ST. LOUIS • For a few gun-rattling years in the 1920s, William “Dinty” Colbeck was warlord of the criminal gang known as Egan’s Rats. He went to federal prison for two brazen daylight robberies.
Released in November 1940, Colbeck made a social visit to his old adversaries at police headquarters downtown. “I am going strictly straight,” he told them.
Colbeck, a plumber by trade, opened a shop at 1439 Franklin Avenue on the gang’s old turf. He and his wife bought a bungalow in Riverview Gardens. Colbeck was known to visit the illegal gambling joints on the East Side, but detectives were never sure of his intentions.
On the evening of Feb. 17, 1943, Colbeck told his wife he was going “across the river.” He dropped by the Hyde Park Club, a thriving casino at 826 Main Street in Venice, near the McKinley Bridge.
He returned to St. Louis at 10:40 p.m. and was driving on Ninth Street, a block south of the McKinley ramp, when his 1941 Ford was stitched with eight .45-caliber bullets. Three struck Colbeck, one through his head.
The exploding machine-gun burst startled friends playing cards at 901 Destrehan Street, at the intersection with Ninth. “We could see the flashes of the gun reflected on the windows,” said Ethel Hall, one of the guests.
A dark sedan sped south on Ninth. Colbeck’s body lay flat across the bloodied front seat of the Ford, stalled in the street. He was 52.
The roundup of usual suspects was a who’s who of thuggery through the Prohibition and Depression years. Police grabbed former Rats, rival gangsters, old-timers and young bloods — 20 by the newspaper counts. Of course, nobody knew a thing.
Colbeck grew up north of downtown and served in the Army in France in World War I. Back home, he joined the gang of Tom Egan, who soon died of kidney disease. Egan’s brother, Willie, took over but was gunned down in 1921 outside his tavern at 1400 Franklin. Colbeck assumed command.
Following Rat tradition, Colbeck became 5th Ward Democratic committeeman.
The gang had running gunfights with the rival Irish mob of Edward “Jellyroll” Hogan for the bootleg trade, piling 23 corpses between them. The Rats’ hangout was the Maxwelton Club, on St. Charles Rock Road at Pennsylvania Avenue. In May 1922, Colbeck’s plumbing shop was sprayed with gunfire. The next day, the favor was returned upon Hogan’s house at 3035 Cass Avenue.
The Rat passion was big-score robbery. They hit a mail truck downtown in April 1923 and, two months later, a coal-mine payroll at the Staunton railroad depot. But eight of them drew long prison terms after Ray “the Fox” Renard, a former Rat, turned on them in federal court downtown.
Colbeck went to prison in November 1924. By the time he got home 16 years later, surviving Rats had found other work.
His murder never was solved. Police theorized he tried to muscle into the East Side rackets. Or maybe he just met old cronies for a bracer. Only $5.68 was on his body. Plumbing tools, but no weapon, were in his Ford.
Colbeck was buried in Calvary Cemetery.
Tim O'Neil is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact him at 314-340-8132 or firstname.lastname@example.org