Prior to co-founder Tom Egan's death in 1919, Egan's Rats had gone to war with their rivals, the Bottoms Gang. They were from a low-lying area near the Mississippi River in St. Louis called, “the Bottoms.” It began with a disgruntled Egan gangster named Harry “Cherries” Dunn who was unhappy that Tom Egan had done little to help Dunn's brother who was serving time in the pen.
Dunn shot and killed a Rat — William “Skippy” Rohan — in Tom Egan's own saloon on Jan. 8, 1916. Dunn got away and went over to join the Bottoms Gang. On Aug. 21 of that year, he killed an associate of the Rats named Harry Romani and the gang war was on.
Tom Egan's younger brother, Willie, and four other Rats cornered Cherries Dunn in a club on Sept. 19 and killed him. Before it was over, the war between the Rats and the Bottoms Gang would claim nearly a dozen lives.
After Tom Egan’s death of natural causes in April 1919, Willie took over the leadership of the Rats. He was determined to build up the bootlegging business after the Prohibition Act passed in November 1918, but some of the younger gang members wanted faster payoffs, so they took to robbing banks, armored cars and messengers in 1920.
Early in 1921, Max “Big Maxie” Greenberg double-crossed Willie Egan over a shipment of illegal booze. Egan then attempted to kill Greenberg, but only wounded him. So Greenberg joined up with Rats arch-rival, Edward “Jelly Roll” Hogan. Hogan, who was the son of a St. Louis police officer, had managed to get himself appointed Deputy Missouri State Beverage Inspector, which no doubt gave him a huge advantage in selling illegal spirits.
On Halloween night in 1921, Willie Egan was shot and killed in front of his saloon by the Hogan Gang. Willie's right-hand man, William “Dint” Colbeck took his place as leader of the Rats and declared open season on the Hogan Gang.
Colbeck marked Hogan Gang members Max Greenberg, Jimmy Hogan, John Doyle and Luke Kennedy, as well as Hogan's lawyer, Jacob Mackler for death. Doyle was killed by the police on Jan. 6, 1922, and the Rats gunned down Mackler on Feb. 21. They did the same to Kennedy in April. Jimmy Hogan went into hiding for a year.
In retaliation, the Hogan Gang murdered Rat associate George Kurloff. A few days later, the bodies of Hogan gunmen Joseph Cammarata, Joseph Cipolla and Everett Summers were found in ditches. The Hogan Gang then shot up Colbeck's plumbing fixture store on Washington Avenue. The next day, the Rats shot up Jelly Roll Hogan's house.
A story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from April 20, 1922, listed a total of 23 men who had died as a result of “killings in which Egan's Rats figured.”
Meanwhile, the Rats had stepped up the number of armed robberies they pulled. In five year's time, the Rats stole an estimated $4.5 million in cash and property.
During this crime spree, the Rats held up four banks in St. Louis, three in Wellston, one bank each in Maplewood and Affton and a couple of banks across the state line in Illinois. But their biggest haul was taken from an armored mail truck in downtown St. Louis on the morning of April 2, 1923. The truck contained $2.4 million in cash and negotiable bonds.
Later in April, the Rats spotted Jimmy Hogan in a crowd and opened fire. Two bystanders were killed, including a state representative.
In May, the Egan’s Rats held up a post office in Staunton, Illinois and stole $55,000 in cash. But it was that big heist of the armored mail truck that proved to be their downfall.
With the heat turned up by law enforcement agencies to solve that highjacking, one of the Rats who had been involved got nervous. Ray “The Fox” Renard, who was also facing charges of interstate freight theft, felt betrayed when Colbeck did not help him escape conviction on that charge. He decided to cop a deal and snitch on his fellow gang members. He named names and the culprits were arrested and tried, including Colbeck. All the Rats named were convicted and sent to prison.
Colbeck spent 16 years in the pen. When he got out, he returned to St. Louis. A year or two later, he was shot in his car by someone wielding a Thompson sub-machine gun. Colbeck was struck six times and killed.
As for Edward “Jelly Roll” Hogan, he later turned to politics and served five terms in the Missouri House of Representatives and four terms in the state senate.
An article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of Aug. 16, 1963 detailed how his brother, Jimmy, had been sent to prison. Jelly Roll voted against a bill backed by the Missouri governor, which failed by a narrow margin. He then announced that he had voted against it because the governor had failed to parole his brother. The next day, Jelly Roll changed his vote and the bill passed. A week later Jimmy was paroled.
Jelly Roll Hogan died of natural causes at the age of 77.
The Egan's Rats Gang was suspected of employing kidnapping-for-ransom tactics by 1927. Newspapers reported that they kidnapped two wealthy cabaret club owners in Chicago and demanded $100,000 in ransom for them.
Many of the Rats had decided to try the climate in other cities. Several migrated to Chicago to work for Al Capone. Others moved to Detroit and joined the Purple Gang there.
Several of the Rats were apparently involved in the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929, where a number of Capone's opponents were lined up and mowed down with Tommy guns. The shooters were believed to have been led by former Rat, Fred “Killer” Burke.
Prohibition ended in 1933. By then Egan's Rats was no longer one of the most powerful and deadly groups of gangsters in the nation. Now they are only a bloody footnote to history.