From Occasional Bootlegger to Disciplined Criminal: On John E. Hallwas' "The Bootlegger"

From Occasional Bootlegger to Disciplined Criminal: On John E. Hallwas' "The Bootlegger"

John E. Hallwas | The Bootlegger: A Story of Small-Town America by | University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago | 1999 | 274 Pages

On April 8, 1929, three shotgun blasts killed Henry “Kelly” Wagle only yards from his front door in his hometown of Colchester, Illinois, a small mining town in Macomb County near the Iowa-Missouri border. Hundreds attended his funeral, some from as far away as Chicago. Strangers viewing the ceremonies might have concluded that a beloved local son had died, a man whose renown extended beyond Colchester. They would have been partially correct. Wagle was known to many, beloved by a few, but likely feared by most—he was a bootlegger who controlled much of western Illinois’ illegal liquor trade. He had murdered or ordered the murder of his second wife, assaulted other citizens, and attempted to kill another bootlegger. He belonged to Colchester but stood apart from it. 

Henry Wagle’s life is the partial subject of John E. Hallwas’ The Bootlegger: A Story of Small-Town America, a 1999 University of Illinois Press publication. Hallwas is a former Western Illinois University English professor who wrote or edited numerous books on Illinois history and literature. He described The Bootlegger as both a “double narrative” that told the interrelated story of Wagle and Colchester and a work that combined true crime, biography, and Midwestern social history. Hallwas’ book was also the basis for a 2016 documentary film called The Bootlegger by Illinois filmmaker Ryan Geoffrey Walker.

Henry Wagle’s career symbolized Colchester’s transition from a prosperous, self-sufficient town to one transformed by twentieth-century social and technological change. The Bootlegger is both a riveting true crime read and a powerful account of how modern life altered traditional rural society. Hallwas’ account of this transition makes it a valuable study of Midwestern life from the 1850s through the 1920s. Small town newspaper archives provided much of the information Hallwas used to tell this story. 

And what a story it is. After his introductory chapter on Wagle’s killing, Hallwas details the fascinating history of Colchester’s founding in the 1850s with the discovery of coal, which attracted miners from Wales, Cornwall and other parts of the United Kingdom. These men and their families strongly shaped Colchester, which makes The Bootlegger, in part, an interesting study of how immigrants molded one heartland town.

Colchester’s tight social bonds and shared pride in local products helps explain why small communities of the time became an American ideal, and why a writer such as Sherwood Anderson lamented the loss of small-town traditions of workmanship in the wake of industrialism. 

Colchester’s men mined coal, a vital element in burgeoning industrial America, but they did so for small local companies owned by their townsmen. Many families had mined for generations. Some miners become owners. Local ties ran deep and mining’s occupational dangers fostered a powerful sense of community. The loss of any one man or boy affected everyone in town and compelled others to support bereaved wives and children. The townspeople were, in ways almost unbelievable today, like a family. 

Hallwas’ prose vividly evokes Colchester’s halcyon days: the miners tramping off to work in morning darkness, the community rituals, the tragedy of workplace disaster. Colchester was a tough town. From its inception, its leaders struggled with the standard problems of prostitution, gambling, and whiskey-fueled hooliganism. The Civil War interrupted the town’s growth; periodic economic downturns and occasional strikes caused unemployment and deprivation; the loss of life in the mines was a perennial concern. 

One group that fostered community was the Miners’ Friendly Society, a fraternal organization that provided economic and emotional aid to families after a miner was killed on the job. The group also hosted a yearly picnic that became a significant social event for decades. The Society symbolized the importance of mining, the solidarity felt by its people, and the stability provided by tradition.

Colchester’s economy declined as coal production dwindled, although some companies produced pottery and bricks after clay deposits were discovered. The early twentieth century brought modernity’s destabilizing forces to Colchester. Automobiles drew people away to larger communities, especially to shop. Face-to-face conversation declined with the telephone’s arrival. An unknown arsonist destroyed portions of the town over a period of years. 

Central to the narrative is Colchester’s struggle with prohibition, a strongly contested local matter throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Prohibition made Wagle’s career possible. For decades Colchester went back and forth on the topic, voting out the saloons one year and restoring them the next, which created social and economic instability. Some mayors and lawmen enforced the statutes while others turned a blind eye. Cynicism and frustration among the townspeople grew as a result.

In the book’s first half, Henry Wagle hovers in the background as we learn of his own Colchester family history. Lewis Wagle, his Kentucky-born paternal grandfather, was a teamster who hauled coal from the mines. Lewis’ son Archibald, Henry Wagle’s father, was born in 1860. Arch represented an older Colchester of community and interdependence; Henry embodied modernity and individualism. Arch was a miner who became an honest constable and enforced alcohol laws when voters supported prohibition. He left police work and signed on as one of the county’s first rural route mailmen. With his horses and mail carriage, Arch represented a change in agrarian America during the 1890s and later a passing rural order as the horse-centered culture declined. 

Henry Wagle takes center stage midway through the book. Born in 1886, he first worked as a teamster, potter, and railroad laborer. Wagle eventually took advantage of the criminal opportunities prohibition provided. Like Whitey Bulger, he was a criminal who supported his community, probably out of real affection, but also to deflect attention from rumor and suspicion. One fascinating section details how Wagle hired some of the disgraced “Black Sox” players of 1919, including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, to play for Colchester’s local team and defeat rival Macomb. 

We follow Wagle’s transformation from occasional bootlegger to disciplined criminal who met with Al Capone in Chicago but chose to operate independently in rural Illinois. The automobile, symbol of twentieth-century freedom, was a vital element of his business. He could be brutal. The story of his second wife Beulah’s murder and disappearance is especially well rendered and poignant.

However, historical true crime fans may find The Bootlegger frustrating. The detailed survey of Colchester history might deter those craving a cover-to-cover exposition of criminality. Even the most appreciative reader will note that the book fails to answer questions about why Wagle became the man he did. Wagle is a cipher. It is hard to fault Hallwas on this account given the limited information on the bootlegger. 

A stiffer criticism of the book is that it lacks broader contextual information on regional bootlegging-related crime. For example, during the 1920s the rival Charlie Birger and Shelton Brothers gangs in southern Illinois battled both each other and the Ku Klux Klan in an area known as “Bloody Williamson.” In a similar fashion, the Colchester Klan also went after Wagle. A broader look at the Prohibition-era lawlessness in rural Illinois and the greater Midwest would further enrich the book, providing points of comparison.

Nevertheless, with its rich detail, fast narrative pace, and robust sources, The Bootlegger succeeds as a satisfying work of social history, a gripping true-crime tale, and a powerful examination of how relentless change altered one rural American town. 

This review was written as part of our series on Midwestern history, a collection of reviews on texts of historical significance in the region. Writers interested in contributing to this series are encouraged to contact its editor, Jacob A. Bruggeman.

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