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Vice in the Tri-Cities: A look at how society has viewed 'bad' behavior

St. Charles police personnel stand in front of a broken apart still in 1922. Pictured are (left to right) Robert Colson, Harry Crawford, John McConkey, Mr. Nippert and Harold Covalsky.
St. Charles police personnel stand in front of a broken apart still in 1922. Pictured are (left to right) Robert Colson, Harry Crawford, John McConkey, Mr. Nippert and Harold Covalsky.
‘Odd’ ordinances in historyVice in the Tri Cities: 12 Photos

The Tri-Cities, for the most part, are and always have been quiet retreats tucked away from the major crimes that often plague larger cities. Sure, the area has had its share of sordid misdeeds and higher-level offenses. And with the Fox River and the city of Chicago close by, it's not surprising that some of the pettier vices that often plague larger cities – gambling, prostitution, theft, alcohol and drugs – crept their way in.

Vice, which is defined by Merriam-Webster's Dictionary as both "bad or immoral behavior or habits" and "a minor bad habit," seems to imply just that when it comes to crimes. Vice can be a seedy gamble, a raucous saloon or something seemingly even more minor, such as a person swimming nude during the daytime in the Fox River. Those are all vices that police had to deal with historically in the Tri-Cities. Some they still deal with today.

While alcohol is one of the more well-documented vices in Tri-Cities history, other vices included, prostitution, gambling and vagrancy.

A book called "General and Special Ordinances – City of St. Charles" published in 1926 outlines the laws that were in place back then. Most are typical ordinances that still are on the books. It was illegal to gamble back then – "no dealing, playing or engaging in faro, roulette, cards, dice or any ... game of chance," the book states. Those who broke the rules faced a $10 to $50 penalty. It also was illegal to drive a horse and buggy too fast, and racing in the streets also was prohibited back then. A ticket for breaking that law cost the offender $3 to $5.

Brothels also were prohibited in St. Charles in the 1920s. "Any and every such place of ill fame or prostitution is hereby declared to be a nuisance, and each and every day of its continuation shall be deemed a separate offense under this section," the book states. Someone involved with a brothel could be fined between $25 and $200. Lewd books and plays also were prohibited, costing offenders fines of $5 to $50.

In addition, gambling was somewhat prevalent in the area decades ago. The Kane County Chronicle's sister paper, the Geneva Republican, in 1920 reported that a St. Charles man bet on a Geneva-St. Charles football game and was said to have "put a mortgage on his furniture for $600 and bet the whole amount on St. Charles." The paper went on to say a group of gamblers bet a total of $4,000 on that game.

One of the more famous historical accounts in the Geneva History Center's records involved Jack Johnson, the first African American to win the world heavyweight boxing championship. He was held in the Kane County Jail in Geneva from July 28, 1920, through Sept. 18, 1920, after being accused of violating the Mann Act of 1910 for "transporting white women across state lines for prostitution," according to information provided by the Geneva History Center.

It also was illegal to be a vagrant in St. Charles in 1926. The ordinance book defines a vagrant as "any person able to work and support himself in any honest, reputable calling and not having any visible means to maintain himself, who shall be found loitering or strolling about in said city or is begging ... or who shall lead an idle, immoral or profligate life."

Alcohol was – and arguably still is – a vice that cities have grappled with, as evidenced by accounts in historical publications dating back to the late 1800s. By the 1920s and 1930s, prohibition had touched Geneva, St. Charles and Batavia, and police were breaking up illegal stills and shuttering local taverns.

"The Patrol," a prohibitionist newspaper circulated in Geneva, often published anti-alcohol opinions in the late 1800s. One account in 1885 says: "The night is just when we want the town quiet and orderly. Yet, if we have saloons, our nights will be the worst part of our existence. The bums of St. Charles and Batavia are at work during the day – some of them – but at night, they will be free to come here and literally raise hell. Do we not boast of our quiet 'residence' town? How will it be then?"

The newspaper then petitions readers to consider voting "no" to licensing saloons in Geneva.

"Can a man of standing incur the disgrace of siding with the saloon?" it asks.

Some articles, such as one published in the Geneva Republican on July 27, 1878, wrote unfavorably of the outside influences of St. Charles and Batavia. The article reports that "a gang of St. Charles beer guzzlers" overtook a horse-drawn wagon from a man who had generously offered to give them a ride home. One "drunken beast," the paper reports, knocked the driver out and left him in the road.

Those types of stories continued into the early 1900s. The Geneva Republican reports that an Elburn man "got well filled on squirrel whiskey" and was found sleeping at the corner of Third and State streets in Geneva later that evening. A police officer used a wheelbarrow to take the man to the city jail, and he was assessed a $5 fine the next morning.

Of course, alcohol issues took center stage after prohibition. According to an article supplied by the St. Charles Heritage Center, St. Charles became a dry city on the night of May 18, 1918, following an election.

"The people of St. Charles have spoken," the article states. "In 1880, St. Charles went dry, but in the next election, it went wet. Wastefulness of grain, sorely needed to feed the allies, was enough to dry any town that was not pro-German. Dundee and Aurora will be late coming into the dry columns, as they have large numbers of German residents."

The election resulted in 10 St. Charles taverns closing, including that of Louis Schelstreet, great-grandfather of current St. Charles Fire Chief Joe Schelstreet.

Joe Schelstreet said his great-grandfather had immigrated to the United States from Belgium in 1890, then later moved from the Moline area to St. Charles. He said his great-grandfather worked for a local malleable company and then realized everyone was leaving that industry to open taverns.

"It was much, much different than what you would expect a tavern to be today," he said. "He operated that [tavern] until prohibition. ... He had no interest in going back into the business."

In 1920, a woman was charged with "peddling hooch" in a baby carriage in Geneva, according to the Geneva Republican. Her frequent trips to St. Charles aroused suspicion and caused her arrest. The woman told police that her husband had left her, and she was selling three to four gallons of alcohol a week to make ends meet.

In 1931, sheriff's deputies raided 12 "farm houses and numerous beer and liquor flats" in the Geneva area and ended up smashing thousands of bottles of liquor and wrecking alcohol-making equipment.

In 1953, Geneva police ticketed what they thought were the first minors to purchase alcohol at a bar. Before an ordinance change in 1947, police only ticketed bartenders for serving underaged patrons. In 1953, a 17- and an 18-year-old were served alcohol at John's Tap without proof of age and were subsequently fined $50 each, while the bartender was fined $200, plus costs.

"This is believed to be the first case in Kane County where minors have been fined for purchasing drinks in a tavern," states a Geneva Republican article from Feb. 12, 1953. "Police hope that this case will serve as a warning, but promise speedy action if any similar cases are brought to their attention."

Glenn McConnaughay, who joined the Geneva Police Department in 1949 and served 12 years as chief until his retirement in 1972, would have been on the force by the time the first drinking ticket was issued to a minor.

McConnaughay, 92, now lives in Batavia and doesn't have the best memory of his policing days anymore. He said vices, such as drugs, prostitution and drinking problems, didn't surface much. Many of his accounts reference burglaries and physical altercations because vice just wasn't as prevalent.

Technology, in part, has changed vices and the way people commit crimes today. Chris Winter, curator at the Batavia Depot Museum, said the computer age has opened up more opportunities to commit crime that couldn't be committed 100 years ago.

"You are not always face-to-face with the perpetrator, and these criminals can be very difficult to track down," she wrote. "If someone wanted to get away with a crime in the 1800s, they had been have a fast horse or be able to run like the wind."


The Kane County Chronicle is taking a closer look at what vice looked like in Kane County, then and now. This is part two of a two-part series.

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