Frank "Buster" Wortman Composite Obituary and Related Story From the Journal, Post-Dispatch and News-Democrat
Funeral services will be held Wednesday for Frank Wortman, 63, rackets boss who outlived eras of prohibition, gang war, and post-World War II gangland power struggles. Wortman died at Alexian Brothers Hospital, St. Louis, after surgery Thursday for a lesion on the larynx. He also had suffered from liver and heart ailments.
Wortman's internship in gangland was during the prohibition period that brought Al Capone to his peak of power. After 1946 he was referred to as the Capone representative for the area between Springfield, Ill. and Jefferson City, Mo., with his main activities in the East St. Louis area.
As a youth Wortman is supposed to have held various jobs involving hard labor and little pay. However, by the middle 1920s he had become a hanger-on of the old Shelton gang. By the time he was 21 he was running errands for the crew.
Wortman's schooling ended when he finished the eighth grade. Those who knew him in the early years considered him above average in intelligence and shrewd in making his way to the top. That, coupled with his willingness to do the lesser jobs when needed and a two-fisted toughness, enabled Wortman to climb to a position of more importance with the Sheltons, a gang that terrorized Southern Illinois during the 1920s and early 1930s.
Wortman's first arrest is not noted but it was when he was about 22 years old. During the years he was to be arrested between 35 and 40 times - 20 times as a robbery suspect, twice for carrying concealed weapons, once for auto theft, one for transporting bootleg liquor, and several simply for investigation.
His one prison term resulted from an assault on a federal officer when he was guarding a still, and his most contentious trouble with the law grew from another assault on a federal agent who was checking records at the Paddock tavern.
In 1933, Wortman made the first of his two most serious mistakes. The Sheltons and other gangs hi-jacked their liquor, brought the quality stuff from sources in Canada and made the inferior spirits in their own stills. In any case trucks moved the liquor from sources of supply to the market and drivers of such trucks received high salaries.
Whether Wortman was picking up a delivery at a still near Collinsville one day in 1933 or was in charge of production was never clear. However, federal agents raided the still and Wortman resisted. A federal agent was beaten and Wortman was charged with the assault.
He was sentenced to ten years and he served most of his sentence, first at Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary and later at Alcatraz. "The Rock" was reserved for prestige gangsters and dangerous characters. Wortman was released just before World War II and returned to find the old style gang and their warfare diminishing as leaders of lawlessness took on a veneer of quieter activity and increasingly were known not as gangland lords but as rackets bosses.
Wortman worked for a time as a steamfitter. That experience and associations with former gang figures who became prominent in some union ranks gave him an influence with labor. Old-timers who had no other work haven and young men who had connections were known to be admitted to the ranks of some construction unions through the influence of Wortman.
While Wortman was in prison, gang wars and the legalization of liquor had cut down the ranks of the Sheltons. The slot machines had always been a big money maker for gangland elements. During the 1940s two other types of coin-operated machines became more and more lucrative. They were the juke box and the pinball machines. Underworld members with their slot machine distribution systems and choice spots for such machines had the edge over legitimate operators of coin-machine businesses.
There was however, no really powerful figure at the head of the machines distribution. There had been speculations, which never materialized. that younger men returning from the war, would be taking over leadership of the rackets. By the time they returned Wortman's Plaza Amusement Co. had a tight hold on machine distribution. In the middle 1940s, there was no single gang figure more important than another. Most of the old boys still alive had faded into the background. While most underworld activities in the area could be attributed to Wortman or his henchmen, it soon became the thing to attribute almost anything to him. Wortman quickly gained a near monopoly on gambling, slot machines, pinball machines, horse parlors, crap games and card games. Numbers runners went virtually unmolested, thanks to police who supplemented their salaries with payoffs and city officials who looked the other way in return for campaign contributions.
Then, too, the younger element seemed hard put to work peacefully among themselves. For one reason or another the 1950's saw a number of murders, woundings and mysterious disappearances of the younger hoodlum element who were hangers-on to the Wortman crowd, or wanted to be known as such. By the late 1940s most any illegal activity of a major nature was attributed to the Wortman gang, an organization that never did really emerge in the gory colorfulness of the prohibition era but rather took on a more subdued, backroom, big business cloak of attempted respectability.
At Wortman's side as he started his post-war rise was his brother Edward "Ted" Wortman. Usually farther background, Ted was reported as a calming influence on his elder brother until more recent years.
It was said that the Wortman's influence was felt in all segments of the underworld. He angered quickly if there was a hint he had any connection with narcotics, prostitution or kidnapping. Those who knew him well, including law officers, said those were three fields he never entered. It was believed that post-war younger hoodlums activities in prostitution led to conflict with Buster.
It was reported that old timers, once high in the rackets, always stopped at the Paddock when in the area. When needed, they received orientation and often a financial assist. As Wortman's name became synonymous with big crime, efforts were increasingly made to pinpoint his activities. He avoided most attempts by grand juries and by the famous Kefauver Crime Committee to subpoena him. The latter did, however, delve into some of his holdings.
With the years Wortman's temper grew worse. Time and again incidents were reported at the Paddock. The clientele outside of the rackets began to drop off and with it the prestige of the night club. Wortman might not have been considering what resulted from that 1933 still raid when in 1956 an Internal revenue agent went to the Paddock. The agent was checking to determine if the tavern was paying a cabaret tax. Buster was there. Before the smoke cleared he had cursed the agent and slugged him. The incident led the Internal Revenue Service into years of investigation of Wortman's finances at a cost reputed at one time to run into millions of dollars.
In 1962 Wortman and two associates, Elmer "Dutch" Dowling and Gregory "Red" Moore, were convicted in the United States District Court in East St. Louis of conspiracy to evade federal income taxes. Before sentence would be passed Dowling and his bodyguard Melvin J. Beckman were shot to death. Their bodies were found near Belleville. The murders were never solved. The killings touched off an investigation of alleged jury tampering in the tax case. It came to no conclusive end.
Later in the year, Wortman and Moore were sentenced to five years in prison and each fined $10,000. Both convictions were overturned two years later with an appeals court holding that immaterial, incompetent and prejudicial evidence had been admitted wrongfully into the trial. New trials were ordered and Wortman was acquitted.
One of the longest stretches Wortman spent in jail was in 1954. His refusal to tell a federal grand jury his address resulted in 41 days in jail for contempt of court. He was released when he finally answered the question.
As Wortman's influence began to wane, there were some elements in the city who decided it was time to contest him for a piece of the action. In the early-to-mid 1960s there was an incident where someone tossed a hand grenade into McCoy's Tavern on 13th and State. The device rolled under a bowling machine which bore the brunt of the blast. Four or five people were taken to the hospital with shrapnel in their leg but nobody was killed. Witnesses at the scene said that the grenade had been thrown by a couple of black men. About four or five days later, the mob paid a surprise visit to a meeting of the Warlords, a leading black gang. According to sources, one of Wortman's top henchmen was there, accompanied by a couple of lieutenants from a faction of the St. Louis Mafia. They were armed with machine guns and reportedly lined the whole gang up against a mail and threatened to gun them down, in a manner similar to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago. They were told that they had crossed the line between competing areas of interest and that if they did it again, they'd be "swimming to Cairo wearing a pair of cement shoes." The Warlords decided that discretion was the better part of valor and bided their time before making another move.
Three years ago Wortman was taken to an East St. Louis hospital with a gunshot wound of the buttock. He said he accidentally shot himself but versions of the shooting varied. One account said that Harry Kelly, owner of the Gypsy Inn on Route 3, shot Buster. Others said that Buster was shot by his wife when she saw him eyeing another woman.
Wortman had four children by his first wife who divorced him. His second wife filed for separate maintenance in 1963. Legal battles and the loss of coin machine territories, along with other reverses, diminished Wortman financially in recent years.
Present at his funeral was Edward J. Hare, sometimes known as "Baldy O'Hare," also known as "Hairless Hare." Hare had been Wortman's friend through most of their lives, serving as Wortman's chief lieutenant, and was constantly at his side during Wortman's post-World War II rise to power. Hare was known to be tough and never hesitated to prove it. He was to go from a Wortman night club manager to operating a popcorn machine as fortunes of his boss dropped.
There were flowers and flowers and more flowers at Buster's funeral. They banked his casket, surrounded it, filling two rooms and a hallway. The night before about two truckloads of flowers had to be turned away, and that many more again on the day of the nursing homes and other institutions. A traffic jam was created the day of the funeral due to the large crowd in front of the funeral home on Vandalia. The lot on the side and in back was jammed with cars. Others had to be parked in the surrounding residential area. Wortman counted friends not only in the underworld but in the sporting world and the world of entertainers, night club operators, bartenders, waitresses and cab drivers.
Funeral services for Wortman of Lemen Settlement Road, Collinsville, were at the Herbert Kassly Funeral Home in Collinsville, then to St. Stephen's Catholic Church, Caseyville. Surviving are two daughters, both of East St. Louis; two sons, William L. Wortman and Edward Wortman, both of Collinsville; a brother, Ted Wortman of Caseyville, his stepmother, four half-sisters, ten half-brothers, and four grandchildren.
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