Reading another book about St. Louis area organized crime and wanted to post about because its been a great read so far.  The book focuses on the Shelton Gang who dominated gambling and bootlegging in East St. Louis and Madison County in general during the 20’s and early 30’s.  The Sheltons were active from the 20’s through the late 40’s but they were forced out of the East Side in the mid-30’s and made their way back to Wayne County and eventually forced their way into Peoria and dominated that area for a period of about 10 years.  They were never prevalent on the Missouri side of the river although they did have a partnership with the Cuckoo Gang in the late 20’s.  The Cuckoos were a South City gang made up of predominantly Syrian and Lebanese.  The partnership was uneasy and ended in an all out bloody gang war fought in the streets of East Side towns.  The book is an interesting portal into the history of East St. Louis and the pattern of vice that seems to persist even today.  The Shelton’s influence  extended far outside of East St. Louis into the other areas St. Louisan’s know on the East Side as well as the surrounding counties in Central and Southern Illinois.

The Sheltons were born into a farming family in Fairfield, Illinois in Williamson County.  4 Brothers were to go on to become career criminals and famous gangsters.  The eldest brother Roy spent most of his early life in federal prison and was not directly involved in the Shelton Gang and its famous exploits.  The 3 brothers that became well known were Carl, Earl, and Bernie Shelton.  Carl would become the most important and powerful gangster outside of Cook County.  Even Al Capone left Carl alone for years to control his Southern Illinois territory out of respect.  Bernie and Earl were rough gangsters and feared.  Carl was feared as well but had a reputation as a great networker and had great relationships with both police and politicians that allowed him to run his illegal operations unobstructed.  Alot of this good relationship seems to have involved payoffs, bribes, and large campaign donations.  Carl’s perpetual gang war with Charlie Birger’s Gang in a neighboring county is the stuff of legends that coined the nickname for Williamson County, “Bloody Williamson”, where Birger hailed from.

The Sheltons were also men of paradoxes.  They were passionate about farming and made great amount of money in legitimate business.  One of Carl’s greatest desires was to be respected as a legit business man.  He owned land and mineral rights all over Central and Southern Illinois and became quite wealthy from those exploits.  Carl also had a bit of a Robin Hood reputation.  He was known to pay medical bills and funeral services for the poor.  He was quick to give a $20 bill to someone who was down and out, quite a bit of money during the depression.  Bernie Shelton, the youngest, roughest, and most brash of the Shelton boys, ran a private ranch that was a vacation spot for gangsters and civilians alike.  One of his favorite activities on the ranch was playing polo, not a very gangster like activity.  All the boys had a close connection to animals and rarely went anywhere without their dogs.  Bernie raised pure bred horses that were his pride and joy.  And Earl was so adept with animals he was known to be able to diagnose and treat illnesses in many different animals as well as a veterinarian could.

The author, Taylor Pensoneau, is a former Post-Dispatch reporter, Missouri J-School grad, and Illinois native.  He has an obvious knowledge of Illinois political history and Post-Dispatch history as well.  This allows him to give perspective from the angle of both media and politics during the Shelton’s time, which is a pretty interesting combination.  Newspaper reporters played and politicians played quite an important role in how the Sheltons were perceived through the media and the communities in all of Illinois and Missouri as well.

The Shelton’s were partially a product of their time.  A great portion of their story takes place during Prohibition and The Roaring 20’s.  The rest takes place during the The Great Depression and World War II.  These periods are some of the most interesting both historically and socially in the entire 20th century.  They produced some of the most interesting characters and stories in American history and the Shelton Gang is certainly in that mold.  Popular culture and media have latched on to these stories and characters for decades and continue to do so today.  Prohibition and bootlegging were the basis of the Sheltons rise to power and the fortune they built.  This book is a great companion piece to a series like Martin Scoceses’s “Boardwalk Empire” which depicts a gangster/politician running Atlantic City, New Jersey as his own kingdom.   The award winning documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns, is releasing a film in Fall of 2011 of which Prohibition is the subject.  Any St. Louisian or Southern/Central Illinois Native who is interested how Prohibition affected this region would be well served to pickup Taylor Pensoneau’s book, Brother Notorious: The Sheltons.  According to Pensoneau’s profile on the Missouri J-School’s website he is working on another book profiling Southern Illinois gangster Charles “Black Charlie” Harris, a rather key figure in the Shelton saga.

Other books that would be great reads for those interested in St. Louis gangster history or St. Louis Prohibition era history would are:

Gangs of St. Louis: Men of Respect by Daniel Waugh

Egan’s Rats by Daniel Waugh