Organized Crime

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Last Man
Wortman Obit

THE BEGINNING OF ORGANIZED CRIME IN EAST ST. LOUIS

by Andrew Theising of St. Louis, Ph. D.

 

To understand organized crime in East St. Louis, one must first look at the small town of Herrin, Illinois, in Williamson County. Herrin was home to two very infamous men - S. Glen Young and Charlie Birger. Both were career criminals who sought to control the bootlegged liquor market in East St. Louis. Young was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, probably the boldest group of gangsters Southern Illinois had ever known. Not only did the Klan terrorize the town of Herrin, it went so far as to invade the Williamson County courthouse in an attempt to seize power. Birger did not like the Klan, nor Young, and saw the Klan as his primary competition to controlling East St. Louis.

East St. Louis was a tempting place for such activity. The city in 1920 had long been known for open vice, lax law enforcement, and a place where five dollars could probably buy anyone out of any situation. No doubt to the Klan's delight, there was racial segregation in East St. Louis and the 1917 race riot where whites attacked blacks was still fresh in everyone's memory. Birger was amazed to discover that there was considerable money flowing in East St. Louis and no truly "hometown" organization existed to tap it. Rural men who left the National Stock Yards with pockets full of cash after the livestock auction were especially appealing. Taverns and brothels had long lined the roads between the Yards and downtown.

By the early 1920s, there was a third player challenging Young and Birger - a family recently relocated to East St. Louis named Shelton. They all wanted a share of the illegal liquor trade.

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The Klan was destined for failure. Both the Birger and Shelton gangs were anti-Klan, and this opposition caused a tense alliance between the two. Prohibition made strange bedfellows. In 1924, one of the Sheltons murdered Glenn Young, causing Klan activity in the area to significantly decrease. The Klan still. had its stronghold in Williamson County, but when Klan members stormed the county courthouse, the Illinois State Militia became involved. The soldiers crushed the Klan, and it essentially collapsed as an element of organized crime in Southern Illinois.

The uneasy alliance between the Shelton and Birger gangs was not a long one. As soon as a Shelton gangster defected to the Birger gang, the two became rivals again. A shootout between the two gangs led to the murder of an Illinois highway patrolman and his wife. Birger was arrested, the Sheltons escaped on a technicality. Birger was found guilty of murder in Williamson County and was hanged on April 19, 1928. The Sheltons now had East St. Louis to themselves.

The end of Prohibition in 1933 was a painful blow to organized crime, which had made considerable amounts of money from it. The Sheltons had expanded beyond liquor to slot machines, bookmaking, dice, cards, prostitution, and other vice so that it could absorb the loss of liquor revenue. Gaining was where the real profits were, anyway.

Crime paid handsomely for the Sheltons. Their empire stretched from Cairo in the south to Peoria in the north, which became the dividing line between Chicago and East St. Louis syndicates. The Shelton organization grossed $4.75 million in 1930 alone, and $1.9 million of that was pure profit. Carl Shelton made it perfectly clear that he was the racket boss in East St. Louis as long as he was alive. While Carl Shelton built his empires in East St. Louis, his protege - a young Frank "Buster" Wortman - was doing time in Alcatraz for killing a law enforcement officer.

While Prohibition was ending, labor unions were on the rise. Labor unions were yet another pool of resources which seemed just too tempting to pass up. As early as 1932, some of the St. Louis gangs penetrated East St. Louis labor organizations. The labor movement became violent. When Phillips Petroleum constructed its pipeline and refinery at Monsanto, Illinois, in 1932, Carl Shelton was on the payroll as "security." Labor unions have long been suspected of having ties to organized crime. As late as the mid-1960s, railroad bills of lading were highly desired, so that looting train cars would be easier.

Carl Shelton slowly turned the East St. Louis operations over to his "favorite son," Buster Wortman. Buster, who died in 1968, ran East St. Louis from his club, The Paddock Lounge. One person who knew him said that he had a good mind for numbers and business, noting that he probably would have made a fine accountant had he chosen a different career. Together, Shelton and Wortman brought an eerie stability to East St. Louis.

 

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