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Pictured is the front cover of “The Minnesota Road Guide to Gangster Hot Spots,” a book by Chad Lewis. He will be speaking April 6 at the Bemidji Public Library. Submitted Artwork

Author brings gangsters alive in ‘Hot Spots’

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BEMIDJI – There seems to be validity to author Chad Lewis’s claim that gangsters once were America’s A-list celebrities.

For example, Bonnie and Clyde’s guns sold for $504,000 at an auction about a year ago.

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In the Bemidji area, tales abound about a gang hideout in a local club/brothel – now a respectable restaurant – or whether Al Capone actually had a hideout on Star Lake.  Capone was known to be an avid sportsman. Someone recently told of a gangster hideout on Lake Andrusia.

Well, if it is just good story telling or the real deal here in Bemidji, one thing is for sure: Lewis’s book “The Minnesota Road Guide to Gangster Hot Spots” is thoroughly enjoyable. The author will be speaking about his 20-plus years of research during an appearance at 4 p.m. April 6 at the Bemidji Public Library. The presentation is free and open to the public.

“I have always had a taste for the weird and unusual,” said Lewis during a phone interview. “Up until now my books have been about ghosts and the paranormal but on a hot summer day in Wisconsin I stumbled upon a lodge while looking for water or a pop. The lodge was from the 1930’s and in the back was a John Dillinger exhibit with a little make-shift memorial.”

Lewis went on to cite the tales of having danced in the same place as Dillinger one summer night as an example of status symbol. And these tales or boasts persist to this day, perhaps just for fun or the excitement of being near celebrity. The owners of the lodge have kept the articles left by Dillinger and his gang on view.

But that is not the only place he found remnants of those “A-Listers” carefully preserved for posterity.

George (Baby Face) Nelson robbed a bank in Brainerd. The building now houses a pawn shop and the historical society has the basket Nelson used to carry his Thompson submachine gun into the bank.

And in September 2012, Stirling-Sotheby’s International Realty offered for sale Kate (Ma) Barker’s home on Lake Wier in Florida. The real estate listing notes that it is the spot of the longest Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shoot out, which claimed the lives of Ma Barker and her four sons. The house has all the original furnishings: the two story dwelling is a “complete time capsule” and likely will serve as a point of pride for the buyer. The Barker-Karpis gang was notorious and Ma said that she first became obsessed with crime in her youth by the capers of Jesse James.

Lewis speaks about 75 times a year to interested folks who want to take his visual road trip of numerous gangster hideouts throughout Minnesota. Although Lewis admits that we really shouldn’t glamorize these gangs, they seem to hold our interest.

As an aside, look at the popularity of “The Godfather,” a 1972 movie that told of the trials and tribulations of a mythical 1940’s Mafia family in New York City. Everyone rooted for Michael, the youngest son in the crime family, who was to be the new generation of legitimate businessmen and politicians. The characters in the film ranged from stereotypical thugs to the loving father of the Corleone family, a man who struggled and eventually failed to protect his wife and family from mob warfare and destruction.

The story of the Corleone family continued for two more movies due to the popularity of the original film by director Francis Ford Coppola. The screen play was written by Mario Puzo who supposedly drew his characters from real people and the audience cared about what happened to the various members of the Corleone family.

This type of movie never seems to satisfy the desire to learn more about these “A-Listers.”

This past summer, the life of Mickey Cohen, a real life kingpin, was the subject of a story where a secret police gangster squad destroyed Cohen’s take-over of gambling in the city of Los Angeles. But in the movie, Cohen as portrayed by actor Sean Penn, was unlikeable and movie goers rooted for the “good guys.”

Lewis has two degrees in applied psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He said he has always been interested in why people believe so strongly in the weird and unusual, hence his series of books about ghosts in Wisconsin.

He is the co-author of the “Road Guide to Haunted Locations” book series that takes the reader to Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Iowa and Florida and is receptive to listening to people’s stories. And just recently Lewis traveled to Cass Lake to investigate the Ojibwa legend of the Windigo, a fearsome creature that brings death and bad luck.

If your interest lies in the paranormal, be sure to check out Lewis’s website at chadlewisresearch.com or unexplainedresearch.com.

But for now, Lewis asks that you don your zoot suit (made famous by gangsters in the 1930’s) – but be sure to leave your Tommy gun behind – when you go hear his presentation on the tales of famous gangsters of Minnesota.

He will tell you where the gangsters liked to spend their time-off dancing the night away and how wealthy citizens were kidnapped for ransom by Baby Face Nelson.  Even if you don’t like gangsters, but enjoy the history of this part of the country, be sure to check out this presentation.

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