The Third Degree: Chapter 2: A fatal brawl at Petje’s speakeasy

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.


By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Chapter Two

A fatal brawl at Petje’s speakeasy

Early in the morning of Sunday, Aug. 28, 1932, Lewis P. Nelan was run over by a train in the East Peoria railroad yards. But evidence and eyewitness reports indicated that Nelan had not been hit while crossing the tracks, nor had he passed out on the tracks. So, how did his body get there, and how did he get those head injuries, the telltale signs of a beating?

As reported in the Sept. 1, 1932 edition of the Pekin Free Press, faced with this suspicious death, “Deputy Sheriffs E. L. Fleming, C. O. Skinner, J. H. Garber and Frank Lee followed the leads which indicated that Nelan’s body had been placed in the railroad yards after death and by Tuesday [Aug. 30] had established the fact that Nelan had been killed in a fight which took place at John Petji’s speakeasy, 416 Main street, East Peoria. They arrested Petji, who is 45 years of age, Ed Hufeld, 29, George Geansel (sic — Genseal), 40, and Frank Keayes, Jr., 32.”

However, after hearing all the testimony and considering the autopsy results, the coroner’s jury found that Nelan was not, in fact, killed in that fight. Their verdict, reported on the Sept. 1 front page of the Pekin Daily Times, reads:

“We the jury find from the evidence that Lewis P. Nelan came to his death from injuries received when he was run over by a C. and A. engine in the P. and P. U. railroad yards at East Peoria on Aug. 28, 1932 between the hours of 1:30 and 4:30 a.m.

“We further believe from the evidence that said Lewis Nelan was struck on the head with an iron bar by John Petji and was placed on the P. and P. U. railroad track while unconscious by John Petji, Edward Hufeld and Frank Keayes Jr., for the purpose of covering up their crime, they thinking that said Lewis Nelan was dead from the injuries received when struck with the iron bar.

“We further recommend that said John Petji, Edward Huffeld (sic) and Frank Keayes Jr., be held to await the action of the grand jury on the charge of murder.”

(Note: In these accounts, Petje’s surname is sometimes spelled Petji and Petzi, but “Petje” is the usual, and apparently correct, spelling.)

The investigation of Nelan’s death had led the deputies to Petje after they found Nelan’s hat, which had holes in it indicating the wearer had been struck, lying on the ground just six to eight feet from the Petji’s speakeasy. Mrs. Peckenpaugh, Nelan’s landlady, told the deputies that the holes were not in the hat when Nelan had left home on Saturday.

The deputies then brought in Petje, Keayes, Genseal and Hufeld for questioning, along with Burton Heller, 20, of Peoria, and an East Peoria resident named Martin Virant, 37.

“Genseal was with Keayes, Hufeld and Nelan, but left the scene and had no part in the fight or disposition of Nelan’s body,” the Daily Times reported. After the fight, Heller had “taken Keayes and Hufeld to Peoria in his car, simply as a matter of accommodation and he knew nothing about the fight or other incidents connected with it.” Genseal and Heller were released Thursday morning following the Nelan inquest.

Petje admitted to deputies that on Saturday he let in Keayes, Genseal, Hufeld and Nelan, and “they had several drinks,” but he denied there was a fight. However, as reported in the Sept. 1, 1932 Pekin Daily Times, Keayes, Hufeld and Genseal told the investigators that “Nelan and Petji quarreled and Nelan was put out. Petji followed Nelan outside and the row was continued. Petji struck Nelan several times with his fist then picked up an iron bar and struck him over the head, Nelan falling to the ground.

“Hufeld said, ‘He is Dead.’

“John [Petje] then said, ‘Take him on the railroad track and an engine will run over him and they won’t know how he was killed. Don’t tell anybody.”

Petje, Keayes and Hufeld took Nelan’s body to the railroad track, after which they went back to Petje’s speakeasy and had more drinks. Keayes and Hufeld then headed to Peoria with Heller. The fight reportedly took place around 1 to 1:30 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 28.

After the coroner’s jury was presented with the reports of the investigators and the testimony and confessions of Petje, Keayes, Hufeld and Genseal, Tazewell County Coroner A. E. Allen called Martin Virant to testify.

What Virant had to say was at least as disturbing and troubling as anything the coroner’s jury had yet heard that day.

Next week: Virant’s shocking testimony.

East Peoria map from 1929 atlas

The location of John Petje’s speakeasy and the railyards where Lew Nelan was beaten and dumped on the tracks to be run over on Aug. 28, 1932, is shown in this detail from a 1929 map of East Peoria reprinted in “The Heritage Collection Illustrated Atlas: Combined 1910 & 1929 Atlases of Tazewell County, Illinois.” Petje’s speakeasy was in a building, long since demolished, located near the northeast corner of South Main and Center streets.


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