liquor distributor.

Despite these leadership changes, the Green Ones were depleted and demoralized. Most observers were unsure if they could prevail in a protracted shooting war, especially now that the deadly Tommy gun had been added to the mix. For the time being, they seemed to be out of the fight. Machiavellian twists and turns are at the core of any Mafia war, and the St. Louis strife was no different. The deception and double-crossing is limitless. While Charlie Fresina was ostensibly allied with the Russo Gang, he was going behind its back and extorting wealthy merchants connected to the Russos. When Jimmy Russo got word of Fresina's shenanigans, he promptly began planning his murder.

St. Louis gangster Jimmy Russo.

On the night of January 19, 1928, Fresina visited the Dogtown home of Charles Spicuzza at 6129 Clayton Avenue to exact a heavy tribute. The gang boss was backed up by Dominick Cataldo and Tony DiTrapani; the latter packed a sawed-off .12 gauge autoloader. A cousin of the late Vincent Spicuzza, Charles worked as the manager of the M. Longo Fruit Company on Commission Row, the store formerly owned by Charles Palmisano. While his wife and four children waited quietly in other parts of the house, Spicuzza talked with his visitors in the parlor and eventually gave Fresina over $1,000 cash.

Charles Spicuzza's home at 6129 Clayton Avenue as pictured in the St. Louis Star

A little after 10:00 p.m., the three men exited the front door and were just starting down the stairs when they noticed a strange Studebaker sedan at the curb. Even stranger was the fact that two men appeared to be sitting in their Chrysler sedan. One of the Santinos blurted, "Someone's in our car." Since the house sat high above the street, Fresina and his men couldn't clearly see the faces of the strangers. The mob boss immediately grabbed Spicuzza and forced him to walk down to the street to find out just who these fellows were.

The fruit merchant slowly walked down his steep steps with the Santinos trailing far behind him. When Spicuzza got close enough to recognize the familiar faces inside the Chrysler, he immediately broke right and ran for cover. As soon as he was clear, a fusillade of shotgun and submachine-gun fire erupted from the Chrysler. Fresina instantly turned to go back inside the house, only to be shot through the lower hip by a machine-gun round. DiTrapani was struck in the abdomen by the same stream of bullets (a slug chipped away the handle of a .38 revolver stuck in his belt). Tony spun around, stumbled inside the foyer and fell facedown on top of his unfired shotgun. Cataldo tried to follow Spicuzza but was hit by a .45 caliber bullet in his stomach.

The machine-gunner then exited the Chrysler and dashed up the stairs onto the porch. After strafing the fallen DiTrapani with a quick burst, he briefly scanned the house for any sign of Fresina. The mob boss suddenly popped around the corner of the living room wall and turned loose with a pistol. The machine-gunner briefly returned Fresina's fire and then, with his weapon either empty or jammed, quickly retreated down the steps. Charlie hobbled onto the porch and emptied his gun at his fleeing assailants, scoring a few hits on the parked Chrysler. Nevertheless, the killers made a successful getaway.

Police found Tony DiTrapani dead at the scene and Dominick Cataldo groaning in pain from a wound that soon proved fatal. Charlie Fresina was talking on the telephone in Sicilian when the cops arrived. The gangster stopped in mid-sentence and hung up, proclaiming that he didn't know who shot him. Charlie then went to the bathroom to wash him wound. Charles Spicuzza denied that he was being extorted, saying that he and Fresina had met to discuss the sale of some apples. Police initially suspected that the Green Ones were responsible; it wasn't until much later that they discovered that the true culprits were the Russo Gang. Now, all three Mafia factions were at war with one another.

Carmelo Frisina in a formal portrait taken not long after the shooting. Visible on the lower right side of the photo is the corner of the pillow in question. 


Charlie Fresina eventually recovered from his wound and resumed his place at the head of the "Pillow Gang." Fresina often held court with his men at a Central West End restaurant at 8 South Sarah Street run by Armando Pacini. The mob boss would make headlines in August 1929 after firing a shotgun at federal agents who were in the process of raiding his Semple Avenue home. A year later, Fresina would be convicted of assault with intent to kill and sentenced to prison time. Just before he was due to head to jail, on May 8, 1931, Fresina was found shot to death behind the wheel of his car in an isolated forested area outside of Edwardsville, Illinois.

Dominick Cataldo and Tony DiTrapani were buried side-by-side in St. Louis's Calvary Cemetery.

Jimmy Russo continued his attempts to avenge the murder of his younger brother Shorty. Six months after the Dogtown ambush, Russo was lured to a meeting with the ostensibly neutral Cuckoo Gang in a disused chicken yard at Plymouth and Sutter avenues in what is now Wellston, Missouri. The Cuckoos sprung a ferocious trap and shot Russo and Mike Longo to death. Their companion, Jack Griffin, was wounded six times but managed to survive the attack.

Charles Spicuzza was reportedly inducted into the St. Louis family and worked as a bail bondsman for a number of years. Police questioned him after the May 1946 murder of Alma Ahlheim, who was reportedly Spicuzza's girlfriend; the mobster was apparently upset that she was seeing other men behind his back. No charges were filed. Spicuzza died of natural causes on January 19, 1978, the fiftieth anniversary of the shooting which gave the Pillow Gang its name.


Waugh, Daniel. Gangs of St. Louis: Men of Respect. The History Press. 2010.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 1928, May 17, 1946, January 22, 1978.

St. Louis Star, January 20, 1928.

11 January 2020

Mysterious St. Louis mob figure brutally murdered in Detroit

One hundred years ago tonight, a mysterious St. Louis underworld figure was found brutalized and near-death just outside of the southwestern edge of Detroit. The man was able to speak briefly with police and claimed that his name was Angelo Russo and that he had recently come to the Motor City. A century later, the man's true identity and the reasons for his violent death are uncertain. The following is an excerpt from my 2019 book Vìnnitta: The Birth of the Detroit Mafia.

Sometime around 1:30 on the morning of January 12, 1920, an anonymous Detroit police patrolman was walking his beat along Michigan Avenue just west of downtown. On this cold winter’s night, the streets were nearly empty, so the officer’s duty mostly consisted of staying warm and keeping his eyes and ears open. The officer noticed a westbound sedan headed towards him and in the direction of the Southwest Side. The vehicle caught his attention because of a burnt out headlight and the loud bursts of singing emanating from its interior. The words were in Sicilian, which the officer did not understand, but he thought it sounded nice as he idly watched the car pass by and disappear down the avenue. It was only later that this officer learned that the loud singing he had heard in the car was drowning out the strained sounds of a man being murdered within. 

Almost an hour later, John Stricki (or Striettzki) and his wife were awakened inside their home on Southern Avenue by a loud banging on their front door. As Stricki listened in, a Sicilian man pled in broken English for him to open the door. When Stricki refused, the caller swayed to the right (knocking over an oil lamp as he did so) and broke one of the front windows. The noise fully roused Stricki’s wife and five children, but a look through the broken window showed that the caller was no threat. The man was covered in blood and now lying on the front lawn, moaning in pain. As his ill wife cared for the wounded man, Stricki left to summon the police.

At Receiving Hospital, doctors took stock of the victim’s gruesome condition. Defensive wounds on the arms and wrists indicted that the dying man had fought fiercely for his life, and had received over forty stab wounds all over his torso in the process. During this frenzied attack, the victim had also been beaten about the head with a hammer hard enough to fracture his skull. The man had then been shot in the abdomen, neck, and a third time straight through his mouth. As if all that wasn’t enough, the victim was found to have an older, partially healed bullet wound in his back. Despite his tremendous injuries, the still-unidentified victim was not only still alive but willing to talk. Black Hand Squad head Inspector William Good and Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Robert Speed quickly got to his bedside to take a statement.

Although his mouth wound made speech difficult, the wounded man managed to say that his name was Angelo Russo, that he was thirty-two years old, and had recently arrived in town from St. Louis. Russo said he was currently rooming at 51 Trumbull Avenue. The wounded man claimed he had been shot in the back by three men in front of 460 E. Fort Street on New Year’s Eve night. The wound was minor enough for him to leave the hospital just a few hours after it was inflicted.

Earlier on this particular evening, Russo was at Salvatore Randazzo’s poolroom at 152 St. Aubin Street in the company of five men, all of whom he apparently named to Inspector Good and Prosecutor Speed. They eventually left in a sedan with a burnt-out headlight to grab a bite to eat at an all-night restaurant downtown. The party then headed west on Michigan Avenue; it was at this point that the horrific attack began. Russo was dumped out of the car on Southern Avenue between Cabot and Miller roads; about 180 feet outside of what were then Detroit’s southwestern city limits. Somehow able to keep his feet despite his wounds, the bloodied Russo staggered over a block away until he stumbled up to John Stricki’s front door. Roughly two hours after giving this statement to police, the victim died from his injuries. 

Santo Pirrone was questioned in the murder of Angelo Russo.
Acting on information gleaned from the dying man, police arrested twenty-five year old mafiùsu Santo Pirrone at his home at 779 McDougall Avenue.  Also taken into custody was a young woman that Pirrone identified as his wife. Russo’s statement was bolstered by the recovery of Pirrone’s blood-stained automobile on West Jefferson Avenue around the same time. A key member of Peter Mirabile’s Alcamesi dicìna, Pirrone was noted as a longtime friend (and eventual brother-in-law) of Salvatore Catalanotti, who had taken on a much bigger role in the affairs of the burgàta upon the ascension of John Vitale to càpu. Pirrone admitted being with the victim on the night of the murder and even conceded to driving him to the Southwest Side, but only to drop off his “wife” at the home of her father on Cabot Road, not far where Russo was dumped from the car. Pirrone claimed to have absolutely no idea that the brutal attack was taking place right behind him in the back seat.

Despite his implausible claims and the fact that he admitted driving the murder vehicle, Santo Pirrone managed to beat the rap. Angelo Russo’s body lay unclaimed for nearly two weeks until it was interred in a pauper’s grave at Woodmere Cemetery at city government expense. The ferocity of the attack earned Pirrone the underworld nickname of U Bistìnu (The Shark). Just who Russo really was, as well as what he was doing in Detroit and why he would be killed in such a grisly manner are questions that have never been satisfactorily answered. It is possible that new càpu Vitale, hypervigilant against threats, came to believe that Russo was a hired gunman brought in from St. Louis to kill him. Whether this was true or not, it is a likely motive behind the killing.


The author was unable to find any solid record in St. Louis or elsewhere of Angelo Russo and has doubts that this was the man's true name. Just who he was and why he was killed are mysteries that may never be solved.

Angelo Russo's death certificate

Santo Pirrone eventually anglicized his name to Sam Perrone and made a fortune in the bootlegging business while a member of the Detroit Mafia. In later years, Perrone would move into the scrap business and become a noted union buster. Perrone was later charged with leading an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate UAW President Walter Reuther in the spring of 1948. By the early 1960s, Sam Perrone had begun feuding with mobster Anthony "Tony Jack" Giacalone, who got permission from the family's bosses to kill his rival. Perrone survived a subsequent car bombing, though he lost his left leg to the blast. After this incident, the contract on Perrone's life was cancelled with his retirement. Perrone died of natural causes on Christmas Day, 1973, his seventy-eighth birthday.


Waugh, Daniel. Vìnnitta: The Birth of the Detroit Mafia. Lulu Publication Services, 2019.

Detroit Free Press, January 12, 1920.

Detroit News, January 12, 1920.

Michigan Department of Heath, Certificate of Death, No. 1126, 1920.

Sam Perrone article on

10 April 2019

Egan's Rats rob the Baden Bank

One hundred years ago today, the St. Louis-based Egan's Rats mob committed their first bank robbery of note in the North St. Louis neighborhood of Baden.

After first gaining notice in the early 1890s as a gang of Kerry Patch hooligans known as the Ashley Street Gang, the Egan gang had evolved into the city's premier organized crime outfit. Headed for much of their history by Thomas "Snake" Kinney and Thomas Egan, the crew specialized in both traditional street crime and political terrorism. In addition to being best friends and brothers-in-law, both Kinney and Egan were active in Democratic politics, the former as a Missouri State Senator and the latter as chairman of the St. Louis Democratic City Committee. The Kinney-Egan combine controlled several key St. Louis political wards and was able to use their muscle to not only influence elections but the passage of laws that would benefit both themselves and their constituents. With money and favors exchanging hands both above and under the table, the Kinney-Egan operation usually ran like a well-oiled machine. The only messy periods were the periodic Election Days, where the kid gloves came off, and the Egan crew used muscle and bullets to get the desired results at the ballot box.

After Snake Kinney's death from tuberculosis in May 1912, Tom Egan assumed full control of the gang's St. Louis-area operations, with Kinney's younger brother Michael taking his place in Missouri state politics. Egan's Rats (Tom hated the name and told a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter as much during a 1912 interview where he flaunted his crew's power) numbered over 300 men at their highest total and seemed virtually immune from prosecution for various criminal misdeeds, some of which included very public murders in downtown St. Louis.
As the great debate about whether or not to outlaw the sale and consumption of alcohol progressed in the early 1910s, Tom Egan accurately predicted that the Eighteenth Amendment would eventually pass. As a result, Egan went to great pains to construct a whiskey smuggling network between several cities in the Midwest and South. Known to be brutal and cunning, Egan was recognized as one of the most powerful crime bosses in the Midwest as the decade progressed.

With the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1919, it looked as if Tom Egan's foresight was going to pay off incredibly in the form of thousands of dollars of profits from illegal bootlegging. As fate would have it, Tom would never see a cent of that windfall. In late 1918, Egan was diagnosed with the degenerative kidney disease then known as Bright's disease. In modern times, a transplant may have saved his life, but the crime boss continued to weaken throughout the winter. By the beginning of April 1919, the forty-four-year-old Egan was on his deathbed at his North City home at 4551 Arlington Avenue. Control of the gang fell to Tom's younger brother Willie.

Thirty-five years old in 1919, Willie Egan ran a popular saloon/restaurant known as Egan's Buffet at the corner of Fourteenth and Franklin streets. While a brilliant gangster and politician, Willie wasn't the natural leader of men that his older brother Tom was, and it just so happened that Willie assumed control over St. Louis's most powerful gang at an extraordinarily crucial time.
St. Louis gang boss Willie Egan
With the impending Prohibition of alcohol on the horizon, the dynamic of power in St. Louis's underworld was shifting away from the traditional political clubs to more open criminal businesses such as bootlegging. There was also a particular segment of Egan gang members who desired to make money through quick and decisive means such as armed robbery. These gangsters tended to be younger and more violent than their political war-trained predecessors; police would nickname them "The Red-Hots." As such criminal behavior tended to upset the apple cart and attract undue attention from police, Tom Egan would have squashed any notion his men had of bank robbery like a bug. However, by the spring of 1919, Tom was not in the position to squash much of anything. As a result, several of the "Red-Hots" began plotting a lucrative caper as their boss lay dying.

While the exact identities of the perpetrators of the upcoming heist were never made public, both the St. Louis police and Egan gang informant Raymond Renard would attribute it to Egan's Rats. Their target was the Baden Bank, located at 8200 North Broadway Avenue in the North City neighborhood of Baden. One suspected participant in the robbery was Max Greenberg, a clever member of the crew who would notoriously break away from the Egan mob and join the arch-rival Hogan Gang two years later. Baden, a residential neighborhood with a large German immigrant population, had somewhat lower crime rates than the rest of the city of St. Louis. Thus, they would not be expecting an armed robbery of their central bank branch.

Egan gang member Max Greenberg
Thursday, April 10, 1919, dawned fair and cool in St. Louis, the temperature around forty-four degrees. The Baden Bank opened for business at nine o'clock that morning. On the premises were the bank president, Frank W. Giese; head cashier Martin W. Muntzel; assistant cashier F.R. Baumgartner; teller Henry J. Fischer, and stenographer Ruth Pohl. Business was very light that morning, and nothing initially indicated that this would be any different than a usual business day. At precisely ten o'clock, a blue-black 1915 Hudson Super Six Phaeton containing eight men parked at the curb next to the bank's Baden Avenue side entrance. Two men remained in the front seat with the motor running while the other six exited the vehicle. All eight men were dressed identically in light gray raincoats and plaid flat caps; five of their number had handkerchiefs tied around their lower faces. When describing the heist to investigators a half-decade later, Ray Renard guessed that the outfits were Max Greenberg's idea. In retrospect, it was indeed a smart move to have the bandits dress identically, as adrenalized witnesses would instinctively focus on those outfits when describing the robbers to police. As one man stood guard near the side door, his masked cohorts rushed inside the bank.
There was no guard on duty that morning. In its ten years of operation, the Baden Bank had never been robbed. In fact, the very notion of bank robbery seemed inconceivable to most St. Louisans in 1919, the type of violent crime that belonged to the distant dime-novel past of Jesse James and his ilk. At the moment of truth, the bank's vault stood wide open as the employees "checked up" the money for the day. The five masked intruders leveled identical Army-issue Colt .45 caliber automatic pistols at the startled employees. Ruth Pohl let out a shriek as the lead bandit yelled out, "Throw up your hands!"
As there were no customers currently in the bank to deal with, the armed quintet quickly strode through the door that led behind the counter and cage. As three gunmen kept the employees covered, the other two produced cloth sacks and began gathering up stacks of cash from the shelves before cleaning out the loot from the open vault. The robbers also quickly searched counter and desk drawers for any money. At one point, one of the heisters noted an ostentatious diamond ring on cashier Martin Muntzel's finger and tried to snatch it. Muntzel twisted and raised his arm around so the bandit could not grab it. The frustrated gangster thrust the barrel of his .45 into the plucky cashier's face and told him, "Put both your hands up, or I'll kill you!" With their two cloth sacks now full, another of the robbers suddenly barked, "You all get in that vault." Muntzel, who had managed to save his diamond ring from its intended thief, protested that they would suffocate inside. Another bandit, described as being unusually tall, said, "We won't do anything like that." Still holding their hands up, the five bank employees were quickly herded into the vault. The bandits then closed the inner "day" door while leaving the massive vault door open. The heisters then made for the side door through which they had initially entered. It was later calculated that they had been in the bank for precisely four minutes as if operating on a strict time limit.
No sooner were they out the door when cashier Martin Muntzel quickly rummaged through an open safe-deposit box and fished out an old, single-action revolver. Muntzel then ran to the front door in time to see the bandits' Hudson Phaeton turning south on North Broadway. The escaping robbers, adrenaline pumping, were startled to hear the crack and pinging of three bullets fired through the bank's screen door by the gritty cashier Muntzel. Their driver immediately opened the throttle and accelerated down the avenue. A passing foot patrolman was roused by the sudden gunfire and saw the blue-black Hudson heading south at an increasing rate of speed. The unnamed officer commandeered a passing mail truck and ordered its driver to give chase. Standing on the truck's running board and hanging on with his left arm, the officer fired on the Hudson with his service revolver. One of the bandits, who seemed to be about thirty years old with a black mustache, leaned out of the Hudson's passenger side window and returned fire with his .45 automatic. No one was hit in the running gun battle. The Hudson's driver hung a sharp right turn onto Calvary Avenue and almost hit a pedestrian. Undeterred, the getaway driver gunned the Hudson up the avenue's steep incline and threaded the needle between Calvary and Bellefontaine cemeteries. The larger mail truck had a more difficult time negotiating Calvary's grade and fell behind in the pursuit. The robbers were last seen turning south onto West Florissant Avenue.
St. Louis police quickly arrived at the bank and began to take statements from the bank's employees and outside witnesses. The robbers were universally described as being young, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five mostly, save for the older mustachioed bandit who fired on the officer during the pursuit. The pedestrian who was nearly hit at Calvary and North Broadway confirmed details about the getaway car and gave its license plate number as 144933. The plate was quickly traced to a member of Egan's Rats named Ernest "Bergadine" Miller. Now awaiting trial for stealing goods from railroad boxcars (an essential racket of the pre-Prohibition Egan gang), Miller claimed that his Hudson had been stolen sometime earlier. Police didn't buy his alibi and began taking a close look at the Rats while issuing an all-points bulletin for the vehicle. Over fifty suspects were rounded up from all points of North City and downtown St. Louis and put on the grill. Police got precisely nothing to work with. 
Around ten o'clock that evening a car driven by Detective Ira Cooper, the first Black detective in the history of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, caught sight of the wanted blue-black Hudson Phaeton as it drove north on Taylor Avenue. Cooper was accompanied by two other Black detectives, William Crockett and Charles Johnson, and gave chase. They noted that the Hudson matched the description of the Baden Bank bandits' getaway car but now lacked a license plate. Now alerted that he was being followed by police, the Hudson's driver hit the gas and turned right on Easton Avenue (modern-day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive).
STLMPD Detective Ira Cooper
Detective Cooper and his partners followed close behind for a few blocks until the Hudson swung south on Pendleton Avenue. A block or two later, the Hudson turned east on Evans Avenue. At that point, the three detectives were suddenly halted in their pursuit. The first version said that two strange sedans had moved away from the curb and blocked their path as the Hudson disappeared down Evans. A second version, related by a police officer who wished to remain anonymous, stated that the trio of sleuths had been forcibly halted by a group of White policemen who were suspicious of three plainclothes Black men driving through the neighborhood at a high rate of speed. Whatever the reason for the delay, Detectives Cooper, Crockett, and Johnson were quickly moving again. At Sarah and Evans streets, the trio picked up two uniformed cops, a Sergeant Armstrong and Patrolman William Teppe. After a brief search, the task force managed to locate the Hudson in question parked near the corner of Cook and Whittier avenues. There was little inside the vehicle except one $20 gold piece, two $2.50 gold pieces, and a nickel.

Throughout the city of St. Louis and the surrounding area, the Baden Bank robbery dominated newspaper headlines. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed an editorial inevitably comparing the robbers to Jesse James. While Egan's Rats wouldn't be publicly linked to the heist until Ray Renard's testimony in 1925, the police had an excellent idea that the trail of guilt led right to Willie Egan's saloon at Fourteenth and Franklin. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the heisters retreated to Egan's Buffet immediately after the job. As bank robbery was not yet a federal offense, the Rats had nothing to worry about from the embryonic FBI (then still officially named the Bureau of Investigation). After the evening papers began hitting city newsstands later that afternoon and the connection to Egan gang member Ernest Miller became public knowledge, they most likely designated one of their number to get rid of the Hudson Phaeton used in the robbery. The car disposal got a little hairy thanks to Detective Ira Cooper and his partners, but it was ultimately successful.
Even the Post-Dispatch Weatherbird commented on the robbery.

It was eventually determined that the Egan crew got away from the Baden Bank with a total of $59,310.15 (a little over $872,000 by current monetary standards). The denominations of their loot included several $1000 gold certificates, two $500 bills, several $50 bills, a total of $1500 in fives, tens and twenties in additions to 60 to 80 gold coins of various denominations. It was the largest bank robbery in St. Louis's history up to that point and would remain so for eleven years. A reward of $1000 was offered for information leading to the apprehension of the perpetrators; it remains uncollected to this day. Other than the four coins found in the getaway car, none of the loot was ever recovered.

On April 20, 1919, ten days after the Baden Bank robbery, gang boss Thomas Egan succumbed to Bright's disease. Egan's death, virtually concurrent with the successful bank job, signaled the beginning of a new phase in the history of his criminal organization. Gone were the days of politically motivated terrorism. No longer would the city and state Democratic politics determine the direction of the gang. After April 1919, the driving force in the Egan universe was cold, hard cash. With the coming of Prohibition and its thousands of dollars in potential bootlegging profits, in addition to the seeming inability of local law enforcement to stop a broad-daylight bank robbery, the city of St. Louis was riper than a summer squash in September. For the "Red-Hots" of Egan's Rats in the spring of 1919, the world was their oyster.


- While the eight perpetrators of the Baden Bank robbery remain officially unidentified, some of the Egan gang members suspected of participating included; Max Greenberg, Abe Goldfeder, Ben Milner, Ernest "Bergadine" Miller, Ben "Cotton" Funke, Edward "Big Red" Powers, Clarence "Little Red" Powers, and David "Chippy" Robinson. Out of those eight suspects, only three of them would die of natural causes. 

- Two key members of Egan's Rats, William "Dint" Colbeck and Louis "Red" Smith, had not yet been discharged from the Army after their wartime service in France. Thus, they didn't participate in the Baden Bank robbery.

- At the time of the Baden Bank robbery, three suspected participants; Max Greenberg, Ben Milner, and Edward "Big Red" Powers were free on an appeal bond after their 1917 conviction of theft of interstate shipment in Danville, Illinois. The trio had been sentenced to a total of five years each, but Willie Egan utilized connections that enabled a presidential pardon petition to make its way to President Woodrow Wilson. After spending a few months in 1920 behind bars in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, all three men would be officially pardoned.

- Between April 1919 and November 1924, it was conservatively estimated that Egan's Rats had stolen close to 4.5 million dollars from the various bank, armored car, and messenger robberies that they committed.

- The Baden Bank remained in business until 1984. The building that formerly housed the bank still stands at 8200 North Broadway Avenue in North St. Louis. Other than a few boarded up and broken windows, it looks virtually the same as it did a century ago when Egan's Rats arrived to make their unexpected withdrawal.


The April 10-11, 1919 issues of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and St. Louis Star.

Daniel Waugh, Egan's Rats: The Untold Story of the Prohibition-era gang that ruled St. Louis, Nashville: Cumberland House, 2007.

08 May 2017

It's the Big Sleep for the Leader of the Pillow Gang

Carmelo Fresina was a St. Louis gang leader involved in bootlegging and extortion. He was looking at some bootlegging trials and told his wife, prior to leaving their house at 9 p.m. on the night of May 7, 1931, that he was going away for a few days to “fix those liquor cases against me.” Thirteen hours later an Illinois State Highway patrolman found him reposing in the tonneau of his car. 

At some point during the night of May 7 or the early morning of May 8, Fresina was sitting in the front seat of his car when somebody in the rear fired two bullets into his head. In no condition to drive himself to his final resting spot, Fresina was removed to the floor of the back seat and his assassin(s) drove the car to Edwardsville, Illinois and left it on the side of a road.

Carmelo Fresina

A few years previously he and a few cohorts were involved in a bit of underworld chicanery that resulted in shooting. One of the bullets pierced Fresina’s posterior (though painful, he fared better than his confederates who ended up dead) and since that time, it was said, that wherever he went he carried a pillow with him to sit on. As a result, the local police referred to his mob as the Pillow Gang.

The Pillow Gang, which operated out of St. Louis and was headed by Fresina, should not be confused with the “My Pillow Gang” currently operating out of Minnesota headed by this guy:

Not Carmelo Fresina

01 November 2016

Paul is Dead

No not that Paul, but Paul Robinson said to be a Los Angeles gangster, who was bumped off on this date back in 1932. Initially police believed that he was involved in some sort of  gangland feud. This stemmed from the fact that Robinson's bullet riddled corpse was found in a recently dug ditch near a San Mateo golf course.

Police determined that Robinson had been killed in San Francisco and his body taken to the golf course and dropped into the ditch. (I suspect a "hole in one" joke is applicable here so if you have one, by all means leave it in the comments) After Robinson's body was deposited his slayer fired ten more shots into him. The dead man's auto was then parked near San Francisco's Presidio district and set on fire.

Subsequent investigation showed that Robinson had left L.A. along with a confederate named E.P. Andrews alias Gene Shelton, whom the authorities felt was the one who did in Robinson. On the following December 8, Andrews was traced to the town of Banning where he escaped in his wife's car amidst a shootout with police. He didn't bother waiting for his wife who was taken into custody.

Andrews didn't remain free long, he was arrested on April 1, 1933, in St. Louis under suspicion of robbery.