June 7, 1949, I was graduated from the University of Missouri, and
headed for a waiting job as a reporter at the East St. Louis Journal.
The Journal was edited by Tom Duffy, as self-educated newsman who was
good enough, later, to become a professor in the University of Missouri
School of Journalism, though he had never attended college.
During World War II he had a common theme for his Sunday columns. When
the boys come marching home again, they will make things well. I as one
of those "boys," and the first college graduate hired as a reporter.
These were changing times.
As far as corruption and organized crime is concerned, they were
Prohibition and set the stage for illegal bars, moonshine stills,
illegal importing of liquors (from which I believe the Kennedy family
In the 20s, John Dillinger was the Robin Hood bank robber.
In Southern Illinois, it was the Shelton gang.
Prohibition brought liquor runners bringing liquor from Canada, and
stills producing a wide variety of quality liquor.
Frank "Buster" Wortman was the gangster boss of Southern Illinois in the
late '40s and '50s, thriving off illegal gambling. But the gangsters
had their origin in prohibition. In Southern Illinois, that was the
Shelton gang, and then Buster Wortman.
U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, twice a presidential hopeful,
began the Kefauver Crime Commission hearings on organized crime and
its effect on interstate commerce.. Eventually the hearings came to St.
Louis where they were of intense interest on that new media called
The East St. Louis Journal had a fearless crime reporter in Charles O.
Stewart. Charles kept a little notebook filled with license plate
numbers and when and where their cars were, and other information on
gangsters. He also had a bevy of informants, mostly black, who came up
the stairs to the Journal newsroom to see "Mr. Stewart."
A task force of federal agents with pads of John Doe subpoenas preceded
the senators and Charley took the agents everywhere, in preparation for
When the hearing started, Charles was assigned to cover them with hard
news, and I was sent to do "color." During that period I accumulated
background information on elected officials who squirmed in the witness
chair, and in particular, information on Buster Wortman and his gang.
When the hearings were over, I organized my information and wrote two
full newspaper pages on Buster Wortrman, published in our Sunday papers.
The newspaper distributor in Collinsville (Buster's home town) told our
circulation department Collinsville was abuzz about how brave I was. I
hadn't thought about that!
Soon after that a body was found in the trunk of a Cadillac parked in an
alley behind the Winstanley Baptist Church . A funeral home providing
ambulance service told me what was going n, and I was there to see the
trunk opened. a fly was walking on the nose of a very dead man. One eye
was missing -- it was a bullet hole. I stood there a moment thinking
that could have been me -- though never in a Cadillac.
I do not remember the sequences now, but as a new face in the Journal
staff, I was used to check out the gambling places that were know to
Stewart. He gave me detailed instructions on what to do in each spot,
and to get out quick. Tom Duffy would set a date and we would check
dozens of joints.
One was on St. Clair Avenue, somewhere near 36th street I think. I was
to go into the bar and, acting like I knew my way, head for the door to
the left of the bar marked "Ladies." It did in fact lead down a hallway
to the rest room, but a door halfway down led to the basement. At the
bottom of the dark stairway was another door, and it opened into a large
smoke filled room. Opposite the door was a betting table and behind it a
wall with chalkboards showing race results, which also were heard
blaring over loudspeakers from a horse race fanout service.
"Handbooks," as they were called, paid to get horse race results phoned
straight from the tracks. A recipient in East St. Louis had a bunch of
telephones which were hung on a loudspeaker that in turn was connected
to the handbooks. That was a fan out service.
Betting could be on anything. I wondered why a curtain was across the
back of a barbershop, and one day decided to act like I knew where I was
going and pull the curtain aside. There was what looked like a stock
ticker giving results of a sporting event.
Handbooks and casinos paid big bucks to the gangsters that organized the
We searched gambling joints to the borders of St. Clair and Madison
counties, including in all-black Brooklyn. I had a friend along for the
ride the night I opened the door to check on the bank of slot
machines in a bar in Brooklyn. My friend kept the motor running. I
opened the door, looked to confirm the slots were were Charley said,
jumped back in the car and we sped away.
Later ... years later, Charley asked to see the proprietor of a Brooklyn
club, and was told to wait, he was coming. Charley waited too long, and
he knew it. He started for his car, but just as he reached it, two winos
jumped him and stabbed him. He dropped to the ground, rolled under the
car to the other side and managed to get in a lock the door. He got a a
telephone booth (no cell phones then) and called the state police
commandant (last name Toffant) who rescued him and took him to St.
Mary's hospital. He also called our city editor -- I was news editor
then -- and we started for Brooklyn, but remembered Charles' friendship
with the police commander and found them at the hospital; The stab had
almost reached his heart. As we sat there, I noticed another hole in his
back., The hospital had missed it -- another stab wound. The two were
caught and arrested. They were paid by the gangster.
To be continued.