SPIRITS OF THE SPEAKEASY
The haunted rooms above the downtown stores are in rather poor condition today, but are decorated with old pin-up photos and images clipped from magazines from the day when the room was in operation.
The heyday of crime in Decatur began around 1910-1911, but there was nothing that had a greater impact on crime in the city than Prohibition. And once it was repealed, the floodgates opened and crime, corruption and gambling rushed into the city.
When the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished the sale and distribution of alcohol, took effect on January 16, 1920, many believed that it would cure the social ills of America. Little did they know at the time, but it would actually do just the opposite. Americaís great thirst for the forbidden liquor bred corruption in every corner. Law enforcement officials became open to bribes because the majority of the men just did not believe in the law, but worse yet, Prohibition gave birth to the great days of organized crime. The gangsters of America had previously concerned themselves with acts of violence, racketeering and prostitution but the huge profits that came to be made with the sale of illegal liquor built criminal empires. Across the country, over 200,000 "speakeasys" opened. These drinking establishments were so named because many of them were located behind, above or below legitimate businesses and patrons often drank in silence. Huge bootlegging operations sprang into operation to supply the speakeasys and those who chose to ignore the new law.
In addition, ordinary people began brewing their own beer and distilling their own liquor. Some of them even sold the stuff from home, and the product called "bathtub gin" came into existence. Many of the legitimate breweries began to make what was called "near beer", a non-alcoholic brew, but they just couldnít compete with the ease of getting illegal liquor. Hundreds of the smaller breweries were forced to shut down, many of them for all time. Disrespect for the law became the fashion as people who would have never dreamed of doing anything illegal before now found themselves serving illicit liquor in their homes or drinking in the neighborhood speakeasy.
Prohibition was widely considered to be doomed by 1928, but it hung on for another five years before being repealed in 1933. By then, it had taken its toll, leaving law enforcement in disarray and leaving the mobster organizations so powerful they were able to move onto other pursuits, like legalized gambling, with wide public approval.
Many have questioned what sort of influence organized crime had on Decatur. Located so close to both St. Louis and Chicago, mobsters had control over most of the illegal liquor in the city and legend has it that Chicago mobsters like Al Capone even came to Decatur on occasion. Rumors tell of cottages with secret tunnels that would have allowed gangsters to make a swift escape should the law have come calling.
Another legend about the mob in Decatur has persisted for decades and every time a suggestion is made to dredge Lake Decatur, the story starts making the rounds again. The story has it that Lake Decatur has never been properly dredged, despite the fact that it needs to be, because of mob influence that still lingers today. It seems that during the Prohibition era, Lake Decatur was a favorite dumping spot for bodies of those who had been "rubbed out", as they say.
Prohibition in Decatur, as in most American cities, was a complete failure. Decatur had previously passed two laws to ban liquor sales but neither had lasted for long. The people of the city had always been in favor of selling, and especially consuming, alcohol. The popular outlook on Prohibition in Decatur wavered between completely ignoring the law and taking an occasional drink. Lawbreakers and suppliers were occasionally caught but enforcement of the law was lackluster at best. Local bootleggers found that by spreading a few dollars in the right direction, they could insure their booze shipments and guard against arrest at the same time. A number of speakeasys opened in Decatur, many of them operating quite openly. Others were accessed through secret doors and back stairways, hidden away behind perfectly law-abiding stores and shops.
During the years of Prohibition, and in the years that followed after the era, Decatur was famous across the Midwest. Unfortunately, it was not the sort of fame that cities boast about in their enticements to lure travelers to their sites. Instead, the city became known to gangsters and lawbreakers as the perfect place to hide out from the law. There were few places easier to blend in or disappear into than Decatur was.
Many of Decaturís crime problems stemmed from the largely ineffective police force. Hampered by corrupt officials at city hall, the hands of the department were tied when it came to prosecuting gamblers, bootleggers and brothel owners. Just a few blocks away from the notorious "Levee" was Decaturís Red Light District. This collection of brothels spanned the 500 block of West William Street, just a stoneís throw away from Decatur High School. The location of these illegal establishments was common knowledge in the city but they were allowed to operate for years, thanks to corrupt officials.
For many years, gambling had a much more socially acceptable position that prostitution in Decatur. This particular vice arrived in the city along with the first taverns, which were ironically some of the first business establishments constructed here. The first official anti-gambling raids took place in 1900 when officers arrested three men for gambling in a room above 227 North Main Street. Playing cards, poker chips and a dealerís box were confiscated in the raid.
Gambling continued to be a problem for the next two decades and into the 1930ís. Officials in city government, and in the police department, were often criticized for looking the other way. At one point, concerned citizens even hired three Decatur attorneys to assist them in taking action against Mayor Charles Shilling because they believed he was doing nothing to stop the spread of the illegal activity. A Chicago private detective was hired to gather evidence to obtain search warrants that could be served on known gambling halls. Five search warrants were obtained, but the gamblers were tipped off and nothing was found but empty rooms. Finally, the Stateís Attorney was pressured into filing charges against the mayor, but he was later acquitted.
More search warrants were obtained and this time the gamblers had no warning. The police seized roulette wheels, poker tables, cards and numerous other gambling devices at five different establishments. However, all five of the operators were later acquitted of gambling charges. Critics complained that the trials had been "fixed". Meanwhile, gambling continued unhindered in Decatur.
Reportedly, conditions of lawlessness worsened into the 1930ís. It was said that the entire third floor at the south end of Merchant Street was occupied by Gordon Smithís horse betting and craps parlor. In addition, the Denz building, also located in the same block, had been taken over by a gambler from Champaign for operations. The windows in both of these establishments had been boarded up or painted over and were busy around the clock with customers, mostly men, of all ages and races.
Gambling officially came to an end in Decatur in 1936 when police stepped up raids on the local parlors and establishments, confiscating and destroying slot machines and gambling tables and arresting and fining the customers and owners. In the past, a police raid on a gambling parlor insured that the place would then be safe for a period before it was raided again. This was not the case in 1936-37 however as police officers continued to raid the same establishments over and over again, knowing that eventually the losses would drive the operators out of business, or at least out of Decatur. Apparently, this system worked and most operators abandoned the city, hoping to find better luck elsewhere.
SPIRITS OF THE SPEAKEASY
Bellís Jewelry Store is located in the 100 block of East Prairie Street in Decatur. The building in which the store operates was built in 1865 and has undergone a number of changes over the years, including housing a number of other stores and shops. Located on the third floor of the building is a double set of rooms that are divided by a wide doorway. The south room has three large windows that once looked out toward Merchant Street, but have long since been sealed over. Years ago, these rooms saw people, activity, life, and perhaps even death. Today, they stand empty and abandoned -- or do they?
In the 1920ís and early 1930ís, these rooms marked the location of one of the downtown areaís most popular speakeasys and gambling parlors. According to old reports, the speakeasy sold homemade beer and whiskey through the Prohibition era. Afterward, it served as a gambling parlor and brothel until 1936 or 1937, when it was closed down for good. Access to the speakeasy was gained by a stairway from the street and then customers had to enter a secret door (in the form of a sliding panel) to get into the rooms themselves. The room outside, where the door was located, was once a legitimate sporting goods shop that acted as a "front" for the speakeasy. It was apparently not a prosperous shop however, as many older men that I have spoken with recall coming to the shop as children. They would be left to look around for a few minutes while their father vanished into the speakeasy. Those who recalled the sporting good shop remembered the merchandise was always dusty and never seemed to sell.
After prohibition was repealed, the speakeasy owners looked for other enticements for their customers and interest was sold to gambler Harry Stewart, who proceeded to set up cards and gaming tables in the north room. The owners also contracted the south room as a brothel until the place closed down. The end came in the late 1930ís when the place became a victim of changing times and of a crackdown on vice in the city.
For more than two decades after that, the rooms stood empty and sealed off with the original door still in place. The door was finally removed in the 1950ís, when some remodeling was done on the old sporting goods store. This room was turned into a frame shop for one of the jewelry stores in the building.
The speakeasy itself was never used and remains empty today. The rooms seem trapped in time, looking much as they did years ago. This is due to the fact that they remained untouched for so long -- and few dared venture into them, as stories were recalled about the history of the place. The walls of both rooms are still plastered with pin-up photos clipped from film and "girlie" magazines of the 1930ís. Most of the tattered pictures still remain, although now they are faded and yellowed with age.
While I did not become involved in the strange events that were taking place in the building until 1996, weird happenings were already being reported at least two years prior to that. This was at about the same time the interiors and front facades of the historic buildings on the block were being renovated.
The first reported activity seems to have occurred in 1994 when an employee from the local utility company was making his monthly rounds reading the power meters. He was working in the upstairs of the building adjacent to where the gambling rooms were and noticed that odd sounds could be heard coming through the wall. He later reported to me that the sounds were of a number of people talking and laughing, the sound of music being played and something that sounded like a marble spinning on a roulette wheel. At that time, he had no idea that the rooms next to where he had been that day had once contained a gambling parlor nor that the rooms were abandoned at the time he claimed to hear the sounds.
In early summer 1996, the employees at Bellís Jewelry store started to notice that all was not right on the upper floors of the building. Three employees of the store individually reported hearing sounds like heavy objects falling and footsteps on the third floor. When they went upstairs to investigate, they found nothing. At one point, they even called in an exterminator, thinking that a rodent problem might account for the odd noises. The pest control company was unable to find any openings where animals could get access to the rooms.
All along, store employees had reported feeling uncomfortable in the old gambling rooms when they had any occasion to go inside of them. In fact, they had largely avoided them before the noises had started. One of the employees recalled the weird feelings that she would get inside of the rooms. "The first time that I went up there, I felt afraid," she told me during one of many interviews I conducted with the staff. "I knew instantly that I didnít like it up there.... a year later, curiosity got the best of me because I wanted to see the old magazine pictures that were supposed to be on the walls. I had my niece go up there with me and it seemed like the room was very cold... I got the feeling something was in that room. There were cold spots in there and it gave me a bone cold feeling. My hair actually raised on my neck."
The inexplicable noises continued over a span of several months and then other things started to happen, like items in the store downstairs going missing. Tools, cases and small pieces started to vanish without a trace. Some of these items would turn up again in other places, while most things, like a mostly full bottle of Jim Beam whiskey, were never seen again. They also reported that on one occasion, all of the jewelry cases in the store were somehow unlocked and opened during the night even though the elaborate alarm system was never triggered.
These strange events were more than enough to convince the staff that they should contact someone who was more familiar with this type of activity. They called me in the fall of 1996 about the weird goings-on and I came to the store with a friend one warm afternoon to see the gambling rooms. We were taken upstairs by the owner of the store, who was intrigued, but skeptical, about the reported phenomena. Over time, he would become convinced that there was more to the building than he first thought. He led the way up to the third floor and we all three noticed there was a sharp chill to the air. It was odd that on the third floor of an old building, on a very warm afternoon, that it would be cooler than on the lower floors.
After gaining access to the speakeasy, I took a look around and made plans to come back and spend some time in the place after dark. As I walked around, I wandered into the southwest corner of the north room (where the gambling tables were located) and suddenly felt as if I had walked into a freezer! The air around me was very cold and almost electrified. I could feel a chilly, tingling sensation and all three of us saw the hair on my arms literally stand on end as though I was experiencing a mild electric shock. Then, as suddenly as the sensation had come, it vanished and did not come back. I could find no explanation for the bizarre incident, although I would later learn that legend stated that same corner had been the location of a manís death in the 1930ís. I believed this to be my first encounter with one of the spirits of the speakeasy... but it would not be my last.
The strange noises continued through the fall of 1996 and additional items disappeared from the store. The rooms were kept locked during the daytime hours and were largely avoided by the building staff. One afternoon, a store employee was locking the door to the speakeasy and as she reached for the door handle, she saw a bright light in the far north corner of the room. She would later claim that she saw the outline of a person in the light. There was no one in the room at the time and there is no explanation for what this light could have been. Strangely, a visitor to the rooms (who knew nothing of this report) also claimed to see a light in the same location a short time later. He stated that it had dropped down from the ceiling to a height of about four feet and then had vanished.
Other visitors to the room reported their own unusual encounters. It was common to hear of people reporting unknown noises, phantom footsteps, and even the soft sound of music being played in the rooms. Unaware of phenomena that had already been reported, they also told of cold chills and electric-like sensations in certain areas of the room. Much of the strangeness was centered around the same corner of the room where I had experienced my own brush with something unusual.
I returned to have my own encounters as well. One afternoon, I stopped by the store and went upstairs to the gambling rooms. I climbed the first flight of steps from the lower level and distinctly heard the sound of someone following me up. Assuming that one of the staff was going to accompany me upstairs, I paused on the landing to wait for them. After a few moments, no one appeared, so I looked to see who was on the stairwell. There was no one there! I quickly learned that the employees had been with customers at the time and no one had been near the stairs.
During another visit, I had been inside of the rooms and had left for a few minutes. I returned a short time later and discovered two vintage playing cards had mysteriously appeared on the floor. They had not been there previously but I still could have written the whole thing off to coincidence if not for the fact that I discovered them in the same corner of the room where I had felt the "presence". It made me wonder, if a man had really been killed in that corner, just what cards he had been holding in his hand?
During the winter of 1996-1997, I, along with members of the American Ghost Society, began conducting investigations inside of the gambling rooms. We were hoping to record some of the strange activity taking place there and in many instances, we were not disappointed. A number of photographs were taken that appeared to show anomalous activity was taking place there and during one outing, we used two separate video cameras to record the proceedings.
The cameras were set up in the empty rooms and were left to film anything strange that might happen. Both tapes managed to record unexplainable sounds on their audio tracks. At one point on the recording is the sound of a heavy wooden door being slammed (although there is no door to slam) and at another point, the sounds of several people walking around and stomping their feet. These actions would have been impossible as the room was locked and empty, as is plainly visible from the visual portion of the tape. In addition, all of the investigators present were on the bottom floor of the building at the time. There was no one else in the building.
Another investigation took place in the spring of 1997 when my wife, Amy, and I met six members of the American Ghost Society at the store. We were given access to the rooms and we set up another controlled experiment using audio and video recorders and stationary sensors to pick up movement and the presence of any unexplained energy fields. Not surprisingly, the audio recordings managed to pick up the same sounds as before, including footsteps and the sounds of doors opening and closing. And that wasnít all that was reported on this same evening. At one point during the investigation, three different cameras would record what appears to be a shimmering ball of light at the same location in the room. All three of the photos were taken just seconds apart. If only one camera had captured the odd image, it would be easy to dismiss the light as a film flaw, or lens flare. However, the fact that three different cameras saw it makes this rather hard to believe.
The investigations of the speakeasy continued into 1998 and up until the time that I moved away from Decatur. The reports of strange phenomena continued as well with various people claiming to encounter everything from eerie cold spots to witnessing balls of light that flew about the rooms in the darkness. On my last evening at the speakeasy, I spent some time in the company of a friend who had no idea of the history of the building. At one point, as we sat there in the inky darkness, he leaned over and nudged me.
"Do you hear that?", he whispered.
"Hear what?", I asked him.
"Music... it sounds like one of these old crank-up record players," he replied.
And maybe, just maybe, it was!
Since that time, several years have passed and the haunting of the old speakeasy continues, although the rooms are closed to visitors today. I remain convinced that this location is truly haunted. There have been too many strange things that have happened here, involving too many reliable witnesses, for me to not realize there is more to this place than meets the eye. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it is a fascinating time capsule from a period in history that most of us know little about.The rooms of the Speakeasy as they appear today.
© Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved
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