By Norman V. Kelly
There are a lot gangster fans in Peoria, so I often bring up our pet gangster during my speaking engagements and writings. Bernie Shelton was here in Peoria from 1941 until his murder on July 28, 1948. His gangster reputation may have been warranted in Southern Illinois, but believe me, he was no gangster here in Peoria, Illinois. When I think of gangsters I think of Al Capone and men of his ilk, Shelton was just a pug, a thug, an uneducated ex-convict. I laugh out loud when I read that he ‘took over gambling’ in Peoria. What a joke. When Bernie came here Peoria had 242 taverns, most of them, including our nine casinos had one form of gambling or the other. Peoria did not require some outsider telling our folks how to gamble, that’s for sure. The major gambling places were owned by wealthy, and in some cases, powerful men. Had they wanted to get rid of Shelton they would have done just exactly that…‘One way or another.’
The Sheltons were gamblers, hustlers and intimidators who liked the reputation of being ‘gangsters,’ especially Bernie. As an ex-con he could never own a liquor license here, so he had a small financial investment in a dive called the Red Onion, and another dump near city hall, called the Palace Club. Carl Shelton and Bernie had a legit business in the Shelton Amusement Company that leased jukeboxes and gambling paraphernalia. Of course they were involved in gambling, as were hundreds of other people during WWII. I tried every way possible to track their ‘gangster activities’ in Peoria, but to no avail. We had a lot of really bad guys in our town over the years, and the Sheltons were actually pretty tame in comparison. Also, I want to point out that on September 3, 1946 gambling ceased in Peoria, Illinois. Of course the slot machines still thrived, but Peorians never called the ‘slots’ real gambling. Bernie and Carl promptly moved out of the city to the Parkway Tavern on Farmington Road, across from Hunts.
On the warm evening of May 30, 1948, Ray Walker, a friend of Bernie’s, got into a fight with a man named James Murphy Jr. Murphy won that fight and Walker drove down the street to summon John Kelly and Bernie Shelton. They stopped Murphy as he was driving out of the parking lot. A fight ensued, Murphy was pistol whipped, and shots were fired into the air. Mr. A. L. Hunt witnessed all this. When he and G. Sitton walked over to see
what was going on, Kelly stuck a gun to Hunt’s ear and marched him back across the street. “Mind your own business.”
County Deputies Aaron and Francis arrived and battled with Kelly and Shelton inside the tavern. Shelton was injured in the fracas and both landed in jail over night. Later, the two ex-cons were charged with seven felonies and it looked like their gambling days were over.
On July 28, 1948, Bernie left the side door at the Parkway Tavern to take his black Buick for an oil change. Cotton Ronitis was with him. “Wait, Bernie, I left my cigarettes inside.” Cotton heard what sounded like a shot and found Shelton on all fours in the driveway. The shot came from an unseen gunman in a wooded pathway that led to Saint Joseph’s cemetery. Believe it or not Mr. Hunt was a witness to that scene as well. Ace ambulance took Bernie to Saint Francis and on the way Shelton yelled at the driver. “Watch that green car, watch out for it.” Bernie Shelton died forty-minutes later in the emergency room.
I think it was July 31, 1948. I was sixteen at the time, when I stood way off to the side as they buried Shelton at the Parkview Cemetery. I was impressed with the well-dressed people and all the fancy cars. Once everyone left it took little time for souvenir hunters to take every last flower off the grave.
I have written a lot about gambling, crime and bawdiness in Peoria, and I can tell you, Bernie Shelton is always in the middle of those talks and stories. Truth is he was barely a bit player in the over all scheme of things here in town. Here are some financial facts from his probated will. I was told many times that he probably had a ‘couple of million stashed somewhere.’ I always found that to be funny, gangster fans hate facts.
Shelton’s Assets: A total of $56,199.00, and that included $33,022.18 in real estate value. He had $14,892.22 in cash with claims of 16,444.32 against his estate.
I have lectured for twenty-eight years about Peoria and its ‘state of mind.’ Mayor Woodruff understood Peorians, and he was elected eleven times. He molded this town into what it became. Personally I think it was one of the greatest little river towns in America’s history, and Bernie Shelton was just a tiny part of it.
Editor’s Note: Norm is a true crime writer and a Peoria Historian, Norm welcomes comments or questions.