Posted Online: Jan. 11, 2013, 2:10 pm

In 1920s Q-C, bootleggers, brothels operate unchecked

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By Marlene Gantt

John Looney and Helen Van Dale were providing services to the citizens of the Quad-Cities area in the days of Prohibition. Crime services, that is.

They were providing bootlegging and prostitution in that order. They worked together at it. They couldn't have survived as long as they did if a sizable portion of citizens had not been willing to pay for and receive their services.
Yet few were arrested as there were so many citizens using the services it would have been impractical to arrest them all. And impossible because Chief of Police of Rock Island, Thomas Cox, was one of Van Dale's customers.

Helen Van Dale, born Catherine Helena Lee, came from Galesburg to Rock Island as a teenage prostitute. She worked for awhile for Anthony and Margarite Billburg. But with John Looney's help, she built her own operation.

Van Dale and her sister ran three places in Rock Island from 20th to 24th streets along 2nd and 3rd avenues. The average price for services was $3-$5. Eventually the proceeds were split three ways between Looney, Van Dale and Cox.

Meanwhile Johnny Torrio, Chicago gangster, was taking over as many as 100 brothels in Chicago. In 1918 he brought Al Capone from New York to Chicago and made him a bouncer at one of the brothels. By 1922, Chicago, along with Peoria, Dubuque, Des Moines and Davenport, were connected with the local prostitution ring.

On Dec. 6, 1922, a Rock Island grand jury indicted Helen Van Dale. She was alleged to have built an enormous white slave ring. She was charged with violating the 1910 Mann Act. (The act was meant to prohibit white slavery and interstate transport of females for "immoral purposes." It was mostly used to prosecute men for having sex with underage females. The Mann Act was loosely interpreted in the 1920's and later was rewritten.)

Government operatives said they had evidence of Van Dale transporting about 100 girls to and from Rock Island. So Van Dale moved from the 24th St. and 4th Ave. house east of William Gabel's saloon. Gable, who was forced to buy hooch from Looney at a set price as were other saloon keepers, was murdered on July 31, 1922 under mysterious circumstances.

Van Dale moved her operation to the Palmer Inn, west of Davenport on the Nahant road. The Palmer Inn was operated by Van Dale, W.W. Bennell and Edna Smith.

On Dec. 21, 1922, The Dispatch announced that Van Dale had been arrested and held over to the Federal Grand Jury in Davenport. Several witnesses testified that she had transported women from Rock Island to Davenport and back again for immoral purposes." Federal authorities stated that damaging evidence showing that the alleged vice queen had seduced 15- and 16-year-old girls from their homes will be presented to the grand jury," said The Dispatch.

Three women, Ethel Hiett, Florence Fitzsimmons and Carrie Swanson, testified that they had been transported from Illinois to Iowa and returned by Helen Van Dale. "Glenn Hiett and Harry Mainwaring, the former an ex-chauffeur for the defendant and the latter a taxi driver, corroborated the women's story," said The Dispatch.
Hiet also testified that Van Dale had him bring Beulah Marx, Galesburg, from the Burlington train station in Rock Island to one of Van Dale's resorts in Davenport. Mainwaring told U.S. Commissioner Attorney General. Bush that he had frequently conveyed inmates of Van Dale's resorts to and from Rock Island and Davenport.

The penalty in Illinois for harboring a woman under age was one to five years in the penitentiary.

Van Dale's bail in Scott County was fixed at $10,000. More charges were added because she sold liquor. Nevertheless, the Van Dale operation was still going on July 7, 1923 when Van Dale, Smith and W.W. Benell were caught in a liquor raid.

State investigators testified that at Helen Van Dale's Gardens, -- otherwise known as Palmer's Inn and the Auto Inn -- they had called for "straight whiskey with sideboards on," according to the "Davenport Democrat and Leader." The drink turned out to be a tumblerful of hootch.

Van Dale was still operating in 1926, perhaps because too many of her customers were involved with the law. She had pictures of many of the city, county and state officials.

"Once, when a prosecuting attorney asked her in court if she had been a prostitute, she snapped back, 'You should know, you were in my house,'" according to the book, "Citadel of Sin: The John Looney Story" by Richard Hamer and Roger Ruthhart.
Marlene Gantt of Port Byron is a former Rock Island school teacher.