Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Random Connections Between Preachers and Bootleggers

It's interesting the connections that I find while researching. During the wee hours of last Sunday morning I came across the obituary of Roy Shaw, a member of the Charlie Birger gang of bootleggers in the 1920s.

Shaw ran a roadhouse on the county line between Johnston City and West Frankfort on Route 37. The Sheltons shot it up a few hours after they debuted their armored car in October 1926. A few weeks later they burned it to the ground and planted dynamite in the ruins to blow up Birger when came to look. He didn't and they retrieved the dynamite to use in the aerial bombing of Shady Rest.

[To read more on the incident buy my new book, Secrets of the Herrin Gangs.]

Shaw is one of these guys on the periphery of my research, but his name keeps popping up ever more frequently. For example, the obituary.

I had found the obit before, but this time I recognized another name, Wendell Garrison, the pastor of Second Baptist Church in West Frankfort who officiated his funeral back at the end of November 1962. You see two weeks ago my church, Second Baptist of Marion, started with a new interim pastor in the pulpit after ours had retired following 30 years at the church. The new guy was Wendell Garrison too.

Of course I just had to ask. That evening I did and it was a good news/bad news situation for my research. Yes, it turns out it's the same pastor, but the bad news was he couldn't remember the man. It's been 48 years, and he had only been at the West Frankfort church for three months at that point. It's also quite possible and likely that Shaw wasn't even a frequent church attendee or even a member.

In talking with Garrison he told me he was from around Opdyke in rural Jefferson Co., Illinois. That was interesting because I had just came across a short blurb about how that village got its name. It ran on the same day in the Mt. Vernon Register-News as a wire story that Leslie Simpson, another member of the Birger Gang getting paroled.

The story from March 24, 1950, told how Opdyke got its name also dealt with a preacher, though this one was Methodist not Baptist and his name wasn't included. Back around 1870, give or take a few years, the L & N. Railroad laid tracks through Jefferson County.

... a contractor named Opdyke proposed to the original townsite promoters that if they would name the town after him, he would donate a handsome bell for the M. E. Church, then under construction. The bargain was agreed upon, the bell was delivered, and the town so named.

In 1950, the newspaper noted the bell still remained in use.

When I asked Garrison if he knew the story, that one he did, and even remembered the name of the church.

For next Sunday I'll just have to remember to ask him about another criminal from the 20s, a youth named David Garrison from Mount Vernon who robbed a number of gas stations and was almost recruited by Charlie Birger to kill West City Mayor Joe Adams.

Garrison and his partner Alva Wilson were thieves, not killers and told Birger so. The next night they were arrested at Albion. Both ended up testifying against Birger at the Adams murder trial the following summer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There was a recent article about the Opdyke bell in the Mt. Vernon Register News. Interesting story.