Arts & More
7:57 pm
Mon July 7, 2014

St. Joseph: Beach Town and 1920's Gangster's Paradise

Credit Courtesy of the Author

Gangsters in Southwest Michigan? It's not as shocking as you think. Back in the 1920's, members of the Chicago crime scene treated the area as an oasis where they dined, played golf - and did their best to keep their business affairs to a minimum.

That all changed in 1929, when gangster Frank 'Killer' Burke murdered a St. Joseph police officer, leading authorities to discover that he had weapons used in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, where seven men from an opposing crime gang were killed in Chicago.

Author and historian Chriss Lyon explores the events in her new book A Killing in Capone's Playground.

Here is a transcript of the conversation:

"Most people will associate the gangster era...with Chicago. It was a little known fact that this area played a huge role in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre aftermath. And if you think about the forensics and the ballistic science that we have today, most of that is based on what happened here in 1929 in St. Joseph Michigan." "A police officer had tried to stop a motorist who had had a car accident, and basically left the scene of the accident. The man in the vehicle shot and killed the police officer, and his name was Charles Skelly. He was a 25 year old male from St. Joseph. Once they found the suspect's vehicle...they ended up finding out where the person lived at, and they ended up going to his house. What they found in the house was something more than the average person would have, including two Thompson submachine guns."

"Two Thompson submachine guns had been used in the Massacre - they just did not have them. And whey they found conveniently two of them in this man's house, they further did some research and did some fingerprint investigations, and lo and behold it happens to be a suspect in the massacre named Fred "Killer" Burke. When they actually got the guns in their hands, they were taken to Chicago to be studied - they were determined to be ballistically the actual guns used in the massacre. And this was the most evidence they had ever recovered up until that point, and since."

"I think that a lot of it has been forgotten because the people in the area almost want to forget about it. It's not something that maybe necessarily the townspeople were proud of, and they felt somewhat betrayed by the gangsters. If there's anyone who's a hero it would be Charles Skelly. Without him being shot and killed that evidence would have remained hidden, and it's amazing to think that this one guy...had that power to do that. "I think that mostly people will be surprised at how the gangsters weren't necessarily bad guys when they were around here. When they were here - which is why I call the book "Capone's Playground" - this was their playground. They were on vacation. They were not doing their business and they pretty much kept to that. Up until the moment that Charles Skelly was killed in 1929 that's when it all changed. At that point the community in the area said that you're no longer welcome in our area. And that really was the kicker."