The History of Joliet – Chapter 35

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“The good ol’ days are now only memories.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

On Saturday, Jan. 17, 1920, a newspaper headline in the Joliet Evening Herald-News summed it all up: “U.S. Dry Today.”

The 18th Amendment, which was approved in 1917, went into effect along with its accompanying Volstead Act. The act provided penalties for violations of making and selling liquor.

The Prohibition era had started.

“The final celebration of the passing of the wet era did not come up to predictions in the big cities of the nation,” the newspaper said that day. “But it did resemble New Year’s Eve in some cities.”

An editorial on the next day said that Prohibition had entered quietly in Joliet. With all the months between approval of Prohibition and it going into effect, the 146 saloons in Joliet had time to find something else to do in their buildings.

But there had been an initial fear that the city would face a depression when the saloons closed down, and all those buildings were for rent, the editorial said. There were only 21 of those saloons with “for rent” signs.

The rest had converted over as “near beer” saloons, the editorial said, obviously as if it really believed that conversion.

“The good ol’ days are now only memories,” the editorial stated. “Joliet — and the nation — is dry, and the city’s business has not suffered appreciably. Perhaps, after all, Prohibition is not as bad as its opponents would paint.”

That same edition of the newspaper pointed out that federal agents had made liquor raids in Cleveland, Kansas City, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, Columbus and Indianapolis. But in Chicago, the agents were “hitching up their galluses for the work to come.”

A few days later, the newspaper pointed out that three federal agents in Chicago had been arrested for accepting bribes in connection with liquor cases. The mob in Chicago was already taking over the illegal liquor business and paying off authorities.

In Joliet, three large breweries had stopped beer production. The Joliet Citizens Brewery said it was remodeling to make malt sugar. But the Fred Sehring Brewery and the E. Porter Brewery both said they were holding out for some relief from the new law. Both were optimistic that beer production would quickly be brought back.

But there would be another 13 years before prohibition ended.

And in Joliet, Lawrence J. “Butch” CROWLEY became the beer king of the city. During the 1920s, he amassed a fortune with his illegal breweries in Joliet, Elgin and Pekin.

He was a friend to political leaders, church leaders and police officers, many who accepted payment for their friendship.

CROWLEY lived in a big house on North Raynor Avenue. It was rumored the home had solid gold doorknobs. He carried a roll of $100 bills in his pocket and was known all over the city as a big tipper.

In 1922, he built a large mausoleum in Mount Olivet Cemetery to honor his parents. He paid $12,000 for the mausoleum, made from imported marble and granite.

But it was reported later, the tomb also served as a place for him to stash a lot of his cash. However, thieves broke into the mausoleum and stole the money.

CROWLEY‘s luck turned sour toward the end of Prohibition. He had just bought a fleet of limousines, some downtown lots and a radio station. This sudden affluence sparked the interest of the IRS, who charged him with skimping on $300,000 in income taxes.

As the IRS filed liens against his property, CROWLEY pleaded guilty and went to prison.

His fortune had faded, and Prohibition ended with the 21st Amendment. CROWLEY then expanded his activities into gambling. For a while, he controlled slot machine and bookmaking activities in Joliet. But then the Chicago mob decided it wanted to control gambling in Joliet.

One night, CROWLEY parked his 16-cylinder Cadillac in his driveway and watched two men step out of the nearby bushes. He started to run as two .38-caliber slugs tore through his body.

He didn’t die right away. But the bullets had torn through his bladder, and he died the next day from peritonitis. CROWLEY had seen the gunmen, but he refused to tell police who they were.

“He died with his lips sealed,” the newspaper said, noting it was the gangster code.

His funeral in St. Raymond’s Church was attended by 400, including political and community leaders of Joliet. He was buried inside the mausoleum where he once stashed his Prohibition cash.

Published November 24, 2001