Tuesday, September 23, 2014
NOBODY CALLED HIM DWIGHT
NORMAN V. KELLY
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. Editor’s Note: Norm is a Peoria historian, author and a monthly contributor to ASO. email@example.com
Monday, September 15, 2014
OLIVE’S NIGHT OUT Norman V. Kelly It was a cool spring day in 1947 here in Peoria, Illinois when Olive Baker busied herself cleaning up the kitchen in her rented home over on Parkside. Usually this time of the morning she was off to work at B&W Bottling Company but she had been laid off and found herself bored. She was never much of a woman to remain idle. She decided that she would go answer a couple of job openings she found in the paper. Her husband, Marshall had a good job at Pabst and he encouraged her to take her time finding another job. She agreed, knowing that she was telling him a little white lie. Around ten that morning she was on a bus heading downtown to the Crystal Tap hoping to land a part-time job there as a waitress. The tavern owner told Olive that the job had been filled. Disappointed, she turned to leave when she heard a man call to her. “Might as well have a drink before you leave.” Olive turned to look at the handsome man sitting at the bar. They exchanged smiles, convincing Olive that a drink might just be what she needed. William Dollard and Olive Baker felt at ease with each other as they talked over the job situation and other places that might be looking for help. William was a pleasant man and the two got along very well. Soon the morning turned into lunch at the table and then a bit more drinking. They had a few more drinks, they talked, they danced and the early evening crept up over them. WHERE’S MY SUPPER? Marshall Baker came home from work expecting a pretty face and the aroma of something cooking on the stove. “Olive…honey, I’m home.” No answer so he called out again as he walked through the small house looking for his wife. Marshall made a couple of inquiring telephone calls that did not help. He walked down the block to a local tavern hoping that Olive would be there. No one had seen her. He finished his beer and went on back home. He made a couple more calls, read the evening newspaper, listened to the radio and surprisingly he fell asleep. Mr. Baker was rudely awakened by a loud banging on the door. Marshal jumped up, heart racing. Mr. Baker stood looking out at a man in a dark suit, a police officer stood just behind him. “Sir, is Olive Baker your wife?” BRADLEY PARK Mr. Dollard had a spouse as well, so he was a bit reluctant to make the facts known that led to the death of Mrs. Marshal (Olive) Baker. After leaving downtown the couple went over to the Parkway Tavern, Bernie Shelton’s tavern, to have another drink. From there they drove into Bradley Park, just down from where the tennis courts are now. Situated on the hill was the old Bradley Park Pavilion. Dollard found a secluded spot to park and talk. They were there less than five minutes when the passenger’s side door flew open, terrifying the couple. The dim dome light came on as a man with a colorful bandana over the lower part of his face stuck his right hand inside the car holding a silver-plated .25 caliber pistol. The stunned couple sat staring at the intruder as he said in a rather soft voice. “I need five dollars to go to Chicago.” The robber was a short man, dark hair, with a calm, cool disposition. Dollard recovered and remembers thinking that the demand was pretty reasonable. He assured the bandit as he reached inside his jacket pocket to extract his billfold. As Mr. Dollard handed the five-dollar bill across Mrs. Baker she suddenly screamed out, “Hey, I’m not afraid of you.” The bandit ignored the money as he raised his voice, looking at Olive he said, “Don’t get fresh! I mean business.” Olive then made a fatal mistake. She lunged forward as she reached up, yanking the bandana from the culprit’s face. The small caliber weapon instantly discharged just inches from Olive’s neck. The slug tore into the side of her neck, angling down into her vital organs. She sighed, then slumped sideways towards the driver. The bandit slammed the door and disappeared into the woods. Bill Dollard sat for a moment looking at his companion. “Olive! Olive!” He yelled. There was no response. Bill Dollard started up the car and raced out of the park on his way to the Methodist Emergency Room. A few minutes later Olive Baker was pronounced dead. Of course both Marshal Baker and Bill Dollard came under suspicion from the police. However, after an extensive investigation both were cleared and the case went unsolved. The newspapers called the man the ‘Park Killer.’ I wonder if there is anyone living in Peoria today that remembers Olive Baker? She made a fatal mistake and she paid for it with her life. Editor’s Note: Norm is a local author and historian. firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, September 4, 2014
THE HALL THAT ROUSE BUILT
NORMAN V. KELLY
I have written about quite a few men in Peoria’s past that were impressive and responsible for the remarkable growth of the City of Peoria, Illinois. Some of them went on to fame and fortune leaving Peoria to reach their expansive goals. That was not the case for Dr. Rudolphus Rouse. He was born in New York on July 20, 1793 and found himself a surgeon in the War of 1812. He married early in life and was the father of five daughters and three sons. From New York he settled in Saint Louis to pursue his medical practice. It was there that he heard of the beauty of the central Illinois area and a small trading center that was on the grow. He came here and looked upon the tiny settlement of Peoria which had but seven log cabins and two frame dwellings. The setting of this primitive little place, the beauty of the Illinois River Valley impressed him and he decided to move his family here and Peoria benefited by that decision in so many ways. I want to bring you the story of this young, remarkable doctor and the impact he had on the future of Peoria, Illinois.
There was a physician here before him, but his practice included Chicago all the way to Springfield, so Dr. Rouse was really our first resident physician. Of course folks came and went in and out of Peoria and at that time only forty four souls called the Village of Peoria their home situated within 16 blocks that included a courthouse square. Dr. Rouse was an immediate success and few physicians in the State of Illinois equaled his skills. He proved himself to be an honorable man, public spirited and eager to expand Peoria’s boundaries and his reputation as a qualified, highly trained physician.
On July 18, 1835 Peoria had filed the proper papers to become a town, selecting Dr. Rouse to be on the first board of trustees, serving as its president for six years.
THE DOCTOR THRIVES
In 1837 Rouse acquired a large piece of property in the heart of the town at Main and Jefferson. He had built on that prominent lot a very large; three-story brick building that would house his offices in the basement and allow for the rental of several office spaces for tenants. It quickly became ‘Rouse Hall,’ and was the dominating piece of property in Peoria for many years. In 1857 he expanded that property to the rear providing Peoria with an entertainment area that was known as Rouse’s Opera Hall. Actually the townspeople consider them separate buildings and businesses, which indeed they were.
Rouse's Performance Hall, circa 1905, William A. Gregory, Photographer (Peoria Historical Society Collection, Bradley University Library)
Dr. Rouse, along with a few other citizens realized the potential in Peoria. They set about to enhance their businesses and promote the new Town of Peoria, Illinois. Dr. Rouse encouraged other doctors to come to Peoria, including Doctor Frye, Dr. Bartlett and Dr. Dickerson, who later became associated with Dr. Rouse.
Take a look at the type of the physicians that located in Peoria, Illinois during those early years. Of course there was no governing body, or regulations to abide by. I guess you just popped into town and put ‘Out Your Shingle.’ There were Allopaths, Homeopaths, Botanic doctors, and…wait for it, root doctors.
Naturally the highly trained physicians of the time frowned on some of those practices and in 1848, Dr. Rouse and nineteen other doctors formed what would be known as The Peoria Medical Society. Then in 1850 Dr. Rouse presided over a medical convention in Springfield, Illinois which became the Illinois State medical Society.
IT WAS NOT ALL MEDICINE Acquiring real estate seemed to be a hobby with Mrs. Rouse as well as Dr. Rouse. He bought a large area between Adams and Washington Streets, south of Cedar Street which became known as “Rouse Addition.” Mrs. Rouse bought valuable property at Main and Adams Streets. For you older Peorians that was the area that we knew as the Central National Bank. She paid a whopping $87.50 for that very suitable area. Dr. Rouse had a three-story brick business building erected there. A Mercantile library was put in there as well as a dry good store. Folks in Peoria called that “The Rouse Corner.”
Home of Dr. Rudolphus Rouse circa 1858. Corner of Main & Jefferson (Peoria Historical Society Collection, Bradley University Library)
In 1888 that building suffered a severe fire, but was quickly repaired and somewhat expanded. By 1893 The Central National Bank moved into the ground floor and obtained a long lease from the Rouse Estate. Most people my age knew of the Central Bank, but certainly nothing about the history behind that piece of property. Finally by 1913 the bank razed the original building and in 1930 a new bank was built on that site. Dr. Rouse was also heavily into the local railroad business, which was sold off to T.P.&W. That railroad eventually was owned by George McNear who was murdered here in Peoria, Illinois. I wrote a story about him and his railroad which is on line called “The Railroad Man.” Dr. Rouse died in 1873, his widow then moved to Philadelphia where she died in 1886. The last of this eminent Pioneer family, Henry and Jennie Rouse, brother and sister, lived at 309 North Perry for many years. The Rouse family plot is located in Springdale Cemetery. Editor’s Note: Norm is a true crime and fiction writer and monthly contributor to several local magazines.