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East St. Louis: An Insider's Viewpoint

 

There are a lot of myths and misperceptions about the "real" East St. Louis. Take Buster Wortman, for example. Everyone thinks that he ran the town, but that is baloney. Wortman was a figurehead and was allowed to exist for one reason - to keep the Chicago Mafia out of the city. City Hall let Wortman run his Paddock Lounge at 5th and St. Louis, and he had a piece of the numbers racket in the Brooklyn area. True, he also had the Mounds Club down by the racetrack, but that was in Madison County. He wasn't into drugs or prostitution and didn't control what happened at the race tracks. Now his brother Ted, who did some iron working with the construction union, was into juke boxes and the vending machines. Ted bummed around with Cobby Rodriguez and did a lot of his drinking at Ed Kieflein's Tavern.

It was kind of like the movie about Los Angeles in the late '30s and early '40s, "Mulholland Falls." In the film, the Mafia tries to muscle its way in, but the city had a special squad of four men who had license to do whatever was necessary to keep outsiders from establishing a foothold. They run one of these thugs out of town by beating the tar out of him and throwing him down a long and steep ravine. The East St. Louis police commissioner had a couple of guys on the force (some say it was Bob Sweeney and Jerry Sullivan) who were the enforcers. It was Sweeney and Sullivan who ran the Shelton Gang out of town because they went too far and wouldn't play ball with the power structure.

East St. Louis was one of the few wide open towns back in those days. The only other cities that operated in a similar manner were Calumet City (on the Chicago-Indiana border) and Hot Springs, Arkansas. A lot of people can still remember the slot machines along the wall at the Playdium. Gambling, booze and prostitution were the oil that kept the machinery going. Local police seldom bothered to make any raids on illegal establishments, and when they did, it was usually a sham because someone would tip the owners off and things would be cleaned up before the police arrived. Sometimes the prostitutes would be rounded up, but they merely paid a small fine and went back to business as usual. It wasn't until Adlai Stevenson became governor that you had raids in earnest, but they were made by the State Police.

Prostitution (yes, it was segregated) flourished in the city in the strip known as The Valley. In the old days, the scantily clad gals would jump on the running boards of the slow moving cars checking out the wares and bargain with potential customers. It was so pervasive that it rivaled the famed Chicken Ranch that eager young men from Texas A&M in Waco patronized. Central Catholic was on 5th and Illinois - not far from the Valley, and many of the guys visited the place as part of the rite of passage into manhood. Sometimes they would all chip in a quarter so they would have enough money to watch a "special dance." Their rumor mill said that even some of the Brothers who taught there frequented the place. Everyone's favorite was a girl named Marie who had the skin of a goddess because she bathed in milk.

The police commissioner held sway over a group of men entrusted with enforcing the laws and city ordinances. For those criminals and "do-badders" who had designs on establishing their own fiefdom in a city with extraordinary possibilities, they would be given two choices. They could get out of town, or be killed by one of the police detectives.

There were bookies all over the place and gambling went on in back rooms of taverns and in places like Bowman's, Bush's Steak House and Century Cigar. The bookies made regular contributions to the coffers at City Hall because they knew the politicians quite well and it was not an uneasy alliance. Paul Powell wasn't the only one who kept a lot of money in a shoe box. When the Kefauver Crime Commission held their hearings in St. Louis, they were informed that a high ranking city official had a sum of $136,000 in a safety deposit box. The official admitted to having the money but said that it came from his mother's estate. Jerry Sullivan and Bob Sweeney went around every week and made the collections from the bookies and then deposited the money in a bank.

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East St. Louis was relatively free of crime because the police didn't tolerate it and the worst elements knew they would have to answer to the likes of Buster Wortman or Bob Sweeney. Even the hoods from Chicago didn't want to go up against either of these two men. Most of the time, the people who got themselves killed were those who challenged the status quo or knew too much and talked too much. There was a guy named Willard Scott who ended up in the trunk of his car with a bullet in his head. Jeff Halas got his legs blown off by a bomb that was placed in his car at Cahokia Downs. And there was another guy named Dutch Dowling who got himself killed.

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If you wanted to know who was going to win the horse races at Fairmount or Cahokia, you needed an "in" with the jockeys. If one of the owners had a big feed bill that needed to be paid, the word was passed around to the jockeys so they all knew whose turn it was to win a particular race.

Everything back in the old days was about politics, power and patronage. Guess why they switched over from aldermen to commissioners? If you continued electing officials from wards, it was only a matter of time before Negroes would have a seat on the throne of power. By switching to the commission form of government, candidates were elected "at large" and the South End vote was submerged. As their numbers grew and as times changed, Negroes finally got a small slice of the power pie. Ester Saverson was put on the slate and allowed to become the first black commissioner. Kenneth Hall ultimately became the district' first black Senator in the General Assembly. As the Civil Rights movement exploded on the scene in 1964, blacks became more assertive and expanded their base of power. Blacks were very angry at the time and probably were justified in their animosity directed at whites.

Most of the politicians in East St. Louis were as Irish as Paddy's pig. Naturally, they were also Catholic. Alvin Fields was a plumber with an 8th grade education who wasn't even a good speaker on the campaign trail. He went into politics because he was hungry for power. He survived and won an unprecedented five straight terms as mayor because he always kept his word, and he was a master at power politics. Fields first got into politics in 1928 when he was elected to the County Board. He quickly affiliated himself with John Hallahan who was the City Clerk. The clerk position was an important one because that office took care of issuing licenses and collecting all the fees. Naturally there were opposing factions that developed within the Democratic party, and Hallahan and Fields were opposed by the faction represented by guys like Ed English. Hallahan was a powerful figure because he also controlled the state patronage. When money from the federal and state sources was doled out to local municipalities, he was the guy who decided who got what and how much.

The Levee Board threw its weight around because they could create jobs and back in the '30s that meant a lot. They also had a unique power. They could issue bonds without having to pass a referendum. The board was created by an act of the State Legislature and covered both Madison and St. Clair counties. There was a five member elected board with four of them coming from St. Clair County and one residing in Madison County. 161-bowmans.tif (235500 bytes)

Elections were non-partisan. This means that you didn't run as a Republican or a Democrat, even though everyone knew which party you were affiliated with. Democrats came to power and gained a lock on their position largely due to the blame placed on Hoover for the Depression, and through the loyalty developed as a result of the many New Deal programs and agencies. About the only prominent Republicans back in the '30s, '40s and '50s were Russell Beebe and Dan McGlynn. Beebe was a Protestant and received strong backing from the churches, despite his proclivity for placing bets with bookies nearly every day.

One of the most powerful positions in city government was the streets and improvements Commissioner. He had the most leverage because he had the biggest budget and the most patronage. Patronage meant jobs working on the city payroll. Once you were on the payroll, you were expected to be loyal to those who got you the job, contribute to upcoming campaigns and help get out the vote on election day.

There was also this little thing known as a "lug." This meant that if you received one of these political plums, you had to pay the politicians a percentage of your salary, usually around two percent. A lot of people think that there were lugs in the city but it just isn't so. Some of that stuff might have happened at the county level but not at City Hall. Another way of raising funds was to give employees a strip of twenty-five tickets. In later years, as resistance grew toward this scheme, the payoff was dropped and replaced with subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) pressures to buy tickets to the Policeman's Ball or a certain number of tickets to political fund-raisers.

Even the Parks Commissioner got in on the shenanigans. If you could have examined the city payrolls, you could find that there were an awful lot of people being paid to mow grass during the months of January and February.

Another thing quite commonplace was the practice of kickbacks. Here is a story to illustrate the point. There was a plumbing contractor who had a secret savings account at a local bank. Then the government passed a law stating that in the future, all bank accounts were to be numbered and taxes were to be paid on the interest. After a few years, the contractor went to someone he knew who was a banker at a different facility and told him that he was afraid that he was going to get in trouble with the IRS because he hadn't paid any taxes on the account. The banker told him to pay what he owed and then they could switch the money to tax free municipal bonds.

"By the way, how much money are we talking about" asked the banker.

"Two hundred and fifty thousand," replied the man.

Paul Powell wasn't the only public figure in Illinois to keep money in a shoe box. There was one East St. Louis lawyer who lived in a house with a basement that was only half completed and he repeatedly told his wife how he was someday going to finish off the rest of it. He bought the necessary cinder blocks for that very purpose but somehow he never got around to actually doing the work. Several years went by and the project never got started. One day the lawyer came home and, to his horror discovered that his wife had paid a handyman to haul all of the blocks away. That night, the man went to the city dump with a flashlight to retrieve the hundred dollar bills that he had stashed away inside the hollow sections of the blocks.

Another East St. Louis lawyer died from a heart attack. His wife was in the process of getting rid of his personal things and decided that she would sell his law books since she would have no use for them. A friend of her husband offered her two hundred dollars for the entire collection. She wanted $250. They dickered back and forth but he wouldn't come up to her price and the deal fell through.

Several weeks later, she decided to dust the volumes in case another prospective buyer wanted to examine them. As she pulled each volume from the shelf, dozens of hundred dollar bills fell from between the pages and floated gloriously to the floor.

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Yet another legal eagle from East St. Louis died one day and his widow began going through his things. Among his personal effects was a lock box key. After weeks of inquiry, she discovered that the key was to a lock box in a small bank in rural Missouri. She went down to the bank and opened up the box and found it filled with hundred dollar bills.

"I guess my husband wasn't quite as smart about money matters as I thought. He had all those thousands of dollars locked away in a vault when he could have placed the money in an interest bearing account," she explained to her friends, with a touch of innocent naivete.

In many ways, East St. Louis wasn't much different than most big cities. You can pick up the papers and read about similar power struggles, political battles, and people being charged with malfeasance in office in places like St. Louis or Chicago back in those days. Most folks who lived there thought East St. Louis was a fine and decent place, relatively free of crime - a good place to work, go to church and raise a family. The only thing different about East St. Louis is that it perhaps had more than its share of "colorful" characters. But that was part and parcel of what made it such an interesting place to live.

 

(From two sources who wish to remain anonymous)

 

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