Egan’s Rats by Daniel Waugh

I enjoyed Daniel Waugh’s book Gangs of St. Louis: Men of Respect so much that I decided to pick up his first book that centers around the street gang, Egan’s Rat’s, as the local papers called them.  The Egan’s Rats were powerful during prohibition and had a big part in local and state politics at the time.  They participated heavily in bootlegging, gambling and robberies.  Like the first book that I read about St. Louis gangs by Daniel Waugh the names of gang members, associates, and hangers on come at you fast and they are killed off almost as quickly.

The Egan’s Rats morphed from a street gang in the Kerry Patch neighborhood called the Ashley Street Gang.  Kerry Patch was just north of Downtown in an area that is now mostly commercial, industrial or abandoned.   The two biggest players in the Ashley Street Gang were Tom Egan and Tom “Snake” Kinney.  Tom Egan and Tom Kinney grew up as neighbors in the Kerry Patch and both came from rough backgrounds and home lives.   As boys in the Ashley Street Gang they worked for the local democratic machine as intimidators on election days to ensure that the machine’s candidates won the election.  This was a jumping off point for Tom “Snake” Kinney to get into politics.  He used his political connections in the democratic machine to parlay his way into the state senate.  Snake Kinney married Tom Egan’s sister and the childhood friends became family as well.  While Snake Kinney was serving in the state senate Tom Egan began using his wide ranging political connections to establish power over his rivals and grow his criminal organization.   He began seating his underling thugs in city government and law enforcement positions.

The Egan’s Rats also battled rival gangs over control of certain rackets and political power in the city.  One of the gangs they that rivaled the Rats in the early 1900′s was the Bottom’s Gang in the area of the city the known as the Bad Lands.   The Bad Lands was located in the area that was once known as the Mill Creek Valley and parts of today’s Midtown Neighborhood east of Saint Louis University.   Both gangs had headquarters in their respective neighborhoods at corner taverns.  These taverns were owned by high ranking members of each gang and they served as meeting places for the criminal as well as politicians.   These taverns also happened to be the most popular places for after hours festivities and occasionally shootouts and gang hits.  The Rats ultimately prevailed over the Bottoms Gang and cemented themselves as the most powerful street gang in St. Louis.  There was, however, another group of politically tied gangsters that would occupy much of the Rats attention over the coming decade.

The Hogan Gang was lead by another state senator that was involved in gangland activity in St. Louis named Edward “Jellyroll” Hogan.   Hogan had once worked as the beverage inspector in the city and had become quite familiar with the Egan’s operation.  He aspired to control the bootlegging operations in the city and as a result the Egan’s Rats and the Hogan Gang engaged in all out war.  On several occasions the Rat’s shot up Jelly Roll Hogan’s parents home in North St. Louis.  The war was well chronicled by the local papers and one incident where there was high speed chase and gun battle on Lindell Blvd. in broad daylight captured the public’s attention.  Gang leaders were interviewed by newspaper reporters and assured the public that the war would be kept under control.

The Rats had been heavily involved in the bootlegging business and Tom Egan was poised to make more money than he had ever dreamed of.  Prohibition was set to go into effect in 1919, however Tom Egan became ill with a terminal kidney disease and passed away in 1919 as well.  Tom Egan’s younger brother, Willie, took over the gang briefly and continued to headquarter it at his neighborhood saloon in the Kerry Patch.  Willie Egan was soon murdered while standing outside his saloon by members of the Hogan Gang, including Jelly Roll Hogan’s younger brother James.  William “Dinty” Colbeck succeeded the Egan’s as the gangs leader after Willie Egan’s death.

Dint Colbeck was actually in control of the Egan’s Rats longer than Tom Egan himself and built upon the foundation the Egan had laid prior to his death.  Dint Colbeck was lead of the 2nd generation of the Rats which boasted some of the most interesting characters in St. Louis’ organized crime history.  David “Chippy” Robinson was one such character who was known as the best shot in the group and a complete psychopath as well.  All of the rats were constantly practicing their marksmanship at their hideout but Robinson was such a good shot and so unbalanced that even the other gangsters were scared of him.  Ray Renard is the other character that stands out in the group.  Ray Renard was long time member of the Rats but eventually fell out of favor with the boss and the other gangsters.  As a result he decided to turn states evidence and testify against Dint Colbeck, Chippy Robinson and a host of others.  His testimony was published in local papers and it was groundbreaking material for law enforcement.  At the time he was one of the highest ranking members in any organized crime group to cooperate with authorities.  Renards testimony ruined the Egan’s Rats and sent Dint Colbeck and a good portion of the rest of the crew to prison for long sentences.

A member of the group that bounced back and forth between St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit was Fred Burke.  Burke wasn’t implicated by Renard while he was cooperating with authorities and Burke eventually

Fred “Killer” Burke

left for Detroit.  In Detroit he became involved with the Purple Gang that had several former Egan’s Rats associates.  They became involved in a war with a local gambler and Burke’s favorite racket seemed to be kidnapping and holding big time Detroit gamblers for ransom.   Once this war escalated and Burke was starting to feel the heat he made a permanent move to Chicago where he fell in with Al Capone’s outfit.  Fred “Killer” Burke’s main claim to fame would come doing a job for Al Capone.  Burke was the mastermind behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 7 members and associates of Bugs Moran’s Northside outfit.  Burke and another associate entered a garage owned by the Northside outfit wearing police uniforms and told the gangsters they were being busted.  He lined them up against the wall and then let two other men in from outside.  Burke and his three associate then opened fire on the Northsiders from point blank range tearing them to bits.  The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre would go on to be one of the most infamous gangland murders in history and it was perpetrated by a member of St. Louis’ Egans Rats.

Daniel Waugh’s book on the Egan’s Rats is a very detailed look at gangs from prohibition era and before in St. Louis.  But what is even more interesting is the connections between gang leaders and politics that Waugh is able to draw throughout the book.  He paints the picture of St. Louis as being similar to the 5 Points in Scorcese’s Gangs of New York.  Obviously over the course of thirty years the landscape changes and Waugh does a good job illustrating that change.  Also, very interesting are the profiles of individuals such as Snake Kinney, Chippy Robinson, Dint Colbeck and others.  These are the kinds of characters that won’t be written about in history books but had a great impact on the city in their era.    These characters would be great as the subject of a movie or a mini series but St. Louis doesn’t quite capture the imagination of audiences the way that New York or Chicago underworlds do.  At the time, however, St. Louis rivaled all other cities in size and criminal organizations.