Monday, September 12, 2011

Final Summation On Prohibition


I HAVE WRITTEN THOUSANDS OF WORDS ON Prohibition and lectured at least a dozen times about the beginning, the effects and the end of Prohibit1on. I often wonder what in the hell I wasted all that time and effort writing about something that occurred so many years ago. I think the final answer was simple enough. It was an incredible era…so interesting…so devastating…sexy, exciting. It was a time that affected every American. It destroyed lives, slaughtered people, created an entire new element of gangsters, and damn near destroyed us as a nation. It pitted Americans against each other, politically it was as mean as it gets. The so-called DRYS vs the so-called WETS. It brought religion into the alcohol business and believe me it brought crime and brutality to this God-fearing nation, I can tell you that. It also made millions for a large segment of the United States, Canada and countless other industries, from boat builders to gun makers.
Prohibition destroyed small businesses, it created massive unemployment, yet some people made millions and divided a nation almost beyond repair. I have told you the history of that thirteen-year era, and now I want to make sure that you know this fact. You may think it was organized by church going old women, including pastors and preachers and other do-gooders. But the truth is the finger can really be pointed at one man. That’s right just one man. I told you about him before but now I will just summarize the movement and then I will not write another word about Prohibition.
As I mentioned before folks here in Peoria called him ‘Birdbrain.’ But I can tell you the historical truth was that he was at one time the most powerful man in the United States. Hell, he was not a politician, or a banker, or a gangster, in fact he had the appearance of being the only librarian in a dusty old library somewhere in the archives, never seen nor heard from. He was all of 5’6” tall, a mousy little jerk, and of course he wore wire-rimmed glasses. He was slightly balding and a scrawny mustache above his thin, upper lip. Hell, had he not been a religious man, and completely in favor of Prohibition, we would have never heard of him. How could this little in descript man wield so much incredible power? How indeed.
I told you how it all began way back in the late 1800’s with the small religious movements that finally caused the State of Maine to go completely dry by 1855. The incredible fact was that by 1920 America had 22 states already dry. How in the hell did that happen? Where was the opposition? Truth is America was awfully damn religious in the old days and most certainly a lot of our founders had a distinct religious leaning as well. Once old demon rum was identified as the devil and the root of all evil…why hell…it was easy. So somebody did a hell of a lot of work long before we can begin to point the finger at Wheeler. But...until he took over it was really a hit and miss proposition. He was the king of the Eighteenth Amendment…the sultan of intimidation, the prince of manipulation, the greatest puppeteer of men this nation has ever known.
The little man died in 1927 at the age of 57, so doing the math that would give his birth date 1869…right? He was born in Youngstown, Ohio but his real birth…or rebirth…was in 1893…you guessed it in a church. How many of our so-called leaders began this way? One birth was not enough…hell no…they had to be reborn. Old Birdbrain sat in the Congregational Church in Oberlin, Ohio listening to some idiot…Reverend Howard Hyde Russell, a former lawyer…what else…talk about a new movement called the Anti-Saloon League…the ASL. Our little Mouseketeer loved what he heard. I can tell you after this fools Epiphany the freedom in American…it’s right to free choice would change and for thirteen years this man set out to save us from demon rum…and cause the most chaotic…violent…dangerous thirteen years in the history of this great country. And…he did it because God and a bunch of total fools and idiots told him to do it. The folks that met violent deaths because of this little fool are beyond counting. This may be a bit of overstatement…over kill perhaps…but his little jerk held the very fate of the Republic in his scrawny little hands. He could make or break any politician in this country and I mean all the way up to the president and he did it with impunity…zest and zeal and he did it over and over for a minimum of thirty years. Remember he died in 1927 and I’ll be damned…after this little jerk died…Prohibition still continued until 1933. Incredible! That is how well built his platform was and how encased in the idiot politician his guidelines were . Now in case you have not noticed…that my friend is power.
Wheeler had his redeeming qualities…he was a hard worker and put himself through Oberlin College by doing every kind of job he could get his hands on…from waiting on tables…janitorial work…and sales. No doubt he was a salesman…he convinced the reverend that the ASL needed him…that the ASL was what Wheeler was born to do. He was the first actual paid employee of the ASL and believe me when I tell you that Wheeler turned that idiotic group into the most effective…powerful…activated political machine this nation has ever known…bar none.
Today’s politicians are girl scouts compared this man who not only coined the phrase ‘Pressure Group’ he taught it to every person that was connected with him and that was just the beginning of what he forged for one reason and one reason only. That reason was the domination of politics in the cities…the counties…the villages and as low as the dog catcher to the president…he wanted every one of them thinking the way he did…and believe me he did it. The root of ALL evil is alcohol…stop the sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States and peace…tranquility and a bit of Heaven on Earth will prevail. Sounds wonderful huh…but of course it was all just plain naive bullshit. History proved that.
In 1915, after exhaustive planning and unbelievable organization the Anti-Saloon League convened in Atlantic City and for the first time folks got an idea what in hell the ASL really amounted to. Wheeler managed every facet of this organization and overwhelmed every obstacle to get his movement off the ground. Huge rallies, massive numbers of people and all designated as a Warriors For Christ, a disciple of God, out to get rid of ‘old Demon Rum’, and destroy every tavern, saloon, brewery, distillery and still in America. And…by GOD they just about managed to do all that. What looked like a mass of people…or a frenzied mob was a well controlled group of narrow minded fools. Each small group had a leader and that leader had a leader and so on up to the mighty man himself…Wheeler. They raised pennies and dollars and marched and chanted and scared the hell out of tavern owners and distillers alike. All that money…well most of it…found its way into Wheeler’s headquarters where he micro managed the entire movement. Christ…had he become president of the United States he would have ‘Ruled the World.’
At first it was the preachers, the reverends, the church elders and the ‘flock’ that demonstrated with marches and rallies...but that was all for show. The man…THE man behind it was brilliant, clever, manipulating, bribing, intimidating old squirrelly Birdbrain Wheeler. Wayne Wheeler was a general that would make Ike look like a scout master in a cub scout outfit.


Of course a few idiots…after all these people were overly religious…overzealous religious nuts who had only one thought in mind and that was to do ‘God’s Work.’ Once they were back home on their own they made a lot of mistakes. They began to upset Tavern owners, playing God, people like Looney women preachers that tried to destroy local taverns. One example was Frances Willard and her silly Women’s Christian Temperance Movement…or WTCU…falling all over each other to accomplish God’s Devine message. They got in a lot of trouble and they got arrested as well. BUT...they had thousands of members and it was Wheeler who understood the power of these women. All he had to do was rope in their misbegotten ways. He did just exactly that and of course his organization grew in the process. Now the movement grew beyond any one’s imagination. Oh…and what did the WETS do during all this? Why here in Peoria they formed the Red Nose gang, laughed at the marchers, tossed tomatoes at them and retired to the taverns to get drunk. That was their big defense against these idiot ‘Drys.’

Meantime…local groups were being formed under the leadership of Wheeler’s long arms and his very wealthy and strong Anti-Saloon League. While the drunks in Peoria were laughing, local politicians were being bought and paid for. Soon, few politicians had a chance to win an election without the help of the Anti-Saloon League. As I said no office was over looked…Laugh and drink…while the group grew in power...influence…money and soon The die was cast. Hell the fight to STOP prohibition never even began before it was too late. All of this can be traced to, blamed on, or credited to Wheeler and his band of followers. AMEN BROTHER.


Hell it was no secret to the folks that paid attention that the Anti-Saloon League was out to distribute all the political retribution it could accomplish all over America. And…you guessed it Wayne B. Wheeler was their avenging angel. If there was a hint of anti booze in any potential legislation across the land…the angel was there. He saw to it that the prosecutors, the local mayor, the local politicians got on board quickly. He taught them to attack the opposition, to form their own bill making groups and he supplied all the money a politician needed to get on board their platform. It worked everywhere and almost every single time. It worked liked the well-oiled machine it was. You oppose the ASL and your political ass was grass. Hell, you didn’t have a chance. Now we are talking every state in the Union, it was just a matter of time until the ASL had all the political clout to ‘OWN’ America. And…then came WW! I n April of 1917. The ACL was positive that God was up there helping them because WW1 was all they needed. And, they used it to the hilt. After all a lot of German men living in the U.S.A owned breweries and distilleries. The fight against the HUN was going on in Europe but the ACL waged a war of their own against the Germans here in America. “All the money these Germans are making here in America and sending it over to Germany.” Get the idea? Shut down all those damn German booze and Beer makers…it is anti-American to support them. Well…with a series of phony War Conservation Acts…it worked. I already told you that story…but believe me Wheeler and company were behind it all and it worked like a charm.

Keep in mind, this man never ran for anything…he never ran against anything…he was simply in charge of a massive block of votes that controlled whatever the hell issue they came down on. Always…always their main goal was a Nation- wide ban of the sale and manufacturing of booze of any kind. The goals…well God’s Mandate to them, was to close down every tavern and saloon in America. He took on individuals, occasionally losing, but constantly going forward. He often said this after a major issue was settled. You know how he settled it…right…he defeated you and whatever agenda you had. This quote was common during the press issues he was credited with giving. “Never again will any political party ignore the protests of the church and the moral forces of the state.” Maybe that does not bother you but to me that is a very dangerous statement. Of course what that statement meant was simple enough…DON’T MESS with Wayne B. Wheeler…it was that simple.

Reminds me so much of what is going on today. Where one man, woman or party absolutely has only one agenda…let’s say National Health care…they do not give a damn what anyone says against them…and as a result they stay in control. All of prohibition was that ONE agenda. They did not give a damn about the murder, mayhem, corruption and loss of jobs. All they wanted was to do God’s work…take the credit for it, gain more members, and stop anyone from getting in the way. Oh, and they did not give a damn about what party you belonged to. In searching for a candidate they asked only one question. WHAT IS YOUR STAND ON PROHIBITION? You could have been known as a Jack The Ripper and these dumb bastards would have gotten you elected. One agenda…are you for Prohibition? Fine…pack your bags you are on your way to Washington, DC.


I’LL GIVE YOU ONE EXAMPLE AND THAT IS ALL. Hell there were hundreds of these kinds of things, in all or most of the states and of course in Washington D.C. Look it up yourself. Way back before Prohibition when Taft was president….that would be say in 1913, the large president tried to stop an Act called the Webb-Kenyon Act that outlawed the importation of booze from a WET state to a Dry State. Our hero Vetoed that bill…why faster than you can get back from lunch the House of Representatives overrode that Veto…and I mean overwhelmingly. See what I mean? Wheeler and his mob were everywhere. They stacked the deck and they let Taft know that he was virtually helpless. Sad huh? Next came the Liquor Taxes the Feds depended upon, well hell look up the 16th. Amendment. The Wheeler bunch knew that if the government could not rely on the booze tax they would lose interest in it quickly. I am telling you Wheeler and his organization were nothing short of brilliant…that I can tell you with assurance.


Well hell, what do you think it was? First Wheeler left OHIO and moved to Washington DC. Now he was close to his puppets and he meant to pull their strings even more closely. The goal was the 18th. Amendment and he had all of his ducks ( or jerks) in a row and the push was on. Just think…dear Lord, his final goal was just down the pike and he was certain it was just a matter of time…more manipulation…more bribes…more scare tactics and just a little more work. After that the glory of living in Heaven right here on Earth was within the grasp of all these bleeding heart do-gooders. Christ life was good.

Here is a quote from a New York Newspaper. Maybe it was the Times or probably the Evening World REFERRING TO Wayne B. Wheeler. “THE LEGISLATIVE BULLY BEFORE WHOM THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES SITS UPS AND BEGS.” Now that should be enough don’t you think? You can talk about Prohibition…and I know our entire history of that era here in Peoria, Illinois…but you won’t see anything about Wheeler. What in the hell would my dad or my relatives know about Wheeler? All they knew was they lost a lot of jobs and getting a drink was a little more expensive and harder to come by. As I said, our Soft Drink Parlors solved that problem, thanks to Woodruff and his successors. Hell, that’s all Prohibition meant to us. Believe me finding criticism of Wheeler or even his name in our newspapers would take a hard core researcher like me to find.
Hell, look at the women...the suffrage women, the religious fools that spent 25 years carrying the banner of Prohibition. Truth is…and this is just my opinion what they were really seeking was the right to vote. To be heard…hell do you blame them? Once they got into the religious movement about booze, and Wheeler and his group took them under their wing…why hell…they realized that they had two chances. One was the promise that Wheeler would help them get that right to vote and the ‘icing on the cake’ would be the glorious, wonderful world of Prohibition. How could they lose? The only opposition was a bunch of WETS half bombed most of the time. See how all that fit in? Well what do you think happened after the 18th. Amendment? Oh yeah, the 19th. But that was nothing compared to the golden goose…The 20th. amendment. The gals got their present for helping Wheeler and he got what he wanted. Praise from the LORD and of course National Prohibition. What happened during the next thirteen years did not mean a damn thing to those Idiots. As for me thank God the bastard died as early as he did…1927. Had he lived another decade only God would know how much more damage he could have done…same way with today and National Health. It was jammed down America’s throat now look at the consequences. But…hey that’s another story. Norman Kelly

BEER: Hail To The King!

BEER: Hail To The King!


April 7, 1933 marked a glorious day in the history of Peoria, Illinois, and it came under the heading of The Cullen-Harrison Act. That all sounds kind of boring doesn’t it? But if you were here in the old river city April 6, 1933, you would have had yourself a blast. At the striking of midnight, April 7, 1933 a mighty roar went up in Downtown Peoria, Illinois. A smiling, excited crowd, mainly men and certainly young boys were awaiting the signal that BEER was legal to drink. The sad truth was that there was very little beer to drink, but the crowd gathered anyway, more of a celebration than a drinking spree.

It was not until about 6:30 that morning of April 7, 1933 that the beer trucks began to rumble into the city and make their way to the taverns and retail liquor stores around town. During the night the boys got pretty loaded, after all, during Prohibition booze was easy to come by in Peoria, Illinois.

The crowds broke up to surround the trucks and the drivers found themselves in the middle of a frenzied, yet friendly mob. A case of beer sold from $2.50 a case to $2.75 plus a dollar deposit. The warm beer was guzzled right there the moment eager hands grabbed the bottles. Horse drawn wagons, busses, trucks and airplanes were used to bring the wet gold into town. Out at the airport at 9:17 that April morning a Pan American plane landed and was immediately surrounded by the cheering men. Case after case was unloaded and the plane also carried a huge bottle of beer for the Governor of Illinois.

Out of this insane picture of beer drinking, gulping and pure frenzy came the one thing Peoria wanted and needed more than anything else…and that was jobs. The Great Depression still had its grip on Peoria and the very next day, bartenders, cooks, truckers, railroad men, and dozens of other businesses took on a brand new bright look of joy. The bright glow of employment…jobs…wonderful jobs. The lights in the saloons, taverns and the old soft drink parlors glowed through the night getting ready for a new life. The brewers lit their fires and the lines formed for employment in good old Peoria brewery jobs, finally the day had come.

The truth was that the Cullen-Harrison Act was a far cry from the end of Prohibition, but it was a nice deep chink in the Volstead Act, and the people of Peoria, Illinois knew that Prohibition was coming to an end. The Cullen-Harrison law amended the Volstead Act to allow 3.2% beer and that was a glorious moment indeed. Remember, The Vostead Act defined alcohol at .5% per volume, or ‘colored water’ as Peorians called it. The warm beer they were drinking was only 3.2 beer but those that drank it were as intoxicated with sheer joy as they would have been ‘with the real stuff.’ Finally, FDR signed into law the 21st. Amendment ending Prohibition in the United States on December 5, 1933. Now that allowed good old Peoria Whiskey to be distilled, and the excitement was infectious, I can tell you that. Quickly Hiram Walkers announced that they would build the largest distillery in America right here in Peoria, Illinois.

The 21st. Amendment gave the States the right to decide their own fate as far as the sale and manufacturing of alcohol was concerned. Of course that is why within many states we have wet and dry counties. Peoria took a mighty leap forward in recovering from the effects of Prohibition and the Great Depression during 1933. And…as was our history since 1834 we did it on the shoulders of Whiskey and Beer. So, this week, pause a moment and drink a toast to Cullen, Harrison and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Upon signing the bill the great man was heard to say, “ I think this would be a good time for a beer.” Amen, Mr. President.

Editor’s note: Norm Kelly is a historian, author and beer drinker.

Early Peoria Killers



Let me take you back to Peoria, Illinois in 1850 when the city was all of five years old. We began at the edge of the Illinois River, just a small trading village, named after the local Peoria Indian. We grew… my how we grew and Peoria attracted every kind of folk imaginable. Not all of them worth having, I might add. Among those undesirables were George Williams, Thomas Brown and Tom ‘Tit’ Jordan. On that cool November first, 1850, they were down at the stockyards hunting for someone to rob. Once they zeroed in on their victim they stalked him most of the day.

The victim was Harvey Hewett and he was in town selling off a large herd of cattle. After a successful day of moneymaking he headed out of town alone in his horse drawn buggy. Near what we call Adams and Spring Streets he was waylaid, beaten senseless, robbed and left for dead. He died nine days later, but during his lucid moments he gave a very good description of the three men that had attacked him. A huge posse was formed and off they went heading south to apprehend the three killers, known personally by local tavern denizens. In those days thieves and killers were usually run down and hanged at the nearest tree. Folks in Peoria expected the same fate to meet these three killers as well.


News that the posse had captured rather than hanged the culprits was indeed surprising news. However, Thomas Jordan had escaped to New Orleans and the Peoria Sheriff had personally contacted the Governor of Louisiana for help in getting Jordan back to Peoria. Here in Peoria, the newly appointed Judge William Kellogg held the murder trial of Williams and Brown on November 20, 1850.

The prosecutor got into evidence the signed statements of the victim, Harvey Hewitt and it took but a very short time to find the killers guilty. They of course blamed the missing killer, Thomas Jordan for the actual killing.
On November 27, 1850 Judge Kellogg sentenced the two men to die by hanging, setting the date of December 29, 1850 as the execution date.


A rumor started in town that the hanging would be postponed sparked a mob to storm the small courthouse demanding that the two killers be hanged or turned over to the enraged mob for justice. The out gunned Sheriff was forced to step out of the way. Brown and Williams armed only with a brick and a knife fought off the rioters, injuring two and actually killing one man. Once they had the killers out of the jail they were helpless. Surprisingly the two beaten men were returned to the jail. Local reporters at the time stated that the leaders had forgotten to obtain a rope prior to the attack. So, Williams and Brown survived the mob, but still faced the hangman. As it turned out the postponement had been warranted because the judge was waiting for Jordan to return to Peoria. The court wanted the two condemned men to testify against Jordan but that never happened. Jordan was later tried but escaped the death sentence. Judge Kellogg set the hangings for January.


January 15, 1851 dawned, blustery and frigid as folks began to gather at the
gallows constructed out in the prairie, which we now know as Sanford and Second Streets. Our population at the time was just over six thousand but by the time the hanging got underway over fifteen thousand folks were in attendance. The crowd roared as the wagon containing the two condemned men pulled up inside the fenced in area. Deputies cleared the way as they brought the terrified men out of the wagon and up the gallows steps. The crowd surged forward once again and soon the fence was flat on the ground.

Once up on the platform the two men turned to face the sea of angry faces. The noise began to lessen and soon the crowd stood silently looking up at the condemned men. The hangman guided black hoods over each killer’s head as the padre mumbled prayers. As the executioner led the two men to the trapdoor, he deftly slipped ropes about their necks. The snap of the opening trapdoor rang out in the cold morning air hurtling the men to their deaths. A mighty roar went up and then silenced as the bodies began to twist slowly at the end of the ropes. The two attending physicians pronounced Brown, then Williams dead. The bodies were cut down and put into pine coffins. Two horse drawn hearses carried them off to a pauper’s grave. For a moment or so the folks stood silently, then one by one they turned and walked away. The event marked the first public hanging in the City of Peoria’s history.
Six other hangings would take place in or on the courthouse property here in town. Two other convicted killers would die in the electric chair in Joliet.

Editor’s Note: Norm is a local historian and author. His book, UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD, detailing all of Peoria’s executions is available in the Peoria Public Library. (

Diamond Lil



Her real name was Parole McNeal Guyette, but here in Peoria she went by the name of Diamond Lil.’ Early on, Diamond Lil’ was a prostitute, coming here from Toledo, Ohio and Detroit Michigan. She had two houses of ill repute here that were described as ‘Black and Tan Resorts,’ meaning some of her girls were Mulattos. She became the madam before long and always bragged about having ‘Customers in high places.’

At age fifty, she was a rather stunning lady with iron-gray hair, and a look of sophistication about her. She got her sobriquet because of her smile that showed the bright stones that a local dentist had embedded in her front teeth.
Miss Diamond’s hot spots were over on Eaton and Second Streets, where she ruled with an iron hand during a time when Peoria was a lusty, wide-open town. Lil’ and the other ladies of her ilk were all part of our reputation for more than four decades.


Lil’ was fast asleep that early morning of September 29, 1930 when all hell broke loose downstairs where Joni Yelm was cleaning behind the bar. Joe Markley kicked in the door, threatened Joni, and demanded to see the owner. Yelm told Joe that Lil’ was not there, but the man pushed him aside and headed for the stairs that led to Lil’s room. Suddenly, Miss Diamond appeared at the top of the steps. Even in her nightgown she was an imposing figure, wearing a gun belt and holster on her rather stout hips, pointing a six-gun down at Joe Markley.

Diamond Lil’ screamed, “Hey…you can’t do that,” waving the big gun around menacingly. Joe ignored her threat and raced up the steps. Soon the two were engaged in a wrestling match for the handgun. Down they came, rolling head over heels, crashing to the floor. While the battle was going on, Joni grabbed the shotgun hidden behind the bar. He hurried over to protect his boss, firing one barrel at the enraged man. The blast from the twelve-gauge shell ripped into the flesh of Joe’s left forearm.

Lil’ broke loose, grabbed the handgun that had fallen to the floor, and ran up the steps with Joe hot on her heels. At the top she whirled and fired. The first slug tore into Joe’s thumb, but she kept firing, hitting Joe in the upper chest twice, stopping him cold in his tracks. He fell backwards, rolling down the steps onto the floor, where he died moments later.


Now this was juicy stuff to read while sipping your morning coffee, and it was the talk of the town for weeks. The Holidays came and went and the newspapers told Peorians that the trial of Diamond Lil’ and Joni Yelm would begin here in Peoria, Illinois on January 19. 1931. It was the hottest ticket in town and on that cold January morning the crowds gathered, surrounding the old courthouse. Lil’ came to trial dressed to the nines, confident and ready to defend herself. To most Peorians it was a clear case of home invasion and self-defense. Joni and Lil’ would be tried together, and after three days the jury was picked. Each morning of the trial brought hundreds of people to the courthouse, pushing and shoving in hopes of getting a seat. Of course, many of them were turned away, walking the halls, waiting for news.

As the trial began, the final count for the jury was five women and seven men. Now if those folks were do-gooders, and self-righteous folks, poor Lil’ and Joni would not stand a chance. However, if the jury followed the law as outlined by the judge, the defendants could soon be free. Which would it be?


The trial was suspenseful and most certainly exciting. Hundreds of women faced the cold and lined the sidewalk each morning, watching Lil’ walk by. She often nodded to them as she strolled by with her friend Joni and the defense lawyers. Hundreds of pictures were taken whenever she stopped momentarily, basking in her new momentary fame.

The trial moved along, with both Joni and Lil’ being called to testify in a dramatic fight for their lives. It looked good for both of them even though the state’s attorney depicted them as cold-blooded killers. He pulled no punches when it came to telling the jury what these two defendants did for a living. Finally the closing arguments ended and the case was given over to the jury.

That was the verdict the newspapers reported, indicating that both Joni and Lil’ were GUILTY! Both defendants were sentenced to one to life in the state pen at Joliet, Illinois. Historically that meant from six to twelve years. While out on bail during the appeal, Miss Diamond told reporters that she did not get a fair trial. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the conviction and soon the two defendants were off to Joliet. Word came to Peorians through our newspapers that Miss Diamond was going to write a ‘Tell All Book.’ That bit of news upset a few prominent men in Peoria and the excitement was still in the air. Diamond Lil’ had often bragged about her ‘Prominent Clientele,’ and the folks in Peoria were eagerly looking forward to getting a copy of her book. Well, sorry to say that that book was never printed. Suddenly there was nothing but silence coming from Lil’s cell. She refused further interviews and told the press, “All that is a closed book.” A week after she refused to talk to reporters there was a piece in the local papers. Lil’ told a reporter that the Chicago State’s Attorney wanted to indict her on some political scam in connection with illegal investments that he accused her of being involved in. Perhaps Lil’ thought it best to clam up, serve her time, and disappear. Anyway, that is exactly what she did.
Editor’s Note: Norm is a Peoria Historian and author of ten books.
Next Month: Norm will tell us another tale of Peoria’s bawdy past.

Chief Coy



There was a man in our town that walked the streets of Downtown Peoria for over three decades. During the almost twenty-years that I worked downtown I saw him many, many times. He knew everyone in town and had a story to tell to each and every person that stopped long enough to listen. I have seen children point at him, and ladies turn away in fear. I am here to tell you that they had nothing to fear from Robert Merle Coy, better known as ‘Chief’ Coy. Robert was born in Holden, Missouri on February 22, 1902 and arrived here in Peoria in 1913. He went to school at Tyng, dropping out during the eighth-grade. It was at Tyng when a principal there started calling him ‘Chief,’ because Coy had told them a story about him being a chief of a gang of bad men. It stayed with him until his death on October 2, 1980. He ended his days living in the Pavilion Oaks Nursing Home, dying at the age of seventy-eight.

I mentioned the fear some woman had of the ‘Chief’ because of his face. The right side of his face was distorted from an early injury, which paralyzed that area, causing a very noticeable drooping of the right eye.
His eye remained blood-shot and quite frankly scary upon first looking at him. When engaged in conversation the droop caused him to lisp, and often drool, but to those lucky folks that took the time to know him, he was an admirable, gentle man. He accumulated more records than any person ever to have lived here in Peoria, Illinois. Interested folks soon learned that Robert was hit in the face when he was still in his crib by his own father which caused severe and permanent nerve damage. That injury became more apparent as he grew into manhood, and believe me he was quite a man.


Rather than use his face as an excuse he said this about his features.
“My face did help me to determine to learn to do many things that no one else could do.”
He held records in Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not,” and John Hix’s “Strange As It May Seem.” Here is a sample of his prowess: Able to recite in four minutes all fifty states and their capitols, the Presidents of the United States, the books of the Bible in order, the first fifty Popes of the Catholic Church, and the names of 15 ancient historical events in Greek and Hebrew. In the John Hix’s story he depicted the ‘Chief’ as “The Strongest Man In The World.”

His strength and endurance were legendary. Way back in the 30’s he would entertain crowds by turning over automobiles and tearing telephone books in half. He could bend steel bolts in half and tear tin tobacco cans in half with his bare hands. He rejoiced in putting a rope around his neck, attaching the rope to a car he would pull it around the block.

One period of his life he went to every state in the union obtaining autographs of every governor in every state. He walked hundreds and hundreds of miles and ran dozens of marathons long before people really knew what they were. His jobs here in Peoria, before he was seen putting ads in windows around town were at the Herschel Company and during the war he was a mailman. Always active, always busy, ‘Chief’ Coy was a man usually on a quest of one kind or the other.

His boxing and wrestling records are far too numerous to mention, but I can tell you that he retired as a champion in every one of those sports. He also entertained people in town as a billiard marathoner playing for just over 120 hours until friends forced him to stop. He held records in all kinds of running events, running many of those events barefooted.

The ‘Chief’ gained National attention and there were many articles written about him. Sports editors called him a “Rugged, virile man, gentle, religious and inspiring.” He held records in whatever event he decided to compete in and he did it with a flare of honesty and modesty.

Here is a voice out of the past. Everett M. Dirksen, when he was a Member of Congress said, “Chief Coy is a remarkable all-around athlete, one whose performances read like the labors of Hercules.”

I feel certain that a lot of those people that saw and even talked to Coy would be surprised to learn that he was an author. After all, his formal education ended in the eighth-grade. He wrote a 50,000-word story on the ‘Sacrifice of the Mass,’ and began work on ‘The History of the World by a Catholic.’ The ‘Chief’ was a devout Catholic and knew the entire Mass by heart, becoming a Tertiary of the Third Order of Saint Francis. Robert Coy never married and lived alone, living a considerable time in the Jefferson Hotel in Downtown Peoria, Illinois.

Robert Coy was hoping to get to be a contestant on the TV show, “The $64,000 Question,” but that never happened. Local folks were convinced it was the ‘Chief’s’ looks that defeated him there. He certainly did not lose anywhere else in his rich, eventful life. Peoria was a much more interesting place thanks to Robert ‘Chief’ Coy, one of Peoria’s truly remarkable characters.

Editor’s Note: This one is for Robert Rafferty.

1866 - The Shaft



I remember seeing The Shaft, that’s what we grew up calling it, standing there within the square on the Jefferson Street side of the courthouse. It was 1950, the Korean War was on and I was heading for the United States Air Force. On my last day in Peoria, I stood looking up at that old weather-beaten, limestone shaft thinking a bit about the Civil War. I remember wondering why it was still located there, since we had a large, famous monument on the other side of the courthouse dedicated to the same war. I never saw The Shaft again but I never forgot it. Funny thing, I do remember that way back in 1950 there were 43 Civil War Veterans still alive.

It was October 11, 1866 when the world seemed to be lending its attention to Peoria, Illinois. Local newspapers tell us that at least 30,000 citizens jammed into the small confines of the courthouse square and lined the streets of Peoria, Illinois waiting for the start of the huge parade. Folks from all over began arriving early on that beautiful, exciting October morning. Among them were thousands of Civil War Veterans, some of them clearly scarred by the ferocious war between the States. It was a massive, gala event that created a ton of excitement here in the heart of Illinois.

Suddenly the drums boomed, the band broke into a patriotic piece as the assembled parade prepared to step off on its way to the courthouse and the dedication of the Civil War Memorial Monument. At precisely 10:00 A.M. four marshals, riding abreast led off the parade, followed by two companies of soldiers and a carriage with ‘Old Abe’ the famous war eagle sitting high on his perch. The popular Spencer’s Band played a rousing march followed by nine companies of infantry in full uniform. Just behind them was a carriage carrying the dignitaries and speakers for the day. Gillig’s Band was next in line and behind this colorful group were marching firemen and hundreds of walking citizens. Once the parade passed by the spectators joined in for the lively march to the courthouse square.

General John A. ‘Black Jack’ Logan was cheered along as he and General Benjamin F. Butler waved and smiled at the massive throng. It was Black Jack’s famous war eagle, ‘Old Abe,’ that the folks wanted to see and a sea of cheers greeted the veteran war bird as he came into view. The wily old bird screeched and flapped his wings at the cheering mob. Among the dignitaries was Peoria’s famous orator, Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, slated to give the dedication speech. Once the parade concluded there was a mad dash to surround the now draped monument. The Shaft had been covered with drapes and colorful wreaths. Atop the shaft, covering the winged eagle was a cross of beautiful flowers. Surrounding the base of the shaft were gigantic wreaths of evergreens and numerous, gorgeous flowers.

A speaker’s stand had been set up and in front of the monument tightly packed spectators could not have possibly moved, even if they had chosen to do so. Every square inch was packed with a human body, and young men dangled from every tree branch available.

Robert Ingersoll gave the dedication address in his usual glorious manner followed by short speeches from the generals. The excited folks roared their approval, then silenced and bowed their heads as the Reverend Honey formally dedicated the Soldiers Monument to the fallen men who died during the Civil War Conflict. Up front, perched above the crowd was ‘Old Abe,’ delighting the massive crowd. The coverings were cast aside as the gleaming, white monument bursts forth in all its glory. The large eagle at the top of the shaft brought forth screaming cheers as ‘Old Abe’ squawked his approval.

Spencer’s Military Band broke into a patriotic piece that thrilled the crowd. There was more rousing band music, prayers and a poem written by Peoria’s P.R.K. Brotherson, was read by Colonel Ingersoll, to the mighty cheers of the frenzied crowd. There were numerous encores of patriotic songs followed by more comments from Ingersoll and a call for three cheers for the beloved generals. It was a rollicking, exciting time for all that attended and was the talk of the town for weeks.

Once the formal activities were over the crowd made its way up to and past the new monument, talking up to ‘Old Abe’, smiling, and shaking hands with the celebrities and generals. Slowly they began to drift away, alone and in groups until the once festive scene was bathed in the long shadows of early evening. The cleanup crews hastened to put the courthouse square back in order and when the moon came out it had something brand new to shine upon. There it stood, over the years, a monument to the brave men of America’s Civil War.


In the late 1870’s the monument was moved from the original site of Adams and Main to make room for a sidewalk. It was moved over to the Jefferson side of the courthouse where it remained until it disappeared once again, this time for good. In 1962 the old monument, faded and weather-beaten was dismantled and put aside because of the planned razing of the old courthouse. The scheme was to restore it and reassemble it next to the new courthouse, but that never happened.

Journal Star reporters, in informative articles, stated that the remains were discovered discarded out at the Detweiller Marina. The old monument stood proud and symbolic in Downtown Peoria for almost a century. Once the newer Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated in 1899, the Shaft seemed to fade away. So, at one time the courthouse square was the site for two Civil War Monuments, now there is but one. Over at Soldier’s Hill, located inside Springdale Cemetery, stands a beautiful statue called The Sentinel. The lone soldier, high upon a pedestal, represents all of the Civil War soldiers.

Have you been downtown to look at our war memorials lately? Have you ever wondered how many Peorians died in the Korean and Vietnam Wars? There are folks that think we should restore the 1866 monument even though we have a magnificent one already located in our courthouse square. Any chance we should honor the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans first?

Editor’s Note: Norm is a local historian and author of eight books on Peoria’s history.