Monday, March 25, 2019

A Gangster Visits Hot Springs

Photo: Undated Postcard, Arkansas State Archives.
While Alvin Karpis was in Hot Springs, he bought two alligators
from Alligator Farm. They were returned to the farm after his arrest.

In early 1936, FBI agent M.F. Marshall walked into the sheriff’s office in Hot Springs. Rumors had been circulating that one of the most wanted men in the country — the man designated as “Public Enemy Number One” — was in town.

Marshall saw plenty of the fugitive’s wanted posters around the Sheriff’s Office, but he wanted to make sure the locals had the fugitive’s most-recent pictures.

The rumor was Alvin Karpis had attempted to change his appearance through surgery, even going so far as to have the tips of his fingers altered to prevent being identified through fingerprints. Even so, Karpis’ face was very distinctive —when he smiled, people said he looked sinister and called him “Old Creepy.”

Hot Springs Chief of Detectives “Dutch” Akers took the pictures from Marshall and said he would keep a lookout. But, actually Akers knew where Karpis was and was taking bribes to keep it secret.

Alvin Karpis was born in Canada to an immigrant couple in 1907. He had scarcely learned to walk before he was flirting with the wrong side of the law. Most of the crimes he committed as a teenager were small-time infractions, but in 1927, he went to prison for stealing a car.

While in prison, Karpis met Fred Barker, a longtime criminal and member of a crime gang. The gang included Barker’s three brothers and his mother, “Ma” Barker. After Karpis was released in 1931, he and the Barker brothers rampaged throughout the Midwest, robbing stores, trains and banks. Very little was off limits to the gang.

The law caught up with the Barkers, which left Karpis and another gang member, Fred, on the run. Then, in 1934, Karpis pulled off his most notorious crime – the kidnapping of prominent St. Paul, Minnesota, banker Edward Bremer. Karpis held Bremer for ransom and forced Bremer’s family to pay $200,000 for his release. That crime put the gang in the crosshairs of the FBI.

After barely escaping capture in Atlantic City, Karpis knew he had to disappear. His usual haunts, including Kansas City, Atlantic City and St. Paul, Minnesota, were now off limits. He needed to go somewhere less high profile and knew just the place – Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Karpis had spent some time in Hot Springs in the early 1930s. He loved fishing and the town’s lakes were some of his favorite fishing spots. Plus, it was small enough that the FBI likely would not suspect he was there.

Karpis met a young brothel madam, Grace Goldstein, in Hot Springs and became smitten. Soon the couple began living together. Goldstein introduced Karpis to local law enforcement officials, who agreed to turn a blind eye to the existence of the most wanted man in America for the right amount of money.

Chief among these corrupt law enforcement officials was Hot Springs Police Chief Joseph Wakelin. Vada Nyberg, a saleswoman who recognized Karpis from a wanted poster, went to Wakelin to report the sighting. She was shocked by Wakelin’s response, “Wakelin turned peculiar looking and said I was crazy – that Karpis was nowhere near the Arkansas state line.” Other residents reported seeing Karpis, but the police had little response.

Police Lt. Cecil Brock was another of Karpis’ law enforcement cronies. In 1935, an employee at Goldstein’s brothel went to Brock after seeing a newspaper article about Karpis and reported Karpis as “Ms. Goldstein’s boyfriend.” Brock promised to follow up on the lead but warned Karpis to be more careful. Karpis decided to leave town for a while, at least until things cooled down. Soon after that, the FBI was tipped off that Karpis might be in Hot Springs. The tip led Agent Marshall to visit “Dutch” Akers.

Akers knew the bribery arrangements to protect Karpis could not last long and the reward for Karpis’ capture was now at $12,000. That amount certainly would offset the loss of bribes Karpis paid. Akers and Wakelin visited Grace Goldstein in hopes that she would reveal Karpis’ location. They promised her, if she did, she could share in the reward. She declined.

Meanwhile, the FBI had been following Goldstein and took note of the lawmen’s visit. The FBI believed Goldstein was the key to finding Karpis, so agents picked her up for questioning. After hours of interrogation, she finally told them Karpis’ location, and he was arrested the next day.

The FBI charged Hot Springs’ top law enforcement officials, Police Chief Joseph Wakelin, Chief of Detectives “Dutch” Akers, Lt. Cecil Brock and Grace Goldstein with harboring a fugitive. The resulting trial was sensational. Crowds packed the courtroom eager to hear about the gangster, his police friends and the madam. Judge T.C. Trimble warned the audience, “This is not a show. I will put a fine on any one who laughs in the court.”

The case against the defendants was strong. Witness after witness testified they saw the lawmen and Ms. Goldstein openly visiting Karpis. All four were convicted and each sentenced to two years at the state penitentiary.

Karpis was given a life sentence and taken to the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, where he lived for the next 27 years. Karpis’ story is just part of the legacy of Hot Springs’ gangster past. For more information on the history of Hot Springs, contact the Arkansas State Archives at 501-682-6900 or at