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by Norman V. Kelly
All the people that tell you about gangsters in Peoria are just repeating stories they heard. Not one of them that I met ever did any serious research. The authors that wrote about our big gangster reputation were even less accurate than the mythmakers. To me a gangster is within the Al Capone ilk. Now he and his henchmen and gun-toting enemies were real gangsters. We who lived here in Peoria, Illinois during 1941-1948 had our pet gangster…Bernie Shelton. If you recall, gangsters actually killed people. We had a few ‘gangland-style’ killings here but most of Peoria’s murders were domestic, tavern killings or murders during a botched robbery perpetrated by a lone gunman. Look at these figures and ask yourself if these murder statistics sound like a dangerous gangster town to you? I’ll never change the gangster fan’s attitude…but perhaps you have more common sense.
Prohibition began January 16, 1920 and ended in December of 1933. That was thirteen years of the most brutal, bloodiest, gangster laden era in America’s history. During those 13 years, according to the FBI, 701 men were slaughtered on the streets and in warehouses and restaurants all over the Capone area. Here in Peoria we had 79 murders, two of them, that’s right two of them were actually recorded as bootlegging murders. Wow…just how dangerous can it get? Also, from 1920 through 1939 Peoria recorded a total of 106 murders. That is virtually twenty years by the way. Believe me when I tell you I read all of those cases, police reports, coroner’s inquest and the newspaper accounts as well. I’ll do the math for you. That averages out at 5.3 per year.
When 1940 rolled around we had just over 105,000 people living within the small confines of our city, which was all of 9.3 square miles. We had over 200 taverns and gambling was a major force in our town. It started before the Civil War and grew over the years reaching the peak of its popularity here during WW 11.
All during the war and certainly before that we were a bawdy, wide-open town and one of the best liberty towns for service men in America. During the decade of 1940 through 1950 Peoria recorded a total of 109 murders. I remind you that was a ten-year period. That averages out at 10.9 murders per year. I know the history of this town and when I think of what was going on downtown during the war I am amazed that that figure was not doubled or even tripled.
So for the thirty-year period I just told you about the grand total of 215 murders were recorded by the offices of the coroner and the police department. Truth is, many of those murders were actually not within the city limits, but that never stopped the gangster fans from blaming them on this great city. So, I will lump them in as well. That averages out at 7.1 murders per year. Wow…how on earth did we ever live through such a horrific gangster era? Ask your grandpa.
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