One autumn night in 1974, two young muggers with a gun jumped a 76-year-old man in the parking lot of the Criterion restaurant on St. Paul’s University Avenue.
They yanked his wallet from his pants, making off with $220 in cash — but not without a struggle for the gun, which fired several times.
“They got the youngest old man they ever tackled,” Morris “Red” Rudensky said. “I battled the hell out of them. I knocked one down and kicked the other you know where.”
Little did the thugs know, but they’d just robbed a career criminal.
Rudensky was a gangster-era safecracker for Al Capone, who later became his cellmate in an Atlanta federal prison. He punctuated his three decades behind bars with dramatic escapes.
After spending the first half of his life in crime, Rudensky redefined prison reform during his later years. Upon release he went to work as a copy writer for Brown & Bigelow, the St. Paul-based ad agency and calendar distributor. In the mid-1960s, 3M hired him as a lock consultant and alarm expert for its home security business. Rudensky became a popular lecturer and author, and he visited hospitals and nursing homes as a member of the St. Paul Clown Club.
“He used his past to make the future count,” a relative said when Rudensky died in 1988, at age 89, at the Sholom Home in St. Paul.
The oldest of seven Jewish brothers and a sister, Rudensky was known as Max Friedman in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He started off stealing bagels and, by 13, was sent to the New York State Reformatory as incorrigible. That’s where he staged his first escape and headed to Chicago.
Arrested in Kansas, he was mistaken for another safecracker named Morris Rudensky, who was wanted on lesser charges. So Friedman took Rudensky’s name — and a shorter sentence.
Rudensky claimed he illegally obtained his first million by age 22. He once used $50,000 in stolen gold to purchase a house of prostitution in Chicago. In the 1920s, he masterminded a mail train robbery in Springfield, Ill., and the heist of 20,000 barrels of bootleg liquor from a government warehouse in St. Louis during Prohibition.
Along the way, he worked as a freelance safecracker for gangs run by Capone and Bugs Moran. He was frequently arrested, including during a botched jewelry store break-in three blocks from St. Louis police headquarters. “My girlfriend told me she felt funny about that job,” he said years later.
Twice Rudensky escaped from the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. Once he crawled into a body bag with a yet-to-be embalmed corpse; another time he packed himself into a crate of business forms.
Known as the “King of the Cons,” he befriended behind bars the likes of Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” One of those jailhouse friendships led him to Minnesota.
In his 1970 memoir “The Gonif,” which means “thief” in Yiddish, Rudensky explained the prison pipeline that flowed from Leavenworth to Minnesota. Herbert Bigelow, who founded Brown & Bigelow in 1896, wound up at Leavenworth in 1924 for tax evasion. That’s where Bigelow met an inmate named Charles Ward, a Seattle native who worked on Pacific freighters and Alaskan dog sleds and worked for Mexican rebel Pancho Villa.
Serving time for narcotics offenses in the 1920s, Ward befriended Bigelow and, later, Rudensky. Ward went on to become president of Brown & Bigelow, where he hired Rudensky — extending a hand to his jailhouse pal like Bigelow did for him.
Rudensky dedicated his autobiography to “My Patron Saint ... Charles A. Ward, who gave me a strong arm to lean on when I was weak, who gave me flaming hope when I was lonely, who gave me inspiration when I felt despair ... a man whose vast reservoir of faith in humanity gave me the will to live.”
(For more on Ward’s colorful life, see Shelby Edwards’ 2015 profile in Minnesota History magazine at https://tinyurl.com/CharlesAWard).
Rudensky’s first wife, Eileen Abdo, died in 1974. The next year, at 76, he married Victoria Heywood, a 37-year-old court reporter from Rhinelander, Wis., whom he had met at a St. Paul restaurant. He had no children.
Rudensky toured the country, appearing on talk shows with Dinah Shore and Merv Griffin, “and developed sort of a celebrity status,” 3M spokesman Sam Bates said. He befriended “Gone with the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell during his stint as editor of a prison magazine in Atlanta. After Rudensky’s death in 1988, Bates said the ex-convict was a perfect fit as a 3M safety consultant “because of his background and expertise.”
Not that those muggers knew him in 1974.
“They didn’t get a pansy,” Rudensky told legendary Minneapolis Star cops reporter Paul Presbrey. If he had gotten his hand on the gun, he said, “I’d [have] shot the hell out of them.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.