Monday, October 8, 2012

MARTY SHRAI: A VOICE FROM OUR PAST


                                    MARTY SHRAI:   A VOICE FROM OUR PAST
                                           
                                                       NORMAN  V.  KELLY

During the early 1980’s here in Peoria I made it my business to talk to a lot aging Peorians. I sought out only those that knew about us and lived during the days of Prohibition and WW 11 here in Peoria, Illinois. These people were in some instances ‘shady characters,’  but many like Marty were just street wise people.  Here is a transcribed statement of Marty talking about the old Peoria Days.  Of course he is gone now, but I really liked him and when I ran across this piece I had to share it.

“I’ve always liked Peoria, hell…I was born here just about eighty-one years ago.  My parents divorced when I was twelve and just before I turned thirteen…why I was out on my own. I lived in the south end of Peoria, and in those days it was a nice, clean respectable place to live.   I grew up fast and had a rented room down there by myself.  Sometimes I didn’t have the money, so it was when I had the money that I rented.

Hell, I had all kinds of jobs…you name it…I did it.  I worked in the Alliance Life Building, later First National Bank, you know, right there on Main and Jefferson. I am sure it has changed names a few times. Truth is I probably lived like a rich kid. That job I had there made me $12.00 a week and for a kid…hell a young man, that was a lot of money.  All I had to do was take care of myself.  I even had a job as a soda-jerk out of a window in that building, and that was a busy building. A lot of lawyers came in and out of there and I made it my business to know them. I ran errands for them, got their shoes shined, picked up their clothes at the cleaners and the money flowed in.  I would even run and get sandwiches, you know whatever they wanted me to do I did.  They paid me and I got a lot of tips too.  It was really great.

I’d save up my money and just about every two weeks, sometimes every week, why I would go rent a car. That’s right, rent a car even though I was only fourteen.  No such problem like insurance, or a license, hell, I’d give ’em the money they gave me the car.  It was that simple. I loved to drive and believe me I went everywhere…all over town. I knew this place like the back of my hand.

Not always, but most of the time this town was run by Mayor E.N. Woodruff a local politician and business man, he had an ice house and at one time a big fish business as well. He was quite a guy and he had a political machine that was second to none.  I remember seeing a picture in the paper about his business.  The photographers snapped a picture of one of his clearly marked ice trucks backed up delivering ice to a well-known whorehouse. Hell…so what Whores have to have ice too.  Of course the opposing political newspapers in town attacked him all the time but he managed to get elected eleven times for I think a total of twenty-fours years. Hell…he wasn’t afraid of anything or anybody.  Of course the paper hinted that the whores were throwing money into the truck…but that was stupid as far as most of us were concerned.

Hey….he ran the town, so you know he had to have enemies….but a hell of a lot of friends too, I mean he had control over a lot of jobs in town.  I can remember a slot machine in just about every business in town, but of course as a kid I wasn’t supposed to play them…but I did.  They wouldn’t let me into any of the big gambling places, but I sure as hell knew where they were, I can tell you that.  Even the laundries, dry cleaners and grocery stores had slots, and they were just part of Peoria…it was that simple.

You know Norm Peoria, was a safe town. I mean…you know, there was crime, hell, lots of it, but it was more or less controlled by a certain element in town.  If there were shootings, it was usually within this group.  People walked wherever they wanted to go, and no need to lock your house, you know like that. They were just bad guys, crooks I guess, but the truth is they were business men…well, not really, but they thought they were. If they caught someone trying to muscle in on their area…why they fought back.   A few of them ended up full of holes.

I had a close buddy that got $10.00 to jimmy pin ball machines.  He’d go in play the machine and when the time was right he would take a screw driver and jam the coin receiver.  He did a lot of stuff like that.  Then of course the other guys would come in and replace the machine telling the owner that they could protect them.  Hell…they were just penny ante guys, sure as hell no big organized gangsters…nothin’ like that.  Oh, yeah, he’d leave the screw driver in it, ‘course no one was gonna play that machine for awhile.

Well this guy asked me to go with him…‘Marty…it’s easy money,’ he would always say, but I was not dumb enough to take up that kinda profession, I can tell you that.  I was much too interested in living to do that.  A guy can be a tough guy, don’t have to be a gangster…just protecting his business I always said. 

I got to drinking pretty early in life.  Hell, Prohibition lasted a long time, and booze was easy to get.  My God when that stupid law was finally lifted, the soft drink parlors were gone and taverns, bars and nightclubs popped up on every corner. My God there were hundreds of them it seemed to me.  I remember a place called The Shanty…or maybe the Shanty House…come to think of it…they called it The Shanty Town.  Jesus but it was a wild place, well, mainly on Friday and Saturday nights.  Me and my friends went in there almost every week. They had a live band and there was fun to be had, but a guy could get himself hurt in there if you got out of line.  I had fun but I watched out for myself, and if things got out of hand I was gone.

You know Norm I had a great time but I got married very early in life.  I had a pretty good income and it just seemed the right thing to do. We even bought a house over on Sherman.  It had an indoor bathroom but no gas for heat. Just after I got my coal furnace all set up, why gas was available to heat homes.  There I had all that coal furnace converted, but my God that must have been well over fifty years ago.  There were a lot of people that just had a house, out door outhouse, and they lived pretty rough if you know what I mean.

I was talking about crime, wasn’t I norm?  We never had much to steal but we never locked our doors and my wife felt safe walking wherever she felt like it.  We had grocery stores on damn near every corner and she was never bothered. Now there was a cop on almost every corner and they were tough guys.  They approached strangers and if they talked to you by God you better answer.  They carried Billy clubs and if you got out of line why they would work you over quick, if you get my drift.  You did not dare mess with a beat cop…not in my part of town anyway.  The typical cop new everyone and he was usually liked and respected, so it worked out pretty good.

I remember a rash of crimes on streetcars, people getting robbed and mugged when they got off the cars. I remember I suspected a couple of guys, you know, they just looked shady.  They looked at me when I got on the car, and I felt that they knew me.  So sure enough, the next stop they got off. To this day I bet they were thinking about robbery when they spotted me. Guess they did not want a witness…’cause I sure couldn’t scare them.

Over all Peoria was a pretty damn good place to live. We had a lot to do like going to Kelly Beach and El Frisco Beach and that big tower over on Grand View Drive. I drove everywhere and got my own car. We just seemed to be as free as a bird, but I guess it all had to do with whether or not you had money. Lot of poor folks here, bums downtown, you saw a lot of that, but still, a lot of folks lived pretty damn well.

That Tower I mentioned was over near the heights.  My dad worked on that tower…hell when was that?  Maybe 1910 or earlier. It was a Fire Watch there at the top of Grandview Drive and it was really a neat place to look out over the river, especially in the fall.  We had a lot to do here, plus we had the river, and I got to watch a lot of baseball games.  I used to get in free to watch the Chiefs…that was a baseball team here and they played at Woodruff Field up in the north end of Peoria.  Oh, that’s right, we have a Chief team now, don’t we.

I know you write a lot of crime stories Norm, and I loved the one about that Thompson Case.  I think you said it was 1935, God I sure remember that one, I would have guessed it to be a bit earlier than that. It was the biggest thing to happen here, I can tell you that.  That young woman he killed, she was such a nice, decent innocent kid.  Here this guy was out raping women, according to that report, at least 16 of them.  He kept that little black book and wrote down there names. Of course nobody ever saw it and I guess the jury never did either. I had a lot of cop friends and they told me that a few prominent names were in his book.

When that murder story broke, why I hi-tailed it up to the newspaper building and bought all the papers I could afford.  Then I ran around town selling those things as fast as I could, selling them for whatever I thought the person would pay.  That one was called the Evening-Star, but we had others in town, like The Journal Transcript and there were others, can’t remember them.  They competed like crazy for stories especially like this Thompson case.  I think that girl was… damn, that’s right Mildred Hallmark.  She was really a wonderful young lady according to all those reports. I think I paid as much as a nickel for them, we went around, well we ran around, yelling ‘EXTRA’ as loud as we could. We really made some quick money.  I went on the street cars, in the taverns, hell, all over.

Oh, we had radios, after all, like you said it was 1935, and we loved all the shows they had on, but if it was immediate news, we usually read it in the paper, morning and evening.  God, I can remember that first headline, I think he killed her on Sunday and for a week that is all that you could see in the papers, stories about Gerald Thompson, his fiancĂ© his family and him.  They printed lots of pictures of Mildred Hallmark and her boyfriend and of course the family.  It was pitiful and Peoria would have torn that guy apart if they got a chance. We read that two brothers were out looking for him with bullbats, so I suppose he was safer with the police.  He worked at Caterpillar in the same building where her father worked.   They tried him here and if they had found him innocent I feel certain he would have been lynched or worse.  It really upset the town.  God that was the talk around here for weeks and weeks, you would think that Peoria never had a murder, which we sure as hell did.  But this one had all that youth, rape and intrigue…God it was sensational.

I saw pictures from my police photographer friend, flat out porno pictures with him and some women, one bending over the front fender. My God, he had a member on him that was huge.  I mean those pictures were sold for a quarter and my friend got rich on that.  He printed hundreds of them so I know all or most of the people in this town saw one or more of them.   How he got these women in his car was something we never figured out. ‘Course he was a pretty good looking guy.  The story about his car having a handle off the passenger door was known by everyone in town.  Who knows if any of that was true?

Norm, you asked me if we had radios in our cars back then, but truth is I really don’t remember.  I had cars with radios, of course, but I just can’t remember if they were installed in those 1930 cars.  You know Norm, the truth is that the cops and the authorities did railroad Thompson. I ain’t no lawyer, but I know what a Capital Crime is, and a lot of lawyers and pretty smart people wanted him punished…but the death penalty?   They held him in the city hall for hell, what, maybe over twenty hours? Of course no one but the cops knew what went on in there. Sure he admitted he did it, but so would a lot of us admit to anything given enough time.   Peorians hated the fact that he never said he was sorry, you know, never showed remorse. He was an arrogant bastard, so the town said execute him and that’s what they did. I’m sure that any town in the U.S. would have done the same thing.

I didn’t know anyone on that jury or as a matter of fact I never even talked to anyone that was on the jury, but the papers ran daily articles and people knew more about Mildred Hallmark and Gerald Thompson than they did their own kids.  The courthouse was packed every day of the trial and mostly women managed to get into see the trial.  Guess they liked those porno pictures of him, huh? ( Laughs) After the trial why it wasn’t long that they took him up to the death house in Joliet.  I guess they did appeal to the Supreme Court, but in the end they electrocuted him.  Sure was no drawn out year after year of appeals I can tell you that.  You know Norm, after that we never heard another word about him or the case.  Pretty fast justice I’d say.

The main thing we talked about…me and my friends was why this young gal got in his car. It was over on Pennsylvania and I think she got off a street car for some reason.  We did know it was raining like the devils so maybe that’s why.  She was such a sweet girl, you know innocent so the way the paper wrote about her it got the town up in arms.  Women were scared for about a week then they caught the guy.  They were afraid to go out alone, stuff like that.

There was a lot of talk about lynching him…hell just talk, mostly in the taverns, but they hated him.  Funny I was talking about newspaper EXTRAS and that very day that I heard the first kid yell about that murder, why my friend was killed.  They had a big company strike in town and he was killed in that brawl. That was one thing in town, the unions it could and did get rough.  You know, union against non-unions. The company would bring in scabs and the big fights would break out.  Christ it was ugly. But, jobs meant everything here, I can tell you that. I know there were houses that were ruined by throwing Creosote on them, you know non-union guy would paint them and the union guys would throw that stuff on them.  I saw men with shot guns staying in those houses at night protecting them. Oh, that guy’s name was Brown…well, one of them was.

Back to Thompson…we heard in Peoria that he had his passenger car door handle removed so when a woman got in she could not get out.  Hell…we heard that over and over. I bet you really know the truth about all that Norm, since you are writing the book.  For four nights the damn cops rounded up a lot of innocent men and drug them into the station. Hell, they got hundreds of tips, it’s a wonder they didn’t drag my ass in. I was always downtown, the Empire Room, all those places.  Maybe it was because I had a lot of cop friends, and one of them was a police photographer. God…he used to show me some horrible pictures.  I remember seeing that picture of Bernie Shelton down at Saint Francis.  Christ he had a big hole in his lower back.  Hell, they just took any shot they wanted to of the bodies of people killed…wonder where they are today?  Remember he was shot there at that tavern on Farmington…what the hell am I telling you that for, I bet you wrote about him, huh?

I saw a big picture of Thompson, blown up into an 8 by ten of him in the nude.  Like I said he was hung. Have no idea if my friend took that picture or not.  I knew the two detectives on the case, Welty and Ford and the Sheriff….ah…Nussbaum, that was his name.  Back then a lot of women came into the bars, and of course the men came in to find them.  It was wild scene in Peoria. I remember the first time I ever drank a Pabst beer in a can…I can still remember doing that.

I finally got into the dress business…I always joked that I spent the first 20 years trying to get women out of their dresses and the last 30 trying to get them in one. (Laughs)

Marty SHAI, Peoria, Illinois    Recorded by Norm Kelly  1986.    3,139 words.

Editor’s Note:  This is a authentic, transcribed statement of an old time Peorian…we apologize for the language…But Norm tells us that Marty talked just exactly like this…a truthful, street wise old time Peorian.  Marty was Norm’s friend during his P.I. days in Peoria.     norman.kelly@sbcglobal.net

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