Saturday, December 07, 2013

Dec. 7, 1941 - An Infamous Date - In Color

Seventy-two years ago today was a date which has lived in infamy. The video below shows the only color film of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

85 Years Ago - Gang War Heats Up

It's the 85th Anniversary of the Gang War between Charlie Birger and his men on one side and the Shelton Brothers on the other. Just one of the five main reasons why my home county is known as "Bloody Williamson."

The blood started spilling (in the Gang War) on Aug. 22, 1926, with a three-way shootout that left Harry Walker and Everett Smith dead at Thetford's roadhouse just north of Marion's Rosehill Cemetery on Illinois Route 37, yet still south of the J.W. Reynolds Monument Co. office on the east side the road.

No one took credit for the shooting though Harry's brother Ray was certain of the identity. Family members of the proprietor later told the story he had received a phone call warning him that the two men were there to kill him.

One of the more interesting tidbits about the incident involved the ethnicity of one of the band members. He was Hawaiian.

Early in the morning of Sept. 12 two gangsters Gary DeNeal's sources thought were Birger and Fred "Butch" Thomason opened fire at another two members of the Shelton Gang at the roadhouse on what's now Stotlar Road just east of the Burlington Northern R.R. crossing.

William "Wild Bill" Holland was hit and killed. Max Pulliam and his wife Mildred were wounded and taken to Herrin Hospital. Ray Walker and his wife were still inside the roadhouse when it happened and likely were the ones who took the Pulliams to the hospital.

Two days later Pulliam's family tried to sneak him out of the hospital in a hearse or ambulance (same vehicle was used for both) though it's not certain if they were trying to stage a funeral procession. Just outside Benton Birger and his men caught up with the ambulance and forced it to stop. If it wasn't for Pulliam's mother using her body to protect her son from Birger's blows, he likely would have been killed as well.

Later Birger would even admit to his role in the attack, "I and my men drove up and conked that fellow (hit him on the head)  until he fainted away. We showed him."

A day later on the 17th, Birger's men picked up another Franklin County felon named Lyle "Shag" Worsham they thought was snitching to the Sheltons. Newspapers had already identified Lyle's brother "Satan" Worsham as an associated of the them. Birger's men took Worsham south of Carterville where the machine-gunned him down in the road before taking him to an abandoned house by Pulley's Mill where they burned the body and house around it.

Meanwhile the Shelton Gang reconfigured one of their beer-running fuel trucks to an armored car. They debuted it on Oct. 4, with a machine gun attack on Birger's Shady Rest, a drive-by shooting of Art Newman and his wife in a car in Saline County, and another drive-by attack on Shaw's Gardens, a Birger-aligned roadhouse between Johnston City and West Frankfort on the Franklin-Williamson county line.

On Oct. 13 (or 14th according to some sources), Birger's men attacked the Shelton's main joint north of Herrin on what's now Illinois Route 148. On the 16th they raided the fluorspar mine in Rosiclare in order to steal their two machine guns they had locked up.

For more information on the Gang War and what happened next, check out my books Secrets of the Herrin Gangs co-authored by the Shelton's business manager and Inside the Shelton Gang co-authored and published earlier this year with Ruthie Shelton, the daughter of "Little Carl" Shelton, one of the nephews involved in that family's infamous activities.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Great Song and Just Had to Share

While looking up some antebellum songs for an upcoming project tonight I came across the great Mavis Staples singing Stephen Foster's 1854 classic, "Hard Times Come Again No More."

The year 1854 saw the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that opened the territories to slavery, an act that ended the Whig Party and saw the creation of the Republican Party later that year. In Illinois anti-Nebraska Democrats like my fourth-great-uncle Col. E. D. Taylor, split with our U.S. Senator Stephan Douglas who had sponsored the legislation. Instead he joined former Whigs and emerging Republicans like Abraham Lincoln in beating back Douglas'-backed Democrats for the state elections that year. Some 21 years earlier Taylor had beat Lincoln in the latter's first race for the state legislature.

The triumph of the moderates like Douglas signaled the quickening march that would end with the start of the Civil War seven years later. From that point forward slavery would become the major issue of the day and the defining position between the parties.

Meanwhile, Foster managed to write a song that remains true and vibrant even to the present day.

Here's the lyrics. Feel free to sing along.

Verse 1.
Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times come again no more.

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.

Verse 2.
While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more.

Verse 3.
There's a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o'er:
Though her voice would be merry, 'tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times come again no more.

Verse 4.
Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

'Inside the Shelton Gang' Plugged This Morning

WSIL-TV had me on bright and early this morning plugging "Inside the Shelton Gang," the new book by Ruthie Shelton and myself.

We will both be at Bookworm this Saturday, April 20, from 1 to 3 p.m. at a book signing, and at the Flora Public Library next Thursday, April 25, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Click on the Books link to order it and my other books online. Books ordered over the next few weeks will go out with Ruthie's autograph as well as mine.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Inside the Shelton Gang Book Out Saturday

Inside the Shelton Gang: One Daughter's Discovery will have its debut Saturday at the Wayne County Press office in downtown Fairfield, Illinois, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The book is written by Ruthie Shelton, daughter of "Little Carl" Shelton and grandniece of the infamous Shelton Brothers, and co-authored by Jon Musgrave of

Inside the Shelton Gang tells the true story of what happens when a father’s wall of secrets begin to crumble and a family’s lost heritage of violence erupts from the front pages of history. For daughter Ruthie it’s a discovery that will forever change her life as she learns what it meant to be a Shelton in the days of Prohibition and the decades following, to be a member of a crime family that rivaled Al Capone’s for control of Illinois. 

While written from Ruthie's point of view, she's added stories passed down from her father and other relatives, as well as from folks she's met over the last few years researching the book.

I met Ruthie while researching for my ever-expanding history of Southern Illinois in the 1920s. We joined forces and is publishing the book. My role has been to flesh out the historical research she started on the gang, especially in the gang's early years in the 1920s.

It's been quite the experience and I think readers will enjoy the more personable approach to non-fiction writing that Ruthie brings to the table.

Books are available to order now at or simply click on the Books link at the top of the page.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

New Faces Lead Historic Preservation Agency

After a few years of little contact with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that's changed with the resumption of the Illinois Amistad Commission. There's a number of new faces now.
  • Sara Meek is the new legislative liaison for the agency. She started Feb. 18 and made the news this week as she's the first person to hold that position in the agency which has been fraught with budget cuts over the last decade or so. She has a close relationship with at least one lawmaker, her mother, state Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur. I had a chance to meet with her last month at the first meeting of the new Amistad Commission in Chicago. She offered good first impressions and should help the agency. It's not just funding issues that the agency faces. At some point there will need to be legislative solutions if the agency will still be able to fulfill its missions.

  • Amy Martin is the relatively new director that I also got to meet for the first time at the Amistad Commission meeting. She started last May. She had previously served as acting deputy director of regional outreach for Illinois Main Street in the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs. First impressions: I like the fact she doesn't hesitate to say what she thinks, or at least what she thinks should be said when it comes to her agency. I also like what I've read about the new directions she wants to take the agency. More on that below.

  • Alyson Grady now heads the Historic Sites Division which oversees the Old Slave House among other sites. I have not met her yet but hope to do so soon. There's already been one major change in historic sites that makes sense from both a management and a tourism perspective. Grady announced last month that all five state-owned historic sites in Springfield will be under the management of a single site superintendent. More on that later as well.

  • Kristy Bond started Feb. 11 as the agency's new marketing director. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum used to have a position, but Bond's new job not only covers the museum but the agency's other locations statewide. 
Also in terms of personnel changes, Evelyn Taylor, the agency's long-time Constituent Services Division Manager who oversees the educational programs and publications is retiring. Her last day is today.

The 2012 Annual Report for the agency was her last major project.

In her previous position at the Illinois Main Street program Martin worked with communities to expand local economies at the intersection of economic development and historic preservation. That is an attitude greatly need in IHPA.

(It's not so much that her predecessors were opposed to it, but were more focused on maintaining whatever they could of the agency's core mission and responsibilities. Today the agency has suffered more in proportion to its budget and staffing than any other agency in the state. Martin, it seems, is ready to think outside the box.)

Here's what she told the State Journal-Register when she was hired last year.
"One of the things I hope to continue (at IHPA) is by generating revenue at all of the historic sites – it's important, especially important for us, to bring in that essential funding during these tough economic times," Martin said.

Martin declined to go into specifics about her plans, saying she will confer with her staff and review their accomplishments.

Martin said she applied for the IHPA position because of her Main Street background.

"I am very interested in how historic preservation can be used as an economic development tool," Martin said. "Through my efforts with that program at DCEO, I worked a lot with IHPA staff and historic preservation."

Did you notice that part about "generating revenue" at historic sites. That's been a major roadblock agency. They've not been expected to generate revenue. In fact, the General Assembly whether as individual lawmakers making threatening phone calls, or acting collectively, have actively discouraged the agency for generating revenue through one-time event fees or admission fees.

The historic sites division has gone from 148 to around 67 staff members in the last decade. That figure is a year or so old so it is probably worse now. Many historic sites, if they are still open, are down to just one full-time person. Obviously, the trend can't continue or the agency will be forced to close down additional sites.

Not only is that bad for history, but for local economies that rely on tourism to be a part of their economic mix. It's also bad for efforts to re-open the state's other sites which have been stuck in limbo for years if not decades. We're starting Year 13 of state ownership of the Old Slave House with no plan in site to re-open it. Even worse, it's around Year 67 for the Shawneetown State Bank historic site that remains closed.

That Martin actually recognizes the role her agency plays in economic development represents a major step forward. My biggest disappointment with 1990s-era Brent Manning at the Illinois Department of Conservation was his reluctance, and even denial, that state parks somehow didn't have a role in Illinois tourism.

I had a conversation regarding these themes a few years ago with Justin Blandford who's now tasked with overseeing five state historic sites in Springfield. At the time, he was with the Old State Capitol site, but was also acting as the interim director of the Historic Sites Division at the time. Coming up from a well-visited historic site he understood the issues of lack of coordination between sites and the simple fact that Springfield tourists who come to see Lincoln sites don't care about the administrative make-up of the agencies involved, they just want a coherent, entertaining and educational experiences.

He's explained the current moves at the start of the year to the Springfield paper.

"What we will be moving toward is where we have the flexibility to assign staff among all the sites," said Blandford. "While that seems like a very simple action, that did not happen very much in the past."

He said administrative staff also can be assigned to more front-line duties. "I also see myself doing more at all the sites," said Blandford.

Blandford, who is moving his office from the Old Capitol to the Dana-Thomas House, said the changes should not be noticeable in the day-to-day experience of visitors.

Operating hours remain the same, and a variety of special events, including the “History Comes Alive” living history program, will be scheduled again this year. Each site also will retain its unique look and identity, he said.

"We want to make sure people understand what this is not. This isn’t any quick and fast changes of these sites," said Blandford. "We hope this uplifts the confidence the volunteers, the community members, the business sponsors and the staff have in these sites.

"That's a major component of this: continuing to support morale and to give new confidence that all these sites are solid for what they do for the community, both economically and historically," Blandford said.

The staff cuts aren't so good but the agency appears to be responding in the right direction.