The Notorious Prohibition Legends of Illinois 


The Shelton Gang and Southern Illinois

While Chicago’s infamous gangsters like Al Capone often dominate the narrative of Prohibition, Southern Illinois had its own share of dramatic and violent events. Among the notable figures in this region were the Shelton Gang, led by the Shelton brothers: Carl, Bernie, and Earl. They operated extensive bootlegging operations and were known for their ruthless methods. The Shelton Gang controlled much of the illegal alcohol trade in Southern Illinois, often clashing with rival gangs and law enforcement.

The Shelton brothers grew up poor in Wayne County, Illinois, and turned to crime as a means of survival and profit. They quickly rose to power in the region by establishing a well-organized bootlegging network. Their operations included not only the production and distribution of moonshine but also gambling and prostitution, making them one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the area. The brothers were known for their brutal enforcement tactics, which included intimidation, bribery, and murder.

One of the most gripping stories involves the gang’s violent confrontations with the Ku Klux Klan. During Prohibition, the Klan not only supported the dry laws but also took it upon themselves to enforce them, often using violence against bootleggers. This led to fierce gun battles between the Shelton Gang and the Klan, turning parts of Southern Illinois into virtual war zones. The Klan, with its puritanical stance on alcohol, saw bootleggers as a moral blight and used their influence and militant tactics to try to stamp them out. The Sheltons, on the other hand, were determined to protect their lucrative operations and responded with equal ferocity.

These conflicts contributed to the region’s reputation for lawlessness and violence, a legacy that lasted long after Prohibition ended. The Shelton Gang’s reign of terror continued even as they faced opposition not only from the Klan but also from rival gangs, such as the Birger Gang, led by Charlie Birger. The rivalry between the Sheltons and Birger led to a bloody feud that further destabilized the region.

In the 1920s, Southern Illinois’ bootlegging operations became so notorious that the area earned the nickname “Little Egypt.” The violence peaked in the mid-1920s when the Sheltons and their rivals engaged in open warfare. One infamous incident occurred in 1926 when the Shelton brothers were ambushed by Birger’s men. Despite being targeted multiple times, the Sheltons managed to survive and maintain their operations for several more years.

However, the relentless violence and increasing law enforcement pressure eventually took their toll. By the late 1920s, the Shelton brothers’ power began to wane. Bernie Shelton was murdered in 1948, marking the end of the gang’s dominance. Carl Shelton met a similar fate in 1947, and Earl was eventually imprisoned, bringing an end to one of the most violent and tumultuous chapters in Southern Illinois’ history​.

The legacy of the Shelton Gang remains a fascinating, albeit dark, part of Illinois’ history, illustrating the extreme measures taken by both criminals and vigilante groups during Prohibition. Their story is a testament to the chaotic and often brutal nature of the era, highlighting the far-reaching impact of the nationwide alcohol ban.

Eliot Ness and The Untouchables in Chicago

Another fascinating tale from Illinois during Prohibition is the story of Eliot Ness and his team, famously known as “The Untouchables.” Tasked with bringing down Al Capone, Ness and his men executed a series of daring raids on Capone’s distilleries and breweries. Their efforts were not just about shutting down illegal operations but also aimed at crippling Capone financially. Despite numerous bribes and threats, Ness and his team remained incorruptible, earning their legendary nickname. Their relentless pursuit of justice played a crucial role in gathering evidence that ultimately led to Capone’s conviction for tax evasion, marking a significant victory in the fight against organized crime in Chicago.

Eliot Ness was appointed to lead a special unit within the Prohibition Bureau in 1930, with the specific goal of dismantling Al Capone’s bootlegging empire. Ness carefully selected his team, ensuring that they were men of integrity who could not be bribed or intimidated. This commitment to honesty and justice earned them the moniker “The Untouchables.” Ness’s team included men like Joe Leeson, known as the best “tail-car man” in the country, and Samuel “Maurice” Seager, a former death row guard. Their mission was to disrupt Capone’s operations through surprise raids and meticulous surveillance​​.

One of the key strategies employed by Ness and his team was targeting Capone’s financial operations. By raiding breweries and distilleries, they aimed to cut off the flow of money that funded Capone’s criminal activities. In the first six months alone, Ness and his men shut down 19 distilleries and six major breweries, causing significant financial losses for Capone. These raids not only disrupted Capone’s income but also provided crucial evidence that was used to build a case against him​​.

Despite their successes, The Untouchables faced constant danger. Capone’s men attempted to bribe Ness and his team multiple times, offering large sums of money to turn a blind eye. When bribes failed, threats and acts of violence ensued. Ness’s car was stolen, his offices were raided, and he was under constant surveillance. Yet, Ness and his team remained steadfast, refusing to be swayed by fear or money. Their determination and integrity became legendary, and their story captivated the public’s imagination​​.

The efforts of The Untouchables culminated in the gathering of substantial evidence that ultimately led to Capone’s indictment on charges of tax evasion. While Ness and his team played a crucial role in disrupting Capone’s operations and gathering evidence, it was the meticulous work of federal tax agents, particularly Frank J. Wilson, that sealed Capone’s fate. In 1931, Capone was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in prison, marking a significant victory in the fight against organized crime​​.

The story of Eliot Ness and The Untouchables highlights the complex and often violent landscape of Illinois during Prohibition. Their unwavering dedication to justice in the face of immense danger and corruption illustrates the significant impact of the illegal alcohol trade on both local communities and broader law enforcement efforts. This tale remains one of the most celebrated and dramatic episodes in the history of American law enforcement.

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