Tuesday, October 29, 2013
That’s what the folks from Bureau County here in Illinois said about a young man they called Wasson, apparently that is the only name the newspaper article could come up. Now this was written up in The Peoria Democratic Press here in Peoria on February 27, 1850, so a bit of time has passed to actually check on the record. All Wasson ever wanted to do as soon as he was old enough to understand such things, was to travel West. He’d heard of the wonderful State of California and his dream was to become old enough to take off on his own. Well, in 1850 he finally reached that age and how he got the money to depart was never revealed, although he was with his father. Oh, by the way, he had another dream and that one was a bit more sinister than just traveling to California.
Master Wasson, according to his friends, had often talked about what his secret dream was. They revealed that to reporters once this tragic story broke. Wasson told his friends that all he really ever wanted to do was ‘Kill an Indian.’ That was it…his dream was to kill an Indian. So when the wagon train left Peoria the next stop out on the trail was near Wasson and his father, where they waited anxiously to board their assigned wagon. They hopped aboard a covered wagon and said their good-byes to the State of Illinois. Master Wasson was off to seek his fortune in California and he kept his secret dream to himself.
As the train moved west Wasson got to be friendly with a few of the younger men on the train and it was to them that he finally admitted that he hoped he would spot an Indian on the way west so he could kill him. If the boys were shocked enough to notify the wagon master or anyone in authority it was never learned, because one morning Wasson got his chance to fulfill his dream.
I am a fan of WAGON TRAIN and watch it to this day, so I can imagine this as the wagons rolled along, Wasson and a couple of his friends either walking or riding, maybe even doing some choirs. So after about three weeks Wasson spotted his Indian. Now there is no report of the actual sequence of events, but they are positive that the Indian was shot and killed by young Wasson. The problem that was brought home with horror as the story unfolded was that the Indian victim was an ‘Old Indian Squaw sitting on a large rock waving at the passing wagon train’. Wasson simply picked up his rifle aimed and fired. The poor old woman was instantly killed.
Now this was witnessed by not only Wasson’s new friends but by some ‘old timers’ as well. Wouldn’t you think that they would have immediately reacted, stopped the train to render aid, something one way or the other? Instead, reports state that they muttered, shook their heads and allowed the train to continue its movement west. We must remember, however, that this was 1850 in unsettled America. Can you imagine what Ward Bond would have done? At any rate perhaps less than a dozen miles away the wagon train was abruptly stopped, completely surrounded by a tribe of very angry Indians.
Quickly the white folks realized that they did not have a chance against this force and immediately sent a few men out to pow wow with the Indian chief and his ranking braves. The leaders came back and told the terrified wagon members that they were in dire straits, and that there was only one way to get out of the predicament alive. The chief told the wagon master that if he turned over the killer of the Indian woman they would be able to continue their trip in peace. The reports state that the wagon members ‘debated among themselves.’ I had to laugh at this because frankly I wonder how many of us would have voted to retain killer Wasson? That’s what I thought. So the young man was handed over to the Indian tribe. A rope was put about his waist and then quickly he was gone, trailing a walking Indian pony. The folks watched, worried that they may have been tricked, and that they would still be slaughtered.
The newspaper report said that the father protested, but as he stood watching the Indians take his son away, the other members of the wagon train began boarding their respective wagons, which were soon underway. The father stood and before his horrified eyes the Indians began to ‘Skin the young man alive.’ Can we even begin to imagine the horror?
The father was said to have stood for a long time, not catching up to the train until it had circled its wagons for safety quite a distance down the trail. Early the next morning as the sun rose, the caravan was on the move once again, leaving young Wasson and the horror far behind them. Justice…served up Indian style, way back in 1850.
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.
The City of Peoria had a growth problem since we could not move east, west or south. Oh, we tried to move on West Peoria, Bartonville, Averyville and Peoria Heights but we lost those wars. Finally, in 1928 after a lot of confrontations and legal battles the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that we had legally annexed the Village of Averyville. There was a time when the cops in Averyville would ticket our cops for going into the village after speeders. It was not a friendly situation. I’ll give you just one of many, many examples.
On July 20, 1924 about 1:30 in the morning Walter Smith entered the village limits of Averyville with his passenger, Ben Smith. A night marshal in plain clothes named Robert Sloan was on duty. He claimed that he saw the car veer or wobble and as it approached him, he waved the flashlight at the car, yelling for the driver to stop. Well, Walter had no idea who he was so he kept going. Sloan ran after the vehicle firing his .45 handgun. The rear window exploded and the car veered to a stop. Our hero ran up to the passenger’s side of the car, yanked the door open and uttered these brilliant words. “Get the hell out of this car and get in the other.” That’s when they discovered that Walter Smith was fatally wounded!
Next day’s newspaper headlines brought a lot of folks from Peoria to Averyville to look at the bullet riddled car. A huge contingent from Smith’s hometown of Sparland, Illinois also made its presence known and the angry folks wanted some answers. They were not forth coming and a near riot broke out in the village of Averyville. Once the crowd left, cooler heads prevailed and authorities agreed to look into the incident. The result of that investigation led to a Grand Jury indictment of Marshall Robert Sloan for murder. The folks in Sparland told reporters they were anxious to see justice served.
NO SYMPATHY FOR SLOAN
Robert Sloan expected his bosses and most of the people of Averyville to support him, but he was in for a rude awakening. The governing board suspended him without pay, and the newspaper quotes showed that a lot of folks in the village agreed with the board. He was given the benefit of a good defense lawyer, but one official admitted that the village feared a law suit more than they desired to help Sloan. A county judge granted Sloan bail and while he waited to hear his fate, he was out of jail. The evidence shows that he stayed out of the public eye and rarely wandered out of the village.
The Peoria County Courthouse was a busy place that frigid day, January 29, 1925. It was a hot ticket to come by and by sheer numbers the Sparland folks ended up with most of the spectator’s seats. For The People there was Peoria’s own State’s Attorney Pratt and on the defense side was capable Joseph Weil. Of course the fight to keep Sparland people off the jury raged, but in the end, the judge managed to get what he said was a fair jury.
In the opening arguments Pratt made it clear to the jury that he felt the case was an obvious murder and that he wanted Sloan put away for life. Mr. Weil told the jury that Robert Sloan was acting well within his job of protecting the People of Averyville. From that point on over thirty witnesses took the stand and it was a battle royal.
Things went quickly against Sloan when the judge allowed evidence in that clearly showed that Sloan and his friend McMillan had been seen drinking in a nearby tavern, and in fact, they made a habit of doing that on duty. Also, it turns out that Smith did not own the car, and the owner told the jury that the car had an alignment problem. That explained the wobble that Sloan had written about in his police report.
It was a knock down battle of wits and evidence as the case finally concluded on a Saturday just before lunch. The jury was handed the case and they promptly went off to lunch. By early afternoon they reported to the bailiff that they had reached a verdict. Most of Peoria heard what the verdict was when they read the Sunday Peoria Star.
SLOAN GUILTY OF MANSLAUGHTER
The reporter described the scene as almost riotous as the folks from Sparland exploded with yells and screams at the verdict. Once the bailiff quieted the crowd Judge Greene passed his verdict on to the distraught defendant. “The Court sentences the Defendant Robert Sloan to the State Penitentiary to one year to life.” Robert Sloan was released on May 26, 1927.
It is my guess that most Peorians young and old have heard of a song by Billy Rose and Mort Dixon called “I Wish’t I Was In Peoria.” That song was copyrighted in
1925. I wondered about that song and how on earth those guys knew anything about Peoria, let alone be able to write a song about it. Well, I found a man that felt that he was a victim of plagiarism and way back in the twenties, he was not afraid to make his complaint known. He actually did not blame Rose and Dixon: he blamed it on a man that used to hang around the theatre that Paul rehearsed in. Paul also made the mistake of not copywriting the work so he was out of luck. So, being in the fun business of resurrecting old time Peorians let me introduce you to Paul LaRocca.
Paul was born in Peoria August 6, 1899 and lived over on 205 Martin, attending Manual High School as a teen where he was a star athlete. His occupation later was that of a barber in his own shop at 413 Fulton Street across the street from a beautiful gambling casino known as The Alcazar. Paul’s real love was music and that consumed his life for many years. He had three brothers and a father that were members of local bands and orchestras and the father was an internationally renowned harpist. Still in his teens, Paul became a member of the local Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit and traveled all over the United States singing songs that he composed and appearing in most all of the local venues here in Peoria and major cities in America. He was a noted violinist as well, but it was Paul’s voice that brought him fame.
His songs and compositions brought him national attention which he shared with his brothers and was a great ambassador for Peoria, Illinois. So it was during this time that he wrote his own version of a song about Peoria, and he first sang it here in 1922 at the local Rotary Club. It was a smash hit in Peoria before he sang it all across the Vaudeville Circuit. He was soon called ‘The Singing Songwriter’ which stuck with him long after he retired to the barbershop. You can pull up the words to Billy Rose and Mort Dixon’s version of the song, but here are some of Paul’s words about his beloved hometown.
I’ve traveled all around and seen most every town.
But I’m right here to state we live in one town great.
Although we have no Broadway, our Main Streets mighty gay.
And don’t forget our scenery, the best in U.S.A.
Of course it’s corny, but that was Peoria, Illinois way back there in 1921. Prohibition was the scourge of the country, and here in Peoria, Illinois the Soft Drink Parlors, the Flappers, Jazz, local musicians and booze saw those folks through some pretty desperate times. Paul LaRocca and his talented family were right in the thick of it all. Throughout his career of traveling and returning to Peoria to his many fans, he reached the pinnacle of his success. Then in 1936, he added to his many compositions a song called “The Savior Of The U.S.A.” The song was meant to honor Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Mrs. Roosevelt commented about the song once it was handed to her. It came in handy when the Democratic Party had a huge convention here in Peoria, and of course the song was a magic hit for Paul and all the F.D.R. backers. A few service clubs adopted it as their loyalty song, and it was sung at many of Peoria’s major sporting events. Paul was delighted to learn that his song about F.D.R.
played at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in
June of 1936.
Paul had a loyal fan base not only here in town but all along the Vaudeville Circuit who demanded that he do most of his own songs rather than what was popular at the time. An example of that was a song of his called “Pal Of My Heart.” That song was introduced while LaRocca was traveling with a famous west coast band called Max Bradfield’s Band. As for Paul’s Peoria song on August 5, 1964, the City Council adopted the song as Peoria’s official song. Truth is Mayor Woodruff signed a proclamation declaring it to be our official song way back in 1923.
But eventually all bright lights fade and Paul had his memories and some fame when he went back to his barbershop full time. Sadly a fire
destroyed most of the material he had stored in a trunk, but he
still had his memories to the end. Paul
LaRocca died in December of 1971 and is buried in Springdale Cemetery. Joseph Petardi, a famous stone carver, well
known here and in Europe carved the elaborate monument for the LaRocca family