Bootleggers, gamblers, racketeers and a boxing champ lined up at a St. Paul hospital offering to donate blood to keep “Dapper Dan” Hogan alive on Dec. 4, 1928.
That Tuesday had started off routinely enough for the popular owner of the Green Lantern Saloon — the unofficial Wabasha Street headquarters of St. Paul’s thriving underworld. For 15 years, Hogan had served as the go-between for corrupt cops and criminals.
Hogan, 48, had just finished a late breakfast and was heading downtown about 11:30 a.m. from his St. Paul home on W. 7th Street — near today’s entrance ramp to Interstate Hwy. 35E — when he pressed his foot on the starter to back his coupe out of the garage.
“A short time afterwards there was a loud explosion,” the Minneapolis Morning Tribune reported. “When neighbors and members of the family entered the garage they found Hogan unconscious in the seat of the car, his right leg nearly torn off, and bleeding profusely.”
Another account said “the blast had hurled Mr. Hogan’s body up with such force that his head broke through the top” of the car.
Tucked beneath the floorboards, packed with explosive nitroglycerin and wired to the ignition, an early car bomb detonated when Hogan pressed the starter. Doctors later amputated his pulverized leg, but that and all the blood-transfusion offers weren’t enough.
After telling police he had no idea who placed the bomb — “I didn’t know I had an enemy in the world” — Hogan died at 8:55 p.m.
“He was the idol of not a few persons and his word was said to have been ‘as good as a gold bond,’ ” the newspaper reported, comparing Hogan to Robin Hood. “There will be some fewer turkey dinners in St. Paul this Christmas as a result of his death.”
In addition to Hogan’s philanthropy, St. Paul’s “Robin Hood” was also a fencer of stolen goods, money launderer and fixer who ruled over the city’s crime nest. Beginning in 1913, Hogan orchestrated a system of bribes from his perch at the Green Lantern — fittingly located just blocks from the former St. Paul police headquarters that opened in 1925.
“ ‘Dapper Dan’ was known throughout the northwest, and in many other places throughout the United States, as a man who had the power to settle feudal wars and ‘keep the heat out of town,’ ” the Morning Tribune said.
Historians say a so-called layover agreement made St. Paul a safe haven for gangsters from 1900 to 1936 — as long as they conducted their criminal shenanigans elsewhere. Such notorious gangsters as John Dillinger, Al Capone, “Babyface” Nelson, Ma Barker, Alvin Karpis, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow made Minnesota an “epicenter of illegal activity,” according to the MNopedia.com website. Hogan tried to keep St. Paul from becoming a bloodbath like Chicago.
“He is known to have told criminals, on many occasions, that they could stay in St. Paul as long as they behaved,” the newspaper said. “Police knew that he had frequently ordered thieves and gangsters out of the Twin Cities and sometimes gave them money so that they ‘might be on their way.’ ”
Hogan’s death is still considered unsolved. Part of the bomb’s wiring remains at the St. Paul Police Department.
The most likely man behind the assassination is an all-but-forgotten bootlegger named Harry Sawyer, according to author Paul Maccabee, whose “Dillinger Slept Here” is the go-to source on St. Paul’s gangster era.
The son of an orthodox Jewish butcher, Sawyer was born in 1890 in Poland or Lithuania — making him 10 years younger than Hogan, his boss at the Green Lantern. The sixth of nine children, Sawyer changed his name from Sandlovich after emigrating.
Police arrested Sawyer, using the alias name Harry Porche, for grand larceny, robbery, bail jumping and auto theft from 1918-1920.
He made his way from Nebraska to Minnesota, climbing the underworld ladder to become a top Hogan aide. When Hogan died, Hogan’s wife opened a safety deposit box at the Green Lantern — $50,000 was supposed to be stashed there for her. It was empty. Sawyer and Hogan had the only keys.
After the car explosion, Sawyer replaced Hogan as St. Paul’s crime boss.
“You ask, ‘Who benefits? Who has the means, motive and opportunity?’ And everyone who’s reviewed the facts points absolutely and resoundingly at Harry Sawyer,” Maccabee said.
With no bomb-making skills, Sawyer likely hired the actual bombers. “But as a guy who Hogan employed and who got control of the whole operation in one fell swoop,” Sawyer is most likely the ringleader of the assassination, Maccabee said.
More than six years later, Sawyer was arrested in Mississippi for being the “finger man” who pointed out St. Paul banker Edward Bremer to the gang members who kidnapped him for a $200,000 ransom. Sawyer pointed out Bremer at a St. Paul bowling alley.
The banker was snatched at gunpoint after dropping his daughter off at the Summit School near Goodrich Avenue and Lexington Parkway in St. Paul.
Sawyer spent nearly 20 years in Leavenworth and Alcatraz prisons. His wife divorced him while he was in prison. They had no children, and his family was “mortified” by his crimes and cut off all contact, Maccabee said. Paroled with cancer in 1955, Sawyer died a few months later.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918.