The advent of Prohibition in 1920 saw the rise of “bootlegging” gangs throughout the United States, and in southern Illinois, three brothers—known as the Shelton Gang—dominated the illegal booze trade, and later, gambling, in Peoria.
Ben and Agnes Shelton lived just east of Fairfield in Wayne County, about 200 miles southeast of Peoria. Seven of their 10 children lived to adulthood. Carl, born in 1888, became the leader of the gang. Perhaps because he had an outgoing personality, he was able to pave the way with local leaders, gangsters and politicians—often with bribes. Earl, born two years later, was the organizer. During Prohibition, he coordinated the shipment of illegal booze from the South into southern Illinois, and after Prohibition, he ran many of the Sheltons’ gambling clubs. Bernard (Bernie), born in 1899, was known for his temper and toughness. He became the gang’s enforcer.
A Gambling Start
The Sheltons might never have had a presence in Peoria had it not been for a local gambling club operator named Clyde Garrison. An attempt was made to kidnap Garrison in 1930, possibly by the other gangs in an effort to take control of Peoria’s gambling operations. He fought off the kidnappers, but during the fight, his wife was killed. Garrison decided he needed more muscle to protect his Peoria operations and approached the Sheltons to provide that protection. During the 1930s, the Sheltons had a good working relationship with Garrison, protecting his interests as well as those of other Peoria gamblers, but they did not interfere with his role as the local gambling kingpin. That relationship changed in 1940.
There is some controversy about what happened then. Taylor Pensoneau, in his 2002 book Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons, states, “The best that insiders could grasp in regard to this split was that Shelton (Carl) moved to join Garrison in the political power brokering end of the game. Since this was a strong suit of Garrison, he resisted. But not for long. Realizing he lacked the firepower to engage Shelton, Garrison exited the Peoria gambling scene and went into the wholesale liquor business. Carl, then in his early fifties, had the field to himself.”
However, Bill Adams, a Peoria journalist, states in his 2005 book, The Shelton Gang: They Played in Peoria, that “a former city detective [unidentified] who was later on the Shelton payroll, recently said he saw it differently. Somewhere along the line, Woodruff [E.N. Woodruff, Peoria mayor] and Garrison must have had a falling out and the ‘buddy system’ between the two was no longer valid. So, when Woodruff told the local gamblers that the ‘lid’ was coming off of gambling in the city again, he told them that someone else would have to take charge instead of Garrison.” Whatever the reason, Garrison was out by 1941, and the Shelton Gang was running gambling and controlling vice in Peoria.
Bernie Shelton’s murder dominated the front pages of Peoria newspapers for months (and then years and decades…) following the ambush shooting by an unnamed gunman on July 26, 1948. Early features offered rewards for clues leading to the killer, detailed the tracing of the stolen gun at the murder scene and attempted to piece together the “whole weird story of interlacing relationships between gambling rings and ‘higher-ups,’” wrote The Peoria News on November 18, 1948.
The Peoria News had a particularly keen devotion to the case, true to its motto: “The paper that dares tell the truth.” Following the murder, it noted, “Peoria’s bad name must be cleared—by private or state investigation or otherwise. It cannot be cleared without the answer to the burning questions which The Peoria News asks again this week: ‘Who killed Bernie Shelton?’”
Perturbed by the delay in solving the case, the paper published the following on February 2, 1949: “People have asked if the ‘WHO KILLED BERNIE SHELTON’ question was going to lead The Peoria News up a ‘blind alley.’ That is possible. We will take that chance. We know also, that there are people in Peoria who want us to forget the whole thing. But we also know that there are only two crimes in the statutes on which there is no statute of limitations…these are TREASON and MURDER.” Three weeks later, still determined, the paper wrote, “The fact remains that Bernie Shelton was a human being. In civilized communities, killings are not done and then idly forgotten.”
More than six decades later, The Peoria News’ pursuit of justice remains unfulfilled, but its quest is not forgotten. In 2010, Phil Luciano of the Peoria Journal Star wrote a series of columns on the Shelton Gang. On April 13, 2010, he wrote that while author Taylor Pensoneau and others now believe the slayings of Carl and Bernie Shelton were most likely committed by Charlie Harris, the late gangster and Shelton Gang rogue, the fact remains that “Neither murder ever was solved, nor were other killings and maimings of the Shelton family.”
A “Wide-Open City”
Peoria had a reputation as a wide-open city, and by 1940, a number of factors combined to make it a gambling mecca. First, it was the second-largest city in Illinois at the time, and the largest metropolitan area south of Chicago. With the advent of World War II, Peoria was also located between two military camps, Camp Ellis in western Illinois and Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul. Peoria was popular with soldiers as well as locals. Second, there was an increase in the popularity of gambling all across the United States. The Depression was ending, people had jobs and money to spend, and gambling was a popular outlet. Finally, the political scene in Peoria was conducive to gambling. 1941 saw the election, again, of Mayor Woodruff, who was first elected in 1903 and served on and off again for 24 years. Mayor Woodruff was an advocate of the “Peoria liberal” attitude, which held that gambling and prostitution were inevitable but should be controlled and taxed in some manner.
Although believed to be personally honest, Woodruff accepted the fact that gambling could exist in Peoria as long as fees were paid to the city and violence was controlled. A “levy” of $20 per month was assessed to every slot machine in the city. Rumor has it that slot machines not only existed in gambling clubs in downtown Peoria but also in the Creve Coeur Club and at Peoria’s Country Club.
This was an ideal situation for the Sheltons. They controlled the slot machines, provided protection and had no tolerance for violence in Peoria from 1941 to 1945. Carl and Bernie both lived in Peoria during this period: Carl on Knoxville Avenue near the Children’s Home, and Bernie off of Farmington Road on Golden Rule Farm, where he raised palomino horses.
What was the attitude of Peoria’s business community to the wide-open gambling in the early 40’s? Generally speaking, the business community also adopted the “Peoria liberal” attitude—as long as the gambling was controlled, there was little or no gang violence, and there were economic benefits created by the gambling, it was tolerated. There were two Peorias: the genteel city above the bluff and the valley city teeming with gambling and vice.
Carl Shelton longed to be respected as just another businessman. To bolster this desire, he became a partner in a legitimate company known as the Peoria Amusement Company. The association served another purpose as well. Pensoneau says that another partner, a key figure in various legitimate businesses, “was sought out by Carl as a dependable businessman to keep straight books on the slot machines and advise Carl on the ins and outs of life in Peoria.” Pensoneau did not identify this person, but Adams identifies him as Harry Tyrrell, owner of several local businesses.
End of an Era
The era of the Sheltons’ control of gambling in Peoria ended in 1945. Peorians were becoming upset with its reputation as a “sin city,” and in 1945, voters threw Woodruff out of the mayor’s office and elected Carl Triebel, who ran as a reform candidate. In a meeting with Carl Shelton, the new mayor made it clear that gambling in Peoria would be closed down. Carl Shelton had learned while in East St. Louis in the 1930s that if local officials were not willing to take bribes or turn a blind eye toward gambling, then the gang could not survive. He told Mayor Triebel that he would have more time to farm.
Although gambling was shutting down in Peoria, it was still available in Peoria County outside the city, and Bernie stayed to run that operation. But all was not well with the Shelton Gang, who had developed many enemies. In addition, the Chicago and St. Louis gangs saw an opportunity to eliminate the Sheltons and take over gambling operations in southern Illinois. Between February and October of 1946, three gangsters affiliated with the Shelton gang were killed in Peoria. On October 23, 1947, Carl Shelton was killed near his farm in southern Illinois. On July 26th of the next year, Bernie Shelton was killed outside the Parkway Tavern on Farmington Road. No one was ever tried for either murder. The death of Bernie Shelton effectively ended the reign of the Shelton Gang in the Peoria area. Peoria continued to change from the wide-open city of the 1940s, and in 1953, won the first of its three All-American City Awards.
The days of the Shelton Gang in southern Illinois were also numbered. There were three attempts to murder Earl, the last of the gang, during 1950 and 1951, but he had had enough. He packed up the rest of the Shelton clan and moved—thus ending the Shelton Gang itself.
In his book, Taylor Pensoneau summed up the Sheltons this way: “The Shelton boys and their gang were a bridge in Illinois between old and new. They had one foot in the past, when lawlessness featured independent gunmen and their henchmen preying on society…On the other hand, Carl, Bernie and Big Earl were forerunners in the move to major organized crime…In the end, though, the Sheltons did not have the wherewithal or staying power (especially after the killing of Carl) to withstand some of the ultimate villains in organized crime…But the Sheltons held their own against them for years.” iBi
For more information on the Sheltons, check out Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons, by Taylor Pensoneau, or The Shelton Gang: They Played in Peoria, by Bill Adams.