Lives touched by banditry in gangster era

5006 Colfax Ave. S.
The residents of this home at 5006 Colfax Ave. S. changed frequently in the turbulent 1930s, and at least two of them had run-ins with bandits. Submitted photo

Over the course of the 1930s, the house at 5006 Colfax Ave. S. was home to at least four families. Some of them were realtors, some were salesmen, but most of the turnover was due to living through a turbulent decade. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the economy was in tatters. There were pitched battles in the streets of Minneapolis over workers’ rights. The illegal liquor trade ignored the laws of Prohibition. It was a time when gangsters and criminals ran free in the Twin Cities. John Dillinger lived at 3253 Girard for a few weeks while trying to stay a step ahead of the FBI. Robberies and “stick-ups” were commonplace, even in Southwest Minneapolis. Throughout the 1930s, desperate people were doing desperate things.

Vernon Orcutt lived at 5006 Colfax in 1932. One evening, he walked into Evenson’s drugstore at 50th & Bryant. At nearly the same moment, two bandits came in to rob the place. They got $200 from the till and $50 from Charles Evenson’s pockets. But they got nothing from Orcutt. He tossed his cash into a dark corner and retrieved it after the stick-up. He was 6 feet tall and 190 pounds and maybe those bandits didn’t feel like asking why he was in the store if he had no money with him. They got away and were never caught.

Pickett and Toohey
Jewelry salesman Joseph Pickett (left), a resident of 5006 Colfax, was a victim of the Alley Gang. Edward Toohey, Jr. (right) was a member of the Alley Gang of bandits in the 1930s. He once jumped out of a window in his pajamas to evade police and later asked for a comb before newspapermen took his photo. Submitted photo

The crime rate stayed high throughout the 1930s, and Southwest was not exempted from gunpoint robberies. In February 1939, a different resident of 5006 Colfax found himself face-to-face with armed bandits. Joseph Pickett, a jewelry salesman, was returning home at nearly 2 a.m. and parking his car in the garage. He was robbed of $4 by a group of young opportunistic criminals known as the Alley Gang, which had been robbing people all over the city for weeks. The gang got away in a stolen automobile that they had taken from John Cowles, the newspaper publisher. These bandits were caught and convicted that year. They confessed to dozens of robberies, “house prowls” and auto thefts.

The crime rate went down dramatically in the 1940s as World War II put every idle hand to work. In the case of the Alley Gang, they spent the war in the St. Cloud Reformatory.