By Norman V. Kelly
After thirty years of researching Peoria’s history I can tell you there are a lot of gangster fans
here in Peoria. Never, during my many lectures did anyone ask me about our churches, schools, or our industrial background. No, what they wanted me to talk about were gangsters in Peoria, Illinois. Frankly, I was glad because gangsters and sordid history is a lot more fun to talk about.
Peoria became a city in 1845 and we quickly rose head and shoulders above all the other river towns.
Booze and beer propelled us along, and we grew like no other town, thanks to our location along the Illinois River and other factors. Never, and I mean never, was Peoria considered a gangster town nor were we referred to as a bawdy, wide-open town during our early history. Peoria was simply a great place to live, raise a family, and find a job.
Prohibition hit Peoria, Illinois harder than any other city because of our dependence on the breweries and distilleries. 1920 spawned the Roaring Twenties and gambling and prostitution really took hold here in the old river city during those thirteen years. Our reputation began to change from a Metropolitan, liberal town into a wide-open bawdy town. A place where a man could get a drink and dabble in the other vices the city provided. Still, you will never find any history of gangsters, nor was that label ever attached to the great town of Peoria, Illinois. Peoria had 79 murders during Prohibition and only one of them was connected in any way to bootlegging.
It was not until 1946, one hundred and one years into our history, that the word ‘gangster’ began to appear in the newspapers. That year brought us three ‘gangland style’ murders and the out of town reporters ripped into us with a vengeance. On the evening of February 21, 1946, Frank Kramer a local tavern owner was working inside his glassed in porch at his home on Farmington Road. A gunman, armed with a rifle, fired three shots, killing the well-known businessman. On a Saturday in September, 1946 the ‘bullet ridden’ body of Joel Nyberg was found on a golf course in Lacon, Illinois. He was a local small-time hoodlum who was out on bail pending his manslaughter conviction. On the evening of October 25, 1946, another gangland style murder hit the newspapers with major headlines. Phillip Stumpf, a gangster wannabe was driving on Big Hollow Road when a car came up behind him carrying four men with guns blazing. Police found eight holes in Stumpf’s car, and one in the back of his head.
In 1947, there was the kidnapping and murder of Flavel Feuger, a Bradley student which caused exciting headlines locally, and brought in at least a dozen reporters from large cities. Another notorious murder In 1947, that of Mr. George McNear, who was shot by a lone gunman outside his home, made major headlines. McNear was a very prominent Peorian and that murder was in the newspapers in many large cities across the United States. In July of 1948, Peoria’s own pet gangster, Bernie Shelton was shot down in the parking lot of a tavern across from Hunt’s Drive In. Reporters had a field day on that murder, and every story about Shelton that was ever written was reprinted and rehashed.
Those six murders ended the quaint reputation of Peoria being a bawdy, wide-open town. Newspapers from around the United States labeled Peoria a ‘ gangster town,’ and it stayed with us to this very day. One reporter, a man named Link, from Saint Louis was out after bloody details, and he hurt us the most. I am happy to say that he was indicted here in Peoria.
The FBI repeatedly reported that Peoria was as “safe as any other town its size.” Big city reporters, out for sensational headlines, would have you believe that machine gun fire was as common as fireworks on the Fourth of July. I am here to tell you that I was never able to verify the use of a Thompson Machine Gun in any of the 235 murders I wrote about over the years. Once the reporters left town our local reporters went about the task of reporting the coroner’s inquest and the actual facts surrounding the murders. But the damage had already been done, and the gangster reputation stuck.
Today, there are a lot of grandfathers in town that will tell you bloody details that will curl your hair. I have heard them all. Truth is, some of them have an element of truth to them, but most of them are just myths. I can also assure you that those same gentlemen will not believe a word of what I have just written. After all, gangsters and machine gun stories are a lot more fun than the simple truth. You can read all of the actual details in my books, only available in the Peoria Public Library.
Editor’s Note: Norm is a retired private investigator, historian and author. These stories are excerpts from his books, available in the Peoria Public Library. Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org