Was Peoria Run By Gangsters?
by Norman V. Kelly
When people talk about the old days, Peoria’s real history is never told as a whole. Most articles zero in on the so-called, ‘gangster era,’
I am hear to tell you that we never had a gangster era, even though I must admit that it certainly appeared that way to folks that did not live here.
Peoria became a city in 1845 and grew head and shoulders above all the other river towns. The driving force behind our growth was jobs. Thos jobs came from multiple breweries and distilleries here within our city limits. To some folks that is all the information they needed. How could a town that in totally dependent upon booze and beer, when the Temperance Movement was on the rise, not be a bad place? Believe me, that was the feeling of many people, thanks to the outside reporters that wrote about us over the years.
However, I can tell you that never - and I mean never - was anything about corruption, gangsters, or evilness written about the great city of Peoria, Illinois for the first seventy-five years of our existence, from 1845 through some of 1920. Of course we had crime, a few prostitutes and very minor gambling going on, but certainly nothing out of the norm for a city our size.
It was not until the Roaring Twenties, the beginning of ‘The Nobel Experiment,’ otherwise known as Prohibition, that our city and its reputation begin to change. The temperance movement finally managed to bring prohibition to America and with it came thirteen years of the most corrupt, criminal era in the history of the United States.
Naturally, one would think it would bring a negative change here in Peoria, Illinois. But the truth is Peoria was only slightly adversely affected. One example is murder, which rose in certain parts of America very dramatically. Here we had seventy-nine murders during those thirteen years, or just under seven murders per year. Only two of them were even remotely connected with bootlegging. One of those is doubtful. Prostitution made a dramatic increase, along with all forms of gambling. The root of corruption, such as it was, can be traced to the middle of 1920.
Over the years that I have researched Peoria’s history, I interviewed at least eighty so-called old-timers that lived here in Peoria during Prohibition, The Great Depression, World War I and World War II. I was alive and kicking during WW II as were many of my friends. We and they knew Peoria, we all loved it, and we all knew what was going on, even us kids. I never found anyone that would come out and say that Peoria was corrupt, but they all agreed that our mayors, especially Mayor Woodruff, tolerated gambling in our town and every one of them agreed that collecting so-called ‘funny money’ from these gamblers was okay with them. If Peorians didn’t agree with that how was it that the majority of voters in Peoria elected Woodruff eleven times for a total of 24 years?
Let’s look at the years that Woodruff was Mayor, maybe then we can trace this ‘corruption’ here in Peoria, Illinois and who was behind it. He was first elected to a string of two year terms: 1903-05, 1909-11, 1913-15, 1915-17, 1917-19, and 1919-21 ( Prohibition). After 1921, we have Mayors Michel, Mueller and David McClugage who was mayor from 1937 until Woodruff took over in 1941.
Edward Nelson Woodruff was 83 years old in 1943, when he was reelected for a seventh term, but his first four-year term. The war was raging, and Peoria had the reputation of having a wild, wide-open reputation, which it deserved. If you think we had a reputation of being a gangster town during the war, then you have been misinformed. That reputation evolved in 1946, 1947, and 1948, as a result of a total of six very highly published, so-called ‘gangster style’ murders. Let’s get back to the subject of Mayor Woodruff. If you want to talk about corruption then you have to talk about him.
Just think of this for a moment. Peoria, Illinois in 1941 is 96 years old. I defy any of the so-called historians who are big on gangsters and corruption to show me any articles in newspapers that define Peoria, Illinois as ‘Being in a corrupt state.’ Where are the gangsters, the murders at this time? Remember, when Prohibition ended in 1933, Peoria changed for the better. Gambling was scarce, prostitutions were not organized, and Peoria was a wonderful place to live and raise a family. Then came WW II.
Woodruff took over as mayor in May of 1941 and his final term ended in the spring of 1945. So is this when corruption, as folks my age and older, now understand it started. Mayor Woodruff knew that the voters that put him in office wanted a ‘liberal town.” Most of the mayors knew that and most of them agreed with that idea. A few of them were a little more liberal than the others. But never…never did they have a problem with corruption or major gambling until the war years of 1941-1945. Oh, it was here for the two decades prior to WW II, but not as powerful and controlling.
The war years were brutal. Just over 23,000 of our young men in Peoria County went off to war. The final tally of injuries was quite severe with a total of 662 being killed. The war years brought an influx of men and their families into the city of Peoria and into the county. Our population in the city alone was over 105,000 people. The county grew by leaps and bounds. Our police force suffered, a lot of our young doctors left for the service and believe me the face of Peoria’s people changed. It was the time of Rosie the Riveter, and a different Peorian in town taking the abundant jobs. We had 242 taverns, and people worked ten and twelve hours days, and when they were off work many, many of them headed for our taverns. We had 72 restaurants, and downtown was so busy that I remember not being able to cross the street on the first green light. It was frantic and chaotic, but fun as hell…believe me. Of course I was just a kid…the adults had the real fun.
We were a magnificent town, a God-fearing, hardworking town and extremely patriotic. Mayor Woodruff was the perfect man for the job and what was going to come down the pike. It was during this time that we had nine actual casinos among those 242 taverns, and gambling was as common as going to a movie. Who were these gamblers? Why every male in town old enough to drink. Certainly my dad and all my uncles gambled. I remember punching the punch board for my dad and pulling the handle on the slots. It was who we were, it was accepted, common as cracks in the sidewalk…It was Peoria, Illinois. Gangsters…what a joke. Of course we had real bad guys in town, but do we lump the hard-working man out for some fun in with the real bad guys?
Peoria had more than just gambling…we had numerous churches, 12,000 kids in school. We had movie theaters, great restaurants and businesses of every description. We had jobs, and horse racing and bike races, and a wonderful river recreation area. Peoria was a major railroad hub and our stockyards were immense. It was a great city of breweries and distilleries and war factories. It was a great, great place to live.
Mayor Woodruff loved this town. All he ever wanted was to be mayor. He was a wealthy man with fish and ice markets as well as a coal company. He lived on Jefferson Street and the only move he ever made was to build a new house across from where he lived. He was a family man, a beloved dad and a wonderful husband. He was loved and hated along political party lines. He never took a dime under the table from anyone ever…he had all the money he ever needed, and he was a generous, powerful man, and he loved his town. Was he corrupt? Of course people that hated him knew he was. The People that voted for him and loved him knew he was NOT. Did he take money from the men that owned and ran the gambling casinos and taverns that had gambling? Absolutely. Did he keep this money a secret, somehow using it for his own benefit? NO! Did he use it to improve and maintain the infrastructure of the City of Peoria? Yes. How do I know that? Because it was openly written about in our newspapers and discussed at the Tuesday Night Alderman’s Meetings. PSSST…Wanna sample?
Remember these payments are public record; If you want to spend a year checking into this the printed version of the Alderman’s meetings are sitting right here in our Peoria Public Library. It’s all yours. Remember this is just a ONE year Sample of some payments to our city clerk:
Empire, $18,500 Saratoga, $5,250 G.C. Rooksby, $500.00 It Club, $4,475.00 Club Gig-Gallaux, $4,250.00 Sportsman Club, $5,250
John Smith, $250.00 H.L. Lamp, $250.00 Talk O’ Th’ Town, $500.00
Lyceum, $4,750 J. Swain, $4,500 J. Snyder, $250.00 Roscoe, $500.00
(another John Smith, $125.00
All public record…all used by the mayor for the city. Here is a Woodruff Quote when he was running for mayor in 1941, “There is bound to be vice. Under regulation, such activities will be required to defray costs of civic maintenance and improvements.” So-called ‘funny money’. Are you catching on yet?
A quote from Alderman Hammond: “The treasurer tells me that the city is receiving only $300.00 a month from punchboards. It seems to me that many more punches are being sold. But...where is that money, I don’t know?”
A quote from Alderman Mittleton: “I don’t know of any other city in the country which thinks it is necessary to go to gamblers for money.”
Hammond: “He’s right. We should give that $42,275.00 in our treasury back to those gamblers and their ‘privileged interests.’”
Woodruff: “I’ll never sign a voucher for the return of this money…never.”
So you see right there out in public in those meetings they argued about this funny money…but Woodruff always won. So…if you want to blame him…fine…believe me he would tell you where to go.
Every once in awhile for reasons both politically and private Woodruff would not accept money from these places of business. It was rare...but here is what he said once when he was questioned about it.
Woodruff: “I’ll tell you this much, when payments are resumed for gambling privileges, the money won’t be put in any special fund. I am going to use that money to pave the alleys.”
The mayor. chomping on a big Havana cigar loved to meet with the press. They asked him anything they wanted. Here is his comment when the press asked him if he is going to run again. This is a profound statement…only they just laughed. Think about what he said here.
“As a cow marks with her eyes only the man on the haystack, so does a conscientious voter view the acts of a city servant.” Does this sound like a man who has a tendency to hide things?
A man named Madden was going to run in the 1945 election against Triebel and Woodruff. Listen to what he told the potential voters…Can you judge Peoria by this statement? I can.
“Gambling will be supervised and prostitutes will be licensed.” Imagine a candidate saying that out in public…why would he do that?
Our “Great Reformer”… Mayor Triebel, said this shortly after he won and was waiting to take the office, “There is propaganda going around that I will close this city. I have lived here too long. I know Peoria and I know what the people want. We will continue to have a good city and a lot of fun while I am mayor.”
Mayor Woodruff is mayor until May 1945. One alderman is complaining during the Tuesday Night meetings… Here is what he said to Woodruff.
“I am on the liquor commission and yet I have never ruled on even one case.”
Mr. Woodruff, with a grin said, “And YOU never will.” It appears Woodruff was is in charge!
WOODRUFF IS FINISHED
It is standing room only when Triebel takes over from Woodruff…Let’s get a bit closer and listen to what’s going on. Over 4,000 people are over at the Armory for the ceremony.
Mayor Carl O. Triebel says, “I do not know anything about running the city affairs. But I know the citizens want an intelligent, honest administration. That is what they will get.”
Woodruff summed up his accomplishments by saying, “The city is $335,915.00 better off than it was four years ago.”
Then Mr. East, Peoria’s first and most honest historian complimented Woodruff by stating, “In 1845 we had 27 firms here, including two book stores. Today we have 1,934, and a population of 105,000 people.
Governor Green added his endorsement of Woodruff saying, “There is no more glorious chapter in Peoria’s history than its contribution to the United States.’
Sure, they’re just politicians…but does this sound like corruption? Remember this is just after Woodruff’s four years in office and the so-called gangster days in Peoria, Illinois.
A national historian and writer…Mr. V.Y. Dalton said of Peoria, Illinois:
“Peoria may not be without vice but her jewels are magnificent, and her virtues without number. A nice town with a lot of nice people.”
THE END OF 1945
Well it’s 1946, things are pretty much the same. Triebel is NOT collecting any “funny money” but gambling is still going on. It has dropped off, and many taverns just got out of the business. It seems to have marched out in the county and over in East Peoria…but not because of any mandates by Mayor Triebel. Folks quit going to the Tuesday Night Fights over at city hall. It’s boring without the wit, humor and sarcasm of Woodruff.
September 3, 1946…After some mundane business at the Tuesday night meeting, Mayor Triebel shocked the assembled alderman with his “No More Gambling” speech.
Keep in mind he took over office in May of 1945 and now this is September 1946. He said, “There recently appeared in the newspaper and over the radio that slot machines could operate in the city if certain individual’s palms were properly greased.”
He then went on to talk about the complaint the American Legion had made about not being treated like everyone else. They suggested that all gambling stop. He then went on a bit further before he said, “I know all of you will be in full accord with me and my plan. Therefore I have ordered the Chief of Police to stop all gambling of every kind and description which might be done publicly.”
In the paper the next day Alderman Grant said: “We will always have reformers…it is a proven fact that when they need funds they prey upon the taverns and gambling interests.”
Five days later Mayor Triebel wrote a letter to the Chief telling him that there are gambling cheaters in town. He instructed the Chief to crack down and rid the city of gamblers.
Here is the real reason Triebel stopped gambling. In a press conference the reporters questioned Triebel to find out if he was really serious about stopping gambling the fair city of Peoria, Illinois. “I have received too many complaints from working men complaining about losing their paychecks on Friday and Saturday. Also hundreds of wives and mothers have complained to me about heads of families coming home without funds to support their families.”
His final comment: “When I ordered all gambling to cease I meant just exactly that,” and he did. However any man or woman my age will tell you that they know slots were here beyond 1946...truth is we never really considered slots gambling...it was just a silly game that you usually lost at. Gambling was poker, slots, punchboards, baseball numbers games and casino stuff…believe me it stopped in Peoria. It did go out in the county and across the river but it stopped here. It stopped because the Mayor wanted it stop. All that talk of payoffs to keep it going is just silly.
So there it is…Gambling was illegal in Peoria, Illinois, like it was elsewhere. During Prohibition it got a very good start. Mayor Woodruff was the mayor during a lot of Prohibition and his miracle of allowing the taverns to stay open with a Soft Drink Parlor License…was brilliant, but that’s a story for another day.
If we are looking for someone to blame for all this gambling and so-called corruption…Woodruff should be the target. To me he gave the people what they wanted and this town thrived because of him.
If corruption means gambling and accepting money from the casino and tavern owners then we had plenty of it. Gambling was stopped when the ordinary wife, woman, disgruntled gambler and the voters got tired of it, they got rid of Woodruff…and got Triebel. He was not a reformer...he had no mandate to end ‘corruption’ or gambling, but he simply got sick and tired of the complaints. He felt that Peoria was changing and that they wanted gambling gone so he ordered it “Gone!”
The moral of this story is that if the people want decent, honest government they have to seek it out. They have to be consistent and diligent in the people they elect. If the elected official shows signs of going bad, folks have to rise up and demand that the bad apples be thrown out. They can do that with recalls and by the power of Attorney Generals. Truth is the average person just doesn’t care as long as things are going well for him or her.
The do-gooders, the self-righteous Temperance people shoved Prohibition down America’s throat. They told America they were doing God’s work. What it wrought was thirteen-years of the most corrupt, murderous, violent time in the history of the United States. They had their own political agenda and they could have cared less the adverse effects it had on America and its people. Take a look at this little ditty.
Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop
We like it.
It’s left a trail of graft and slime,
It don’t prohibit worth a dime,
It’s filled our land with vice and crime.
Never the less we’re for it.
-Franklin P. Adams 1931
Here in Peoria the people…my family and relatives…not only participated in gambling…and who knows what else…they liked it.
Remember the folks of Peoria did not live ‘Downtown’ we just used it for entertainment…since all of the gambling and most of the fun things were ‘down there’ why not leave them alone. If a person wanted to participate he always knew where it was…get it? Well then, now you know about Peoria and Peorians, so stop calling us gangsters!