Friday, August 29, 2014


I do a lot of fun lectures on the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition here in Peoria, Illinois. When I tell folks that we would not have had any fun without the help of our friends up in Canada, skeptical eyes are on me. Of course my point is simple enough, what the hell would Prohibition and the Roaring 20’s have been without BOOZE? And…my children…where did we get all that Booze? Well, believe me it came from CANADA.
My audiences tend to be on the elderly side, and of course they are all experts on Peoria history. After all, their grandfather’s told them all they needed to know about Peoria. Problem is most of what they know is just ‘Grandfather’s Stories.’ Which were mostly myths mixed with a lot of flat out, uneducated guesses.
The truth is that all the TV and old movies about Prohibition were strictly entertainment. Which is what they should have been, especially the Al Capone gangster stories and of course Elliot Ness as well. Believe me, when I tell you the amount of whiskey, gin and beer made here in the United States in all the bathtubs and all the stills amounted to but a “Thimble full, in the over all picture.”
Many parts of Canada were dry when the great Noble Experiment became the law of the land on January 16, 1920. When the leaders up there looked down on the thirsty United States they sprung into action. Suddenly the distilleries were opened up and many brand new ones were built. The government allowed good old Canadian booze of all descriptions to be exported. The gates opened up and during the thirteen years of Prohibition hundreds of millions of gallons of good old booze found its way to every nook and cranny of the United States.
People used every contraption, including walking, to get to Canada to buy America’s favorite product, beside drugs. Of course organized Crime was handed the best opportunity they had ever had to get rich, and believe me they were experts at bringing booze back here. Quickly they owned what amounted to small navies and the flow of booze was incredible. They used small boats to take it to ‘Mother Ships’ anchored just outside of our three- mile-limit, and they got richer than King Midas. Think of it, this booze was coming in here so fast that there was quickly an excess of the product. All that booze was trucked and stored and the warehouses became targets for the gangsters with their Thompson Machine guns. Of course, that is the story you all know up in Chicago area and the Al Capone type gangsters of the great United States. Well, why go to Canada and spend money on booze when all they had to do was kill each other to get it? In fact during the thirteen-years of Prohibition 701 died violent deaths in the Chicago area, including many innocent folks. During that same time 79 died here and 98% of them were domestic murders and had nothing to do with booze or bootleggers.
Resorts opened up in Canada, like a town named Govenlock, just across the border from Montana. Hundreds of little ‘Vegas’ towns got filthy rich off ‘Dry Americans.” The enforcement was a joke and the only idiots that thought things were wonderful in America were the pathetic Temperance folks. The narrow-minded do-gooders led by Wayne Bidwell Wheeler was the most powerful man in the history of the United States.
Actually I am a Peoria historian and the real fun was had here in Peoria, Illinois. One day I could get into a bit of that. Or…you could come over to Bradley and listen to my four lectures in April…but that would require some effort. Sorry I brought it up. If I had my choice I would have loved to have been in Peoria from 1920 through 1946. I was born here in 1932, and too young to get in on the action. I can tell you it was one hell of a great time in bawdy, wide-open Peoria, Illinois. Long Live Peoria and Canada and of course…Booze, in moderation…of course. Editor’s Note: Norm is a local author & historian.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Part Two
“Big John McCrea,” that’s what folks called him, a huge Negro that lived in a shack down by the river’s edge in Peoria, Illinois. It was a hot evening, June 23, 1903, right after supper, that a group of three police officers set out to catch the men that were stealing coal off the box cars parked near the bridge. The officers spread out, with Detective William ‘Searchlight’ Murphy taking the lead. He soon came upon three men standing atop a coal car pitching coal chunks to the ground. He quickly confronted them and before his two fellow officers were on the scene three shots rang out in the darkness.
Detective Murphy was on the ground, his revolver still in his hand. The officers took into custody two of the men, but the third one, deemed the shooter, John McCrea, had escaped. He was a well-know police character and within the hour police had surrounded his shack, taken him and a pistol into custody, and reported to headquarters that Detective Murphy was dead.
Once the word of Murphy’s death spread through the taverns an ugly mob surrounded the City Hall, the very one that is standing in downtown Peoria to this day. As the alcohol fueled mob began to demand that the killer of Murphy be turned over to them, the mayor ordered all the lights turned off. The fire department and all the police officers were called to the station and the chaos was indescribable. During all of the screaming and yelling, two detectives snuck McCrea out the rear door and onto a waiting train that whisked him safely off to Galesburg. It was an hour later that three men from the mob were allowed to search the small holding area and the county jail. John McCrea, accused killer of their beloved Detective Murphy was gone!
Downtown Peoria was packed with people and over at the courthouse square there was standing room only. Inside the courthouse the trial room was already full, and a couple hundred people roamed the hallways hoping to get in to see ‘The Big Show.’ Bailiffs’ were yelling potential jurors’ names out and herding the men into the jury room. Others, not on the list, volunteered to be among the summoned, but they were carefully and politely rebuffed.
Finally there seemed to be some law and order, and with the courtroom packed, Judge Green entered the courtroom as everyone stood. He stood there a moment surveying the scene before he was heard to say, “Okay! Let’s get this jury picked.”
Mr. W.V. Teth was the State’s Attorney and for the defense, were two fine lawyers that had been assigned the case by Judge Green. On September 25, 1903 the jury was in the juror’s box, the lawyers were ready, and the eager spectators could hardly contain themselves. Finally, they would witness the conviction of the man that had killed thirty-seven year old Detective Murphy. They understood the process, all nice and legal like, but in the end they were certain that Big John McCrea would end up dangling from a rope. For them it was truly as simple as that.
By the end of September, 1903, the jury found the defendant guilty of murder and recommended death by hanging. As the fall turned in to winter all hopes of a new trial or a governor’s pardon were gone and the date of execution was set for December 11, 1903.
The fifty witnesses stood looking up at Big John as he said aloud, “I am an innocent man and ready to meet my demand.” The shroud was put over his face, and the noose adjusted. “Farewell my friends,” some heard the man speak just before he plunged to his death. John was buried in Potter’s Field, in an unmarked grave.
Charles Otis Botts was a self appointed ladies man, and used every woman that was foolish enough to fall for his boyish charms. In Peoria Heights, his fiancée supposedly shot her self over him, and a local coroner’s jury tried to hold him accountable, but the proof of murder was just not there. He moved on with other women, finally marrying Artie Slagel. Abuse was Bott’s middle name and Artie was his abusive target. He was under a peace bond when the landlady found Artie Slagle dead with a blue scarf wrapped around her neck. Of course Charles Botts was nowhere to be seen and a massive manhunt filled the streets, saloons and bordellos of Peoria, Illinois.
Local newspapers zeroed in on this murder case, and their favorite witness was the landlady. She told them that the room she rented to the Botts was locked so she put up a ladder and looked through the transom and saw poor Artie lying on her bed, strangled apparently by the blue scarf. ‘Was it Uxorcide?’ Newspapers screamed the headlines, sending its readers to the dictionary. Meanwhile Otis Botts was hiding out in a dive near the river, and spending his nights inside the brothels spending what little money he had. Soon, a tip came to the police and Botts was arrested and whisked away in a horse drawn police wagon.
Just days before the trial here is what one of the newspaper editors said of Charles Otis Botts. “This uexordest is not only a degenerative, malignant fiend, he is a monster in human form.” Think that kind of talk tinged the jury pool a bit?
MARCH 25, 1905
The ‘fiend’s trial began with the usual onslaught of spectators battling to get into the courthouse. Once the jury was picked the State wasted little time parading witness after witness in front of the jury, from the coroner to the star witness, the landlady. During it all Botts seemed bored; he yawned, drew pictures and put his head on the table appearing to have fallen asleep.
Surprisingly he was called as a witness in his own defense, and the excitement almost boiled over in the packed courtroom. He did quite well for an uneducated man, and finally in defiance he looked at the jury and said, “I did not kill that girl, I loved her.”
In the end the jury saw through to Botts for what he really was, a heartless manipulator and killer. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. He was moved to cell number 39, Peoria Counties’ version of death row. There he too was given the privilege of watching his gallows being built right outside his cage.
JUNE 15, 1905
Like the killers before him his presence brought visitors until the sheriff had to restrict the numbers. The sheriff’s invited guest gathered around on the third and first floor waiting for the execution to begin. Good old soft-hearted Botts was heard to say, “I hope God in his goodness and love will have mercy on me.”
What came after those words horrified the witnesses because the killer’s feet were actually resting on the floor! Quickly a deputy reached over with both hands and pulled the dangling body up high enough for Botts to strangle in the air. Moments later all the witnesses but two and the officials were gone. After what seemed like an eternity the doctors pronounced Charles Otis Botts dead. It was the opinion of most folks in Peoria that Botts got just exactly what he deserved.
Out west at the edge of Peoria County shots were heard aboard a dilapidated houseboat. Witnesses came running and saw a man they knew, Edward Clefford running from the boat with a shotgun in his hand. Soon he was the center of a huge manhunt that later centered within the city limits of Peoria, Illinois. Three days later the police had young Edward Clefford in custody.
As did killers before him, Clefford sought refuge in our saloons and whorehouses, paying money from the almost $700.00 he stole from his father. Police had evidence that three members of the Clefford family had gotten that money in a robbery. When police took Edward into custody he still had $540.00 in his pockets.
Peorians were shocked when they heard that Clefford and a friend had escaped the county jail. Truth is, Clefford did not make it and police moved him to a more secure cell. He was arraigned, charged with murder and the judge quickly set his trial for Thanksgiving week, and jurors were reluctant to serve. Yet the excitement of a murder trial was a hot ticket in those days and soon the courthouse was packed. Once the trial began folks were convinced that this would be, to use our phrase of today, a slam dunk. This kid was obviously guilty of shooting his father so get on with it.
I can sum up the tenor of the trial by quoting the state’s attorney. “This defendant is a despicable, uncaring young man that shot his father in cold blood for a few dollars and some gold pieces. He is a fiend, this devil in human form.” The defense attorney objected to the word, ‘Devil.’
After the jury was given the case some folks hung around the courtroom expecting the jury to come back in less than an hour. Truth is it was twenty hours of deliberation before the jury announced a guilty verdict for Edward Clefford.
By now I bet you folks have caught on that for some people killers are fascinating. Especially to women if the killer is young, as was Edward. They came to see him, they flirted with him and responded with smiles and jokes and seemed to be enjoying all the attention. Edward also received a reprieve and that caused a lot of excitement in town, I can tell you that.
But, on December 20, 1907 and by then Edward had a girlfriend named Nora Rawley, one of the women that had visited frequently, Edward was up early. He appeared to be exhilarated as he walked around. “I guess they are going to hang me until I am dead’rn hell.” He was right. Among his last words were, “Dearest Jesus have mercy upon me.” Thirteen minutes later he was pronounced dead. I know that for certain because there were five doctors that checked his heart. Imagine that. “He was the coolest and most calm man I ever met.” Said the sheriff. Too bad he had to hang before anyone said anything good about him. Editor’s Note: Don’t miss the next issue of ADVENTURE OUTDOOR SPORTS when Norm will conclude his stories of the men executed in Peoria, Illinois. Norm welcomes your comments, and reminds us that these are very short versions of those executions found in “Until You Are Dead. “

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On The Strings Of Time


Older Peorians like to brag about old time Peoria, which makes a local historian like me very happy. We have the oldest Santa Claus Parade, the oldest baseball league, the longest linear park and were at one time the alcohol capital of the world. As a historian I have touted these and many other things about this great river city town. My books and stories concentrated on the bawdy, gambling downtown life to the Vaudevillians during the Prohibition days right on through the Tumultuous Thirties. During the forties we were a bawdy, lusty, gambling town and our reputation as a wide-open river town was well deserved. Things calmed down in the fifties culminating in Peoria being named an All American City. Way back in 1882 we had one of the top five most beautiful Grand Opera Houses in America and we were proud of what it meant to Peoria, Illinois. I wrote a lot about the famous people that came to Peoria over the years to entertain and enlighten us but I must admit that I left out one very major aspect of our culture and that was The Peoria Symphony Orchestra. The impact of this group on our citizens can not be exaggerated and I am embarrassed that I over looked it. Frankly the stories of madams, gambling, murders, mayhem and gangsters got a lot more attention than Strauss, Tchaikovsky or Bach. THE MUSIC BEGINS It was 1898 in Peoria during the decade of The ‘Gay Nineties,’ when the Symphony got its start as The Bradley Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Harold Plowe. Peoria was a busy, bustling city with a population of close to 41,000 people and by 1915 the orchestra evolved into The Peoria Symphony Orchestra when our population was estimated at 71,900. Now I am not trying to sell you on the idea that all of Peoria flocked to these concerts but a small group of people were dedicated to the idea that Peoria needed a symphony orchestra. So, on July 26, 1916, the Bradley Orchestra was incorporated into The Peoria Symphony Orchestra. The original Charter explained exactly what the goal was. “The broadening and the uplifting of the musical taste of the general public in the vicinity of Peoria, Illinois.” Those early dreamers, guided at first by Harold Plowe, 1819-1916 and continuing through to Margaret Getz in 1995 to this very day have kept that goal in mind as they battled to keep their beloved dream alive and flourishing. They played a lot of venues in their time from the Majestic Theater, Bradley University, weddings in churches, Manual High School, The Shrine and our new and modern Civic Center. The orchestra gladly played in outdoor venues like Sylvan park, and popular gatherings in town like the May Fest. Each year they put on fall and spring concerts and the symphony began to gain followers and things looked pretty rosy for them. Now these musicians pretty much were self-supporting, owning the instruments, and buying the fancy clothing that made them sparkle on stage. They had no symphony salary to help them operate. But they were making progress and had at least 60 musicians that believed in what they were doing. Then sadly in 1916 the YMCA had a devastating fire which destroyed all of the orchestra’s records and most of the instruments of the fledgling orchestra. It was that same year, 4-7-1916 that a new charter was formed. A NEW ERA The secret was out! The Peoria Symphony was not a money maker and boldly the programs that were handed out to the patrons clearly indicated that they needed the public’s help to finance the future programs. Happily they got that support. In the late 1920’s with the help of a group called the Peoria Civic Orchestra and later The Peoria Musical Club a concerted effort to raise funds gave the orchestra a new lease on life. There was even talk about asking the people of Peoria to support the group through taxes of some kind. The truth is as time went on without the magnificent support of the Women’s Guild or the Peoria Symphony Guild there would be no Peoria Symphony today. Without the tireless, dedicated work of those ladies, well, there were a ‘handful of men,’ that helped.’ But it was women that took it upon themselves to finance the Symphony Orchestra and give it some financial stability. They came along as a major force by 1951. The Guild went to the public in so many ways, so many fundraisers with one question in mind. “Won’t you the public contribute to this worthy cause?” Eventually they had 100 members but they set out to make Peorians aware of what they were doing and asking for a whopping $2.00 to join. The first check they handed the Symphony leaders was $600.00. By now they were a formidable force and the second check they handed over was for $4,000 a substantial sum indeed. The accomplishments of this amazing group are legendary and they are hard at work to this very day. A book the length of Gone with the Wind could be written about The Guild and their dedication and support to the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. As I mentioned this piece is just a thumbnail sketch of the amazing history of the Symphony. Our own Jerry Kline wrote a definitive history of this group titled A Century Of Music which is available in our library. Jerry credits Mariesta Dodge Howard Bloom who wrote The Song That Didn’t Die for his history of the Symphony, 1898-1958. So here it is 2014 and The Peoria Symphony Orchestra is alive and well and beckons you to put on something other than sweats and an old ball cap and come on down to the Civic Center and taste the sweet music that they make and have been making for 116 years. There is a whole new musical world waiting for most of us and you can check them out at or call for information and tickets at 309 671-1096. I bet you would look great in a jacket and tie or a pretty evening dress. “I mean it ain’t gonna kill ya’ now is it?” Editor’s note: Norm is a true crime writer and Peoria Historian. He has written 12 books and hundreds of articles about his hometown, Peoria, Illinois and welcomes your comments and questions.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Choo Choo Ch'Boogie


I stumbled upon this song on You Tube and immediately it took me back to Peoria in August of 1946. That was a big year for me and the City of Peoria, Illinois. In May of 1946, defying all odds, I actually made it out of grade school and was heading for high school in September. I lived in El Vista and most of the kids before me went to Peoria High, but I decided to go to Woodruff. Usually I just did what I was told. I can hear my mother laughing at that statement. Wow! Fourteen years old, now what? Well, all my brothers were back from the war along with 23,000 others, minus the 662 that would not come back. During 1946 Peoria had three so-called gangland style murders, and a lot of folks in other cities thought we were a gangster town. Girls were on the minds of me and my friends and music was big for us during the war and of course 1946. The song that is the title of this piece had a lively ‘boogie woogie’ beat written by four people, one of them I remember was a guy named Horton. It was a major hit and was number one on ‘some charts’ as they used to say. Quite a few groups recorded it but I think the one by Louis Jordan was the one we loved. Young guys are always shy and most of the time the gals danced by themselves as we stood and gawked trying to some how get the nerve to actually step out there and dance with a (gulp) girl! Heroes are made not born. I really started out to tell you about trains and look where I am. But trains were big in Peoria, Illinois and we spent a lot of time downtown around the tracks and begging to sit in one of the cabooses. Most of the engineers showed us the trains and if we were reasonably under control would let us step up to one of the amazing ‘Iron Horse’ Locomotives. I loved the cabooses and to this day I feel the same way. Peoria. Illinois was a real railroad hub. I think we had fourteen or fifteen different Railroad companies that came in and out of Peoria, Illinois. I am old but even I was not around when the first ‘Iron Horse’ came into town from Chicago, Illinois. The entire town and folks from far and wide showed up ‘Hootin’ and a Hollerin’ at 10 p.m that chilly night of November 27, 1854. Trains were a part of Peoria’s phenomenal growth along with the booze and the beer. That mournful whistle at night far off somewhere still excites a lot of folks young and old. As kids I can tell you that we spent a lot of time and effort trying to catch a ride on freight trains. We would make it up to Radnor Lake and take our fishing poles to fish and play in the water waiting for one of those big black engines to come chugging in for water and coal. Once we heard her coming we would run to the water tower, or whatever they called it and line the track waving at the engineer as he pulled the big monster to a stop. Now some of the guys on the train did nothing but yell at us to get the hell off the tracks but some of them were a lot nicer. A few allowed us to stand under that big water pipe, the one they used to water those engines, and I can tell you it was a treat. I realize now that he had control of the flow of the water. At least I think that’s what he did, because sometimes a huge flood of water came out of those things. “Now you boys stay off the track and if I catch you jumping into the box cars or the caboose, I’ll have you arrested.” We stared at him. “Did you hear me?” We were all smiles and nodding heads as we lied through our teeth. Now that scared us…or so the man thought, heck we didn’t fool him. After all we had played that game many times before. Once that old train started choo chooing down the track we ran behind it or along side of it trying to stay hidden. Now many of us failed to catch a ride but the faster idiots like me seemed to always get on board. We then rode along until the train had to slow way down to make the turn north and off we would jump. Sometimes we stayed on for a mile or so and then had to make that long trek back. But as always we were the heroes of the day according to our friends and believe me we never even considered the fact that what we were doing could easily get us killed or maimed. Five years later most of us went off to the Korean War. Editor’s Note: Norm is a local True Crime Author and Peoria Historian.