With this post to our Local History Room weblog, we revisit a series on a pair of sensational deaths that occurred in Pekin, Illinois, during the Prohibition Era. The Local History Room columns in this series, entitled “The Third Degree,” originally ran in the Saturday Pekin Daily Times from Sept. 15, 2012, to March 2, 2013.
THE THIRD DEGREE
By Jared Olar
The killing of Lew Nelan
In the lore of Tazewell County and the history of Pekin, one of the most sensational stories handed down from the Prohibition Era of the 1920s and early 1930s involves a series of tragic and horrifying actions and events that exploded onto the front pages of the local newspapers in the late summer of 1932.
With the kind assistance of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society, we will recount this story, which has most of the elements of Prohibition Era drama: speakeasies, alcohol-fueled violence, murder, and, most shocking of all, criminal misconduct that threatened to bring down the county sheriff and his entire department. About the only thing missing are gangsters and Tommy guns.
This sorrowful tale begins on Saturday night, Aug. 27, 1932, at the speakeasy of John Petji at 416 Main Street, East Peoria, but the events that unfolded that night and continued over the following days did not become widely known until Thursday, Sept. 1.
The Pekin Daily Times headline that day screamed, “VIRNT HANGS SELF IN COUNTY JAIL.” Beneath that was printed the sub-headline, “Uses Belt For Noose; Found By Deputy Who Had Gone to Release Him From Custody.”
On the right hand side of the same front page, nestled beneath the same screaming headline, was the story of another death: “Three Held For Murder Of Lew Nelan; Unconscious When Placed On Track, Jury Says.”
Reading the two stories, it quickly becomes clear that the first story is a further development in the second story. Even more, as one follows this story in subsequent news reports, it also becomes clear that the first story and the sensational headline were false. The truth was even more astounding and sensational.
The Sept. 1, 1932 edition of the Pekin Free Press reported on the beginning of our story in a report written in a subdued and moderate tone, which bears the understated and modest headline, “Found Dead.”
Partly an obituary, the report tells of the death of Lew Nelan, an East Peoria resident who had been born in Bath, Ohio, on April 10, 1868, the son of James and Catherine Nelan. The Pekin Free Press says Lew Nelan was well known in Pekin, and two of his brothers, George and Albert, lived there. No wife or widow is mentioned, but Nelan was survived by a son, Andrew, and a daughter, Mrs. Fred Opdike.
The report says, “Lewis Platoff Nelan, 64, of East Peoria, was found dead in the railroad yards there early Sunday morning. The first impression was that he had been run over by a train. The members of the engine crew, who found the body, could throw little light on his death. The body was brought to the Keucks funeral Home and was found not to have been badly mangled.”
Turning to the Pekin Daily Times report of the inquest into Nelan’s death, we read, “William Pierce, switchman on the C. and I. M. engine that passed over Nelan’s body testified that he was standing on the running board of the engine as it was backing up around a curve and that he saw an object that appeared to be a man lying on the track. The headlight of the engine was not shining directly down the track and he had not enough time to signal the engineer to stop before the engine passed over Nelan.”
Nelan’s body was cold to the touch and there was dried blood on his forehead, Pierce testified. Engineer W. S. Kirkwood also said that he felt Nelan’s hands and face, which were cold to the touch. “He fixed the time at 4:38 a.m.”
The Daily Times also reports, “Dr. L. F. Teter, Pekin physician who performed the autopsy on Nelan’s body described the injuries disclosed by the autopsy. There were multiple head injuries, the physician stated, but not sufficient to have caused death. The scalp had been punctured in several places, but there were no indications of a fracture of the skull or brain injuries.”
Dr. Teter also described the extensive injuries that Nelan’s body suffered when he was run over. From this evidence, it was clear that Nelan died from being crushed and mangled by the train, but he had been beaten about the head before he ended up on the railroad tracks.
The Pekin Free Press reports that after the gruesome discovery early on the morning of Aug. 28, “Deputy Sheriff E. L. Fleming and aids began an investigation to attempt to learn whether or not it was true as suspected that Nelan had been killed in a fight and his body place (sic) in the railroad yards to create the impression that he had been killed by a train.”
Next week: the results of that investigation.