Saturday, April 20, 2013



                                              NORMAN V. KELLY

Way back in ancient history here in Peoria, Illinois, authorities had exactly the same problems local authorities are having today.  The more I delve into our history the more I find this to be true. I thought I would take you back to 1878 by telling you a little bit about what was going on here in the river city.
The distilling business was at its peak here with 14 distilleries going full blast along our riverbanks. Peoria’s population was growing and families were coming here in record numbers.

Of course all that booze and all those people presented major problems for our small police force, and as it is today, there were budget constraints.  A major problem was the homeless. Of course they were not called that way back then, but they created the same problems for Peoria then as they do now. A decision was made to build a House of Correction to control these vagrants, floaters and local imbibers, as these men were called. Of course they were referring to alcoholics that roamed the streets, but again they were not called that in 1878.

Contractor Valentine Jobst agreed to build the building for $10,791.00 at the foot of Grant Street, a place known locally as Plum Point. Routinely police would round these men up and take them in front of a judge where they were fined and released.  Of course they never paid the fines and were back in the streets within a couple of hours.  Does all that sound familiar? And like to day, the final costs were much higher than the initial estimate.  The city spent $18,000 on the land, building and a large brickyard.  Here the men would be put in cells, allowed to work in the brickyards, and given fifty cents a day for their effort.  Of course the city took what was owed it, leaving the inmate sober but back on the street.  But, that was the solution and that ‘Work House’ as it was known here in town lasted until 1920.
It might be interesting to know that they closed that building after Prohibition began.

The Work House, during its 41 years of existence housed some strange and often dangerous inmates.  The newspapers often referred to these prisoners as “Paregoric fiends and opium addicts.” The habitual repeaters were called the “Bungeroo Gang.”  These men were routinely sentenced to fourteen days to six months.  Many of them spent an awful lot of their lives in this Correction House, coming and going over the years.

Once the correction center was opened and the city controlled it Peoria County paid forty-five cents a day per county prisoner to Peoria to house them.  The city worked these men every day but Sunday and certainly benefited from their daily labors. Older Peorians will remember that the city had a lot of brick streets, embedded with streetcar tracks. The prisoners from the Work House made the bricks and were often seen working on the streets as well. The fifty cents they got a day was applied to the amount they owed in fines. Once they made enough to satisfy the fines they were back out doing exactly what they did to get them incarcerated in the first place.  I think it is safe to refer to that as a vicious circle…you think?

As I mentioned this system of discipline stayed in place for four decades.  You would think that someone would have raised the question of ‘slave labor’ or constitutionality, but apparently not.  The city had a problem, its leaders decided on a course of action, and that was it.  Once the buildings closed an Isolation Hospital was established. One of the other buildings was made into an incinerator plant, and a U.S. fleet of boats used the other vacant building along the Illinois River.

Shortly after the Work House was opened a women’s section of the prison was opened and was generally fully occupied. Adjacent to the correction center was the Lakeview Baseball Stadium where prisoners on good behavior were allowed to watch the baseball games. The grandstand would hold 700 people and opened on July 9, 1878 to standing room only crowds.

Another significant date in Peoria’s history was October 28, 1878 when four Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis arrived in Peoria, Illinois to found the Saint Francis Hospital.

It is amazing to me how the City of Peoria, Illinois grew from a village to a city in 1845 to become a gem along the Illinois River. We had around 1,900 people when we became a city and by the time 1940 rolled around we had just over 105,000 living within the 9.3 square miles of our city limits.  A city that has beckoned and welcomed its visitors from far and wide, always content to be called a small town within the great heart of Illinois.

Editor’s note:  Norm is a local historian and author of  12 books about Peoria’s rich history.
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