County Executive's Blog

Mar 21

[ARCHIVED] A Look Back with the County Executive: Crime and Prohibition in St. Charles County

The original item was published from March 21, 2019 10:13 AM to April 23, 2019 8:26 AM

After the United States went to war against Germany in 1917, Prohibition began and the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department was expected to enforce this unpopular law. The new highways throughout the county quickly became a conduit of alcohol and other illegal commerce. This period and the following Great Depression were challenging times for law enforcement.

Republican John Grothe was elected sheriff in November 1916 and took office on January 1, 1917. Four months later, the United States went to war against Germany and the other Central Powers. Sheriff Grothe asked the newspapers to publish a letter he received from the United States marshal, asking for his cooperation in maintaining order and “respect for the American flag in St. Charles County.” Always ready to lend a hand in preserving order, men too old to serve in the armed forces formed Home Guard units to provide security in the state while the Missouri National Guard was fighting in France. Among their duties was to guard the Wabash Railroad Bridge across the Missouri River at St. Charles against saboteurs.  

When Congress imposed prohibition on members of the armed services, Sheriff Grothe and Marshal Henry Linnebur told the Cosmos-Monitor, “The Federal laws are plain and no intoxicating liquors can be sold or given to United States soldiers wearing their uniforms. The punishment for such an offense is not less than one year in the penitentiary, and the law is going to be strictly enforced.” The paper reported, “There are some people in St. Charles, according to the officers, who are in the habit of getting bottled drinks and turning them over to the soldiers. Spies are now searching for evidence that will land somebody in prison. ‘Better be careful, the soldiers must be kept sober,’ is the way the St. Charles officers expressed themselves.” Nevertheless, Prohibition remained unpopular in the county, and when the issue appeared for the third time on the statewide ballot in 1918, St. Charles County voted 3,005 to 592 against the referendum, which lost statewide as well. 

Sheriff John Grothe arrested Virgil Dale and Alvin Meyer in February 1919, charging them with robbing Frank Bull outside a saloon. The sheriff took them to jail, where he questioned them along with the prosecuting attorney. Dale told them he did not know anything about the robbery. After interviewing Meyer, they questioned Dale again, telling him Meyer had made a statement that they had robbed Bull. Dale testified he confessed only because the two men promised him the court would parole him. He pleaded guilty without an attorney and was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary. Dale got an attorney and challenged the plea. Grothe testified that Dale asked him, “If I tell you about it can I go home to-night, or can I get out on bond, and if I tell you will I be paroled?” The sheriff testified he told Dale, “I could not parole him; that was for the court to say; that it was too late for him to get out on bond that night.  I told Dale I was his friend, but I did not tell him that if he would confess he would be paroled. I told him that I was his friend and was still his friend and would help him if I could.” In 1920, the Missouri Supreme Court believed Dale and ruled in State v. Dale that the defendant should have been able to withdraw his plea because he had been “misled, or under misapprehension or the like.”

In 1919, Sheriff Grothe led a group of 75 men on a wolf hunt on Machens Island in the Missouri River looking for wolves that had killed livestock. Grothe, a Catholic, was not as aggressive hunting down gamblers. In St. Charles County, Catholic churches sponsored bingos, raffles and Monte Carlo casino nights as fundraisers. The grand jury criticized the disrespect shown for the gambling laws in 1920, commenting, “While the most virulent forms of gambling have been practiced in the county and indictments found against some of them, we wish to call to the attention of the good citizens of the county to the lighter forms of gambling that have been indulged in by some of the organizations and churches. This is not only unlawful but the example set for the youths of our county is not conducive to good citizenship.”

Unable to run again, Sheriff John Grothe helped elect his brother Isidore Grothe to a four-year term in 1920. The following year, the Legislature gave counties with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants the ability to appoint a county superintendent of public welfare to administer outdoor relief. The County Court appointed John Grothe to that position the next year at a yearly salary of $600. The Post-Dispatch criticized the County Court for appointing Grothe, who was also serving as deputy sheriff, jailer and game and fish commissioner.

Former deputy Joseph Olendorf had become constable of St. Charles. In 1921, he went with two sheriff’s deputies to investigate a reported still on the Hoffmann farm 3 miles southwest of St. Charles. They discovered two large vats containing several thousand pounds of raisin mash. After one deputy left with the still, a man approached Olendorf and the other deputy fired at them without warning, wounded Olendorf, and then escaped. The “hooch” was stolen before the grand jury could indict anyone. In addition to seeking out and destroying moonshine stills, the sheriff had to apprehend professional bootleggers. Two were killed and three others injured by an explosion on an island in the Missouri River. When Sheriff John Grothe investigated, he found a still and 20 five-gallon containers filled with alcohol.      

Missouri statutes continued to state, “The several sheriffs shall attend each division of the circuit court presided over by a circuit or associate circuit judge held in their counties, when so directed by the court…” The Banner-News, reporting on an assault trial at the courthouse in 1924, explained, “Due to the smutty nature of the testimony, Circuit Judge Edgar Woolfolk advised all women to stay out of the courtroom and instructed the sheriff to carry out the request.” 

That year, John Grothe was again elected to a four-year term as sheriff, more than doubling the votes of his Democratic opponent, and leading the Republican ticket. St. Charles County had become solidly Republican, and five of the six townships elected Republican constables.     

With little growth in the unincorporated portions of the county, the Sheriff’s Department had not grown. Only St. Charles Township experienced an increase in population between 1900 and 1920. While rural Callaway Township experienced the largest decline in population (24 percent), every other township in the county had a decline of between 11 and 15 percent. The exodus from farms to cities continued throughout the 1920s.

As the decade progressed, Prohibition continued to be extremely unpopular in St. Charles County. Law enforcement remained half-hearted and discriminatory. The sheriff arrested a woman for possession of alcohol on a complaint by a man that he had been short-changed in a transaction. Sheriff Grothe and Deputy Lester “Les” Plackmeyer raided the Guttermuth farm in 1927, seizing a still and some alcohol. A few days later, on an anonymous tip, federal agent James Dillon raided the same farm and seized a second still, leading to speculation that the first still had been returned or a second still had been conveniently overlooked. 

The illegal sale of alcohol by bootleggers continued to create dangerous situations for law enforcement officials, including the sheriff and his deputies. In 1927, Constable Joseph Kleeschulte reported he had been warned by armed men not to interfere with the sale of “hooch” to the patrons of a dance in O’Fallon. Another police officer had a bomb thrown on the front porch of his home. These incidents led some citizens to call a “law and order” meeting, where a resolution was passed calling on law enforcement officers to enforce the law. The Banner-News reported one participant at the meeting stated, “there is no hope of enforcing the prohibition laws in this county as the large majority of the people are opposed to such a law,” but he believed “open violations can be curbed through the officers if their attention is called to it.” 

When Sheriff Grothe died that year, his funeral was the largest ever seen at St. Peter’s Church in St. Charles. The Republican County Court appointed his brother Isidore as acting sheriff. The voters showed their support for half-hearted enforcement of Prohibition by electing Isidore Grothe to another four-year term in 1928. 

Even when a law enforcement official made an arrest, a prosecutor still had to convince a jury to convict. A poll conducted in 1930 by the Literary Digest of the 27 largest cities in Missouri ranked St. Charles the most strongly opposed to the enforcement of Prohibition. That year, when a St. Charles County jury deliberated only 40 minutes before acquitting George Koelling on a liquor charge, the Cosmos-Monitor reported, “About 10 character witnesses took the stand and testified for the defendant. Lawrence Rigdon, who is serving a one-year term in the county jail on a liquor charge, was the only witness for the state.” 

While the population of the unincorporated areas of St. Charles County continued to decline, roads and bridges improved during the decade as residents saw the results of a $1 million bond issue for road improvements they had passed in 1920. St. Charles Rock Road became a concrete highway in 1921, cutting in half the travel time between St. Louis and St. Charles County. The newly constructed Missouri Highway 94, between West Alton and Augusta, provided an important cross-county transportation link. Work was completed on U.S. Highway 40, an important east-west route in the emerging national highway system. In 1928, Highway 61 north of Wentzville became a concrete highway and an important link with Lincoln County. 

While these highways brought more customers to St. Charles County businesses, they also brought more criminals to the county, increasing the workload for the sheriff and his deputies. David Miller and Norman Tanner left Boonville, Missouri, on the morning of August 21, 1929. They drove U.S. Highway 40 to St. Charles with the intent of robbing Pauline Duebbert, for whom they had previously worked. Arriving in St. Charles, they put their automobile in a garage. After taking a streetcar from St. Charles to East St. Louis where they purchased two pistols, they returned to St. Charles and got their car out of the garage. They drove first to Wentzville and then to the Duebbert farm, where they hid throughout the day of August 22. When they resisted an attempt to rob them, Miller and Tanner killed Duebbert and shot a hired hand.

After the shooting, they became alarmed, returned to their automobile, and drove back to Boonville, arriving there about one o’ clock the next morning.  The Cosmos-Monitor later claimed that Sheriff Isidore Grothe and Chief Deputy Les Plackmeyer “worked unceasingly following little tips here and there and through their united efforts they never stopped until both of the men who killed the lady were behind the bars…” Both were under arrest in the county jail by September 21, when Tanner was the first to make a confession. While Miller also confessed after some questioning by the sheriff and his deputy, he repudiated his confession at trial, saying it was brought about by duress. Tanner testified against Miller in return for a life sentence. When Miller went to trial, he was identified by the seller as a purchaser of the pistols for which he had kept a record of their serial numbers. He was convicted by a St. Charles County jury and sentenced to death.     

To meet the need for better law enforcement on the highways of the state, legislators began talking about a state police force or highway patrol. Some legislators were concerned that the proposal was an attempt by supporters to more strictly enforce Prohibition. County sheriffs feared it would infringe on their authority, and even be used to investigate complaints against their departments. To meet such concerns, when the General Assembly created the Missouri Highway Patrol in 1931, it gave them limited search powers, and restricted their jurisdiction to the highways of the state.

The Legislature set Highway Patrol troopers’ salaries at $125 per month and after a probationary period paid $145 per month, considerably more than deputy sheriffs received. When 55 troopers began patrolling in November 1931, their primary responsibility was to enforce traffic laws and promote safety on Missouri’s state-maintained highways. The patrol cars had no radios; officers communicated by establishing contact points at businesses along the highways. While salaries for troopers were higher, so were training standards. While the only qualification for a deputy sheriff was residence within Missouri, troopers had to pass six weeks of intensive training at the St. Louis Police Training Academy.  The first complete law enforcement curriculum was offered at San Jose State College that year, and the federal government authorized funding for vocational training in law enforcement in 1936. It marked the beginning of a movement in law enforcement to place more emphasis on education and training. 

Automobiles and the new system of highways made it a lot easier to rob banks. Banks in St. Charles County were robbed 12 times between May 1930 and December 1933, resulting in a loss of almost $100,000. Edward Schnedler, cashier of the Union Savings Bank in St. Charles, was shot in the shoulder and robbed while transporting money to the bank. The People’s Bank in St. Charles was robbed in 1931. A witness quickly called Sheriff Isidore Grothe and reported the license number of the dark blue car used by the robbers to flee. The sheriff and his deputy arrived on the scene a few moments later armed with submachine guns. They rushed to cut off the robbers at the bridge to St. Louis County but were unable to locate the car. They called the St. Louis County officials who later found the car but not the robbers.

Deputy Plackmeyer arrested two men who had robbed the Hawk Point Bank in Lincoln County. Sheriff Grothe arrested two other men who confessed to robbing the Bank of Old Monroe, and two others who confessed to robbing the Bank of Portage des Sioux. One of them also confessed to taking part in the People’s Bank robbery and the robbery of Edward Schnedler on the streets of St. Charles.       

In October 1932, the First National Bank in St. Charles was robbed while three police officers were at lunch. Witnesses saw the bandits enter the bank but could not describe the getaway car. In spite of the fact that the city police station was just across the street from the bank, the bandits managed to walk into the bank, pull the holdup and walk out again, unseen and unmolested. Deputy Les Plackmeyer was parking his car a few feet away from the bank just as the bandits disappeared. A statewide search for suspects ensued and the Banner-News reported:

This afternoon the sheriff’s office received a telephone communication from the police department in St. Louis stating that several suspects had been rounded up. One of the bank officials present when the holdup was staged will probably accompany a local officer to St. Louis tonight to view the suspects. Always, after a major crime has been committed, St. Louis police officers round up men and women with criminal records. This is done with the hope they can tell something which may lead to the arrest of the criminal.

In the depth of the Great Depression, wandering unemployed men looking for work posed a law enforcement problem.  Sheriff Grothe arrested a man in March 1932. According to the Cosmos-Monitor, “The arrest of the man was the result of a straw pile burning early Thursday morning on a farm near Cottleville on the George Hoffman farm and he was walking from the fire. The man claimed he had slept in the straw pile and it caught fire accidently. He said his home was in St. Louis and he was trying to get back to St. Louis when he became lost and had been sleeping along the creek and in straw piles since last Saturday night during the extreme cold weather, not knowing where he was or how to get to St. Louis.” 

Deputy Les Plackmeyer won the Republican primary election over Deputy H.H. Heusler and Constable Joseph Kleeschulte in August 1932. In October, the Cosmos-Monitor, a Republican paper, pointed out the numerous arrests Plackmeyer made and how much he saved the taxpayers by enticing arrestees to plead guilty. It did not matter; voters in St. Charles County expressed their displeasure with the economy, giving Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt a solid majority and punishing all Republican candidates. The Democrats swept the county elections, and Charles Phelps was elected sheriff. A month after the election, the outgoing County Court assigned a deputy sheriff to investigate the plight of children who no longer attended school. The students, many of whom were black, lacked decent clothing in many cases. The Cosmos-Monitor chided those who neglected to go through their clothes closets and urged all to “wake up and help to care for our unemployed until prosperity gets around that big corner.”  

Sheriff Phelps appointed fellow Democrat Joseph “Joe” Borgmeyer, a World War I veteran who had been employed in the private sector, as his chief deputy.  Another bank robbery occurred in April 1933. Two robbers entered the Union Savings Bank and forced the teller to give them the money in the safe before they shot him as they were leaving. The Cosmos-Monitor reported when Fred Brumme heard the alarm sound and entered the bank, he heard a man groan, “My God, someone help me, I’ve been shot.” Ironically, when he called the jail the new sheriff, Charles Phelps, was on his way to the juvenile corrections facility at Boonville with two boys. A moment later, Les Plackmeyer, now an officer with the St. Charles police, and fellow officer Jesse Tagg arrived with sawed off shot guns. They found the teller, who had crawled to set off the alarm, lying on the floor behind the teller cage. After calling a doctor and an ambulance, Plackmeyer alerted the St. Louis police who spread the alarm to police, constables and deputy sheriffs in the area.

Congress, now with solid Democratic majorities in each house and Roosevelt in the White House, sent to the states a constitutional amendment repealing prohibition. Later that year, when Missourians elected delegates to a state convention to ratify the proposed amendment, more than 93 percent of St. Charles County voters supported delegates favoring ratification of the amendment and an end to Prohibition.

Anti-gambling laws continued to be unpopular and enforcement lax in St. Charles County. According to the Banner-News, speaking of the proliferation of slot machines in 1933, Circuit Judge Edgar Woolfolk labeled the county “the worst infested county in the state,” and added, “So bad is the imposition that there would hardly be found room on the shelves in some places for more slot machines to sit.” A few weeks later, the grand jury indicted two men on charges of operating slot machines and recommended, “persons permitting any slot machines, punch boards or gaming devises to be set up kept or used in his or her place of business of whatever sort, be duly prosecuted.” 

After the Missouri Supreme Court denied the appeal of David Miller, convicted of the murder of Pauline Duebbert, Sheriff Phelps hanged him in the county jail in 1933. Two years later, the trap door in the jail was welded shut after the General Assembly directed capital punishment be administered by the Missouri Department of Corrections, which used lethal gas after 1936. Other difficult assignments continued for the sheriff. He had to investigate one of the worst accidents on record in the county up to that time, when six people drowned after their boat overturned in the Mississippi River in September 1934. The only survivors were a father and his 3-year-old daughter whom he was able to rescue. 

The economy was still struggling, and governments at all levels were still stressed for revenue. The St. Charles County jail was housing 23 federal prisoners in May 1935. That month the County Court received a letter from the U.S. marshal informing them that, as a cost-saving measure, the federal government had cancelled the one dollar per month per prisoner payment to counties housing federal prisoners. He also demanded a refund of the $45 dollars mistakenly paid to the county since the change. When the court informed the marshall they had been losing money even with the subsidy and did not wish to house federal prisoners any longer, he explained, under the law, they did not have a choice.

In 1936, chief deputy Joe Borgmeyer, a graduate of Saint Louis University, was the Democratic nominee for sheriff.  Perry Compton defeated former Sheriff Isidore Grothe in the Republican primary election. While all Democratic candidates benefitted from FDR’s coattails, Borgmeyer was the leading Democratic vote-getter in the county in the general election. He and his wife, along with their nine children, lived on the second floor of the county jail. The continuing depression meant he kept busy with sheriff’s sales. A woman brought suit against Sheriff Borgmeyer to compel him to recognize her as the successful bidder for and purchaser of certain realty at a foreclosure sale conducted by the sheriff. 

Enforcement of anti-gambling laws continued to be a challenge for Sheriff Borgmeyer, who was Catholic. By that time, Catholic leaders had made it clear gambling was not a sin. Rather, according to one church leader, gambling was “a legitimate amusement or recreation because it is intended as a necessary relaxation of the mind.” Catholic churches continued to sponsor bingos, raffles and Monte Carlo casino nights as fundraisers. A Gallup poll in 1938 showed more people gambled at church-sponsored events than at any other legal or illegal forum. One Protestant minister, writing in the Christian Century, disagreed. “I find it impossible, even in my weakest moments, when the financial needs of the church are most pressing, to imagine St. John, St. Paul or St. Peter running a bingo party or our Lord sending out his disciple to sell chances.” The grand jury, with Robert Linnemann, a Protestant and a Republican, serving as foreman, reported in 1937 that law enforcement agencies in the county had been “lax in performing their duties in ridding the city and county of the slot-machine and other gaming nuisances.” Proponents of legalized gambling attacked the hypocrisy of local sheriffs, stating, “You can do it (gambling) behind a cross but not behind a beer case.”

Sheriff Borgmeyer had more pressing issues to concern him that year. St. Charles County experienced a significant labor dispute when the War Department announced that 300 men would be hired to clear trees from the land to be flooded by the Alton Dam. When work on the dam began a few years earlier, the members of an Illinois union had been paid 67.5 cents per hour, while Missouri workers were paid 37 cents per hour. The workers from St. Charles County quickly formed their own union and received the same union wage. Fifty members of the union appeared at the timber clearing project near the dam and announced their intent to unionize that project. The federal government had rejected all six private bids to clear the timber and announced the Corps of Engineers would be doing the $400,000 project. When they announced they would pay only 44 cents an hour for clearing the land behind the dam, 200 union members picketed the site and assaulted three men who claimed to be simply bystanders. Witnesses claimed a deputy got out, and with drawn revolver, ordered them to disperse. Before all the pickets had retired to the sides of the road, the truck proceeded and struck two of the picketers. The Banner-News reported:

Angered by the occurrence, it was reported, union men disarmed several deputies. The deputies were said to have not been roughly handled and later their clubs were returned. Two deputies said they used their guns to stand off threatening groups of pickets. When he heard of the incident, Sheriff Borgmeyer went to the scene to investigate. This afternoon he told a reporter that his investigation, still incomplete, had led to reveal the names of the drivers of the truck and automobiles. He denied he had deputies in a truck. 

Union picketers smashed car windows as they left the job site. One hundred fifty picketers also marched to the county courthouse and threatened to arm themselves if Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Wentker did not shut down the job.  Joseph Feltes, one of the two injured union picketers, died of his injuries and tempers got even shorter. Sheriff Borgmeyer insisted that none of his deputies had been in the car that hit Feltes, as union members continued to pressure Wentker to seek an arrest warrant. No arrest warrant was issued, and Borgmeyer deputized nearly 100 men, paying them $2 a day as required by statute, to keep the peace.

During the decade, the Missouri Highway Patrol led the way in adopting the latest technology to fight crime. The patrol established a Bureau of Identification in 1934, and more than 10,000 fingerprint records were on file by the end of the year. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began offering its services in identifying fingerprints and training local officers in using this kind of evidence. In 1936, the Highway Patrol opened a crime laboratory. Missouri required all automobile drivers to purchase a driver’s license, at a cost of 25 cents, in 1937. Originally intended to raise revenue, the license requirement now gave law enforcement an additional tool to keep track of criminals.                  

The Sheriff’s Department needed all these tools as Highway 40 was rerouted east of Wentzville to cross the Missouri River over the newly constructed Daniel Boone Bridge at Weldon Spring in 1937. While policing these highways remained the responsibility of the Highway Patrol, the roads provided criminals easier access to farms and towns.  Nevertheless, deputies used their private cars for patrolling, and there were no patrols at night. When deputies were called at their home after dark, they drove their own cars to answer the complaint.