Egan's Rats

Egan's Rats

Egan's Rats was an Irish-American street gang that exercised considerable power in St. Louis, Missouri from 1890 to 1924. Its 34 years of criminal activity included bootlegging, labor slugging, voter intimidation, armed robbery, and murder. Egan's Rats did include a few Italian-Americans and some Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, including Max "Big Maxie" Greenberg.

Up from the streets

Egan's Rats was founded around 1890 by Thomas “Snake” Kinney and Thomas Egan, two street toughs living in the riverfront “Kerry Patch” neighborhood of St. Louis. Recruiting other members from the neighborhood, the Rats started out as pickpockets, burglars, and armed robbers. The gang also aided the Democratic Party political machine by intimidating voters at polling places on Election Day. Kinney used the gang as a stepping stone into politics. He first served as the Fourth Ward’s delegate in to the Missouri House of Delegates and later served in the Missouri State Senate.

In contrast, Tom Egan stayed in the old neighborhood and became the main leader of the increasingly powerful Rats. By 1904, Egan's Rats was the most powerful street gang in St. Louis. Their only rival at this time was the violent Bottoms Gang from the Twenty-second Ward. However, the Bottoms Gang made the mistake of assaulting police officers and were soon forced out of existence. Ruthless killers, the Rats Gang was willing to assassinate anyone, regardless of the consequences. On June 4, 1909, the Rats murdered rival gunman Fred "Yellow Kid" Mohrle in the Four Courts Building while he was on trial for killing Egan gangster Sam Young.

The Heyday

By 1912, Tom Egan headed an organization of 300 to 400 men. That same year, he gave an astounding interview to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in which he flaunted his power and underworld status. With Kinney’s death from tuberculosis that year, Tom Egan moved the gang into more sophisticated rackets. Correctly suspecting that alcohol consumption would soon be prohibited in the United States, Tom Egan set up a liquor smuggling network in St. Louis.

By early 1916, the Egan's Rats went to war with the depleted Bottoms Gang. The main cause was disgruntled Egan gangster Harry "Cherries" Dunn, who was angry that Tom Egan did little to help his imprisoned brother John. Dunn shot and killed original Egan gang member William "Skippy" Rohan inside Tom Egan's saloon on January 8, 1916. Tom's brother Willie successfully argued to spare Dunn's life. "Cherries" defected to the Bottoms Gang and instigated a full-blown war on August 21, 1916, when he killed Harry Romani, a semi-pro boxer and crook who was allied with the Egan gang.

Willie Egan and four of his men confronted Cherries Dunn at the Typo Press Club on September 19, 1916. Walter Costello and Frank "Gutter" Newman shot and killed him. The war between the Egan and Bottoms gangs claimed almost a dozen lives, including both of Harry Dunn's murderers.

Despite the passage of a Prohibition law, Tom Egan was unable to reap the full benefits of his liquor smuggling ring. Tom died of Bright's Disease on April 20, 1919.

Changing Of The Guard

After Tom Egan's death in 1919, Egan's Rats was taken over by his younger brother, Willie. Unfortunately, Willie wasn’t a natural leader like his brother. As a result, younger gang members became restless. While Egan wanted to build up the bootlegging business for longterm profits, the younger members wanted the quicker payoffs of armed robberies. Rebelling against Egan, these youthful gangsters, known as “red hots”, began robbing up banks, armored cars, and messengers with lightning rapidity. Their known first bank robbery, that of the Baden Bank on April 10, 1919, netted over $59,000 dollars.

By 1921, these disputes worsened when Max “Big Maxie” Greenberg, a dissatisfied Egan's Rats member, double-crossed Willie Egan over a shipment of whiskey. In retaliation, Egan unsuccessfully attempted to kill Greenberg. At this point, Max defected to a new rival, the Hogan Gang. The Hogan Gang was headed by Egan archrival, Edward “Jelly Roll“ Hogan, who also served as the Missouri State Beverage Inspector. On October 31, 1921, Willie Egan was gunned down in front of his Franklin Avenue saloon. The Hogan Gang were considered to be the likely suspects.


With the murder of Willie Egan in 1921, William “Dint” Colbeck took over Egan’s Rats. A former plumber and World War I infantryman, Colbeck aggressively led Egan's Rats against the Hogans. Shootings swept the city, with both gangsters and innocent bystanders being killed on the streets. In the midst of it all, Colbeck maintained the gang’s rackets. Headquartered at a St. Louis County roadhouse named the Maxwelton Club, the Rats increasingly looked toward their armed robberies for income. It would later be estimated that the Rats stole nearly $4.5 million dollars worth in cash and property in a five-year period. One of their biggest capers, committed with members of the Cuckoo Gang, was the robbery of a mail truck in downtown St. Louis on April 2, 1923. The heist netted the two gangs $2.4 million dollars in cash and negotiable bonds.

By the summer of 1923, Egan's Rats was at its pinnacle of power. The Rats forced the battered Hogan Gang to sign a peace treaty. Now at peace, the Rats commenced a crime wave of robbery and murder in Missouri and Illinois. The gang was ruthless with anyone who crossed them, including their own members.

In 1924, Egan's Rats would suffer a crushing blow. Fearful for his life, imprisoned gang member Ray Renard started cooperating with federal prosecuters. On November 15, 1924, Colbeck, Louis “Red” Smith, Steve Ryan, David “Chippy” Robinson, Oliver Dougherty, Frank Hackethal, Charles “Red” Lanham, Gus Dietmeyer, and Frank “Cotton” Epplesheimer, were convicted of mail robbery and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment.

Gang breakup

With the 1924 convictions of Colbeck and his associates, the Egan Rats Gang fell apart. The gang members who hadn't gone to prison scattered across the country, wreaking havoc wherever they went. One crew of ex-Rats, led by Fred “Killer” Burke, committed numerous robberies, kidnappings, and contract murders throughout the American Midwest. This crew allegedly took part in the infamous 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of seven gangsters in Chicago. Another ex-Rat, Leo Vincent Brothers, was convicted of killing "Chicago Tribune" reporter Jake Lingle in 1930. Two other former members, Pete and Thomas "Yonnie" Licavoli, started the “River Gang”, a large Detroit bootlegging gang that would dominate rackets in both Detroit and Toledo, Ohio. A former Rat named Elmer Macklin would murder Detroit mob boss Chester LaMare in February 1931.

By the early 1940s, Colbeck and most of the imprisoned gang members had been set free. They returned to a St. Louis that had changed over the past 20 years. Colbeck and some other gang members tried to muscle their way back into power. Most of them went to work for local mob boss Frank “Buster” Wortman and eventually retired peacefully. However, William “Dint” Colbeck was machine-gunned to death while driving down a St. Louis street on February 17, 1943.


*Waugh, Daniel. "Egan's Rats: The Untold Story Of The Gang That Ruled Prohibition-era St. Louis". Nashville: Cumberland House, 2007. ISBN-13:978-1-58182-575-6

External links

* [ The St. Louis Family - Chapter 3: Egan's Rats]

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Look at other dictionaries:

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