Bob & Tom’s Excellent Adventures: The Shelton Gang

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Bob Larson and Tom McIntyre are back for more of their Excellent Adventures. This time, it’s a story of Peoria’s past myth and murder.

Bernie Shelton was one of several brothers and relatives from Southern Illinois. Carl Shelton was the boss of the outfit, and Bernie the muscle. During prohibition, the Sheltons and their followers imported booze into Southern Illinois, ran roadhouses, and fought the Ku Klux Klan, as well as other gangers — most notably Charlie Birger. 

In 1928, Charlie Birger gave testimony that sent Carl, Earl, and Bernie to prison on mail theft charges. Their convictions were overturned within months. The Sheltons moved to East St. Louis. Birger, meanwhile, ended up being hanged for murder. 

By 1934, St. Louis had become too hot for the Shelton clan, and the Sheltons moved north to “roaring Peoria,” invited by a gambler whose wife had been killed in a kidnap attempt. The Sheltons were to provide order to a wide-open town.

“We were a wide open city: gambling, bawdy, even the word lusty,” says Peoria Historian Norm Kelly. “And we deserved it and we liked it.”

Kelly says Bernie Shelton didn’t “control” gambling in Peoria, and his reputation locally was inflated, perhaps because of his well-known criminal background.

“He was mythical,” adds Kelly. “He used to go down to the hotel. He liked that he was known as a gangster.” 

Peoria Mayor E.N. Woodruff – elected 11 times – believed vice couldn’t be eliminated, but could be regulated through fines which filled city coffers. 

“Mayor Woodruff allowed the vice – that’s what he called it. You couldn’t eliminate it, why shouldn’t we capitalize on it?”

Woodruff was defeated in 1945 by a reformer: Carl Triebel. Carl Shelton went back to farming in Southern Illinois. Bernie Shelton moved to Peoria County with the Parkway Tap as his headquarters. In 1947, Carl Shelton was fatally shot in Southern Illinois. No one was convicted.

Bernie Shelton’s end came in July 1948, as he walked to his car outside the Parkway. He was shot from ambush by a rifleman. He died two hours later. No one was ever charged. 

So who killed Bernie Shelton? 

“I ended up in 1986 saying he was killed by Charlie ‘Blackie’ Harris.”

Five years after Bernie’s death, Peoria was named an All America City. All those directly involved in those events of 70 years ago are gone now. 

Maybe a lot of passersby on Farmington Road think “Shelton’s” is the name of the owner of this place, and not just its most famous patron. 

For more information about “roaring Peoria” and the Shelton’s, you might want to read: “Bloody Williamson”, by Paul Angle.   “Brothers Notorious- the Shelton’s” by Taylor Pensoneau. The Shelton Gang -They Played in Peoria by Bill Adams and “Inside the Shelton Gang” by Ruthie Shelton.   Peoria Historian Norm Kelly has many references on his blog.

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