Headline: ROOTED IN CORRUPTION
E. ST. LOUIS' TROUBLES HAVE BEEN ACCUMULATING SINCE ITS BEGINNINGS
Byline/Title: By Patrick E. Gauen Of the Post-Dispatch Staff
PublishDate: Monday, 5/23/1988
Editions: FIVE STAR
Body Text: Is that bang in the distance the sound of the breeze blowing
a loose board against a worn house near 10th Street and College Avenue?
Or might it be the faint echo of the gunshot that killed the first mayor
of East St. Louis 103 years ago?
Can the clang of metal along Missouri Avenue at the Alorton municipal
limits be a loose support somewhere in the rusted skeleton of what once
was the largest aluminum-processing plant in the world? Or could it be a
lingering reminder of the final closing of the plant gates? Would the
din at Bond Avenue and 10th Street be the sound of kids playing
hide-and-seek among the trees across from Blackmon's Package Liquor? Or
is it the everlasting racket of the 1917 crowd that killed two police
officers at that intersection, touching off one of the bloodiest riots
in U.S. history?
The history of East St. Louis pops into the imagination with uncertain
sounds in the wind.
It is a sordid history - rife with greed and lust and bigotry - unworthy
of the many fine people reared there.
A casual inquiry about how East St. Louis got into its desperate
economic and social condition may be answered accurately, if flippantly,
that the town has been in a mess from the start.
From the first mayor, who was murdered once out of office, to the
present mayor, so fearful of the same fate that he keeps gun-toting
bodyguards at his side, East St. Louis has been a rough-edged community
of violence and vice.
Founded before 1800 as Illinois Town on the flood-prone east bank of the
Mississippi River, the community was a frontier trading and ferry
Not until 1861 was it incorporated as a city, and then with a name
chosen in a stolen election that was prophetic of the decades of
corruption to come.
The popular choice for a name appeared to be ''Illinois Town.'' But
determined supporters of the name ''E ast St. Louis'' were said to have
plied out-of-town laborers with enough cash and liquor at the last
minute to get them to vote fraudulently and as told.
The election's result set the tone for a community that by virtue of its
very name was to be forever subservient to the growing city on the west
bank called St. Louis.
Mayor John B. Bowman, a teacher and a refugee from social upheaval in
Germany, was credited as a progressive first leader for newly
incorporated East St. Louis. But it is telling of the paranoia of the
time that his wife would die one night while undressing, when she
apparently mishandled the pistol she hid in the bosom of her dress.
The city was patrolled in its early days by two competing police forces
- one chartered by the state and the other by the city. Two city
officers died in a gunfight with the rivals in 1878 over control of the
police station. The State Supreme Court later nullified the
Bowman lived to retire from official life. But he kept a high profile as
a vocal critic of the wide-open gambling and other corruption that
flourished in the 1880s, after his term ended.
In memoirs, a railroad special agent described the blatant lawlessness
with a telling anecdote about the time he sent detectives to East St.
Louis to end rampant thefts from boxcars. Investigating why his people
never returned, the agent found that they had nabbed the burglars and
turned them over to police, who set the burglars free and put the
railroad officers on a chain gang fixing streets.
Located at the eastern end of the Eads Bridge, which replaced the need
for ferry boats, East St. Louis quickly became the second-largest rail
center in the United States.
It was progressive in some areas, beating St. Louis to installation of
electric street lights, for instance.
It was regressive in other areas, such as thefts from City Hall.
In 1881, the City Hall was burned down in what an investigation showed
was an attempt to hide looting of the treasury by insiders. After the
structure was rebuilt, its safe was blown open in an apparent burglary.
It turned out that $60,000 was missing before the blast, in an inside
job that eventually sent an alderman and the night chief of police to
On Nov. 20, 1885, Bowman - a man of many enemies - was gunned down
outside his home. Witnesses identified two city police officers as the
killers. But the witnesses disappeared before the trial. No one was
Shock over the killing helped fuel the election of a reformer, Melbern
M. Stephens, who recognized that high water ranked with high crime as a
threat to his city.
Stephens' answer to the devastating, recurrent floods was an improbable
and colossally expensive plan to raise the level of downtown East St.
Louis above the high-water line, using trusses and fill dirt.
But improbable or not - and in the face of a lynching threatened by
agitated opponents - Stephens moved ahead with the task of raising the
streets first by 14 to 20 feet. The bond issue for raising the city -
$725,000 - was then a fortune.
The last of the flooding was eliminated by dikes constructed in the
early 20th century by the East Side Levee and Sanitary District, whose
own name eventually became so synonymous with corruption that it was
Once the rough river town was out of the river water, it became a
logical and willing site for big industry. Rail lines through the East
and West converged at the Eads Bridge. Coal was plentiful at the
cheapest prices in the United States, an especially important point to
consider in days when factories had to generate their own electricity.
As with many cities, big industry was a mixed blessing, sparking a
population and employment boom but also making East St. Louis synonymous
with grimy life in the shadows of the smokestacks.
More ominous than the smoke was that many of these industries were built
outside the edges of the city, avoiding the property taxes to support
the city services on which many of the workers depended.
Instead, some companies incorporated plant campuses as their own towns:
The Aluminum Ore Co. formed Alorton (for Aluminum Ore town); the St.
Louis National Stockyards made National City; the Monsanto Co. had
Monsanto (later renamed Sauget). Still other industries were built
elsewhere on the periphery of East St. Louis, in Washington Park and
Virtually all these industries were owned by out-of-towners whose only
stake in East St. Louis was the profit to be made there. This meant
emphasis on cheap labor, a goal that collided - first abrasively and
later explosively - with the fledgling union movement.
As the century changed, the city's revenue base was built on vices as
much as anything. Gambling was pervasive. More than 375 saloons were in
operation. Prostitution was rampant and, more or less, would continue to
flourish for another three generations.
Including the so-called ''tax havens'' on the outskirts, East St. Louis
eventually led the nation in the sales of horses, mules and hogs a nd in
the manufacture of aluminum. It was big in steel, glass and beer. And it
was a leader in meatpacking, baking powder, paint pigments and building
materials. It also was a leader in public corruption.
In 1913, the city council voted to destroy municipal financial records
as an unnecessary clutter in city hall. A public clamor forestalled the
disposal, but the records disappeared anyway.
One exasperated gent quoted in news clippings of the day said about an
election contest between two candidates: ''I can't vote, because I know
both of them. If I only knew one of them, I could vote for the other.''
Burgeoning industry gave East St. Louis seemingly unlimited employment,
leading to its sort of motto: ''If you can find a job anywhere, you can
find one in East St. Louis.''
The message went all directions, including the South, where large
numbers of blacks took up the challenge. They arrived by the thousands,
often on boxcars.
The jobs were real enough, but the pay usually had been overstated on
the grapevine, and many blacks found themselves at hard factory labor
for the same wages earned in less strenuous roles as domestics for the
rich back home.
Concurrently, companies such as Aluminum Ore were resisting unionization
of workers and the better wages and conditions that organized labor was
seeking. Blacks were far less union-minded and, the companies found,
made excellent strike-breakers.
The dual load of the ordinary white racial prejudice of the times and
resentment over job replacements became too much to bear by 1917, when
the town erupted in a riot that left at least 47 people dead and a
significant part of town in flames.
Word of the horror spread nationally, and the taint was spread anew in
1918 by the release of a congressional investigating report that
observed, ''In the history of corrupt politics in this country, there
never has been a more shameless debauchery of the electorate nor a more
vicious alliance between the agencies and beneficiaries of crime than
for years existed in East St. Louis.''
And the viciousness was not restricted to matters of race. After a white
baker complained about a brothel beside his home, his 3-year-old son
disappeared and was found decapitated. A prostitute who confessed a role
in the crime was slain or committed suicide before she could testify
Voters, attempting to regain the city's dignity, turned to Melbern
Stephens to be mayor again in 1919.
But already, fundamental change had taken place in the city government.
Also in 1919, the city switched from a strong-mayor government, with
aldermen elected by wards, to a commission form that featured five
citywide commissioners with essentially equal powers.
Lacking veto power or broad control over all city operations, Stephens
was unable to repeat the strong leadership of his previous tenure.
The city suffered recurring money problems, with revenue sometimes
insufficient to cover legitimate expenses as well as graft. A survey in
1920 showed that among the 131 U.S. cities of 50,000 or more population,
East St. Louis was 130th in municipal taxes collected and in public
The Great Depression hit East St. Louis as hard as anywhere in the
United States, said observers at the time.
Factories, growing obsolete, closed for good.
New manufacturing methods from the growth of technology played a part.
So did widespread availability of electricity in commercial quantities.
Aluminum Ore Co., for example, no longer needed proximity to cheap
Southern Illinois coal to make its electricity. So it was logical to
rebuild its new plant in the South, to be closer to bauxite, the raw
material of aluminum.
Other factors played a role in the decline:
East St. Louis acquired a reputation as an impossible place to get
around, because the trains of more than a score of busy rail companies
caused seemingly endless waits at grade crossings.
Livestock trading was becoming decentralized. Mechanical tractors were
replacing horses and mules on farms.
Good rail service was no longer unique. And more goods were moving by
truck or air.
The city's industrial slide lurched to a stop at World War II, when East
St. Louis' abundant factory space helped fill the nation's voracious
appetite for production of military machinery. But once the war was won,
the slide resumed, delivering the city to its place among minor-league
industrial players whose largest employers are their school districts.
The war claimed one of the city's most enduring enterprise sites: ''The
Valley,'' an especially tawdry red-light district where prostitution had
flourished for decades. Municipal officials finally clamped down after
the Army Air Corps at Scott Field near Belleville, recording an ample
rate of venereal disease, threatened to make the whole city off-limits
to the armed forces.
It also was in the 1940s when Frank ''Buster'' Wortman, a former
associate of Chicago mobster Al Capone, set up a regional headquarters
for organized crime in East St. Louis. Police would attribute the
operation of illegal gambling casinos and other rackets to Wortman for
the next 20 years.
Although population peaked at about 83,000 in 1945 and began to fall,
East St. Louis continued its role as a major employer and commercial
center in the 1950s and '60s. Early-century predictions of a population
that might reach 500,000 by 1950 were, of course, never even approached.
The 100th anniversary in 1961 was a gala event chronicled with glowing
optimism in the centennial edition of the East St. Louis Journal. But
soon even the supportive daily would change its name to the Metro East
Journal, shedding some East St. Louis identity in an attempt to broaden
East St. Louis remained for decades under tight ''machine'' political
control; cash payments in exchange for votes were legend.
By the mid-1960s, the city, like some others around the country, again
became a hotbed of racial discontent. Snipings and firebombings by black
militants scared off white shoppers and scared out homeowners. Some
residents lost their life savings to flee fine houses that suddenly were
- or at least seemed - worthless.
In 1968, there were 28 consecutive days of snipings.
The city, which was one-third black in 1950, became more than 70 percent
black by 1970. Completion of Mayor Alvin G. Fields' 20-year tenure in
1971 marked the end of white leadership.
One hundred ten years of troubles had piled up, and East St. Louis was
in bad shape physically and economically.
While visionaries were seeing a better day for East St. Louis, some of
them were looking in abstract directions. For example, internationally
known architect R. Buckminster Fuller proposed construction of a
free-standing clear dome, one mile in diameter and 900 feet high, with
an environmentally sheltered community beneath.
In the 1970s, widespread investigations and prosecutions were conducted
for corruption in the city and school operations, further shaking public
confidence. A consultant's study of the police department concluded that
it ought to be disbanded and started from scratch.
In 1974, the commission government was returned to strong
Upon becoming mayor in 1979, Carl E. Officer saw fit to offer amnesty to
thieves - presumably municipal employees - if they would return
purloined public property. The booty had included cars and bulldozers.
The period was one of heavy federal assistance and a raft of studies
looking for the elusive antidote to the city's decay. Most plans died on
the drawing boards or after snappy watercolor renderings got published
in the papers. But nothing of substance was built.
Officer presided over a major reduction in payroll, which coincided more
or less with the phase-out of federal subsidies. In the 1970s, the
city's work force numbered nearly 1,400 - many paid by federal programs.
By this year, it was fewer than 300. And the city was left scrambling
for money for just the basics.
Carl Baldwin, a former East St. Louisan and retired journalist who has
written much about the city, has fond memories of good, honest people
there who voted for corrupt politicians largely to protect relatives'
political-patronage jobs. ''The gangsters and corrupt officials can
control a small city more easily than a large one,'' he said.
But Baldwin said it was apparent that the trail of corruption and
mistakes would inevitably lead to disaster.
One should remember, Baldwin said in a recent interview, that the East
St. Louis of 1988 is the product of more than a century of events.
Illustration: PHOTO GRAPHIC
Caption: ...COLOR PHOTO By Odell Mitchell Jr./Post-Dispatch...The
vacant shellof the Obear-Nester Glass Co., closed for almost a decade,
is one of a variety of deteriorating industrial skeletons that haunt
East St. Louis as reminders of the days of plentiful jobs. COLOR
LOGO...East St. Louis City On The Edge...Part 2 ...PHOTO...1913: News of
graft indictments against the former mayor and 14 East St. Louis city
council members dominated this Post-Dispatch front page, but it wouldn't
be the last time city officials got into trouble. ...PHOTO...1939:
Police clear City Hall of some of about 200 municipal workers,
apparently hired as a pre-election political tactic, after they showed
up to demand their pay. ...PHOTO...1948: (ABOVE) A project to raise
downtown above flood level left some voidsunder streets and sidewalks.
This collapse killed a pedestrian. ...PHOTO...1960: (LEFT) Key figures
in the history of East St. Louis were Alvin G. Fields, left, its mayor
from 1951-71, and Melvin Price,its congressman from 1945-88.
...PHOTO...1961: Decked out in 1860's styles, East St. Louis residents
choked Broadway near the old Broadview Hotel in 1961 as part of the
city's centennial observance. The hotel building now is used as the
local campus of Southern Illinois University. ...PHOTO...1961: The
Orr-Weathers public housing project, under construction here, brought
the promise of additional homes for the poor of East St. Louis. By 1988,
some of thecomplex was gutted and boarded up, with no money for
renovations. ...PHOTO...1971: James E. Williams Sr., third from left,
East St. Louis' first black mayor, holds an informal meeting with city
commissioners (from left) Gordon D. Bush, Edward Horrigan, Robert Mays,
and Elmo J. Bush. ...PHOTO...1984: Various plans through the years
depicted a picturesque if not grandiose East St. Louis riverfront. This
drawing envisions the city's station for the proposed St. Louis area
light-rail system. ...PHOTO...1988: IllinoisState Police have helped
patrol East St. Louis at night; the city doesn't have money to provide
an adequate force. POST-DISPATCH CHARTS-TABLES...Three charts ran with
this story listing the City of East St. Louis At A Glance. The first
chart lists the Population, thesecond chart lists Racial Composition and
the third chart lists Number of Retail Locations in City of East St.
Keywords: PHMITCHELL; PXFIELDS G PXPRICE PXWILLIAMS E PXBUSH D
PXHORRIGAN; PXMAYS PXBUSH J; INDICTMENT COMPANY MEMBER; SIDEWALK STREET
G STYLE RENOVATION E; EAST BYGAUEN FEATURE HISTORY; DECADE SUPPORT LABOR
OF; PATROL SERIES; CHARTER HISTORY DETECTIVE INVESTIGATI
Rights: Copyright (c) 1988, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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Patrick E. Gauen | Public Safety Editor | St. Louis
Post-Dispatch | 314-340-8154