ESL Police

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THE POLICE IN EAST ST LOUIS

by Robert "Tree" Sweeney

 

I was born in East St. Louis and lived over on 24th Street between State and St. Clair Ave. A number of well-known people were on my block. Mayor Connors, Judge Joe Fleming, Ed Belz, Commissioner Keeley, Judge Borens, and the Burnsworth girl who married Jack English - all lived there. Mayor Connors was Jimmy Connors' grandfather. Jimmy's dad was in charge of collecting the tolls on the Veterans' Bridge. Most of the toll collectors were Central High graduates.

I went to St. Patrick's School in Vogel Place. The church is still there, but the school closed around 1991. Besides the church and school, there was a building that housed the Messenger, the newspaper of the diocese. The rectory, a residence for priests and the brothers, was also in the complex.

Our teachers in the early 1940s were all brothers. We didn't have any nuns or lay teachers. The only women I remember worked in the basement cafeteria. The brothers originally wore outfits consisting of black shoes and pants, a white shirt with black tie, and a black coat with long tails. After a couple of years, the tails on the coats were eliminated.

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The brothers were very strict and were not above using force to maintain the rules. I remember one kid named Dick O'Donnell who had a knock-down, drag-out fight right there in the classroom with brother Leo Schultz. They simply shoved the chairs and desks off to the side and duked it out for about five minutes. Johnny O'Brien (he later became principal at Althoff) and Dick Weilmuenster (who became head of St. Clair County mapping and zoning) both witnessed that fight.

One of the chores I performed back then was to be there when the delivery truck arrived every week with about five cases of Hyde Park beer for the brothers. My buddy, Bob Meketa, was my helper. We lugged the brown bottles down to the basement of their residence and returned with the empty cases. The bottles were all made at the Obear-Nester plant on 20th and Broadway.

Brother Leo Drexler was the principal, and one day he made an announcement over the P.A. system that all students were required to take at least two books with them after school for homework. He stopped me one day as I was leaving and pointed out that I was carrying only one book. When he asked me about it, I told him that I couldn't take two books home because all I had was one.

When I went to Central Catholic High, I got into football and boxing. A lot of football players were on the boxing team because it was a good way to build strength and stamina. Central was an antique brick building with an old wing and a newer wing. The gym was in the old section, located on the second floor. There were no bleachers, and there was a small stage on the east end. You could tell when you were going from the old to the new part of the building because the worn wooden floor gave way to one that was covered with tile.

There were eight weight divisions in the boxing program. Boxers were also categorized by being placed in either the novice or the "open" section. A fellow named Mr. Butler was the coach, and a man who was the referee at wrestling matches held at the Social Center arbitrated and judged our bouts. We didn't fight team from other schools; we fought classmates who were in our weight and experience division. There was no headgear used and the red leather Everlast gloves were a mere twelve ounces. The fights went three rounds, each lasting for two minutes.

Training took place after school at the Knights of Columbus building. We didn't use weights. The only equipment was the heavy bag and the small punching bag that helped build your hand speed. I think the school made good money from those bouts because the gym was always packed. They furnished us with expensive-looking red and gold silk trunks, with a matching robe. The ring that they used came from the Social Center. As attendance and interest in the matches grew, they were moved from Central High to the Knights of Columbus building.

Some of the fights were really brutal, and guys would get knocked out or take ten counts, and leave the ring with assorted cuts and purplish bruises on their bodies. Several of them were really good and went on to fight in the Golden Gloves tournaments. There was a kid named Jimmy Neville who did that. Joe Flake was another great one. He won the Ozark AAU event held in St. Louis one year. Jack Belz was a tough cookie. His dad owned Century Cigar, and his brother Ed was the city editor for the Journal. Another brother named Vic married Mary Louise Connors, the mayor's daughter.

Most of the guys wore black high-top shoes, but I wanted people to notice me so my trademark was a pair of white shoes, made by the Rawlings Company in St. Louis. Once I saw Joe Louis on TV emerge from his dressing room with a towel on his head. After that, I always had a white towel on my noggin, no matter how hot it was.

171-police.tif (61178 bytes) My dad, Bob Sweeney, went to work as a motorcycle policeman for the park board in 1926 when he was twenty years old. All the other guys rode Harleys, but my dad preferred the Indian brand. When he reached the legal age of twenty-one, he went work for the city police and was promoted to the rank of detective. Abbie Lauman, a hulk of a man who was about 6' - 5" and 270 pounds, was the commissioner who hired dad. Policemen only made about $95 a month for a six day work week back in those days. Some chose to supplement their meager incomes by running illegal ingredients from St. Louis to stills that were located just south of Grand Marais. The Sheltons gave the policemen who did this about 100 a month.

My dad was a good, tough cop. He knew that his Smith and Wesson was his best friend, and he spent a half an hour every day just cleaning and polishing it. He would eyeball every bullet he placed in the chambers, checking it for defects. He had a nose for trouble and when something went down, my dad was there. He killed a lot of people in the line of duty, but he didn't do anybody in who didn't deserve it. In most cases, he was ducking hot lead from the other guy at the time his fatal shots were fired. His career was colorful and legendary. One of the guys he killed was Ma Barker's nephew.

There was one time when Sweeney received a call and was told that Bugsy Siegel was in town at the 111-Mo Bar on Missouri Avenue, checking things out with some of his Jewish friends. Sweeny drove over there and went inside. His reputation had preceded him. Siegel caught Sweeney giving him the evil eye and whispered to Ray Doyle, the owner: "Is that him?"

"Yeah, that's Sweeney," he replied. Sweeney strode up to Siegel and got in his face. "You've got exactly five minutes to get outta here and cross the bridge back to St. Louis you #@*# snake," he growled. Siegel meekly walked out the front door and left. About a year later, he was gunned down in Virginia Hill's living room in Hollywood. It was Bugsy's vision that transformed Las Vegas from a sleepy desert town into a gambler's paradise.

People have it wrong about Buster Wortman. He never owned the Mounds Club on Collinsville Road, and except for the Paddock Lounge at 5th and St. Louis, he made little off the town. At one point in time, Wortman wasn't even allowed in the city limits during the hours that Bob Sweeney worked (from 3-11 p.m.). One evening, my dad picked up my friends and me after some wrestling matches at the Social Center. We were in the back seat of his police car when my dad spotted Wortman and Dutch Dowling in a Cadillac getting some gas at Dukell's Filling Station near Bond Avenue. Dad got out of his car and walked over to the passenger side and told Buster to have his driver follow him down to the police station.

"What time is it?" Dowling sarcastically asked from behind the steering wheel.

Dad walked around to the other side and smashed a surprised Dowling in the mouth. There was blood all over his lightcolored seersucker suit.

"What did he do wrong?" Sweeney asked Wortman.

"You were talking to me, not him. He should have kept his mouth shut."

They followed Dad down to the station and he booked them on some minor trumped up charge such as vagrancy. Buster was tough. but dad always said that the meanest guy he ever dealt with was Blackie Harris. He said Harris was meaner than Blackie Armes. who earned his notoriety while working for the Sheltons.

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There was another time when a Negro committed a string of rapes over by the Gaty Theater. He had this M.O. where he would prey on girls with soldiers from Scott Field as the), were walking home after the show. The police department set a trap. Bob Sweeney dressed up in a military uniform and Rich Mackin, a short guy who weighed about 135 pounds, dressed up like a woman. The), strolled the area at night for about a month before they hit pay dirt.

When Sweeney showed his gun and said "you're under arrest," the man pulled his weapon and got off a couple of shots. one of them whizzing by Mackin's head. Sweeney wasn't carrying his trusty .38 that night because its bulk was hard to hide under the uniform. Instead. he had a snub nosed .32. Sweeney drilled five shots into the guy's stomach. His name was Scott. and he was big. weighing 280 pounds hung on a massive 6'-6" frame. Dr. Matthew Eisele operated on him and took the slugs out. He told Sweeney that most of the bullets barely penetrated the muscle tissue, and only two of them did any serious damage. This was the only time in his career that Sweeney pumped this many shots into vital areas with the perpetrator living to tell about it. Sweeney contacted a lawyer and made plans to sue Olin-Winchester at East Alton, Illinois, for making defective bullets. Incidentally. the guy died of complications about six months later.

There was another man dad killed by the name of Clinchback. He was an ex-con who pulled off a few robberies before the "Law in East St. Louis" caught up with him. He got off two shots at Sweeney and then the gun misfired on the next shot. Sweeney nailed him with one shot clean through the heart. Sweeney took the bullet that jammed and had a good-luck key chain out of it.

There was another criminal whom Sweeney killed on the steps of the Ainad Temple. He had just robbed Roehn's Drug Store (on St. Louis and 13th Street) of $38, shooting a clerk in the process. Sweeney caught up with the man and gunned him down when he refused to surrender.

Mel Luna, a Journal reporter interviewed Sweeney the next day. "Do you think it's right to kill a guy just because he stole $38?" Luna asked. Sweeney, a profane man, was never one to mince words. "You're damn right its OK to kill the worthless *#@%! S.O.B. who tried to blast me," Sweeney retorted!

Dad also killed a couple of guys who robbed Teefey's Poultry place at 22nd and State near the terminal railroad tracks. It was the largest poultry place in the city, employing about thirteen people. Customers would go there and select live poultry right on the spot. He also killed a guy whose last name was Koski. He was related to Kenny Koski who Was police chief in Washington Park before Carl Parker came along.

There was another famous incident between my dad and Carl Shelton. Shelton was in St. Mary's hospital, recovering from an operation. Sweeney hated the Sheltons and did everything he could to rid the town of them. When he found out Carl was laid up in the hospital, he said "What is that blankety blank son of a gun doing in my town?" He rushed down to the hospital and dragged Shelton out of his bed and booked him on another one of those trumped up charges. Both Carl and the hospital threatened to sue Bob Sweeney over that incident but the charges were thrown out of court. The Shelton Gang was ruthless and had been featured in an article on gangsterism that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. As a kid back at Central High, I remember seeing a Ripley's "Believe it or Not" story about how the Shelton gang carried out the first and only aerial bombing attack in the U. S. when they flew over Charlie Birger's roadhouse near Marion and threw bombs from the open cockpit.

The two biggest gambling establishments back in those days were Bowman's (on Collinsville Ave. across from Southern Illinois Bank on Broadway), and Vic Doyle's Ringside (on West Broadway, next to Bush's Steak House). Doyle's place had about seven or eight craps tables in operation at the same time. Every morning, after dad dropped me off at school, he went to Bowman's and Doyle's to collect their receipts from the day before. The money was in leather brief cases and dad would take it for deposit to First National Bank on Missouri Ave. He received a hundred dollars a day from each place for doing this. It was common knowledge that dad was handling all this money, but no one ever tried to rob him. For about five years in a row, Roy Bowman bought dad a new Fleetwood from East Side Cadillac on 11th and St. Louis Ave. Frank Abell, the real estate man who owned the building, told me what color it was going to be.

There were several places in town called handbooks. They weren't very big and had their address numbers posted over the doors. There was a 353 on East Broadway that belonged to "Mule Pole" Fritz back in the Twenties. A guy named Eddie Bauer was one of their board guys. There was another one called The 414, located across the street from the Journal on Missouri Ave It was owned by John Hickey. These establishments were mostly for people who liked to bet the horses, but they usually had a few slot machines on one wall. There were board boys who posted current information about races with pieces of chalk. Race results came in on ticker machines from places like Pimlico, Saratoga, Arlington and Churchill Downs. Fifty cents was the minimum bet. They wrote down the race, horse, and amount of the wager on your ticket. When the race was over, a man on a P.A. system would announce the results, which would then be posted. The results looked something like this: Whirlaway - Win, $6.80; Place, $5.00; Show, $3.20.

Bob Sweeney quit the force in 1956 after he was told to "take it easy" on some hoods because they were local boys. This included Wortman associates such as Dutch Dowling, Gordon Foster, Baldy O'Hara and T. J. Harvel and his brother. Dad then did some construction work before he got sick. If you go visit the site of Wortman's grave in Mt. Carmel Cemetery near the top of Signal Hill, you'll find Bob Sweeney buried only six feet away.

People who don't know East St. Louis have no idea what it was really like. Sure, it was wide open, rough and tumble, with a saloon on every corner. Politicians and policemen were often lining their pockets, but they made sure that essential services were performed. Streets were kept in good repair. You never saw any significant litter on the city streets. The grass at public buildings was mowed once a week, and the parks were neatly manicured. Remember how the guy who took care of the floral flag on Argonne Drive would spend hours making sure it was perfect? And how about the beautiful fountains at the lily pond south of diamond number one. You never saw paper or trash lying around at any of the parks.

East St. Louis may have had a notorious reputation, but the locals tolerated what was going on because they knew it was happening in a lot of other large cities. It was just politics. Extra revenue that flowed into the city coffers from gambling, liquor sales, and prostitution, helped keep taxes low. Wortman kept the worst elements from muscling their way in, and anything that got past him was dealt with swiftly and harshly by the police. How do you think Fields got elected five times in a row? He wasn't a great mayor. People voted for him because he got the job done and was a known quantity. He represented the status quo. Times were good; taxes and utility rates were low. People had jobs and the streets were safe. There was probably less street crime in East St. Louis than in any other city of comparable size.

If you wanted to work on the city payroll, you either had to know somebody, have a relative there, or pay some up front money to get the job. They were good paying jobs and few objected to paying a fee in advance and an annual lug (donation) to keep the job. Let's say you wanted to work for the levee board. You went to a supervisor and told him how you were a friend or relative of someone else who already worked there. Then you would meet somebody at Jones Park at night and pay them something like $500.00. The levee and park board were notorious for their ghost payrolls. There were a lot of people who got paid, but some of them did little or no work.

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Another source of graft was kickbacks. The park board might need four new trucks which they would always purchase from local dealers. They would buy these trucks from dealer A for $7,000 each. Now dealer B submitted the lowest bid at $6,000 a truck, but he didn't get the contract because there were no kickbacks involved. The politicians had money coming in a dozen different ways. It wasn't uncommon for ordinary people who had a stake in the outcome election to contribute $500 to the mayor's reelection campaign.

About the only time they got caught was when they went too far. A number of school board members enriched themselves with the construction of the new high school. Many of the cost overruns and delays in the new school on State Street were due to kickbacks and squabbles over who was going to get what, and how much. Fields always seemed to get the plumbing contracts, while Flannery or Atlas Cement got the footings and foundations. Bedford and Carl Electric had a lock on the wiring, and roofing contracts usually went to Art Biebel or Ray Hart, and Hill-Thomas received the brick work.

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The newspapers only did an expose when the people at the top got carried away and went too far. There was a lot of flack over the main doors at the new high school. The Journal dubbed them the "golden doors" because of their excessive cost. The newspaper investigation said that each door was going to end up costing taxpayers an absurd sum - something like $10,000 each.

East St. Louis was one helluva town!

 

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