MOORHEAD — You don’t need to be a fan of gangster movies or even an expert in 1930s true crime to know gangsters had a certain look.
You might even get a little shudder down your spine when you look at black-and-white images of Lucky Luciano’s dead-eyed, tough guy stare...
or Meyer Lansky’s quiet but "don’t mess me with me "smirk...
and Al Capone, with his ever-present fedora and pinstriped Italian suits is literally the gold standard of gangster style.
Not so for Moorhead, Minn.'s most famous gangster, Jake Schumacher.
Let’s put it this way: He looked more like the teller of the bank being robbed than the mastermind of the holdup.
Wire-rimmed glasses and a milquetoast face, he looked like he could have faded into any crowd in the Midwest — a man who looked less likely to leave the scene of a crime in a blaze of bullets than he would be to leave with, “Yah, let me just slip past yah there. Gotta get home to the Mrs. for supper.”
But apparently, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Make no mistake about it, Jake Schumacher ruled the town — the kingpin of an illegal alcohol empire and head of the toughest gang in town.
However, what unfolded nearly 90 years ago, on Dec. 29, 1931, in Sabin, Minn. — one of the most bizarre bank robberies in the region’s history — spelled the end for the man known as "Moorhead’s Beer Baron" and still has historians scratching their heads.
Who was Jake Schumacher?
According to Markus Krueger with the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, Schumacher was born in 1893, the oldest of six sons and three daughters to Charlie and Anna Schumacher. Jake learned the meat cutting business from his Bavarian-born father and left home at 18 to work in meat cutting in Winnipeg, Kansas and St. Paul. Along the way, he married Nina Nelson.
But by 1920, the Schumacher family’s life took a dramatic turn. With the passage of the 18th Amendment, Prohibition went into effect. Of course that didn’t stop some people from drinking, even if they had to break the law to do it. Charlie put two and two together and figured out he could make more money selling beer than beef.
The family, including son Jake, started an illegal alcohol distribution business in Moorhead, working with the farmers who, after falling on hard times, chose to make moonshine instead of or in addition to harvesting crops. Jake was a "rum runner," bringing the booze, mostly whiskey and beer, into speakeasies in town.
The Schumacher’s house at 521 Ninth St. N. was not only a place to hang out and drink — it also housed a warehouse to hold the booze.
"The Schumachers were not the only rum-runners in the area (far from it!) but they were important, notorious, and colorful."
- Markus Krueger/Clay County Historical Society.
“The Schumachers were not the only rum-runners in the area (far from it!) but they were important, notorious and colorful,” Krueger said.
In fact, according to Krueger, Jake’s sister Babe had her car outfitted with hidden tanks in the wheel wells to transport liquor bottles.
While Jake might have lacked the style of other more well-known gangsters, he was their equal in spending a lot of money. Krueger says in 1930, Schumacher was at the top of his game.
“He bought a brand-new Stutz sedan and a $1,750 diamond ring for his wife Nina. His furniture, he boasted later to a prison psychiatrist, was worth $8,000 (about $125,000 in today’s money), and he had just as much spending money at home,” Krueger said.
But Schumacher’s fortune was about to change and his personal and professional lives come crashing down.
Jake’s ‘no good, very bad’ year
In January 1931, he was arrested for his involvement in what Prohibition agents called “the biggest U.S.–Canadian liquor smuggling conspiracy uncovered in the northwest in years," according to the Moorhead Daily News.
“As his success grew, so did his crimes. He was always a nervous fellow, and as his crimes increased he became paranoid, violent and mentally unhinged,” Krueger said.
“As his success grew, so did his crimes. He was always a nervous fellow, and as his crimes increased he became paranoid, violent, and mentally unhinged.”
- Markus Krueger/Clay County Historical Society.
It didn’t help when, in March, his mother died and he found out that his wife was having an affair with a former Moorhead police officer. Schumacher attacked the man, jamming a sawed-off shotgun into his ribs, before bystanders wrestled the gun out of his hands.
Then later in the year, a man Jake had befriended in prison, Walter McGavin, moved to Moorhead to take Jake up on his offer of a job once he got out of jail. But Krueger says it appears the only job McGavin wanted was Jake’s.
“All we know is that Walter McGavin took over Jake Schumacher’s house on Dec. 1 of 1931. McGavin took Jake’s house keys and gave Jake a key to a one room. Jake’s gang turned into 'Mac’s Gang,'" Krueger said.
Jake rebounds and cooks up a plan
Not to be deterred after McGavin stole his gang, Jake decided to form a new one with some colorful characters (with equally colorful nicknames) from the criminal community. Jake’s new gang included: Shoeshiner Sam Abes (aka “Black Sam,” aka “the Fargo Possum”); Arkansas Bob, a guy in his late 20s; 21-year-old Zach Lemon from Ponsford, Minn.; Pat McLeary, who Krueger said “had just arrived in town half-frozen by hopping a freight train”; and a 48-year-old boilermaker from St. Paul named Ed “St Paul Blackie” Redman.
With his new gang all set, the plan was put in motion to rob a bank in Hawley, Minn. But the boys got off to a rough start, setting off for the Hawley robbery at least three different times only to turn back home after getting cold feet.
Jake was incensed and the final time it happened, he tracked down gang member McCleary and shot up the car he was driving, causing McCleary to swerve and hit a snowbank.
“Jake Schumacher leapt from his car, ran up to McLeary, and beat his face bloody with the butt of his revolver while calling him a 'double crosser.' McLeary went to the hospital,” Krueger said.
Another gang member, Zach Lemon, said McCleary’s beating was a clear message from Jake to the rest of them: There will be no more cold feet.
Jake’s gang put Hawley in its rearview mirror and decided to set its sights on the bank in Sabin (now the Crowbar).
Any thoughts of chickening out were met with encouragement from their fearless leader.
“Boys, I guess we’re all set. Let’s do the job. We’ve got to do the job. You don’t have to worry about the law around here. I am the law," Schumacher said.
"Let’s do the job. We’ve got to do the job. You don’t have to worry about the law around here. I am the law."
- Jake Schumacher to his gang the night before the Sabin bank robbery.
At about 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 29, Ed Redman, Arkansas Bob and Sam Abes entered the Sabin bank. They forced cashier George Carlson into the vault at gunpoint, stuffed $2,500 in bills, silver and bonds into a flour sack, and locked Carlson inside.
The bandits then jumped into the car being driven by Zach Lemon and sped a mile south and a mile and a half east to rendezvous with Jake Schumacher. But Jake never showed up. The men were furious. They ditched the car to avoid being found and walked all the way back to Moorhead. The fury they felt from Jake’s betrayal was probably the only thing keeping them warm on that cold December evening.
But Krueger said some in the gang weren’t that surprised. In fact, one of the reasons they had cold feet about the robberies in Hawley was that they felt Jake was going to back-stab them.
Later court documents proved they were right to be suspicious. Jake had tipped off authorities in Hawley about the expected robbery. And when he told them "I am the law" before they robbed the Sabin bank, did he literally mean he was working with police?
What was he thinking?
What was Jake up to? Did he want his gang to get caught? Maybe. Consider what he was doing at the very moment his boys were robbing the bank in Sabin.
He was spotted driving around Sabin, in Walter McGavin’s car — the same Walter McGavin who back-stabbed him and took control of his gang. And Jake wasn’t hiding. In fact, he wanted the car to be noticed. He honked and waved to Deputy Sheriff John Whaley as he passed him on the road. When Jake got home, he tipped off law enforcement that they would find a stolen car with liquor in it in Walter McGavin’s garage.
When police arrived to McGavin’s place, that’s just what they found. The stolen car that had been spotted earlier during the Sabin robbery (the one Schumacher was driving) was full of illegal liquor. They arrested McGavin’s gang for the liquor offenses and for their possible involvement in the robbery. You don't have to be Elliott Ness to realize Jake was trying to frame McGavin.
However, it didn’t quite work thanks to the observant bank teller, George Larson. When authorities brought the suspects in front of Larson, he told them they were not the men who robbed the bank. However, ever-helpful gang leader McGavin stepped in and said he saw four men matching the robbers' descriptions in Jake’s house the night before the crime.
Undercover all along?
The day after the robbery, perhaps seeing that his plan to frame his rival had been a bust and out of fear that he betrayed his own gang, Jake went to the Clay County Courthouse asking for protection. He gave authorities the names of his gang members and even went with deputies to arrest them. Some law enforcement officials implied that it wasn’t the first time Schumacher had been “a stool pigeon,” helping police by turning in his friends.
Markus Krueger said it’s all very puzzling.
“Only Jake Schumacher will ever truly know what he was thinking when he planned the Sabin bank robbery. Did he think he could successfully blame it all on McGavin and take back control of the underworld? Was he planning on betraying his robbers from the start or did he only turn them in after the charges did not stick to McGavin?” Krueger said.
For their parts in the robbery, Jake's gang members, received between five and 40 years in prison, depending upon their cooperation with authorities.
Jake Schumacher was sentenced to life at the Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater where psychiatrists could try and make sense of his unusual behavior. A year after his incarceration, Schumacher was found to be delusional and paranoid, and he spent the next seven years in the Asylum for the Dangerous Insane in St. Peter.
Back home in 1931, with the imprisonment of most of the gangsters in town, Moorhead got a reputation for looking the other way for any new cases of bootlegging. Perhaps it was just too exhausting to go through it all again. And just two years later, Prohibition was repealed.
“The Sabin Bank Robbery dealt a crushing blow to gangland Moorhead –such as it was. Both of Moorhead’s gangs were in prison, and the most notable criminal figure in the county went away with a life sentence.”
- Markus Krueger/Clay County Historical Society.
Jake Schumacher was released from prison in 1944. His days as Moorhead’s Beer Baron were over. He couldn’t make a living out of being a bootlegger and he claimed he couldn’t go back to being a butcher because “machines took all the art out of meat cutting.”
Cab drivers reported that every time they drove Schumacher past the police station, he threatened to “blow it up.”
He never did.
He died at the age of 55, an embittered bootlegger with a life story that still has people talking.