By Norman V. Kelly
Anton ‘Tony’ Miller was just an ordinary guy, like so many other folks living here in good old Peoria, Illinois during 1939. Life was pretty good, especially for those folks that survived the Great Depression, Prohibition and joblessness. Tony was a locksmith and finally had his own business. There was never a word written about him in the local newspapers until that little incident in 1935 when police ended up shooting Tony in the leg over what they said was a case of mistaken identity. Tony sued the city, and managed to settle out of court. Tony slipped back into oblivion and got on with his life.
Tony popped up again in early 1938 when he began to write letters to the local editors concerning gambling and crime in Peoria. He wrote the attorney general, spoke out at church rallies and harangued the alderman during the Tuesday night meetings in City Hall. He appeared to be some kind of crusader against all that was bad in Peoria, Illinois. To some he sounded like a crackpot to others he was just a good citizen. Which was he?
As I mentioned Tony was a locksmith and as he became better known in town through the publicity he got taking on the gamblers and the hoodlums in town, his business grew. But, like so many folks that spoke out against certain things sometimes they forgot that the opposition was also listening.
Truth is, as Peorians found out later Tony most certainly did not want gambling to cease in town. It wasn’t because Tony was a gambler for he most certainly was not. He did however make a lot of money off the slot machines and I’ll tell you how he did that later on in the story. I guess the truth was that he was gambling, but the stakes were a lot higher than a few dollars. History showed that Tony Miller put his very life on the line…and he lost.
Anton Goes Down
It was a very cold, snowy evening that January 1939 when Tony closed his shop early and headed home. He lived in a two-story home on Madison Avenue less than a mile from his shop. He got out of the car, gathered his tool bag up and headed for the rear door of his house that led into the kitchen. Suddenly very bright car lights were shining on him. Tony froze like a terrified deer. He wanted to run, but instead he turned toward the lights, his right hand shielding his eyes at he stared.
“Yeah, who is it?” Tony could hear the engine of the car as he looked at it. Suddenly two powerful blasts from a twelve-gauge shotgun thundered out between the houses. Instantly Tony was knocked backwards off his feet onto his back. Somehow Miller managed to first crawl and then began staggering toward the rear door that was now open. Anton’s terrified wife stood there screaming at the top of her lungs.
The big gun sounded one more time as Tony reached the small stoop at the rear of the door. His wife, Rose, and the three kids ran away from the door as Tony stumbled in. He fell half in and half out of the kitchen door. Rose raced to him cradling her husband’s head on her lap. “Tony! Tony!” she screamed. Anton lay trying to focus his eyes on his wife. “I think the gambler’s finally got me,” he said.
Police went after the usual suspects, and even Attorney General John Cassidy sent in investigators to get to the bottom of not only Miller’s murder, but the out-of-control gambling in Peoria as well. What the investigators found out and made public was the dark side of Anton Miller’s life. They reported that Tony, the locksmith, used his skills to make master keys for some of the hundreds of slot machines being used in Peoria, Illinois and the county. Tony sold those keys for twenty-five dollars. Of course that took money from the slot machine syndicate in Peoria and that was a dangerous activity.
A lot of the customers for Tony’s keys were the tavern owners themselves giving them access to the coin containers in the slots that they ‘leased’ from the owners. When the syndicate noticed a drop off in their profits it did not bode well for Mr. Miller. As I mentioned Tony did not gamble himself, instead he jeopardized his very life. The slot machine owners must have decided that Tony was the culprit with or without evidence. Of course in those days, they were the judge, jury and executioner so Tony Miller died, the message was received and life went on. Honest folks, it was just that simple.
Throughout our history Peoria always had a form of gambling even back before The Civil War. Once the Roaring Twenties came to town along with Prohibition gambling grew. By the time the thirties came and Prohibition ended, gambling thrived. During the war years here in Peoria gambling was king, and remained that way until early September of 1946. Tony Miller was just one of a hundred stories about that era.
Editor’s Note: Norm is a local historian and author of eight books on Peoria’s bawdy history. Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org