What your history teacher didn’t tell you

People who have been reading my columns for some time know that I have an interest in history. I enjoy learning about local history or things that we may not have learned in high school.

There’s a story in this week’s issue about a presentation at the New Prague Library about gangsters who lived or visited the state. Now, not everything that was talked about made it in the story. If it had, the story would have been extremely long. One aspect was about Kate “Ma” Barker, who was the mother of the four Barker boys who were bank robbers and kidnappers. The speaker, Chad Lewis, said it was more of a legend that she was a gun-toting criminal mastermind who planned her sons’ crimes. He noted that after her death and the legend started to spread that one person who knew her said, “She couldn’t plan breakfast, much less a criminal enterprise.” It is known that she did travel with her sons and she did know they committed crimes. There were also stories about John Dillinger, one of the most infamous bank robbers of the midwest, who would frequent St. Paul. While he was involved in robberies and shoot outs, there were also stories spread that made him into a folk hero or modern day Robin Hood. The times of the gangsters fell during the Great Depression, when people had lost their money through banks or some banks were taking people’s properties. With confidence and trust in banks at a low ebb, people who followed the stories about Dillinger, cheered for him and his gang. It also didn’t hurt that they left large tips for people, paying a $2 bill with a $10, $20 or $50 and saying keep the change.

The thing about most of these gangsters is that their lives came to a violent end, usually in shootouts with police or the FBI. A few did serve jail time. One that was touched on briefly during a discussion after the presentation was Chicago gang lord Al Capone. He visited St. Paul and resorts in Wisconsin. He was another criminal who served time, although for tax evasion. He served eight of his 11 year sentence at Alcatraz, receiving early release due to dementia.

The reason I enjoy learning about different aspects of history is that it gives me a better idea of the time people lived in. More often than not we get what are considered the more important aspects of history or the highlights. It’s only with digging into history do we find out more about why something happened or what made someone the person they were. In college I had a history class where the teacher presented Andrew Jackson, warts and all. Our class found out more about the man and the moments in his life. One aspect was that the Battle of New Orleans, which made Jackson a national hero, was still being fought after the United States and the United Kingdom had signed a peace treaty. One reason the battle was still going on was that neither side in New Orleans knew about the peace treaty as communications were slow. The quickest a message could reach someone depended on how fast a rider’s horse was and how good were the roads. When word of the treaty reached New Orleans, the battle had been won by Jackson and the American forces.

Over the years I’ve learned more about history and people, some we have all heard of from classes, others that we maybe only heard in passing or that our history teachers never mentioned.

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