Most people have heard of Al Capone and his violent gang from Chicago that was involved in a variety of illegal activities during the years of prohibition. There have been rumors for years that Capone had a “vacation cottage” here in the MOzarks that sat across Lake Taneycomo from Rockaway Beach.
But there was another gang that operated in St. Louis that was just as powerful and violent during the prohibition years. Not only did Egan's Rats rival the Capone gang in crimes and murders, but also the gang members were sometimes allies of Capone and sent their henchmen to help him out. Some of the Egan’s Rats were gunmen in the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929.
The story of the St. Louis gang began in the “Kerry Patch,” a tough, riverfront, Irish ghetto neighborhood. Two youngsters, both of Irish descent and sharing a common first name, grew up as friends on those rough and tumble streets.
Thomas “Snake” Kinney, born 1868 in the Kerry Patch, was a newsboy in the days when you had to be tough to do that job in the big cities. Newsboys got paid for each paper they sold. If they sold all their papers, many of them forcefully would take papers from other newsboys and sell them as well. Newsboys often were injured and sometimes even killed in fights with other newsboys.
Kinney’s friend, Thomas Egan, who was born in the Kerry Patch in 1874, began running with the local Ashley Street gang as a youngster. They were pickpockets and burglars, who stole to make a living. At the age of 20, Tom Egan was shot in the face by a policeman during an interrupted burglary. The result was a scar on each side of his jaw where the bullet entered and exited.
Tom Kinney had ambitions to run for office. He opened his own saloon at the corner of Second and Carr streets to use it as a way to get into local ward politics.
Tom Egan wanted to have more money. Back in those years, there was often a connection between illegal crime, politics and even law enforcement.
The two friends decided that in order to accomplish both goals, they would form their own gang and use the muscle to become involved in local politics.
The two Toms became political forces in their ward, using their gang to help Democrats win elections through intimidation, bribes, ballot box stuffing and force.
The gang made money by hiring out to companies as strikebreakers and hiring out to the Lemp brewing family to beat up saloonkeepers who had the nerve to sell another brand of beer instead of Lemp's. They also were active in armed robbery and stealing the contents of railroad cars and then fencing the stolen goods.
Their gang became known as Egan's Rats when the police compared them to rodents, “scurrying around in dark alleys in the underbelly of the city.”
On Sept. 20, 1896, Kinney killed George “Baldy” Higgins. Kinney claimed self-defense and was found not guilty of murder.
In late 1897, Kinney married Egan's sister, Katie, and they had a daughter that year.
As Egan's Rats became more powerful, Kinney worked his way up through local politics until he was elected to the Missouri Senate in 1905. He served in that capacity until May 15, 1912, when he died from the effects of tuberculosis at the age of 43.
With the power they wielded, Egan's Rats were not left out of the Senate for long. Tom Kinney's brother, Michael Kinney, was elected to serve in his brother's stead. Michael remained a Missouri state senator from 1912 to 1968.
Those 56 years in the Missouri Senate was a nationwide record for serving the most years in one chamber of a state legislature. Although, he might have missed a few sessions in 1924 when a member of a rival gang in St. Louis shot him four times during a particularly violent ongoing war between the two gangs.
As with all gang members who were shot in St. Louis and lived to talk to the police, Michael Kinney never identified his assailant. A month after the shooting, the body of a rival gang member who was purported to have been the shooter surfaced in the Mississippi River.
Meanwhile, Egan never ran for office but remained the boss of Egan's Rats, which by the early 1900s had grown to more than 100 members. In 1907, he shot to death a rival gang member. Later, he shot and killed another man whom he suspected of having an affair with his wife. He was not convicted for either murder.
Both Tom Egan and Michael Kinney managed to have themselves appointed city constables in St. Louis, which meant they legally could carry guns and arrest people.
That came in handy when a rival gang's gunman by the name of Fred “Yellow Dog” Mohrle was on trial in the Four Courts Building in St. Louis for having killed an Egan's Rats gang member named Sam Young. Thomas “Red” Kane, an Egan's Rat, was deputized by Micheal Kinney so he would be permitted into the courthouse with a badge and a gun.
On the opening day of the trial, June 7, 1909, Mohrle was outside the courtroom in a hall talking to a friend during a recess when Kane walked up to him and shot Mohrle four times, killing him. Kane was captured and admitted to the killing. He was sentenced to 12 years for the murder, but he was already in ill health at the time of the shooting and died at the age of 27.
That murder solidified Egan's Rats as a gang not to be trifled with. If the gang could gun you down in a courthouse, nowhere was safe if you crossed them. By 1912, the gang had nearly 400 members and Egan boasted to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Egan's Rats were all-powerful.
Like his co-founder of Egan's Rats, Egan also died young of natural causes. He succumbed to Bright's disease (a disease of the kidneys) in 1919, seven years after Tom Kinney had died. Egan was 45 and had survived two years longer than his co-founder.
Next week: The Egan's Rats gang lives on and branches out.