DEWAYNE's WORLD - Peoria's past offers a lesson on corruption

DeWayne Bartels

“I’ll tell you this much, when payments are resumed for ... privileges, the money won’t be put in any special fund.”

This is not a Gov. Rod Blagojevich quote picked up on a federal wiretap. These are the words of former Peoria Mayor Edward Woodruff, uttered in the ‘40s.

Woodruff set a standard for blatantly open corruption in this town that has not been seen since. He was so brazen he makes Blago look careful in comparison.

Woodruff created a culture of corruption in Peoria that left residents and visitors alike fat and happy for two decades.

This came to mind last week when Chicago FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Grant said, following Blago’s arrest, that if Illinois is not the most corrupt state in the nation, it is “a hell of a competitor.”

That’s a damning comment that makes one wonder if Illinois’ culture of corruption can be changed.

The answer is yes.

Peoria’s culture of corruption died off before Woodruff did, and how it happened is a lesson for the rest of Illinois.

 Woodruff was a corrupt elected official. North Peoria historian Norm Kelly, 77, confirmed this for me. 

“Corruption in Peoria was defined by Woodruff. He made sure everyone selected to work under him was under his thumb,” Kelly said.

“He loved having the power to mold this city. He created the ‘Peoria State of Mind.’”

Through 11 administrations, Woodruff established what one might call a “tax” for those running houses of prostitution, gambling joints and illegal drinking establishments.

The root of corruption, Kelly said, can be traced to the middle of 1920.

Woodruff loved this town, and he loved power. 

Under Woodruff, a very wealthy man, corruption was very open. But it was not about money for himself, the money was a means to an end. He did it to make Peoria a better place to live and for the power that comes with money.

“He was egotistical. He was tough. He was drunk for power,” Kelly said. “He was corrupt, determined and absolute.”

Woodruff was also clever. When Prohibition came to town, Peoria’s handful of taverns closed. Woodruff was not about to let the city dry up and cause a loss of the entertainment dollars coming in.

Woodruff responded by creating soft drink parlor licenses. At the parlors, there were treats and soda. A soda sold for 10 cents. For those, the proprietor knew a soda with a shot of whiskey from under the counter went for $1.25.

“In less than four months, Peoria had 66 soft drink parlors selling illegal booze. Before Prohibition was over, Peoria had more than 200 soft drink parlors,” Kelly said.

Woodruff reported the proceeds of “taxes” he collected from illegal gambling, booze and prostitution enterprises openly. Kelly found records for one year — he could not say which year — showing the following was collected by the city: Empire - $18,500; Saratoga - $5,250; G.C. Rooksby - $500; It Club - $4,475; Club Gig-Gallaux $4,250; Sportsman Club - $5,250; John Smith - $250; H.L. Lamp - $250; Talk O’ Th’ Town - $500; Lyceum - $4,750; J. Swain - $4,500; J. Snyder, - $250; Roscoe - $500. 

The money Woodruff collected was used to create the fire department and lay down sidewalks and streets. He gave the people what they wanted. In return, Woodruff got power. He built what Kelly called a “machine.”

“It was the ‘Peoria State of Mind’ at work,” Kelly said.

Woodruff justified his taxes, saying openly, “There is bound to be vice. Under regulation, such activities will be required to defray costs of civic maintenance and improvements.”

Woodruff became so powerful he was called “Little Napoleon.” Prohibition ended, as did Woodruff’s time in office but the “Peoria State of Mind” persisted under other mayors.

In 1941, Woodruff was back in power.

 By then, booze was legal. But, plenty of illegal gambling and prostitution were still winked at as long as the “tax” money flowed into the city treasury regularly.

It was a good time in Peoria. The city was attracting lots of outsiders looking for work. The population was steadily increasing, and with it, the demand for those “taxable” services.

In December 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entered the war. The seeds for a drastic change in the “Peoria State of Mind” were planted. The change came despite

Woodruff’s considerable power. When the war broke out, 23,000 Peorians were drafted. With all the jobs in Peoria, outsiders came in to replace those who left for the war.

Those outsiders did not know they were supposed to be in awe of Woodruff and intimidated by him.

“Woodruff was at the zenith of his power,” Kelly said.

In ‘44, as Woodruff faced the end of what would be his last term as mayor, he was in his ‘80s. His desire for power may have still been strong, but the body was weak.

Camp Ellis, a huge military camp about 50 miles from Peoria, was home to multitudes of GIs.

When those GIs got leave Peoria was the place to go to sate any immoral or illegal appetite. These were GIs facing overseas orders and death. They partied hard in Peoria.

“They raised Hell,” Kelly said. “Peoria was full of its own homegrown trouble-makers. There were 1,000 registered prostitutes and plenty more that weren’t registered. It was getting scary for decent people.”

Woodruff could not hold the vice together and keep it out of the faces of the decent citizenry as he had two decades earlier.

Carl Triebel challenged Woodruff. He was no reformer, but he was different enough. 

“There is propaganda going around that I will close this city. I have lived here too long. I know Peoria and I know what the people want. We will continue to have a good city and a lot of fun while I am mayor,” Triebel said shortly after his election.

Things remained unchanged in Peoria for 16 months, except that Triebel did not want the “tax” money from the prostitutes and gambling houses coming into city coffers.

Then, on Sept. 3, 1946, following a mundane city council meeting, Triebel shocked everyone with a speech that gambling was being outlawed in Peoria.  

Kelly provided excerpts from a newspaper article in which Triebel was quoted saying, “I have received too many complaints from working men complaining about losing their paychecks on Friday and Saturday. Hundreds of wives and mothers have complained to me about heads of families coming home without funds to support their families.”

Quite simply, the end of the “Peoria State of Mind” came from the bottom up. The people spoke forcefully, and an elected leader who wanted to stay in office heard. 

As Kelly put it, “The ordinary wife, woman, disgruntled gambler and the voters got tired of it. They got rid of Woodruff … and got Triebel. He was not a reformer. He had no mandate to end ‘corruption’ or gambling, but he simply got sick and tired of the complaints. He felt that Peoria was changing and that they wanted gambling gone … so he ordered it gone.” 

Peoria’s past proves a culture of corruption can be created by one person with the blessing of the people. Peoria’s past also demonstrates a culture of corruption can also be destroyed when the citizens have had enough.

The question is, have the citizens of Illinois had enough yet? Only an electorate energized enough to pursue progressive government can answer that.