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Bootlegger: A Story of Small-Town America

Overview

So begins this captivating and rich tale of a struggling British-immigrant mining town and a controversial criminal who arose there early in the century.

This is the story of Kelly Wagle, a small-time bootlegger whose mysterious career had a profound and lasting impact on his community. Central to the book are two fascinating, unsolved murder cases that deeply troubled the close-knit coal town.

John E. Hallwas skillfully combines biography, ...

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Overview

So begins this captivating and rich tale of a struggling British-immigrant mining town and a controversial criminal who arose there early in the century.

This is the story of Kelly Wagle, a small-time bootlegger whose mysterious career had a profound and lasting impact on his community. Central to the book are two fascinating, unsolved murder cases that deeply troubled the close-knit coal town.

John E. Hallwas skillfully combines biography, community history, and true crime narrative in a compelling story that takes the reader into a hardworking, ghost-haunted town where struggling residents cope with the threat of death, the fading of hope, and the decline of community.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The title of this book should have been Small-Town America: The Story of a Bootlegger, because the town of Colchester, Ill., is the real subject and the bootlegger merely a character in the pageant of Colchester's history. A coal-mining community in the 19th century, Colchester became so imbued by death that inhabitants began to see a mysterious "Woman in Black," an embodiment of the town's deepest anxieties. But the mines weren't the only place to die a violent death; drinking, gambling, and prostitution created a subpopulation of criminals and murderers, including Kelly Wagle, the bootlegger who was remembered by some as a philanthropist, others as a practical joker, still others as a remorseless killer, and who was gunned down by a rival hooch peddler in 1929. Significantly, the Woman in Black disappeared after all the coal was mined out and other, safer industries took over, though she came back in the 1920s to preside over the violence that accompanied the failed experiment of Prohibition. Today Colchester is "a bedroom community for the county seat, a place to retire to where nothing much happens, and a gasoline stop." Its history is a reminder that, if the past sometimes seems more colorful, that's because it was more terrible. Evidently life is so sleepy in Colchester these days that not even the Woman in Black goes there anymore. 33 photos, 5 linecuts. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Hallwas (English, Western Illinois Univ., Macomb), author of many books on Illinois history, presents a fascinating hybrid work mixing a biography of bootlegger Kelly Wagle with a history of his town of Colchester, IL. Over 1000 folks showed up for Wagle's funeral, out of a population of about 1300, a testament to his fame and the curiosity aroused by his gangland-style slaying. This deeply interrelated history reveals a rich understanding of rural, Midwestern America in the early 20th century, the impact of coal mining on a town's economy, the widespread ambivalence toward 1920s Prohibition, and the fascination with the gangster lifestyle of a small-town hood. Hallwas's splendid work thematically compares with Anthony Lukas's uneven Big Trouble (LJ 5/15/97) but is much more focused and accessible. Readers will enjoy this slice of American life and will understand the townspeople's complicated view of their most famous resident. An obvious choice for Illinois libraries and highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries.--Dale F. Farris, Groves, TX
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252068447
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/1999
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 530,937
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface
The Bootlegger's Funeral 1
Coal and Community in Colchester 17
Boomtown and Saloon Town 43
Hard Times and the Marshal 67
Struggling into the New Century 89
Social Change and the Young Bootlegger 111
World War I and the Bootlegger's Rise 139
The Omaha Mystery Girl 159
The Bootlegger and the Early 1920s 175
The Mayor, the Bootlegger, and the Klan 193
The Legendary Bootlegger 215
The Killing that Finally Came 237
Epilogue: The End of It All 253
Sources and Acknowledgments 269
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