Last week an agent of the TV series "Dead Files" contacted The Dispatch/Argus asking questions about local history for an episode in planning involving an address in Rock Island in the vicinity of Black Hawk State Park.|
They also contacted me asking about John Looney, vice king in the Quad-Cities during the days of Prohibition. And also about any unusual murders in that area years ago. So I began digging in my "dead files" of past columns and notes.
Looney owned a mansion on the bluff overlooking Black Hawk Road complete with an underground tunnel, escape stairs and bulletproof walls.
Apparently the underground facilities have been covered over.
Looney owned saloons and brothels in Rock Island. He fed his saloons with six stills on Bush Island capable of churning out 360 gallons of bootleg booze a day. He had henchmen who collected payoffs from other bar owners.
The story of Harry Meanor was an example of Looney's extortion methods.
He was the proprietor of a restaurant and bar on 22nd Ave. He sold hootch (bootleg liquor). He originally obtained it for $4 a gallon. Looney came in the restaurant one day and told him he was going to buy liquor from him in the future and it would cost him $8 a gallon.
And he told Meanor he expected him to use 10 gallons per week because he was going to send that much. Looney's men also installed gambling rooms over the establishment with punchboards.
At one point there were 29 houses of prostitution in Rock Island, according to a Grand Jury. Looney was involved with some of them. Helen VanDale was the alleged queen of the Rock Island underworld, according to The Rock Island Argus. VanDale's house of prostitution was located close to a tavern owned and operated by William Gable.
Thomas Cox, chief of police in Rock Island, and other lawmen were said to frequent VanDale's house of prostitution.
One night a girl at VanDale's received a striking blow that resulted serious injury, if not fatal. She was rushed out of Rock Island. There were persistent reports that she died. Cox was thought to have played a part in the incident. There was a report that Gabel was a witness to the attack on the girl.
Apparently Gabel also turned state's evidence. He had given a canceled check with Looney's endorsement on the back to a G-man (FBI). Three days later, Gable was gunned down. It appeared to be a hit ordered by Looney. Chief Cox, VanDale and three Looney henchmen were accused of conspiring to murder Gabel. Looney and the others were put on trial for the murder.
Det. Charles W. Ginnane committed suicide prior to the trial. He was a bodyguard for Chief Cox. After Cox resigned, Ginnane killed himself probably because he was a witness to the crumbling machine manipulated by Cox. Ginnane was afraid of being drawn in as a witness against the chief. He knew too much about the workings of the police department.
On Oct. 26, 1922 all of Looney's saloons and brothels were closed. Six stills still making 300 gallons of bootleg per day were destroyed. Looney's home was raided and its arms cache seized. His scandalous newspaper, "The News," ceased publication.
During the murder trial in 1926, Harry McCaskrin, Looney's lawyer, told a prosecution witness to leave town. Looney ended up serving a sentence for murder at the Joliet State Penitentiary.
Attorney R.D. Robinson, Galesburg, one of Looney's lawyers, filed a civil suit against him for funds secured by a mortgage on a property on 44th Street in Rock Island. Looney had deeded the house to his daughter in 1922.
Looney was released from prison on April 7, 1934. He went to Texas and was never heard from again.
Another famous murderer, John Long, was buried in the pioneer Dickson Cemetery located in the northwest corner of Black Hawk State Park.
Long was involved in the murder of Col. Davenport in July, 1845. He was hanged at the Rock Island County Courthouse. His body was on display there and later at Hauberg Museum. He was finally buried in 1978 in the cemetery.
I discovered Long was buried at the cemetery while Harry Lamon, the late Dispatch photographer, and I were researching the theft of many of the tombstones from the cemetery in 1985. People were stealing tombstones, many of distinguished pioneer families such as Sears, Vandruff, Wells and others. They were being used as yard art and in one case to pave a patio in Davenport.
In the "Dead Files" paranormal researcher and physical medium Amy Allan works with retired homicide detective Steve Di Schiavi to solve unexplained paranormal phenomena in haunted locations across America.
In this series Allan uses her abilities to communicate with the dead often assuming their role and reliving their death, while Di Schiavi uses his years of detective experience to search for physical evidence.
When the two investigators come together to share their findings, the parallels between their discoveries are powerfully revealed.
Marlene Gantt of Port Byron is a former Rock Island school teacher.
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