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A Bloody Band of Bootleggers: The Shelton Brothers Gang

Seeking to monopolize the bootlegging trade and illegal gambling in Southern Illinois, the Shelton Brothers Gang terrorized rival criminal enterprises.

A Bloody Band of Bootleggers: The Shelton Brothers Gang

During Prohibition, the notorious Shelton Brothers Gang of Southern Illinois engaged in a protracted war with the rival Charlie Birger Gang. The battles involved armored, homemade tanks and resulted in a triple-digit body count. (Shooting Times photo)

Most of you probably have never heard of the Shelton Brothers Gang, but for a time, they were the most “BA” bootleggers in Central and Southern Illinois, and later they controlled gambling clubs and vice in and around Peoria until 1950. In fact, a 1950 edition of the Saturday Evening Post named them “America’s bloodiest gang.”

Carl Shelton, Earl Shelton, and Bernie Shelton dominated the bootlegging trade in what is known as “Little Egypt” of Illinois from soon after Prohibition took effect (1920) until about 1925. During that time, their territory ranged from East St. Louis to Peoria and southward.

All three brothers were born in Wayne County, Illinois, about 200 miles southeast of Peoria: Carl in 1888, Earl in 1890, and Bernie in 1898. As teens, they practiced small-time crime (theft, robbery, larceny), and they were rewarded with short prison stays. Once they got into bootlegging, the gang thrived. Bernie was the enforcer (because of his temper and his toughness), Earl was the organizer (due to his knack for coordinating shipments of illegal booze and later running the gambling clubs), and Carl was the leader (he was particularly adept at bribing local leaders, politicians, and gangsters). Eventually, they counted 50 or more men as members of their gang.

Sometime before 1925, a former bootlegging ally by the name of Charles Birger formed his own gang and made a play to take over operations in the Sheltons’ territory. Quickly, a bloody gang war that included homemade tanks and at least one aerial bombing raid ensued. The casualties numbered in the hundreds.


Despite their large forces, the Sheltons were unable to defeat Birger. And in 1925 the Sheltons were arrested and found guilty of an unsolved mail carrier robbery of $15,000, based on testimony from none other than Birger himself. They were sentenced to 25 years in prison.


Despite their large forces, the Sheltons were unable to defeat Birger. And in 1925 the Sheltons were arrested and found guilty of an unsolved mail carrier robbery of $15,000, based on testimony from none other than Birger himself. They were sentenced to 25 years in prison.

While incarcerated, the Sheltons lost control of the bootlegging situation, so in about 1930, after early release from prison, they transferred their operations to Peoria, where gambling and prostitution had become the going thing. The Shelton’s foot in the door, so to speak, was with a local gambling club owner by the name of Clyde Garrison. Earlier, Garrison’s rivals had tried to kidnap him but failed. Realizing he needed more muscle, he welcomed the Sheltons. One thing led to another, and by 1941, the Sheltons had wrestled the power away from Garrison and were in charge of gambling and vice—for a while, that is.

During the early ’40s, while controlling the gambling and providing protection, the Sheltons developed many enemies, including some among rival gangs in Chicago and St. Louis. Naturally, their rivals looked for opportunities to eliminate them.

By 1945 the word was out that the Chicago syndicate had put a $10,000 bounty on the heads of Carl and Bernie. One day that year, five men with machine guns surrounded Bernie’s club while he and Carl were inside. Carl made a call, and two carloads of Shelton men raced over, prompting the gunmen to return to Chicago. But that wasn’t the end of it.




Between February and October 1946, three gangsters affiliated with the Shelton Gang were killed in Peoria. On October 23, 1947, Carl was killed near his farm in Southern Illinois when gunfire erupted from a car full of unknown assassins. Then on July 26, 1948, Bernie was killed by a sniper outside the Parkway Tavern (one of his roadhouses) on Farmington Road in Peoria. Earl retreated to his farm, but on May 24, 1949, he was ambushed and shot. He survived. Then in 1950, Earl was again shot, this time in the arm, while he was inspecting his property. Again, he survived. Over the course of the next year or so, other Shelton family members were shot at (some died), and one of Earl’s barns fell victim to arson. Finally, Earl had had enough, packed up, and moved to Florida, where he went into real estate. He lived to be 96 years old.

No one was ever tried for the murders of Carl and Bernie. By 1953 Peoria had cleaned itself up and won the first of its several All-American City Awards.

The bloody Shelton Gang was no more.


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