Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

S. Illinois' gambling history

If you have a question, e-mail factorfiction@semissourian.com or call Speak Out (334-5111) and identify your call as a question for "Fact or fiction?"

Q: Is it true that East Cape Girardeau, Ill., nightclubs like the Purple Crackle and the Colony Club used to have illegal gambling and organized crime from the St. Louis area had a stake in these clubs, as illustrated by a mafia-style hit on a man traveling Highway 3 many decades ago?

A: There are few people who understand the history of Southern Illinois like former Southeast Missourian reporter Ray Owen, who covered the area for many years. Owen has also been actively involved in local antiques and collectibles, which provides him another interesting perspective on your question. Here's his response:

"At one time nightclubs throughout the lower two counties -- Alexander and Pulaski -- offered some illegal gambling activity. Gambling chips can still be found from the Thunderbird Club, Colonial Club and Purple Crackle, which were located along Highway 146 from the Mississippi River to the Highway 3 intersection. I have also seen chips from the Turf Club in Cairo and the State Line Country Club near the Arkansas-Missouri line.

"Although I haven't seen chips, some high-stakes games were conducted at Hotel Cairo in Cairo and Club Winchester in nearby in Olmsted, Ill.

"Raids were conducted at many nightclubs in Alexander County, where stacks of ornate chips ranging from $1 to $100 were seized. Authorities said some of the men participating in the games were not aware that it was illegal to play for money.

"As for organized crime out of the St. Louis area having a stake in the clubs, I don't know. But it is fairly common knowledge that there were some crime elements present in Southern Illinois, particularly from the Chicago-Cook County area.

"At one time gambling, prostitution and other criminal elements were rampant throughout Southern Illinois. A number of nightclubs were bombed or burned, and some unsolved murders were committed. The history of Williamson County to the north includes some of the most violent tales of murder and gangland activity. Reporters who covered the Herrin Massacre Trial labeled it 'Bloody Williamson.' There is a book by that same name.

"The first bomb dropped on United States soil was in Williamson County when members of the Shelton gang flew over the Charlie Birger roadhouse and tossed three dynamite bombs at the Shady Rest. The only one to explode did little damage.

"To the south, it was rumored that Al Capone, a Chicago gangster, had some dealings in Alexander County, and that at one time one of his henchmen was bartender at the old Green Tavern, then located at the Highway 3-51 intersection north of Cairo."

Thanks, Ray, for the information.

Here's another interesting bit from Southeast Missourian librarian Sharon Sanders: The Crackle -- originally named the Purple Grackle -- opened in 1939. Clyde "Bud" Pearce Jr. noted in a 1979 article: "The club didn't have a very extravagant beginning. It opened with a bottle in a box and a crap game. And the name -- Purple Crackle -- was a mistake. My father had named the club the Purple Grackle, after the bird, but I guess the crack of the dice led everyone to call it Crackle, and the name stuck."

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian. E-mail him at jrust@semissourian.com.