Traces of a past nearly forgotten

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Recently local historian Carl Adams brought to my attention the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society’s collection of portrait photographs of World War I soldiers who had lived in Tazewell County. The photographs were donated to the Society by the late L. Sidney Eslinger of East Peoria.

In most cases the identity of the soldiers is known. However, according to Connie Perkins, one group of portraits were scanned from smaller glass negatives that were in bad condition, and of that group only a few of the soldiers were identified. Perkins says it is not known where Eslinger had salvaged these negatives, but it is likely that all the soldiers had lived in either Tazewell or Peoria counties – of the unidentified photos, Charles Dancey was able to identify one soldier as an East Peoria man.

Among these unidentified portraits is one of an African-American Army soldier. Considering the black population in Tazewell and Peoria counties during World War I, most likely this man was from Peoria or East Peoria. He may even have come from Pekin, for Pekin in those days – before the advent of the Ku Klux Klan – had a small population of black families, most of whom lived in downtown Pekin or in the area of South Second Street. As we’ve noted before, a few African-American Civil War soldiers came from Pekin. Later, in Oct. 1902 large crowds filled the Tazewell County Courthouse square during the Pekin Street Fair to witness the public wedding ceremony of a notable African-American couple: a Spanish-American War hero named Lloyd J. Oliver and his bride, Cora Foy.

This portrait of an unidentified World War I soldier comes from a collection of glass negatives salvaged by the late L. Sidney Eslinger of East Peoria, who donated the negatives to the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society. The soldier most likely was from Tazewell or Peoria counties. PHOTO REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF THE TAZEWELL COUNTY GENEALOGICAL & HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Although this World War I soldier may not have come from Pekin, a review of the known black families who lived in Pekin around that time could help identify him, or can help rule out some candidates. Another benefit of such a review is that it would uncover the traces of a past nearly forgotten: a time when African-Americans made homes and found jobs in Pekin despite the common racism of that period – before racist animus stoked by the KKK in the early 1920s drove almost all of them away.

To begin, we see that the 1910 U.S. Census for Pekin shows two black men, Edward Reaves, 49, and William Gaines, 33, rooming together at the Tazewell Hotel on Elizabeth Street. The Kentucky-born Reaves was the hotel’s head chef, while the Georgia-born Gaines was a porter and worked in the hotel’s barbershop. Reaves does not appear as a Pekin resident in any records after 1910, but Gaines appears as a Pekin resident and Tazewell Hotel porter in both the U.S. Census and Pekin city directories until 1932.

On Sept. 12, 1918, Gaines registered for the World War I draft. His draft card says he was then 40, being born April 3, 1878, and that his “nearest relative” was his mother, Mary T. Gaines of Washington, Ga. Gaines could not sign his name on his card, so he instead made his mark, which was witnessed by the draft registrar W. G. Fair.

A July 24, 1933 Pekin Daily Times story refers to Gaines as “William Gaines, one of our two black men, who is porter at the Tazewell hotel and who has been here for 30 years . . .” Gaines, who was 55 in 1933, is not listed in the Pekin city directories after 1932, so he may have moved from Pekin, but probably died here later in 1933. He does not appear in the 1940 U.S. Census.

Besides Reaves and Gaines, the 1910 U.S. Census lists another African-American porter working at the Tazewell Hotel – Joseph Roach, 60, who was born in Tennessee. Given his age, it is clear that Roach could not be the World War I soldier in the photograph.

Pekin city directories and the U.S. Census show an African-American family who were named McElroy, living in a house at 201 Sabella St., at the northeast corner of Second Street and Sabella. (The author of this column and his family lived in the same house from 1985 to 1994.) Tazewell County marriage records show that George E. McElroy, 35, son of James and Ann McElroy, married Ellen Clark on Jan. 5, 1879. The 1908 Pekin city directory shows Mrs. Ellen McElroy, her husband George McElroy, laborer, and their daughter “Mrs.” Emma McElroy all living at that address. In the 1910 U.S. Census, we find at that address Ellen McElroy, 69, widow, born in Michigan, house mortgaged, with her daughter Emma Jones, 22, widow, born in Illinois, and granddaughter Della Jones, 1, born in Illinois.

The McElroys – George, laborer, and Miss Emma – appear in the Pekin city directories at the same address in 1913 and 1914 (though George presumably died before 1910). It would seem that Emma reverted to her maiden name a few years after the death of her husband, whose name is unknown. There was an African-American man named Henry Jones, born Aug. 16, 1882, who lived at 227 Sabella St. and worked at Keystone Steel & Wire – Henry registered for the draft in 1918. He may have been Emma’s husband, but Henry’s draft card says his “nearest relative” was his wife “Eva Jones.”

Another black family who lived in Pekin in the 1910s was headed by William M. Young, born Oct. 11, 1889, in Du Quoin, Ill. William registered for the World War I draft on June 5, 1917, and his draft card says he lived in the Rosenburg Flats at 200 Court St. with his wife and two children. The 1920 U.S. Census shows William, 30, a steel mill laborer, with his wife Anna, 21, a hotel maid, renting an apartment on Court Street, but does not list any children with them. Their children may have died by then, or perhaps were living with relatives elsewhere.

The same census shows another African-American family living in the Rosenburg Flats next door to the Youngs: the family of Philon Strong, born June 14, 1882, in Mississippi, who is listed (his name misspelled as “Thealon”) with his wife Henrietta, 22, born in Tennessee, and their daughters Orene, 5, and Cathelene, 2. About two years earlier Philon had registered for the World War I draft, at which time he and Henrietta were living at 227 Sabella St. Like several other black men in Pekin in that period, Philon worked at Keystone Steel & Wire.

The 1920 U.S. Census shows an African-American extended family living at 611 Second St. in Pekin, headed by two brothers, Douglass Keys, born Feb. 12, 1890, in Franklin County, Miss., and Norman Keys, born Aug. 10, 1892, in Brookhaven, Lincoln County, Miss. Living with Douglass was his wife May, 22, and children Fanny May, 4, and Troy R., 2, as well as Norman and his wife Elva, 24, and their son Elisha, 11. Also boarding with them was a 4-year-old boy named Floyd Tilmon.

Douglass registered for the World War I draft on June 5, 1917, while he and his wife were farming in Mississippi. Douglass and Norman and their families moved from Pekin during the 1920s, probably during the heyday of the Pekin KKK. Norman is later found living in Peoria. Since the Keys family was still living in Mississippi during World War I, neither Douglass nor Norman are likely to be the soldier in the mystery photograph.

Another African-American extended family living in Pekin at this time were the Robisons, who lived at 227 Sabella St. Jessie Robison, born Aug. 1, 1882, in Mississippi, registered for the World War I draft on Sept. 12, 1918. On the same day, Cammie Robison, born April 1, 1878, probably Jessie’s older brother, also registered for the draft. Both Jessie and Cammie worked at Keystone Steel & Wire. Cammie lived in Peoria in the early 1920s. The 1920 U.S. Census for Pekin spells the surname “Robinson,” and shows Jessie, 35, with his wife New Orleans, 26, their children Teaja, 10, Myrtle M., 7, Ora Nell, 5, Anna Lee, 3, and Mable, 1, and Jessie’s nephew Albert Robinson, 17, and Albert’s wife May W. Robinson, 17.

A black man named Walter Lee, born July 10, 1884, in Greenville, Ill., the son of Jim Lee and Jane Merifield, registered for the World War I draft on Sept. 12, 1918. His draft card says Lee’s employment was “Dr & Turkish Bath” working for the Pekin Park Board at Mineral Springs Park. Lee was disqualified from military service due to a spinal injury. The 1920 U.S. Census says Lee, then 35 and unmarried, lived on Park Avenue and was a masseur working at a bath house (i.e. the park’s bath house). His death record gives his date of birth as July 4, 1895 (contradicting his draft card), identifies his employment as “Turkish Bath Owner,” and says he died at the Peoria State Hospital on 1 Oct. 1947. Lee was probably the other “one of our two black men” mentioned in the Pekin Daily Times on July 24, 1933.

To complete our review of Pekin’s African-American residents during this early period, we note that Illinois death records mention an African-American named Joseph Howaloway, born in Tennessee, son of James Howaloway, a laborer who died in Pekin on May 27, 1938 and was buried in Lakeside Cemetery. He does not appear to have lived in Pekin during World War I, however.

Anyone with information that could help identify the unidentified soldier may contact the Pekin Public Library at (309) 347-7111 or the TCGHS at (309) 477-3044, or leave a comment here below.

#albert-robison, #anna-lee-robison, #anna-young, #cammie-robison, #carl-adams, #cathelene-strong, #charles-dancey, #cora-foy, #della-jones, #douglass-keys, #edward-reaves, #elisha-keys, #ellen-clark-mcelroy, #elva-keys, #emma-mcelroy-jones, #fanny-may-keys, #floyd-tilmon, #george-e-mcelroy, #henrietta-strong, #henry-jones, #jessie-robison, #joseph-howaloway, #joseph-roach, #keystone-steel-wire, #kkk, #ku-klux-klan, #l-sidney-eslinger, #lloyd-j-oliver, #mable-robison, #mary-t-gaines, #may-keys, #may-w-robison, #mineral-springs-park-bath-house, #myrtle-m-robison, #new-orleans-robison, #norman-keys, #ora-nell-robison, #orene-strong, #pekins-racist-reputation, #philon-strong, #racism-in-pekins-past, #tazewell-hotel, #teaja-robison, #troy-r-keys, #w-g-fair, #walter-lee, #william-gaines, #william-m-young, #world-war-i

Ehrlicher Brothers’ first prescription

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in February 2015 before the launch of this weblog.

Ehrlicher Brothers’ first prescription

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

When Pekin celebrated its centennial as an incorporated city in 1949, the Pekin Association of Commerce’s Centenary Committee assigned the task of compiling and publishing a souvenir book of Pekin’s history to a group of eight men and women.

The result was the 1949 “Pekin Centenary 1849-1949.” Chief among those who produced this book were Thomas H. Harris, chairman, Charles Dancey, who wrote the history, Bea Falkin and Charlotte Rau, who wrote other articles, and Marge Brenneman and June Wieburg, who were in charge of selling advertisements for the book.

While the Centenary’s historical narrative is naturally the heart and core of the book, the advertisements also in their own way help to tell of Pekin’s history. Often the ads take the form of tributes and congratulations to the community from its various businesses or social organizations, and many times the tribute ads include summaries of the history of the city’s businesses or utilities.

The tribute ad of Ehrlicher Brothers, on page 29 of the Centenary, is a perfect example of one of those historically informative ads. Not only did this long-established pharmacy take the opportunity to brag about their work — “All prescriptions entrusted to our care are filled as written — no substitution — which has gained us the confidence of the physicians who wrote them. All ingredients used are pure and fresh . . .” — but the ad also includes some fascinating historical details, making it of interest even today, long after Ehrlicher Brothers went out of business.

“We have just completed 85 years of continuous drug business in the same room. We feel we have a right to be proud of our record,” the ad says. Ehrlicher Brothers Co., Druggists, 328 Court St., was founded in 1864 by Henry M. and Otto D. Ehrlicher, sons of the German immigrant Johann Georg Ehrlicher (1824-1876) whom this column featured in October 2014. As we’ve noted before, Henry and Otto are recognized as Pekin’s first druggists, and along with their brother George and their wives they donated the land where the original Pekin Hospital was built in 1918.

The most fascinating detail of the Ehrlicher Brothers tribute ad, however, was that it includes “an exact reproduction of PRESCRIPTION No. ONE filled July 7, 1865, one year after the founding of our establishment. It was written by Dr. Samuel T. Maus for Mrs. James Haines Sr., two of Pekin’s earliest pioneers.” (In fact the prescription is clearly dated July 18, 1865, not July 7.)

Shown is a reproduction of Ehrlicher Brothers’ first prescription, from July 1865.

Regular readers of this column will recall that the Haines and Maus families were among the first settlers of Pekin. The life of Dr. William Maus, son of Samuel, was featured in Sept. 2013, while the life of pioneer settler William Haines, older brother of James Haines, was featured in May 2014. “Mrs. James Haines Sr.” was Annie, daughter of Dr. William Maus.

#annie-haines, #charles-dancey, #dr-samuel-t-maus, #dr-william-s-maus, #ehrlicher-brothers, #henry-ehrlicher, #james-haines, #johann-george-ehrlicher, #otto-d-ehrlicher, #pekin-centenary, #pekin-hospital, #pekin-pharmacies, #preblog-columns, #william-haines

The Third Degree: Chapter 25: Aftermath and Epilogue

With this post to our Local History Room weblog, we conclude our 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 Twenty-five

Aftermath and Epilogue

Voters finally achieve deputies’ ouster

The failure to convict Deputies Ernest L. Fleming and Charles O. Skinner of Martin Virant’s death provoked abortive attempts during the spring and fall of 1933 to oust Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby and remove his entire force of deputies.

It was no surprise, then, that Crosby decided not to run for re-election in 1934. Crosby had two very good reasons not to run again: in addition to the simmering discontent over the Virant affair, Crosby’s health remained fragile following the nearly fatal heart attack he had suffered in November of 1932. In place of Crosby, the Tazewell County Democrats put up Lawrence Lancaster, while the Republicans opted for Pekin Chief of Police Ralph C. Goar.

In 1934, voter antipathy toward the Republican Party over the Great Depression was still very strong, and the midterm elections that year would again prove to be a near total rout nationally as well as at the state and local levels. In light of those facts, it is a testament to the intensity of popular dissatisfaction with the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department that Goar’s photograph would end up on the front page of the Nov. 7, 1934 Pekin Daily Times under the headline, “ONLY G.O.P WINNER.”

The election of Goar ensured that the county would get a sheriff who would “clean house” and replace the deputies who were seen by many as Crosby’s cronies. Evidently voters did not trust that would happen if they replaced the Democrat Crosby with another Democrat. Goar also had an added advantage with the voters: He was the law enforcement officer who had personally arrested Deputy Skinner and had provided the grand jury with important testimony against him.

Sheriff Goar did not waste any time in getting around to the housecleaning at the Sheriff’s Department – on Dec. 1, 1934, his first day in office, it was out with the old and in with the new.

“Deputy Sheriff Fleming, who is retiring,” reported that day’s Pekin Daily Times, “will move to his residence property at 614 S. Eleventh street and Sheriff-Elect Ralph Goar will move into the jail residence . . . . Goar will assume the duties of sheriff. Elmer Eiler will be the office deputy under Sheriff Goar and Earl H. Whitmore of Pekin and Arthur Puterbaugh of Mackinaw are to be the outside deputies, Mr. Whitmore being the chief deputy. Sheriff Crosby, Deputies Fleming and Skinner will remain in Pekin, but have made no announcement of their future plans . . . .”

Elliff departs, but no comeback for Dunkelberg

The failed prosecutions of Fleming and Skinner, and the unraveling of the case against Petje, also did little to endear voters to Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff, who perhaps wisely did not seek a second term in 1936. Instead, it was a race between Democratic candidate R. L. Russell, a former mayor of Pekin, and former State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg, who had been defeated by Elliff in 1932.

However, Dunkelberg again was defeated at the polls. He would not seek his old office again, but would remain in Pekin, where he was a part of the law firm of Dunkelberg and Rust, located on the second floor of the old Pekin Times building. Dunkelberg died on March 27, 1976, at age 79. He is buried in Lakeside Cemetery in Pekin.

As for Elliff, he also never again sought his former job of state’s attorney. In 1940, he joined the U.S. Department of Justice, returning to his law practice in Pekin in 1947 and becoming an active community leader. He died on Dec. 3, 1993, at age 88, and also is buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

Tazewell County State's Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg lost his bid to regain his office in the 1936 elections. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria

Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg lost his bid to regain his office in the 1936 elections. Photo by Konisek, Feb. 26, 1928, Peoria

Poor health, heart troubles claim Black, Reardon, Allen, and Crosby

Most of the other main players in this drama died much earlier than Dunkelberg and Elliff. After successfully defending Deputies Fleming and Skinner in the Virant manslaughter trial, Jesse Black Jr.’s health failed. Following several months of illness, Black died on Oct. 11, 1935, at age 64. His fellow attorney in the Virant case, William J. Reardon, died of heart trouble on June 27, 1941, the day before his 63rd birthday. Black and Reardon are both buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

After losing his re-election bid in 1932, Tazewell County Coroner Dr. Arthur E. Allen, who investigated the Lewis Nelan and Martin Virant deaths, continued his medical practice in the Green Valley until 1946, when he moved to California. He served as house physician for the Santa Fe Railroad at Los Angeles until suffering a heart attack in March 1961 from which he never fully recovered. He died at age 82 on May 30, 1963, in West Los Angeles, and is buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Not quite five years after the end of his single term as Tazewell County Sheriff, James J. Crosby at age 72 succumbed on May 23, 1939, to the heart problems that had plagued him for several years. The Pekin Daily Times published a front page obituary and tribute to Crosby, recalling his many years as a local teacher and school administrator, and respectfully passing over the controversies of his time as sheriff. He is buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

Fleming, Skinner, and Garber summoned to Highest Court

The Daily Times showed similar respect for Fleming, who died at age 81 on March 22, 1955. His obituary notes only that he was “a former Tazewell county sheriff for several terms and a baker here for many years.” He was entombed in Lakeside Mausoleum.

After Sheriff Goar dismissed him from the Sheriff’s Department, Skinner later moved back to East Peoria, where he died at age 54 on June 7, 1938. He is buried in Springdale Cemetery in Peoria. Deputy J. Hardy Garber also left the area after Goar dismissed him. He served in both the Army and Navy during World War II, settling in Des Moines, Iowa, after the war. He died on March 26, 1968, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Iowa City, and was buried in Glendale Veterans Cemetery in Des Moines.

What of the Nelan defendants?

Of the three defendants in the Nelan case, Edward Hufeld later served in the Army during World War II, returning to East Peoria after the war. He never married, and he died at age 62 at Proctor Hospital in Peoria on March 20, 1965, being buried in Fondulac Cemetery, East Peoria. Frank Keayes Jr. moved to Pekin, dying at age 82, also at Proctor Hospital, on Dec. 26, 1982, also being buried in Fondulac Cemetery.

As for John Petje, following his acquittal on charges of murder, he remained in East Peoria and lived until age 62. On March 26, 1943, the Pekin Daily Times reported on page 2 that “Mr. Tetje (sic) was found yesterday afternoon at 2:30 o’clock hanged by a light cord fastened to a door sill in his house on S. Main Street.” The following day, the Daily Times reported that a coroner’s inquest jury ruled Petje’s death a suicide “while despondent over ill health.”

The reports of Petje’s death do not mention the Nelan case, saying only that Petje was “a prominent East Peoria citizen” without explaining what had made him “prominent.” He is buried in Parkview Cemetery in Peoria, the same cemetery where the family of Martin Virant laid him rest.


The decision to re-tell the scandalous history of the Lew Nelan and Martin Virant killings came about in the late summer or early autumn of 2012, when David Perkins of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society shared with the Pekin Public Library copies of some old Pekin and Peoria newspaper articles and funeral home records pertaining to the Nelan and Virant cases. At first it appeared that the stories could be succinctly reviewed in two or three weekly “From the Local History Room” columns in the Saturday Pekin Daily Times. As I researched these stories, however, it became clear that they needed a much fuller treatment which would call for an extended re-telling in a weekly serial format in the newspaper.

Prior to the publication of the “Third Degree” serial in the Pekin Daily Times in 2012-2013, the deaths of Nelan and Virant had been all but forgotten in Pekin. The late Robert Dubois, during his tenure as Tazewell County Coroner, once told me of the Nelan and Virant cases in a conversation with me around 2003. Dubois, who had read the inquest file on Virant’s death, explained at some length how the evidence and observations at the death scene made obvious that Virant was already dead before he was hanged. Though I found the facts Dubois recounted to be remarkable, I did not commit these details to memory (not even the victims’ names) and soon forgot our conversation, and only remembered that he had talked about it while I was in the process of researching their deaths for the Pekin Public Library’s weekly “From the Local History Room” column.

I doubt very many others in our day besides men such as Coroner Dubois or those with an interest in local history knew of Nelan and Virant and the controversies surrounding their deaths, which were probably all but forgotten in Pekin and Tazewell County prior to 2012. Although the saga frequently was front-page news in 1932-1933, the long and sorrowful story was reduced to a single paragraph on page 69 of the 1949 Pekin Centenary, which included a historical narrative that was mainly researched and written by retired Peoria Journal Star editor Charles Dancey:

“The discovery of the body of Martin Virant, a material witness, in the Tazewell county jail caused a storm which lasted for months. After the inquest there was a near lynching of accused deputies, who were later tried on manslaughter charges that Virant died under the ‘third degree’. Even after their acquittal, there was an effort to impeach the entire sheriff’s office on the part of the Tazewell county board of supervisors.”

That somewhat inaccurate paragraph would later appear in almost identical form in the historical narrative of the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial volume, on page 173:

“After a material witness named Martin Virant was found dead in his cell at the Tazewell County Jail, there was a storm of public outrage which nearly resulted in the lynching of some accused deputy sheriffs. (They were subsequently tried for manslaughter on charges that Virant died under the ‘third degree.’) There was an effort to impeach the entire Sheriff’s office by the County Board.”

As we have seen, the few lines in the Centenary and Sesquicentennial volumes omit several important details and really only begin to hint at that “storm which lasted for months.”

#arthur-puterbaugh, #charles-dancey, #charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #earl-h-whitmore, #edward-hufeld, #elmer-eiler, #ernest-fleming, #frank-keayes, #hardy-garber, #jesse-black, #john-petje, #lawrence-lancaster, #lew-nelan, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #r-l-russell, #ralph-goar, #robert-dubois, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon