Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Wick Fisher
Moose Lake Star Gazette 

From war hero to hoodlum

Wick's World

 


I’ve long been interested in my adopted hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, especially the era involving the 1920s and '30s when gangsters freely roamed the streets. While perusing a book about John Dillinger and the infamous Ma Barker Gang, I came across some titillating references to a South Dakotan named Vernon Miller, who was born in Kimball, South Dakota, in 1896 just 20 miles from my birthplace of Chamberlain.

Vern quit school by the age of 10 and moved to Huron, South Dakota, where he began a short career as an auto mechanic. By the time he was a teenager, Vern set out for a life of adventure by joining the U.S. Army where he chased bandits across the border back into Mexico. Shortly thereafter, the United States entered World War I and Vernon Miller found himself in France where he became a decorated war hero.

By war’s end, he had achieved the rank of color sergeant and received the French Croix de Guerre Award for bravery. After war’s end, he returned home to Huron to join the local police force. He soon got himself elected as the sheriff of Beadle County and life was good for this law-abiding war hero.

However, life took a drastic turn for Vern and no one knows just what went wrong with this war hero. By 1923, Vern was a guest of the South Dakota State Penitentiary, the result of his embezzlement conviction for absconding with county funds. Ever the colorful character, Vern became the warden’s personal chauffer and was rewarded with early parole. That, law enforcement soon discovered, was a drastic mistake on their part. Upon release and with prohibition in full swing, Vern soon began bootlegging around South Dakota.

A few years later, Vern moved to St. Paul. Infected with syphilis and following years of heavy drug abuse (although I never did find out which drug), Vern’s personality took a turn toward violence. He became a freelance gunman and a noted bank robber hanging out with racketeers and gaining the confidence of well known criminals the likes of “Pretty Boy” Floyd and “Machine Gun” Kelly.

When Al Capone had Vern’s good buddy, Red McLaughlin, killed and dumped in a Chicago canal, Vern retaliated with a vengeance unequaled at the time by massacring three of the suspects at a Fox Lake, Illinois, resort. Known as the “Fox Lake Massacre,” Vernon Miller, joined by Pretty Boy Floyd, would actually gain notoriety and national fame three years later. He had a leading role in what came to be called “The Kansas City Massacre” that left five men dead, including an FBI agent and a Kansas City police detective.

By bringing down “the heat” on the criminal underworld, he became a man wanted on both sides of the fence. Young J. Edgar Hoover pronounced Vernon Miller as the “the most dangerous man in the country” and as a result of the Kansas City Massacre, the FBI became the most powerful law enforcement agency in the world. The FBI was well-armed and granted powers by President FDR to fight America’s newest menace, gangster crime. All this was the result of a small-town war hero from Kimball, South Dakota, who took a wrong turn somewhere in life.

Within four months following the KC Massacre, Vern’s tortured body was found in a road ditch outside Detroit, Michigan. His body was returned to his father in Huron, South Dakota, where a service with full military rites was scheduled. However, the National American Legion forbade the local post to participate, so his body was hauled to his father’s hometown of White Lake, the next town east of Kimball, where an overflow crowd attended a memorial service complete with full military rites.

His wife was quoted as saying, “I don’t believe all the things they say about Vern. Because he was involved in a few scrapes nearly every major crime in the country was laid to him.”

In 1987, a movie called “Gangland: The Vern Miller Story” was made about the life of the boy from Kimball, South Dakota.

 

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