Thomas Snake Kinney was a Missouri state senator, he was one of the founding members of the infamous Egan’s Rats, a St. Louis organized crime gang in the early part of the 20th Century.
Thomas Snake Kinney was born and raised in St. Louis’s “Kerry Patch” neighborhood in the Bloody Fourth Ward. A census of 1851 recorded St. Louis had a population of 70,000, approximately 14 percent of those people were born in Ireland. The Kerry Patches origin dates back to 1842, when a group of Irish immigrants from County Kerry, hence the name, historically most Irish immigrants came from just 3 counties, Cork, Kerry & Sligo. Being quite poor but not wanting to live in crowded, dank rooming houses, they settled on a stretch of open land north of downtown. A historian, Etan Diamond said “The immigrants quickly built homes, small, makeshift shanties arranged along no particular street pattern,” Diamond continues. “These irregular and poorly constructed homes gave rise to the derogatory term ‘Shanty Irish.’ “
“Few outsiders ventured into the strange world of the Kerry Patch,” Diamond wrote, “and few insiders would have wanted them there.”
Thomas Kinney and his brothers, Michael and William grew up on Collins Street, their parents died when they were young. When Thomas Kinney was 11 he worked as newsboy for seven years. Tom would snatch the biggest bundle of papers for himself in the morning, but always square accounts with his victim at the end of the day. One newsboy who had been victimized by Kinney complained to a local beat cop, who exclaimed, “That little Kinney sneaked the papers!” The policeman spoke with a thick Irish accent, so “sneaked” came out sounding like “snaked”, and so began Kinney’s nickname.
Across the street from the Kinney’s lived the Egan family. Thomas Egan, who was six years younger than Snake Kinney became friends and later in life would become in laws, after Kinney married Egan’s sister Catherine
In the late 1880s, Snake Kinney entertained the idea for running for office. Kinney was elected to the St. Louis city Democratic City Committee in 1890. Kinney’s friends ensured many of Democratic votes at election time were for their friend, this was mainly done through voter intimidation.
By 1894, Snake Kinney ran a saloon at Second and Carr, which served as a headquarters for the Ashley Street Gang, soon to be known as the Egan’s Rats. In Kinneys own words the saloon was “the toughest dive in St. Louis, where all the thieves congregate and all that” He said he “knew his joint had a pretty bad reputation, but it aint so bad. There was never but one man killed here in all the time I have been running it”. On Thanksgiving in 1895 a free for all broke out in the bar and Kinney claimed he didnt get get to break it up on time to stop the murder.
“Snake” Kinney (front) Thomas Egan (second) Sam Young (third)
Kinney, Egan and their thugs specialized in armed robbery, burglary, and extortion. Snake’s biggest early rival was George “Baldy” Higgins, an alcoholic sadist who was jealous of Snake’s success. Kinney killed Higgins in a street fight in the early morning hours of September 20, 1896. Snake was acquitted on a charge of self-defense. Like other gangsters in St Louis, Thomas Egan, Jellyroll Hogan and a future leader of Egans Rats Dint Collbeck, Kinney wrote a letter to the people of St. Louis and his constituents in particular, promising reform and that he was going to run a “decent proper” bar. The letter like the others would be published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1901.
By 1901, Snake Kinney, Thomas Egan and the rest of the crew were one of the most powerful gangs in the city. They had formed an alliance with St. Louis Police Board Head, forming a powerful against rival gang leaders. While Snake Kinney was a personable and able legislator, he always retained his street sense and temper. On February 19, 1904, he was charged with verbally assaulting and shooting at someone, it was after this incident that Tom Egan took over the gang, which soon became known as the Egan’s Rats.
In November 1904, Snake Kinney was elected to the Missouri state senate, representing the old fourth ward St. Louis district. Kinney was able to turn out a staggering amount of votes at the polls for the candidates of his choosing, using the muscle of the Egan gang to achieve the results. As a State Senator Kinney was known for creating landmark Missouri legislation limiting child labor and limiting women to working only eight-hour days.
Thomas “Snake” Kinney was defeated in November 1910 for a U.S. Congress seat, and soon after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, from which he died of on May 15, 1912. Thomas Egan, Kinney’s brother in law suspected his 1910 defeat was the result of a double-cross by a political ally named Michael Gill, who betrayed Snake to advance his own ambitions. Egan and his gang went to work in the following election and complied such a large tally for Gill’s opponent in the 1912 election, the congressman was speechless upon his defeat.
The gang that Snake Kinney helped found would endure as the most powerful St. Louis criminal organization until the early 1920s, with many of its members moving on to become “famous” gangsters in their own right, Fred “The Killer” Burke for example was suspected of being involved in the St. Valentines Day Massacre.