The Sheltons, downstate gangsters

By Bill Monson

When you say "Illinois gangsters," most people think of Chicago and Al Capone. But there were gangsters downstate, too, some so tough that the Windy City mobsters hesitated to move south.

Perhaps the toughest gang of all spent World War II just 45 miles from Galesburg down U.S. 150 in Peoria. This was the Shelton Gang, led by brothers Carl, Earl and Bernie Shelton.

The brothers were Wayne County farmboys who drifted into the rackets in "Bloody Williamson" County down in Little Egypt. Site of wide-open gambling, bootlegging and prostitution, the area was as wild as Chicago ever was. Fed up with corrupt politicians and law enforcement, the citizens almost welcomed an invasion of the Ku Klux Klan in 1923 which tried to do by vigilante action what the local authorities refused to do. The Shelton brothers sided with the law breakers and "Bloody Williamson" earned its name.

Within a few months, the county coroner filed 153 cases of death by "person or persons unknown." Eventually, the Klan lost. By the time it did, the Sheltons were top dogs in Little Egypt and moved their headquarters to East St. Louis. Their stranglehold on that city was not broken until the mid-30s but remained strong elsewhere.

In the meantime, Peoria was the wildest city between Chicago and St. Louis. Various gangs, including the remnants of Capone’s, tried to take over the city’s vice rackets. Clyde Garrison, a local gambler who had Peoria politicos in his pocket, tried to resist but didn’t have the firepower for gang warfare. He invited the Sheltons north as his partners. Garrison would handle the politicians; the Sheltons would provide the muscle.

In 1940, Republican Dwight H. Green of Chicago was elected Governor of Illinois, breaking eight years of Democratic control in the state. Green, who came to fame as part of the team which successfully put Al Capone in jail, ran as a reform candidate opposed to campaign corruption and alleged tolerance of crime and gangsters by Chicago Democrats. However, when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, he proved unequal to the task of containing corruption. The war put money back in people’s pockets for the first time since the Depression started; and they spent it wildly. Peoria ran wide-open and so did other Illinois towns (including Galesburg). The Sheltons were so strong that they ran Capone’s mobsters out of Peoria; and in retaliation, the Chicago gang put a $10,000 price on the heads of Carl and Bernie. At the same time, the Chicago mob took over East St. Louis and moved in on Little Egypt.

In 1944, Dwight Green narrowly won re-election as Governor. Some say it was contributions from gangsters which helped him over the top. By this time, one-third of Illinois counties (including Knox County) had gambling of some kind.

Peoria also had prostitution, which shamed some citizens so badly that they managed to elect a reform mayor, Carl O. Triebel, in 1945. The Sheltons tried to buy him off but couldn’t. Carl Shelton decided to retire to his farm in Wayne County and left Bernie in charge (Earl had never been much involved in the Peoria operation, preferring to operate from his home territory in Fairfield.) With the end of the war, Peoria became tamer; but there was still gambling, and Bernie got most of the take. Then the Sheltons’ enemies began to make their moves. In October 1947, Carl was shot to death in an ambush near his farm. In July 1948, Bernie was cut down by a sniper’s rifle outside his headquarters in Peoria. Their deaths had two results. There was a shakeup in gang operation throughout Illinois and a media frenzy about corruption which extended all the way to the Governor’s office.

Green ran for a third term in 1948 and was expected to benefit from popular Republican Thomas Dewey’s campaign for the Presidency. But the media fallout from Peoria led to statewide investigations which connected Green and Attorney General George Barrett with corruption. Voter anger in Illinois was reflected in the fall election. Green lost to underdog Adlai Stevenson by over half a million votes. Barrett was also defeated in a Democratic avalanche which won all the state offices and elected University of Chicago Professor Paul Douglas, a Democrat, as Senator. The ultimate loss was Tom Dewey’s, who lost Illinois to Harry Truman by the slim margin of less than 37,000 votes. (This led to the famous Chicago Tribune front page headline "Dewey Defeats Truman.")

Even in death, the Shelton brothers made their impact on the state. Outraged, their enemies began wiping out anyone associated with them. Even Earl was wounded in an assassination attempt at his Fairfield club in May 1949. In June 1950, Roy Shelton, who had never participated in his brothers’ criminal activities, was gunned down on his tractor at his farm in Wayne County. Another attempt on Earl and also his son. When Earl’s home was dynamited in November, the Sheltons gave up. Earl and the remaining family members left Illinois for Florida. Earl died at 96 in Jacksonville in 1986.

Still their enemies persisted. The Shelton Illinois properties — oil wells, clubs and farm buildings — were torched or dynamited. People who tried to farm Shelton lands were shot at. Even minor associates were killed.

Eventually, nothing was left of the Shelton empire but legend.

Readers wanting more information should try "Bloody Williamson" by Paul Angle, "Brothers Notorious" by Taylor Pensoneau or "Butcher’s Dozen" by John Bartlow Martin.