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bathtub gin and the whole shootin' match

by Nancy Nixon

A squeal of tires and the roar of engines. Terrified mothers and children hide as several men, dressed in tailored suits, dark trench coats and fedoras, wielding machine guns, storm a warehouse. Gunfire breaks out, and in less than a minute, it's all over. The death toll is three, and two others are badly injured. With their job fulfilled the men dash to their cars and speed away into the dark shroud of night.

For Illinoisans, this probably sounds like the olden days in Chicago — but gangster activity stemming from alcohol bootlegging operations was just as cornmonplace in downstate Illinois during the Prohibition period. ic0104102.jpg

"There would be no quenching the insatiable demand for booze in the big cities, and in many of the smaller towns too," writes Taylor Pensoneau, author of a soon-to-be-published book, detailing the activities of notorious southern Illinois bootleggers, the Shelton Gang, which will be published later this year. "For the most part, though, the far-flung market for liquor-triggered illegal production and distribution systems blanketed virtually every part of America. Lawless or not, these operations turned profits like any other large business, only often greater. Of course, most of the dough ended up in the pockets of organized crime, which wound up pretty much running the whole illicit show."

The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1919, prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol.


The gross neglect of enforcing the Amendment gave widespread, illegal bootlegging carte blanche throughout Illinois. Many a farmer and businessman made his own private stash of "bathtub gin," as it was called, but that wasn't where the money was. The allure of the profits from large scale bootlegging, or the illegal manufacture, transportation or distribution of alcohol, fostered the development of a new type of criminal, the gangster, which led to more than a decade of turf wars and murders. "For the Sheltons, for AlCapone in Chicago, and for many others, Prohibition was their gold rush," writes Pensoneau. And this set the stage for one of the most intriguing periods in Illinois history.

Chicago was the headquarters for the illicit bootlegging activity of mob boss Al Capone and his gang. He held a tight rein on any buying, selling or transporting of alcohol in a territory that reached southward to just below Peoria, and sometimes further south. Henry "Kelly" Wagle of Colchester, known as the most notorious man in McDonough County, supplied most of the hard liquor sold in the county and nearby areas. Wagle was acquainted with Capone and hauled his liquor from Chicago. ic0104104.jpg

Wagle, like many bootleggers, was considered a sort of "Robin Hood." While he was a known bootlegger, that was overlooked to a degree because he also did good deeds for the local people and helped to keep a lid on petty crime. But, he was also quite bold. One particular story details that in 1926 or 1927, the Christian Church in Colchester converted from coal to oil heat, leaving a large coal bin empty in the basement. Supposedly, Wagle acquired access to the bin and stored liquor there. Once the rumor got out, of course, the liquor was removed.

The Ku Klux Klan waged a war on bootleggers. The Klan had been formed with a common purpose to bring back what they called "decency" and to rid those engaged in "improper behavior," using whatever tactics they felt were necessary. Although they had the support of many churches, they abhorred foreigners, Jews and Catholics. The Klan had grown to some 200,000 by the mid-1920s, and was gaining power in and around McDonough County. The Klan was a constant thorn in Wagle's side, and he even had a cross burned on his property one night.

On April 8, 1929 Wagle was shot and killed gangland style, or "with his boots on," as it was called. Although his killer was never found, it was said that Wagle's murder was most likely ordered by a rival gang.

Located around 30 miles south of Colchester, the small town of Beardstown was known as a refuge for gang members who needed to leave Chicago "in a hurry" during the Prohibition days.

"I lived in Beardstown from 1921 on and it was pretty well known that many bootleggers in the Al Capone era came down when the heat was on," says Pharmacist Ed Lewis, now a resident of Canton. "They lived on houseboats on the Illinois River and they had unusual built-in burglar alarms. When the frogs stopped croaking, they knew someone was approaching."

Lewis continues, "The gangs would take anywhere from a two- week to a month-long vacation and enjoy the local sports of fishing and duck hunting."

Morris Bell, a former board member of Menard Electric Cooperative and the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, backs up that story. "Locals known as 'pushers' would take Al Capone and his people out to the prime hunting locations in the area around Snicarte and Bath and teach them how to hunt. If the gang members didn't shoot any ducks on their own, the pushers would kill some so the gangsters could go back to Chicago and gloat about their 'catch.'"

Frank McErlane, known as the meanest gangster in Chicago and loyalist to Al Capone, actually died in Beardstown. After Capone was sent to prison, McErlane became a drunk, and his south side Chicago associates, fearing for his life, arranged for him to live on a lavishly furnished houseboat on the Illinois


River. Unlike most of his gangland associates, McErlane died "with his boots off' on October 8, 1932 at Beardstown's Schmitt Memorial Hospital. After a rather unceremonious funeral (by ganster standards), he was buried Sepulcher Cemetery in Chicago.

Many a poor farmer turned to boot legging as a source of income. Auburn resident Felix Marchizza, a member of Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative, Auburn, was born and raised in southern Illinois' Franklin County, and remembers bootlegging well. He says that in the 1930s, he was a young boy in about the second grade. His dad was a coal miner and the family barely lived from day to day, so bootlegging kept food on their table. Once, when an officer arrested him and threatened to put him in jail he retorted, "You can do that, but you'll have to feed my family."

"My dad did a lot of bootlegging," Marchizza says. "We kept the still in the shed or in the basement, depending on where we lived at the time." He adds, "My dad's buddy had a big still set up in his barn and we sold moonshine to the Mafia in Chicago. They bought it a truckload at a time. They'd come down south in their Model T- and Model A-trucks, and men with machine guns would stand guard while they were loading up."

When asked what he thought of the Mafia back then, Marchizza replies, "Heck, we couldn't wait for them to come. We were so poor we couldn't afford to buy candy, so whenever they came down, the Mafia members would bring all the kids candy." ic0104105.jpg

Phillip Trammel, a resident of Stonefort, in southern Illinois, can also remember bootlegging in his area. He says one of his neighbors had seven stills that were kept in the basement, and when he died, they were auctioned off illegally. He had another neighbor who made his own wine and used it to pickle his beets. "Those were the best beets I ever ate," says Trammel.

For a number of years, during Prohibition, southern Illinois was the battleground between warring bootleggers, the Shelton Gang and the Birger Gang.

Like Marchizza and Trammel, the Shelton brothers were also raised in southern Illinois. Of the five brothers, only three, Carl, Earl and Bernie comprised the Shelton Gang. After stints in prison for various crimes, Carl and Earl worked in Illinois mines and with Bernie, they returned to East St. Louis, where they had previously worked, and began running lucrative gambling houses and bootlegging establishments. In the early 1920s their bootlegging operation expanded into the southern Illinois counties According to Pensoneau, Carl Shelton supposedly said, "There ain't a little town around here that's not gonna miss its whiskey. These farmers may vote dry on election day, but they drink wet on Saturday night. We can run enough rum up here from the Bahamas to flood all of Little Egypt (southern Illinois)."

In 1923, Carl Shelton met Shashna Itzik (Charlie) Birger, a Russian Jew, in a Herrin hospital, and they became personal friends and business associates in both bootlegging and the slot-machine racket, which they all but monopolized. They teamed up against the Ku Klux Klan, who by then had overwhelmed the area. This relationship would be short lived, and in fact, their feud would become one of Illinois' great rivalries of the Prohibition era.

It all started when Earl Shelton learned that Charlie Birger had milked $3,000 from their joint 50-50 slot-machine partnership, for his "protection." The Shelton Gang felt betrayed and banished Birger from the business. At around that same time, Birger became enraged when the Shelton brothers wouldn't help smuggle some of his Russian relatives into Florida.

The loyalty the two gangs had once enjoyed was now replaced with mistrust and disdain, and from that point on it was war, with bombings and shootings a regular occurrence. Both gangs operated from behind an arsenal of ammunition. There wasn't a safe place in southern Illinois during the war between the two gangs. If innocent by-standers happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, they could be caught in the line of fire and killed along with the intended targets. The Shelton Gang didn't have a fixed headquarters, making them harder to locate, but Birger had a lavish roadhouse, known as Shady Rest, where "bathtub gin flowed like water," which was their rival


gang's favorite target from land and air.

One would think the law would step in and try to break up these gangs and the illegal bootlegging. In reality they were literally overpowered and outnumbered by the local gangs who used armored cars with bulletproof windshields and machine guns. In addition, some lawmen were known to take bribes to keep the peace in their small towns, and sometimes to even make a little money on the side.

If one of the gangs antagonized the other, the rival gang would take revenge, and vice-versa. As soon as Birger would make a liquor delivery to a roadhouse (illegal drinking establishment), the Shelton gang would come right after him and shoot up the business. Birger would retaliate, and this violent bombardment became a way of life in southern Illinois. The gang war escalated when, on November 9, 1926, Birger's beloved hideout was thought to have been bombed and destroyed by Shelton's men, leaving only smoldering ashes and four charred bodies in the aftermath.
This Cartoon depicts the great pressure exerted by the anti-alcohol faction over the manufactures and distributors of alcohol, which resulted in the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, known as Prohibition.

Birger swore revenge, and his final act against the Shelton Gang was to have Joe Adams, the mayor of West City, and a Shelton sympathizer, murdered. Birger was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang for the murder. Although Birger was a vicious killer who would take a life in an instant, he was beloved by the locals, who appreciated his acts of generosity and local protection. On April 19, 1928, as he was being led to the gallows, Birger calmly smiled, shook the executioner's hand and was quoted as saying, "It's a beautiful world."

Shortly after Birger's death, in 1933, the Prohibition Amendment was repealed and alcohol flowed legally again, putting most bootleggers out of business. The killings continued, however, as nearly 50 members of the Shelton Gang were either murdered or died under inexplicable circumstances within a 20-year time span.

Today, some evidence of the Prohibition era still exists in Illinois. Bootlegging continues in some areas of the state, while some counties are dry, meaning alcohol can't be sold there. And some people are hesitant even today to speak freely about the bootlegging activity that occurred in their areas. Pensoneau says, "There is still lingering apprehension in some places about these scenarios played out so many decades ago." We can only speculate about the stories that were carried to the grave with those who lived and maybe even took part in the illegal activities back then, but we do know one thing. The Prohibition era has indelibly marked a compelling and mysterious chapter in the book of Illinois' history.

More information about Prohibition and bootlegging in Illinois can be found at the Illinois State Historical Library, Old State Capitol Building, Springfield, Illinois, 62701, (217) 785-7955; the Western Illinois University Archives, at (309) 298-2717; and at several Internet web sites:;;;;; Books relating to the subject are: The Bootlegger, by John Hallwas, The Era of Excess, by Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition: The: Lie of the Land, by Sean Dennis Cashman, and Taylor Pensoneau's book about the Shelton Gang, which will be completed later this year. Pensoneau can be reached at the Illinois Coal Association at (217) 528-2092.


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