Grace Bremer Lester ’45 came of age during St. Paul’s gangster era.


Grace Bremer Lester ’45 attended St. Paul’s Convent of the Visitation School not because she was Catholic—she wasn’t—but because the walled school offered some protection against kidnappers. As a member of the city’s prominent Bremer family, Grace had already narrowly escaped not one, but two kidnapping attempts.

It was the wild and woolly 1930s, era of St. Paul’s O’Connor system, named for Police Chief John O’Connor and developed by him and other community leaders, including, reportedly, Grace’s uncle Otto Bremer. “The chief of police let it be known to criminals that they could live  in St. Paul as long as they didn’t commit any crimes here,” says Grace.

As a result, things were relatively peaceful in St. Paul until Prohibitionwas repealed in 1933. Suddenly, organized crime, previously involved in providing illegal alcohol, needed a new source of income and turned to kidnapping. When Grace was 11, her cousin Edward Bremer was kidnapped by the Barker–Karpis gang, making the danger to the Bremer family very real.

There were three Bremer brothers in St. Paul, Grace explained in an interview held in her home in North Naples, Florida: Adolph, who owned the Jacob Schmidt Brewery; Otto, who started the American National Bank; and her father, Paul, who served as attorney for both of his brothers’ businesses. Edward Bremer, the son of Adolph, was returned relatively unharmed after his father paid a $200,000 ransom.

Despite security measures taken by her parents, Grace was nearly kidnapped twice, both times at the family’s summer house on Forest Lake, north of St. Paul.

“I was swimming alone, and these three ominous men in suits and fedoras were rowing a boat toward me—badly, they obviously didn’t know how to row. Just in time, my mother realized I was gone and came rushing down with a gun and she’s popping away at the men. She couldn’t hit anything, but they rowed away as fast as they could!”

Her mother and her .38 also saved the day during the second attempt, which took place while Grace and a friend were playing on a teeter-totter. “My friend was down and I was up, then she screamed
and jumped off, pulling me by the neck. A man had come through the fence and was ready to grab me. Once again my mother came out with her gun and was popping away at him.

“It was a scary time. We hired a local farm boy, a big guy, to walk around the house at night, and late one night he banged on the door. He was shaking and had a bullet hole through his hat and said, ‘I quit!’” Grace’s beloved collie was found the next morning, shot to death.

Fortunately, the kidnapping “industry” attracted the concerted efforts of the FBI, and soon the O’Connor system was dismantled. Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and “Doc” Barker were sent to Alcatraz and John Dillinger and Fred and “Ma” Barker were killed in shoot-outs.

Anyone else who lived through such threats might have become timid, but not Grace Bremer Lester. With her family home just a few blocks from Macalester, she and her sister, Marie, had grown up skating on the college’s ice rink and playing in its woods. Grace followed Marie to Macalester, where she majored in biology.

At Mac, Grace took part in the aquatics show and passed a water safety instructor test, both of which proved good preparation for canoeing trips she and her classmates made to the lakes of northern Minnesota and Ontario. On one such trip, Grace was chased by an angry mother bear and nearly arrested for catching a fish in Canadian waters without a license.

Attending Macalester during World War II “was exciting because the army officers were there training and going to college and many marriages resulted. We could get out of class if we donated blood, so we donated a lot of blood.”

In 1947 Grace married Jack Lester, the brother of a high school friend. Together they moved to Fargo, North Dakota, where Jack worked in radio and television. After years of living with fear, “I was so happy to marry Jack and move to Fargo. Nobody knew me, my name was Lester, and there was no crime at all.” Grace and Jack were married for 61 years and raised three children of their own, plus Jack’s nephew.

Throughout their lives, Grace and Jack enjoyed adventures. In 1951 they traveled the Mississippi from St. Paul to New Orleans in a fishing boat and later, after the children were grown, rode a motorcycle from Nova Scotia to Mexico and Alaska.

Now 92, Grace lives in North Naples, Florida, where she began writing her memoirs with the help of her daughter Lynda Lester. Titled I Can’t Believe I Did It, Grace’s first book was self-published in 2014 and is available on She is planning for her second memoir, They Said it Couldn’t Be Done, due out later this summer.

St. Paul’s Gangster Era
Read more about 1930s-era St. Paul in John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks’ Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920–1936 by Paul Maccabee ’77 (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995) or Saint Mudd: A Novel of Gangsters and Saints by Steve Thayer (Viking, 1992).

August 18 2015

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