By Norman V. Kelly
Peorians were fortunate over the years to have been served by a brave, well-run police department. People that are familiar with my work know that I found five officers that died in the line of duty and were only just recently honored on police monuments. At one time we elected five Constables to augment our police protection and the downtown merchants hired merchant police officers as well. Constable Arthur Smith died in the line of duty as did Officer Otto Hoffer, a store detective. I would like to tell you of two brave railroad detectives that lost their lives here in Peoria protecting boxcars and railroad property. During the police memorial services here in May they are not mentioned nor honored in any way because they were not Peoria Police Officers. They died in the line of duty, were buried and forgotten.
It was June 28, 1922, when Special Officer Alfred Gifford, a detective with the Rock Island Line lost his life. It was well into Prohibition and the cargo that he was hired to protect was alcohol. Down near the river, there at Spring Street and Rock Island Street, a tremendous number of boxcars waited for locomotives to move them across the United States. Booze, good old Peoria whiskey, stored in our warehouses, was shipped all over America.
Naturally, these cars became targets of bootleggers and violent men after their very prized cargo. Bad guys tunneled under warehouses, came in through the roofs and attacked freight trains on a regular basis. Detective Gifford’s job was to protect his railroad’s property here in Peoria, Illinois.
He came upon a suspicious man that was nosing around one of the boxcars on the early morning of June 27, 1922. “Hey…hey over there where you going?” The man stopped as the detective caught up to him. “What’s your name and where are you from?” The man whirled around to face the officer, a deadly .45 in his hand. Without warning he fired hitting Detective Gifford in the hand. Gifford immediately pulled his weapon and returned fire. The second shot from the intruder slammed into the detective’s stomach.
The detective was now on the ground but still firing. He saw the man crumple and fall to the ground from his third shot. Both men got off a few more shots as the man got up and began to run off towards the river.
Gifford, sitting up now, continued to fire at the escaping trespasser. A massive manhunt was launched in the city and the county, but to no avail.
Detective Alfred Gifford of 108 Fredonia died at Saint Francis Hospital during the evening of June 28th. 1922. He was buried in Maquon Illinois.
It was a cold December evening in 1929 here in Peoria, Illinois. Prohibition was going strong and now Peorians faced something called The Great Depression. Two police officers had just left a restaurant when they heard the sound of gunfire coming from the river down near the bridge.
They took off running and when they got down near the water’s edge they heard a man’s voice. “They got me!” The officers yelled back and finally located a man lying on the railroad tracks. He looked up and gasped his final words. “They got me in the chest…three of ‘em.”
The officers bent over the dying man, but he failed to respond. Both officers knew the dead man as a railroad detective named Emmett Keen. The officers called for help and put the detective’s body on the front of a locomotive, which carried it to the Griswold Crossing. From there an ambulance took Keen to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
A citywide manhunt began early the next morning as detectives gathered footprints, shell casings and of course they rounded up the usual suspects. The body of John Horn was found dumped in a vacant lot, and before the day was out police connected the dead man to Keen’s death. The medical examiner supplied slugs from both bodies and a ballistic expert testified that the slug from Keen’s gun had killed Horn. He also verified that the slug from Keen’s body had come from Horn’s gun. A button torn from Horn’s coat was also found at the scene where Keen had been shot and the busy detectives even traced footprints to two other men. The cops rounded up well over thirty men, and using tactics of the day ended up charging two men, Dunbar and Norton with murder.
So that was all the talk here in town after that strange double shooting just before the New Year’s celebration that would ring in the brand new year of 1930. Detective Emmett Keen was buried and forgotten just like his friend Detective Alfred Gifford.
Editor’s Note: Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org