Sunday, November 29, 2009


Norman V. Kelly

All the people that tell you about gangsters in Peoria are just repeating stories they heard. Not one of them that I met ever did any serious research. The authors that wrote about our big gangster reputation were even less accurate than the mythmakers. To me a gangster is within the Al Capone ilk. Now he and his henchmen and gun-toting enemies were real gangsters. We who lived here in Peoria, Illinois during 1941-1948 had our pet gangster…Bernie Shelton. If you recall gangsters actually killed people. We had a few ‘gangland style killings’ here but most of Peoria’s murders were domestic, tavern killings or murders during a botched robbery perpetrated by a lone gunman. Look at these figures and ask yourself if these murder statistics sound like a dangerous gangster town to you? I’ll never change the gangster fan’s attitude…but perhaps you have more common sense. You think?

Prohibition began January 16, 1920 and ended in December of 1933. That was thirteen years of the most brutal, bloodiest, gangster laden era in America’s history. During those 13 years according to the FBI, 701 men were slaughtered on the streets and in warehouses and restaurants all over the Capone area. Here in Peoria we had 79 murders, two of them, that’s right two of them were actually recorded as bootlegging murders. Wow…just how dangerous can it get? Also, from 1920 through 1939 Peoria recorded a total of 106 murders. That is virtually twenty years by the way. Believe me when I tell you I read all of those cases, police reports, coroner’s inquest and the newspaper accounts as well. I’ll do the math for you. That averages out at 5.3 per year.

When 1940 rolled around we had just over 105,000 people living within the small confines of our city, which was all of 9.3 square miles. We had over 200 taverns and gambling was a major force in our town. It started before the Civil War and grew over the years reaching the peak of its popularity here during WW 11.
All during the war and certainly before that we were a bawdy, wide-open town and one of the best liberty towns for service men in America. During the decade of 1940 through 1950 Peoria recorded a total of 109 murders. I remind you that was a ten-year period. That averages out at 10.9 murders per year. I know the history of this town and when I think of what was going on downtown during the war I am amazed that that figure was not doubled or even tripled.

So for the thirty-year period I just told you about the grand total of 215 murders were recorded by the offices of the coroner and the police department. Truth is, many of those murders were actually not within the city limits, but that never stopped the gangster fans from blaming them on this great city. So, I will lump them in as well. That averages out at 7.1 murders per year. Wow…how on earth did we ever live through such a horrific gangster era? Ask your grandpa.

Friday, November 27, 2009



Norman V. Kelly

For twenty-seven years I have researched the bawdy, somewhat seedy side of Peoria, Illinois, and wrote books to perpetuate those stories. I began reading about us from the records of 1845 all the way through 1950, and believe me there is a lot of history within those 105 years. Beside the books I wrote a hundred or so stories that I never tried to publish. The truth is I sought out those bawdy, murderous stories because I was certain that folks would rather read that material than the bright side of Peoria’s history. I thought that I would just pick the year 1913, since it seemed to be a typical year here in our town and fill you in on a bit of historical facts about this great river city. Sorry gangster fans, but I’ll get back to murder and mayhem next month.

I was immediately struck by how organized, sophisticated and cosmopolitan our city was way, way back during the 1800’s. Think of it, I believe that there are 32 other towns, villages or cities all along the Illinois River that could have grown into a major city like Peoria, but that never happened. We grew head and shoulders above all the rest and it does not take a historian to tell you that we did that on the shoulders of whiskey and beer. We became known as “The alcohol capital of the world,” and were proud of it. The ‘do-gooders’ put a stop to all that during Prohibition, but they could not stop Peoria’s growth.

Peoria was fortunate to have strong leaders among them Mayor Woodruff who served the city eleven different times for a total of twenty-four years. A lot of local writers depict the mayor in a bad light but I know better. In 1913 I found the greater Peoria area to have a total of 120,996 souls, with 88,429 of those folks living within the city limits. We had eleven distilleries perking away along the Illinois River, and one of them claimed to be the largest in the world. There were 5 major breweries in town and our railroad system was envied by many large cities. Along with small manufacturers Holt was making what would soon be called Caterpillars and Peoria was a bustling, bawdy town that was still on the grow.

Folks from all over came to Peoria to shop and play. We had theaters and live entertainment that centered around seventy-seven downtown restaurants. Our hotels were among the most luxurious, and a Grand Opera House that was rated among the top most beautiful in the United States. Vaudeville would soon become king in Peoria, and we reveled in being the center of entertainment of all kinds. Farmers had a ready market here in Peoria, and they soon discovered that they could sell every bit of produce they could grow. The breweries and distilleries paid top dollar for their grains, and life was good here in the heart of Illinois.

We had 177 doctors registered here within our city limits, along with dentists and every kind of professional known to mankind. If you could not find what you were looking for here in town then we assumed you did not need it. Would you believe we had 100 music teachers listed in our phone book along with 38 newspapers? That’s right, thirty-eight if you list all of them, irrespective of their size. I cannot imagine what Peoria needed with 366 Notaries, but they were here. We had a dozen shoeshine parlors and 38 shoemakers in town. Want a cigar? We had dozens of retail stores and 44 cigar-makers in town. Do you think Peoria could sustain 78 gardeners or 155 poultry breeders? Well, we did.

Within a twenty-mile circle of Peoria we had 321 saloons, or taverns, bars, saloons, cabarets and dives, but the concentration of them within our city limits was unprecedented. For you religious folks we had well over a hundred churches and 10,000 kids attended our fine schools. There appeared to be a grocery store on every corner, adding up to close to 400 hundred of them. Peoria’s downtown was a busy, busy place indeed and our entire population centered their activities there. The shopping was incredible and folks would have to travel to Saint Louis or Chicago to even come close to the beehive of activity here in town. Streetcars covered every square mile, and crossing the street could be an adventure in and of itself.

Ninety percent of the folks that lived here in 1913 were born in America and we had the most diversified ethnic mix you could ever imagine. Folks here loved their ‘Old country’ foods and drinks and the local taverns flourished.
Peorians were hard working, God-fearing loyal Americans and they loved their country and their town.

Our park system, especially Grand View Drive drew folks from all parts of mid-America, and the weekends found them filled to the seams. Every carnival, circus or traveling show made Peoria a prime destination, and folks flocked to them. There were horse and dog racing, motorcars, and boating during the summer and Peoria welcomed them all. We were a boisterous, bawdy, lusty river town with a hometown flavor. Sure we had our vices, but believe me when I tell you Peoria was a gem… a pearl along the Illinois River.
Editor’s Note: Norm’s books are available in the Peoria Library. He welcomes your comments.

Shelton's Assets


Bernie Shelton…the man with all the money and gangster power was basically a myth perpetrated by grandfather’s and gangster fans. Oh he lived here…no doubt about that, coming to Peoria in early 1941.and died by a shot to the back here on July 28 1948 he was born in 1913.

He was supposed to control Peoria gambling which was a joke. Gambling got its start here way back before the Civil war and just slowly grew, expanding during Prohibition. Gambling reached its peak during WW 11, and died an abrupt death on 9-6-1946. When Shelton was here…especially beginning in 1942 we had 242 taverns and most of them had gambling of one sort or the other we had 9 places that were flat out casinos. Now many of these tavern owners were wealthy and if they wanted to get rid of Bernie and his brother Carl they would have done so either violently or by sheer pressure. Believe me, in those early years a hundred dollar bill could buy you just about anything…if you get my meaning.

Now I realize that the assets I am listing here after Bernie’s will was probated will mean nothing to your grandfather and the other gangster fans. I can just hear them say…”Well, hell, he probably had a couple of million dollars stashed somewhere.” What a joke.

Bernie’s Assets:

$56,199.00 This included his real estate holdings
which were evaluated at : $33,022.18 CASH $14,892.22
Chattel ( Personal property) $5,532.85 other holdings $20,000.00
Total Claims Against the Estate: $16,442.32 I’ll let you do the math.
Bernie Shelton was a pug, an uneducated thug. He was an ex-convict and could not even hold a liquor License in a city of Peoria tavern. He had a ‘legit’ business in Shelton’s Amusement Company, but he sure as hell knew little about properly running it. That was left up to brother Carl. They rented and sold gambling paraphernalia…pretty dice girls and dealers. They also had juke boxes and they made money at this. Sure he had a dive or two in town…one was the Red Onion and one across from HUNTS in the county called Parkway. He did not own them and his name was not on the license…but of course he ruled them and people did work for him. His house was out off Farmington Road and is still there. He called it “The Golden Rule” The street was and is called Shelton Lane...He did not own them and his name was not on the license. I would love to tell you some really lurid…wild stories about his murders and violence in Peoria…sorry they did not exist.

He was arrested in May of 1948, and he was killed in July of 1948. He had a wonderful girlfriend named ‘Ginny’ and he had a horse named major. He raised and showed show cattle and existed here as a gambler and a hustler…was he violent? I bet he was but his reputation as a gangster was pretty much what he lived off of…Sorry…but the people I talked to over the years liked him.

Everyone liked his wife…she was Genevieve ‘Ginny’ Paulsgrove…( Bernie’s First wife was Bonnie Shelton..

I found that they were living early 40’s at 707 Monson Apartment 9 under Genevieve and Bernie Pauslgrove….

She was a beauty salon Operator in the Jefferson Building or there where the Rialto Theater was…It was called the Jefferson Beauty Salon…operated by Mrs. Genevieve Paulsgrove…

Bernie’s wife bought a double plot at the Parkview Cemetery I saw the cars and the big funeral…I think it was July 31, since he died on the 28th…people mostly women took the flowers from the grave…it was a big deal.

He is buried in LOT 437 Section B in Parkview
His grave says S H E L T O N the stone says BERNIE B 1899 1948 the other grave stones is marked GENEVIEVE 1913 but she is not buried there.