Gangster Paranoia in Merrill, 1931

Aug 14, 2019

The Northwoods had quite the reputation as a “gangster haven” back in the Prohibition era of the 1920’s and early 1930’s.

Gary Entz tells us about one particular incident that took place in Eagle River back in 1931 for this week’s A Northwoods Moment in History.

During the Prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s, the Northwoods saw plenty of infamous gangsters pass through the region.  Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson, and John Dillinger are just a few of recognizable underworld personalities that came to the region either for relaxation or for a convenient hideaway.  In fact, the Northwoods got such a reputation as a haven for gangsters that even seasoned residents started seeing every suspicious-looking visitor as a potential gangster.

In early August 1931 a fancily dressed man accompanied by an attractive woman and a chow dog pulled into Eagle River in an ivory-colored Auburn automobile.  This was not an everyday sight in Eagle River, so suspicious residents notified the Chicago police.  As it turns out, the man was Robert Kerney, who was wanted in Chicago for a series of robberies.  He was arrested and turned over to Chicago authorities.

Reports such as the one out of Eagle River put people on edge, and on Thursday August 13 the residents of Merrill thought a gangster had stumbled into their midst.  At 2:30 a.m., a young man who looked like a gangster walked slowly up to the front desk of Merrill’s Holy Cross Hospital.  He was bleeding from three gashes across his scalp.  One ran from his forehead down to his neck, another was a deep crosswise cut across the skull, and the third was a wide gash that laid open the right side of his scalp.  The man looked as if he had been in a knife fight.  As his wounds were treated, the doctor asked for his name and an explanation of what happened.  The only response the man would give was a curt “none of your business!  You see what there is to do and you’ll get paid for it.  That’s enough!”

As the doctor removed the man’s blood-soaked clothing, he discovered a money belt.  When he touched it the young man snapped to “leave it alone.”  Forty-three stiches later, the doctor stepped out to see how the man had gotten to the hospital.  All he saw was a trail of blood to the parking area.  Someone had driven the man up, dumped him, and taken off again.  The situation was suspicious enough to call in Deputy Sheriff George LaCourt.  LaCourt discovered that the young man was not a gangster, or at least not of the Chicago gangland variety.  The young man was from Iowa.  He and five of his friends had boosted a car the night before and were out on a cross-country joyride.  On the highway between Wausau and Merrill they ran the car into the ditch and the young man went through the windshield.  They pushed the car out of the ditch, drove into Merrill, dumped their injured friend, and drove off so as not to be busted themselves.

The sheriff let the man go.  He paid his bills, called for a ride, and disappeared into anonymity.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The above photo is used with permission from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.