Thursday, October 2, 2014

PEORIA: LIBERTY TOWN USA

PEORIA: LIBERTY TOWN USA

NORMAN V. KELLY


Here in the month of October I thought that I would reminisce a bit out loud about Peoria, Illinois during WWII. I will remind you of V-J Day, which to us here in Peoria began with a flash to our news rooms at 6:08 P.M. on August 14, 1945. In less than a moment of hearing the marvelous news that Japan had surrendered the streets downtown began to fill. All the people and folks living near downtown were in the streets long before ordinary folks like me and my friends in El Vista managed to get downtown. Throughout our history all major events were celebrated in Downtown Peoria, Illinois, I can tell you that for sure.

The celebration started with some horn honking, a few handshakes and hugs and then pandemonium broke out. The church bells began to ring and Peorians found themselves in a traffic jam to end all traffic jams. So…the drivers and passengers got out of their cars and joined in. In groups of fifteen hundred strong, folks held hands and circled the courthouse singing and yelling their fool heads off. Shots were fired into the air, firecrackers sounded across the city as the exuberance began to swell.

Soon high school bands were in the streets, followed by musicians that played loud and long. Patriotic songs were played with the vibrant drums stirring up the crowd. A few gals and soldiers opened up the hotel windows and began tearing up pillows allowing the feathers to fall over the folk’s heads on the streets. Once they began dumping water the police kindly asked those folks to cease and desist. I think the party got a little out of hand as alcohol began to make a difference in the crowd. Cars were shaken so hard that some of them were damaged, and police virtually helpless in the snarl of traffic, could only yell at the culprits.

We didn’t have a lot of tall buildings but some of them were ten and twelve stories high. Up on the roofs confetti rained down and added to the madness. As always there is an element that thinks pranks are more fun than good old celebration. The street cars were trying to hurry back to their barns, but some of the toonervilles were attacked damaging most of the windows. The rear electric connections were pulled and some of the motormen ran for their lives. Mayor Woodruff quickly ordered all the taverns and the downtown businesses to close and invited everyone to come on down and celebrate. Folks obeyed and the place was a scene of chaos and joyful madness.

GO ON HOME

Now it is 11:30 P.M. and although we were all of thirteen and fourteen years old we were still downtown. There was no way we could have caught a bus or even gotten to the two cars we parked down by the river, so we just stayed. Surely our parents would understand and probably my entire family was down there anyway. Even then you could see that the crowd had grown and between you and me it was getting a bit scary. We hung out close to the courthouse steps and saw what we could see. I did kiss my first woman that day and believe me there was a lot of kissing going on. The truth is about the only amusement for us was watching the crowds hurrying by. Now where were they going? The next block over I guess.

Of course booze was now all over the place and the older men were obviously drunk. We saw some guys openly carrying whiskey and beer, some in brown sacks but they were not fooling anyone. I heard a few bottles being broken and I was anxious to get the hell out of there and ‘go on home.’

I saw a lot of men in uniform and even some of the officers forgot their place, but they were all having fun. The war was over…it was actually over and now was the time to celebrate that very fact. The other guys in uniform got most of the kisses and as I mentioned we were just a bunch of teenagers trying to get home. At first we were scared with the sound of guns going off, especially from the National Guard troops, but some police officer told us that they were “Just shooting blanks.”

People crawled all over the buildings like the Alliance life Building and the Lehmann Building trying to get a better view high up there on the fire escapes. They were thwarted by the managers and the police but eventually we saw a lot of them up there, waving and screaming like idiots. Truth is we would have loved to have gone up there ourselves, but we stayed put.

Finally we made our move toward the river avoiding Main Street and on more than one occasion we feared getting run over by large groups of men in uniform, arm in arm coming down the street. To a kid it was exciting, but once it was obvious that we were not really part of the adult celebration it got a bit boring. We had to go east all the way to Woodruff High School and finally up to Prospect and finally got back to El Vista. It was going on one in the morning when we finally got home. It had been an exciting, sometime frightening adventure but we talked about that night for years. The next day the newspaper accounts put it all in prospective.

Actually according to what Police Chief Victor Klarich reported there had been only five injury cases reported. He put the entire police department into the downtown fray, and over all he was satisfied with the very few arrests his men had to make. They too celebrated, along with the war weary people of Peoria and the surrounding small towns.

We did see people heading for the churches and rallies at the Shrine and other buildings downtown to pray and thank God for World Peace. Tuesday and Wednesday every church in town, and there were over a hundred of them, held services of thankfulness.

At the moment of the great news 39 Peoria men were prisoners of war, and a lot of folks centered on them and the families that were hoping and praying to see their loved ones again. Downtown business remained closed and believe me the people that depend on the 72 restaurants that were in the downtown area were missed. Finally by early Wednesday good old Patriotic Peoria, Illinois was back in business but I can tell you there were a lot more smiling faces to look at for the first time since Pearl Harbor. It was quite some time when we learned that 662 men from this area never made it back home.

We were downtown Wednesday afternoon going to movies at the Columbia and the Apollo and the debris from that wild night was still blowing in the wind, followed by a small army of workers trying to catch up with it.

V-J Day, what a wonderful time was had. Guys my age, after seeing all our brothers disappear wondered if the war would last long enough for us to be part of all that ‘Glory.’ Sadly just five years later we all got our chance. For me it was 1951 and I ‘disappeared’ for four years. We never had a V-K day and except for the 52 Peorians killed in the Korean War, we too managed to survive. Will it ever end?
Editor’s Note: Norm is a true-crime, fiction writer and Peoria Historian. He welcomes your comments: norman.kelly@sbcglobal.net

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

GENERAL LARRY R. KEITH

GENERAL LARRY R. KEITH
NORMAN V. KELLY
Anyone who knows my work knows that I do not write about people unless they were born in Peoria, Illinois or lived here for a time. This year I have made a special effort to seek those folks out and talk about them on radio and in some cases I did a feature article on that person. Peoria has a long list of people that went on to be famous, infamous or a major celebrity. I would like to tell you about a man that I am certain you never heard of unless you went to school with him. After that there was only one big story about him that made headlines here in Peoria.
His name was Larry Richard Keith and he was born here on June 21, 1935. He went to McKinley Grade School and graduated from Manual in 1953. He was no great scholar and as a matter of fact was not very interested in school. He even ran away a couple of times, but his life was to turn around and lead him to a place a lot of young men can only fantasize about and that was the ‘Great blue yonder.’
Larry grew up here with his parents and his two sisters Gloria and Sherry, down in the South End of Peoria. About the only job I can remember Larry having was with a company called ABC. As I mentioned Larry was not crazy about school and it amazes me that he went on to get his degree in Economics from the University of Tampa in 1970 and his Master of Science degree from Auburn University in 1972, a remarkable accomplishment, I must say. Once he joined the United States Air Force he continued his advanced education by graduating from the Air Command and Staff College in 1973, Armed Forces College in 1974 and the Naval War College in 1979. It hurts my brain just to think about all that from a shy young man from Peoria, Illinois. Larry entered the Air Force as an airman with the 169th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron out at our airport. I remember talking to him and he was a long way from flying airplanes when he told me that basically what he did was just “wash the airplanes.” Larry had bigger plans than that in his head, and it did not take him long to begin an odyssey that would end beyond even his wildest dreams.
Just a year later Keith entered the Aviation Cadet Program in Texas and earned his pilot’s wings in Arizona in 1956. He was on his way and the only place to look was up. While in Arizona he graduated from gunnery school and then returned to The Air National Guard in Peoria as a fighter pilot. Young Lieutenant Larry Keith was done washing airplanes. In October of 1961, Larry joined the regular Air force and remained out at the 169th for another year. He was then sent to MacDill Air Force base where he flew the F-84 Thunder Jet and the F-4 Phantom. I remember playing golf with him at MacDill and he kidded me about looking at every airplane that flew over. “Norm, you can’t beat me if your mind is up there.”
Larry was assigned to an air base in Okinawa where he commanded a squadron before being assigned to an air force base in Thailand. From that base major Larry Keith flew 108 Combat Missions over North Vietnam in his F-4 Fathom. It was at that time during 1966 when he was credited with downing an enemy Mig-17. That hit the headlines here in Peoria and after that we never heard another word about the brave young pilot from Peoria, Illinois. His fearless leadership and combat skills earned him the Legion of Merit with oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf clusters, Meritorious Service Medal and Air Medal with 11 oak leaf clusters. Colonel Keith also earned other medals from foreign countries.
Colonel Keith was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and was a vice-commander of an air base in Spain. In 1982 he was the group commander of a base located in Germany. He served as a general officer with the Air Force in the Pentagon and a commander of a base in Germany before he finally retired. General Larry R. Keith was a fighter pilot with just over 4,500 hours in the air serving his country and fulfilling his dream to be the best pilot and officer he could possibly be. My brother-in-law, and my wife’s brother, Larry Keith died of an inoperable brain cancer on June 21, 1999. He was a quiet, unassuming brave warrior without a boastful bone in his body. Editor’s Note: Norm is a Peoria historian, author and a monthly contributor to NEWS and VIEWS. norman.kelly@sbcglobal.net

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

NOBODY CALLED HIM DWIGHT

NOBODY CALLED HIM DWIGHT
NORMAN V. KELLY
I am not foolish enough to think that I have convinced everyone that the role of the so-called gangster was over rated and mostly a myth in Peoria, Illinois. But…I keep trying. I have written and lectured about Life in Peoria for thirty-two years, and believe me…I am running out of time. So I am trying to get most of my 300 plus stories on line since the books are no longer available for purchase. Let’s take for example Snooks Gordon. Now here is a man that has gotten a raw deal as far as local ‘historians’ are concerned. He was a ‘gangster’ according to these idiots and of course he was not. He was a gambler, a boxer, a very tough guy and a hard working business man. Also to add to his life he was a warehouseman and a successful contractor. I can tell you that he and his attorney Vic Michel sued the City Of Peoria to try to get back the slot machines that he said the city stole from him. Wow, he had a few slot machines so he must have been a gangster, of course. Yes, he was arrested once or twice for gambling and carrying a gun. So what…you should check out some of my relatives. A gangster was a man like Al Capone and men of his ilk. If you think our pet gangster Bernie Shelton was up there with Capone you are hallucinating. So…back to DWIGHT ‘Snooks’ Gordon.’ Oh, I forgot to tell you that he was a murderer too. Oh he killed someone once no doubt about that. What those myth makers do is omit the facts…and perpetuate the myth, and they are damn good at it. So am I, at telling the true story.
Snooks Gordon was a fixture in Peoria and I’d like to concentrate on him here in Peoria during the 1940’s, my favorite time. Mr. Gordon was a man that had a lot of friends as well as those folks that feared and hated him. Your opinion of him was based on what fence you were looking over…if you get my drift. Snooks was a damn good boxer and a lot of money was won and lost betting back in those days. He fought 56 bouts and won 47 of those, including winning 47 by knockouts. Boxing was big in our town, and many fighters made a pretty good living as ‘Amateur’ boxers and a lot of them, including Snooks would often fight under different names just to fool the opposition. I guess the surprising thing was that he rarely fought over 140 pounds. But once a fighter weighed in, what they did to gain weight was always a bit dubious.
Local newspapers wrote a lot about him, not only as a fighter, but never was there an article about him that did not refer to him as a gambler. So what? Every man that spent anytime downtown gambled. Now remember we had nine flat-out Casinos downtown and a total of 242 saloons. There was gambling of some sort in most of them and gambling here in Peoria was as common as cracks in the sidewalk. If you think Bernie Shelton had control of gambling in Peoria you have been listening to your grandfather’s myths. I had a lot of male relatives and I can tell you they were right there in the middle of the wild times in downtown Peoria, Illinois. Snooks just had more money than most of them and his flashy, confident persona attracted attention, which he loved.
As a private eye here in Peoria for many years, I can list twenty-five or thirty guys that most fools would call gangsters, but I know better. Anyway, Snooks could be a loyal friend, but if he did not like you he did not keep it a secret. He had his share of fights outside the ring and I know for a fact that this incident was true. It took place in the north-end at a small park called Morton Square in the north-end. He got in a shoving match with one guy and before it was over four other guys joined in against him. He got hurt, but he gave them all the battle they wanted. Snooks could come across pretty arrogant and cocky and his antics cost him a lot of money in attorney fees.
Gordon was married to Betty and they spent a lot of time together out and about the town of Peoria and I can tell you it was an exciting place in the 30’s and 40’s and especially during the years of WW11. Snooks had a lot of money: He was generous and had a tendency to flash the money around. But this story took place on a very hot day in July 1947. The couple took their nephew to the Glen Oak Zoo. Going south on Prospect a car whizzed past Snooks and according to Snooks, cut him off. Like all of us that sort of thing irritated him so he honked the horn and game the other driver the international sign. Road rage is not a new thing among the drivers now or way back then. “Hey, you want your half of the road in the middle,” he was quoted as yelling.
The other guy…his name was Emery Renzel…took exception to all this and the little ‘battle’ continued on down the road. Well, at McClure and Prospect these two fools pulled over to the curb to confront each other. I don’t even have to describe the scene…these confrontations should be avoided at all costs, but there they were.
“Take those sunglasses off and I’ll teach you how to drive.”
Snooks laughed. “I don’t want to fight with you…you’re too old.”
Now the rest of the story is based on which witness you talked to. Since I read the transcripts of the court reporter in the court files I can tall you that they did vary…that’s for sure.
Snooks claimed that Mrs. Renzel slapped him followed by an attack by her husband, Emery Renzel. One punch from Snooks flattened his opponent and when he got up Snooks knocked him down again. The man did not get up that time, and a quiet fear came over all of the people witnessing this fracas. As they gathered over the fallen man they could see that he had struck his head on one of the embedded streetcar tracks and died shortly after from head injuries.
Now once the fight was over Snooks went back to his car and drove off certainly unaware of the fatal injuries the man had received. Shortly after that police cars virtually surrounded Snooks’ home and he was soon under arrest. The newspaper articles told the story and the fact that Snooks had left the scene was really played up. Gordon quickly hired a prominent lawyer named Vic Michel, who at one time was the Mayor of Peoria. There was a big deal over the fact that his fee was $10,000.00. Now who would know that? Why your grandfather and the other myth-makers of Peoria…that’s who.
THE DAY OF THE TRIAL
It was a blustery, cold December in 1947 when a lot of curious folks made their way to the Peoria County Courthouse to see this big shot get his come uppance. Yep…that’s what a lot of people felt back in those days. You had money then you must not be a decent person. Sad…but that is the way we were. Oh, and on September 3, 1946, Mayor Carl Triebel finally announced that gambling would stop. Truth is it did. My point being that if gambling was Snooks’ big reputation he was out of that ‘business’ by then. Once the jury was picked the trial got under way. After the opening arguments the State called the medical examiner and the coroner. The medical examiner testified that there were bruises on the knuckles of Mr. Renzel among other injuries to his head and those proved to be fatal. When the defense put on its case, Michel reminded the jury what the medical examiner had said about Mr. Renzel’s knuckles. “Mr. Renzel got bruises on his knuckles by hitting the defendant.”
It was an exciting trial and witness after witness took the stand. Through out it all, Mr. Gordon sat there in a quiet, dignified manner and let the best lawyer in town battle for justice. Once the jury got the case, they went to lunch. After a very short period of debate they notified the judge that they had reached a verdict.
“Mr. Foreman, have you reached a verdict?”
“We have your honor we find the defendant Dwight ‘Snooks’ Gordon… Not Guilty!”
Snooks and his wife personally thanked each and every member of the jury as they stood to leave the jury box. Personal injury and wrongful death suits were filed, but they have a way of being settled. A lot of know it all ‘historians told me that “Snooks Gordon lived in fancy houses like a king.” What a pathetic joke. He lived at 412 Miller in Peoria heights. When he worked in a warehouse he lived at the fabulous address of 732 A, on the Boulevard of Kings, Fourth Avenue. He had a pretty nice house at 3845 Knoxville which he built to sell. Then he and his wife Betty in 1950 moved to 323 Pennsylvania Avenue. Yep…he lived like a king no doubt about it. Editor’s Note: Norm is a Peoria historian, author and a monthly contributor to ASO. norman.kelly@sbcglobal.net

Monday, September 15, 2014

OLIVE’S NIGHT OUT

OLIVE’S NIGHT OUT Norman V. Kelly It was a cool spring day in 1947 here in Peoria, Illinois when Olive Baker busied herself cleaning up the kitchen in her rented home over on Parkside. Usually this time of the morning she was off to work at B&W Bottling Company but she had been laid off and found herself bored. She was never much of a woman to remain idle. She decided that she would go answer a couple of job openings she found in the paper. Her husband, Marshall had a good job at Pabst and he encouraged her to take her time finding another job. She agreed, knowing that she was telling him a little white lie. Around ten that morning she was on a bus heading downtown to the Crystal Tap hoping to land a part-time job there as a waitress. The tavern owner told Olive that the job had been filled. Disappointed, she turned to leave when she heard a man call to her. “Might as well have a drink before you leave.” Olive turned to look at the handsome man sitting at the bar. They exchanged smiles, convincing Olive that a drink might just be what she needed. William Dollard and Olive Baker felt at ease with each other as they talked over the job situation and other places that might be looking for help. William was a pleasant man and the two got along very well. Soon the morning turned into lunch at the table and then a bit more drinking. They had a few more drinks, they talked, they danced and the early evening crept up over them. WHERE’S MY SUPPER? Marshall Baker came home from work expecting a pretty face and the aroma of something cooking on the stove. “Olive…honey, I’m home.” No answer so he called out again as he walked through the small house looking for his wife. Marshall made a couple of inquiring telephone calls that did not help. He walked down the block to a local tavern hoping that Olive would be there. No one had seen her. He finished his beer and went on back home. He made a couple more calls, read the evening newspaper, listened to the radio and surprisingly he fell asleep. Mr. Baker was rudely awakened by a loud banging on the door. Marshal jumped up, heart racing. Mr. Baker stood looking out at a man in a dark suit, a police officer stood just behind him. “Sir, is Olive Baker your wife?” BRADLEY PARK Mr. Dollard had a spouse as well, so he was a bit reluctant to make the facts known that led to the death of Mrs. Marshal (Olive) Baker. After leaving downtown the couple went over to the Parkway Tavern, Bernie Shelton’s tavern, to have another drink. From there they drove into Bradley Park, just down from where the tennis courts are now. Situated on the hill was the old Bradley Park Pavilion. Dollard found a secluded spot to park and talk. They were there less than five minutes when the passenger’s side door flew open, terrifying the couple. The dim dome light came on as a man with a colorful bandana over the lower part of his face stuck his right hand inside the car holding a silver-plated .25 caliber pistol. The stunned couple sat staring at the intruder as he said in a rather soft voice. “I need five dollars to go to Chicago.” The robber was a short man, dark hair, with a calm, cool disposition. Dollard recovered and remembers thinking that the demand was pretty reasonable. He assured the bandit as he reached inside his jacket pocket to extract his billfold. As Mr. Dollard handed the five-dollar bill across Mrs. Baker she suddenly screamed out, “Hey, I’m not afraid of you.” The bandit ignored the money as he raised his voice, looking at Olive he said, “Don’t get fresh! I mean business.” Olive then made a fatal mistake. She lunged forward as she reached up, yanking the bandana from the culprit’s face. The small caliber weapon instantly discharged just inches from Olive’s neck. The slug tore into the side of her neck, angling down into her vital organs. She sighed, then slumped sideways towards the driver. The bandit slammed the door and disappeared into the woods. Bill Dollard sat for a moment looking at his companion. “Olive! Olive!” He yelled. There was no response. Bill Dollard started up the car and raced out of the park on his way to the Methodist Emergency Room. A few minutes later Olive Baker was pronounced dead. Of course both Marshal Baker and Bill Dollard came under suspicion from the police. However, after an extensive investigation both were cleared and the case went unsolved. The newspapers called the man the ‘Park Killer.’ I wonder if there is anyone living in Peoria today that remembers Olive Baker? She made a fatal mistake and she paid for it with her life. Editor’s Note: Norm is a local author and historian. norman.kelly@sbcglobal.net

Thursday, September 4, 2014

THE HALL THAT ROUSE BUILT

THE HALL THAT ROUSE BUILT
NORMAN V. KELLY
I have written about quite a few men in Peoria’s past that were impressive and responsible for the remarkable growth of the City of Peoria, Illinois. Some of them went on to fame and fortune leaving Peoria to reach their expansive goals. That was not the case for Dr. Rudolphus Rouse. He was born in New York on July 20, 1793 and found himself a surgeon in the War of 1812. He married early in life and was the father of five daughters and three sons. From New York he settled in Saint Louis to pursue his medical practice. It was there that he heard of the beauty of the central Illinois area and a small trading center that was on the grow. He came here and looked upon the tiny settlement of Peoria which had but seven log cabins and two frame dwellings. The setting of this primitive little place, the beauty of the Illinois River Valley impressed him and he decided to move his family here and Peoria benefited by that decision in so many ways. I want to bring you the story of this young, remarkable doctor and the impact he had on the future of Peoria, Illinois.
There was a physician here before him, but his practice included Chicago all the way to Springfield, so Dr. Rouse was really our first resident physician. Of course folks came and went in and out of Peoria and at that time only forty four souls called the Village of Peoria their home situated within 16 blocks that included a courthouse square. Dr. Rouse was an immediate success and few physicians in the State of Illinois equaled his skills. He proved himself to be an honorable man, public spirited and eager to expand Peoria’s boundaries and his reputation as a qualified, highly trained physician.
On July 18, 1835 Peoria had filed the proper papers to become a town, selecting Dr. Rouse to be on the first board of trustees, serving as its president for six years.
THE DOCTOR THRIVES
In 1837 Rouse acquired a large piece of property in the heart of the town at Main and Jefferson. He had built on that prominent lot a very large; three-story brick building that would house his offices in the basement and allow for the rental of several office spaces for tenants. It quickly became ‘Rouse Hall,’ and was the dominating piece of property in Peoria for many years. In 1857 he expanded that property to the rear providing Peoria with an entertainment area that was known as Rouse’s Opera Hall. Actually the townspeople consider them separate buildings and businesses, which indeed they were.
Dr. Rouse, along with a few other citizens realized the potential in Peoria. They set about to enhance their businesses and promote the new Town of Peoria, Illinois. Dr. Rouse encouraged other doctors to come to Peoria, including Doctor Frye, Dr. Bartlett and Dr. Dickerson, who later became associated with Dr. Rouse.
Take a look at the type of the physicians that located in Peoria, Illinois during those early years. Of course there was no governing body, or regulations to abide by. I guess you just popped into town and put ‘Out Your Shingle.’ There were Allopaths, Homeopaths, Botanic doctors, and…wait for it, root doctors.
Naturally the highly trained physicians of the time frowned on some of those practices and in 1848, Dr. Rouse and nineteen other doctors formed what would be known as The Peoria Medical Society. Then in 1850 Dr. Rouse presided over a medical convention in Springfield, Illinois which became the Illinois State medical Society.
IT WAS NOT ALL MEDICINE Acquiring real estate seemed to be a hobby with Mrs. Rouse as well as Dr. Rouse. He bought a large area between Adams and Washington Streets, south of Cedar Street which became known as “Rouse Addition.” Mrs. Rouse bought valuable property at Main and Adams Streets. For you older Peorians that was the area that we knew as the Central National Bank. She paid a whopping $87.50 for that very suitable area. Dr. Rouse had a three-story brick business building erected there. A Mercantile library was put in there as well as a dry good store. Folks in Peoria called that “The Rouse Corner.”

In 1888 that building suffered a severe fire, but was quickly repaired and somewhat expanded. By 1893 The Central National Bank moved into the ground floor and obtained a long lease from the Rouse Estate. Most people my age knew of the Central Bank, but certainly nothing about the history behind that piece of property. Finally by 1913 the bank razed the original building and in 1930 a new bank was built on that site. Dr. Rouse was also heavily into the local railroad business, which was sold off to T.P.&W. That railroad eventually was owned by George McNear who was murdered here in Peoria, Illinois. I wrote a story about him and his railroad which is on line called “The Railroad Man.” Dr. Rouse died in 1873, his widow then moved to Philadelphia where she died in 1886. The last of this eminent Pioneer family, Henry and Jennie Rouse, brother and sister, lived at 309 North Perry for many years. The Rouse family plot is located in Springdale Cemetery. Editor’s Note: Norm is a true crime and fiction writer and monthly contributor to several local magazines.

Friday, August 29, 2014

CANADA: THE GOLDEN GOOSE

CANADA: THE GOLDEN GOOSE
NORMAN V. KELLY
I do a lot of fun lectures on the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition here in Peoria, Illinois. When I tell folks that we would not have had any fun without the help of our friends up in Canada, skeptical eyes are on me. Of course my point is simple enough, what the hell would Prohibition and the Roaring 20’s have been without BOOZE? And…my children…where did we get all that Booze? Well, believe me it came from CANADA.
My audiences tend to be on the elderly side, and of course they are all experts on Peoria history. After all, their grandfather’s told them all they needed to know about Peoria. Problem is most of what they know is just ‘Grandfather’s Stories.’ Which were mostly myths mixed with a lot of flat out, uneducated guesses.
The truth is that all the TV and old movies about Prohibition were strictly entertainment. Which is what they should have been, especially the Al Capone gangster stories and of course Elliot Ness as well. Believe me, when I tell you the amount of whiskey, gin and beer made here in the United States in all the bathtubs and all the stills amounted to but a “Thimble full, in the over all picture.”
Many parts of Canada were dry when the great Noble Experiment became the law of the land on January 16, 1920. When the leaders up there looked down on the thirsty United States they sprung into action. Suddenly the distilleries were opened up and many brand new ones were built. The government allowed good old Canadian booze of all descriptions to be exported. The gates opened up and during the thirteen years of Prohibition hundreds of millions of gallons of good old booze found its way to every nook and cranny of the United States.
People used every contraption, including walking, to get to Canada to buy America’s favorite product, beside drugs. Of course organized Crime was handed the best opportunity they had ever had to get rich, and believe me they were experts at bringing booze back here. Quickly they owned what amounted to small navies and the flow of booze was incredible. They used small boats to take it to ‘Mother Ships’ anchored just outside of our three- mile-limit, and they got richer than King Midas. Think of it, this booze was coming in here so fast that there was quickly an excess of the product. All that booze was trucked and stored and the warehouses became targets for the gangsters with their Thompson Machine guns. Of course, that is the story you all know up in Chicago area and the Al Capone type gangsters of the great United States. Well, why go to Canada and spend money on booze when all they had to do was kill each other to get it? In fact during the thirteen-years of Prohibition 701 died violent deaths in the Chicago area, including many innocent folks. During that same time 79 died here and 98% of them were domestic murders and had nothing to do with booze or bootleggers.
Resorts opened up in Canada, like a town named Govenlock, just across the border from Montana. Hundreds of little ‘Vegas’ towns got filthy rich off ‘Dry Americans.” The enforcement was a joke and the only idiots that thought things were wonderful in America were the pathetic Temperance folks. The narrow-minded do-gooders led by Wayne Bidwell Wheeler was the most powerful man in the history of the United States.
Actually I am a Peoria historian and the real fun was had here in Peoria, Illinois. One day I could get into a bit of that. Or…you could come over to Bradley and listen to my four lectures in April…but that would require some effort. Sorry I brought it up. If I had my choice I would have loved to have been in Peoria from 1920 through 1946. I was born here in 1932, and too young to get in on the action. I can tell you it was one hell of a great time in bawdy, wide-open Peoria, Illinois. Long Live Peoria and Canada and of course…Booze, in moderation…of course. Editor’s Note: Norm is a local author & historian. norman.kelly@sbccglobal.net

Saturday, August 16, 2014

OLD SMOKEY AND THE GALLOWS

OLD SMOKEY AND THE GALLOWS
Part Two
NORMAN V. KELLY
“Big John McCrea,” that’s what folks called him, a huge Negro that lived in a shack down by the river’s edge in Peoria, Illinois. It was a hot evening, June 23, 1903, right after supper, that a group of three police officers set out to catch the men that were stealing coal off the box cars parked near the bridge. The officers spread out, with Detective William ‘Searchlight’ Murphy taking the lead. He soon came upon three men standing atop a coal car pitching coal chunks to the ground. He quickly confronted them and before his two fellow officers were on the scene three shots rang out in the darkness.
Detective Murphy was on the ground, his revolver still in his hand. The officers took into custody two of the men, but the third one, deemed the shooter, John McCrea, had escaped. He was a well-know police character and within the hour police had surrounded his shack, taken him and a pistol into custody, and reported to headquarters that Detective Murphy was dead.
Once the word of Murphy’s death spread through the taverns an ugly mob surrounded the City Hall, the very one that is standing in downtown Peoria to this day. As the alcohol fueled mob began to demand that the killer of Murphy be turned over to them, the mayor ordered all the lights turned off. The fire department and all the police officers were called to the station and the chaos was indescribable. During all of the screaming and yelling, two detectives snuck McCrea out the rear door and onto a waiting train that whisked him safely off to Galesburg. It was an hour later that three men from the mob were allowed to search the small holding area and the county jail. John McCrea, accused killer of their beloved Detective Murphy was gone!
THE MURDER TRIAL
Downtown Peoria was packed with people and over at the courthouse square there was standing room only. Inside the courthouse the trial room was already full, and a couple hundred people roamed the hallways hoping to get in to see ‘The Big Show.’ Bailiffs’ were yelling potential jurors’ names out and herding the men into the jury room. Others, not on the list, volunteered to be among the summoned, but they were carefully and politely rebuffed.
Finally there seemed to be some law and order, and with the courtroom packed, Judge Green entered the courtroom as everyone stood. He stood there a moment surveying the scene before he was heard to say, “Okay! Let’s get this jury picked.”
Mr. W.V. Teth was the State’s Attorney and for the defense, were two fine lawyers that had been assigned the case by Judge Green. On September 25, 1903 the jury was in the juror’s box, the lawyers were ready, and the eager spectators could hardly contain themselves. Finally, they would witness the conviction of the man that had killed thirty-seven year old Detective Murphy. They understood the process, all nice and legal like, but in the end they were certain that Big John McCrea would end up dangling from a rope. For them it was truly as simple as that.
THE VERDICT
By the end of September, 1903, the jury found the defendant guilty of murder and recommended death by hanging. As the fall turned in to winter all hopes of a new trial or a governor’s pardon were gone and the date of execution was set for December 11, 1903.
The fifty witnesses stood looking up at Big John as he said aloud, “I am an innocent man and ready to meet my demand.” The shroud was put over his face, and the noose adjusted. “Farewell my friends,” some heard the man speak just before he plunged to his death. John was buried in Potter’s Field, in an unmarked grave.
1905
Charles Otis Botts was a self appointed ladies man, and used every woman that was foolish enough to fall for his boyish charms. In Peoria Heights, his fiancĂ©e supposedly shot her self over him, and a local coroner’s jury tried to hold him accountable, but the proof of murder was just not there. He moved on with other women, finally marrying Artie Slagel. Abuse was Bott’s middle name and Artie was his abusive target. He was under a peace bond when the landlady found Artie Slagle dead with a blue scarf wrapped around her neck. Of course Charles Botts was nowhere to be seen and a massive manhunt filled the streets, saloons and bordellos of Peoria, Illinois.
Local newspapers zeroed in on this murder case, and their favorite witness was the landlady. She told them that the room she rented to the Botts was locked so she put up a ladder and looked through the transom and saw poor Artie lying on her bed, strangled apparently by the blue scarf. ‘Was it Uxorcide?’ Newspapers screamed the headlines, sending its readers to the dictionary. Meanwhile Otis Botts was hiding out in a dive near the river, and spending his nights inside the brothels spending what little money he had. Soon, a tip came to the police and Botts was arrested and whisked away in a horse drawn police wagon.
Just days before the trial here is what one of the newspaper editors said of Charles Otis Botts. “This uexordest is not only a degenerative, malignant fiend, he is a monster in human form.” Think that kind of talk tinged the jury pool a bit?
MARCH 25, 1905
The ‘fiend’s trial began with the usual onslaught of spectators battling to get into the courthouse. Once the jury was picked the State wasted little time parading witness after witness in front of the jury, from the coroner to the star witness, the landlady. During it all Botts seemed bored; he yawned, drew pictures and put his head on the table appearing to have fallen asleep.
Surprisingly he was called as a witness in his own defense, and the excitement almost boiled over in the packed courtroom. He did quite well for an uneducated man, and finally in defiance he looked at the jury and said, “I did not kill that girl, I loved her.”
In the end the jury saw through to Botts for what he really was, a heartless manipulator and killer. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. He was moved to cell number 39, Peoria Counties’ version of death row. There he too was given the privilege of watching his gallows being built right outside his cage.
JUNE 15, 1905
Like the killers before him his presence brought visitors until the sheriff had to restrict the numbers. The sheriff’s invited guest gathered around on the third and first floor waiting for the execution to begin. Good old soft-hearted Botts was heard to say, “I hope God in his goodness and love will have mercy on me.”
What came after those words horrified the witnesses because the killer’s feet were actually resting on the floor! Quickly a deputy reached over with both hands and pulled the dangling body up high enough for Botts to strangle in the air. Moments later all the witnesses but two and the officials were gone. After what seemed like an eternity the doctors pronounced Charles Otis Botts dead. It was the opinion of most folks in Peoria that Botts got just exactly what he deserved.
1906
Out west at the edge of Peoria County shots were heard aboard a dilapidated houseboat. Witnesses came running and saw a man they knew, Edward Clefford running from the boat with a shotgun in his hand. Soon he was the center of a huge manhunt that later centered within the city limits of Peoria, Illinois. Three days later the police had young Edward Clefford in custody.
As did killers before him, Clefford sought refuge in our saloons and whorehouses, paying money from the almost $700.00 he stole from his father. Police had evidence that three members of the Clefford family had gotten that money in a robbery. When police took Edward into custody he still had $540.00 in his pockets.
Peorians were shocked when they heard that Clefford and a friend had escaped the county jail. Truth is, Clefford did not make it and police moved him to a more secure cell. He was arraigned, charged with murder and the judge quickly set his trial for Thanksgiving week, and jurors were reluctant to serve. Yet the excitement of a murder trial was a hot ticket in those days and soon the courthouse was packed. Once the trial began folks were convinced that this would be, to use our phrase of today, a slam dunk. This kid was obviously guilty of shooting his father so get on with it.
I can sum up the tenor of the trial by quoting the state’s attorney. “This defendant is a despicable, uncaring young man that shot his father in cold blood for a few dollars and some gold pieces. He is a fiend, this devil in human form.” The defense attorney objected to the word, ‘Devil.’
After the jury was given the case some folks hung around the courtroom expecting the jury to come back in less than an hour. Truth is it was twenty hours of deliberation before the jury announced a guilty verdict for Edward Clefford.
THE EXECUTION
By now I bet you folks have caught on that for some people killers are fascinating. Especially to women if the killer is young, as was Edward. They came to see him, they flirted with him and responded with smiles and jokes and seemed to be enjoying all the attention. Edward also received a reprieve and that caused a lot of excitement in town, I can tell you that.
But, on December 20, 1907 and by then Edward had a girlfriend named Nora Rawley, one of the women that had visited frequently, Edward was up early. He appeared to be exhilarated as he walked around. “I guess they are going to hang me until I am dead’rn hell.” He was right. Among his last words were, “Dearest Jesus have mercy upon me.” Thirteen minutes later he was pronounced dead. I know that for certain because there were five doctors that checked his heart. Imagine that. “He was the coolest and most calm man I ever met.” Said the sheriff. Too bad he had to hang before anyone said anything good about him. Editor’s Note: Don’t miss the next issue of ADVENTURE OUTDOOR SPORTS when Norm will conclude his stories of the men executed in Peoria, Illinois. Norm welcomes your comments, and reminds us that these are very short versions of those executions found in “Until You Are Dead. “ norman.kelly@sbcglobal.net