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Klan Wars: Roadhouse raids spark power struggle in Williamson County

Klan Wars: Roadhouse raids spark power struggle in Williamson County

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To some living in Williamson County during the 1920s, S. Glenn Young was an outlaw. To others, he was a savior.

Young's chief nemesis, Deputy Sheriff Ora Thomas, also had his supporters and enemies. It was Thomas who fought Young in a shoot-out that took both men's lives and marked the beginning of the end for the Ku Klux Klan's open prominence in the county.

The division between the two men was a definitive one in the 1920s. If there was a middle ground or any innocence, then it was covered in the blood spilled during what Paul M. Angle called the Klan War in his book, "Bloody Williamson."

The war lasted roughly two years during Prohibition. Roadhouses and saloons began drawing the ire of church leaders in 1923. In August of that year, several church leaders spoke to a crowd of 2,000 people about the evils of the establishments.

The Rev. P.H. Glotfelty of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Herrin told the crowd, "You must walk the line of Americanism. (Williamson County) will be cleaned up if we have to do it ourselves."

Glotfelty served as minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church from 1921 to 1927. He died in 1957 at the age of 80.

In the latter part of 1923, Young arrived in Williamson County, hired by the Ku Klux Klan to help them rid the area of Prohibition violators. He had been assigned to Southern Illinois as a Prohibition agent in 1920, but after just four months on the job, he was suspended by the Treasury Department after being indicted for murder in Madison County during a raid.

Sheriff George Galligan said his department was not sufficiently staffed, Angle wrote, to conduct raids on the roadhouses to the satisfaction of the Klan.

Enter Young, who began collecting evidence against Prohibition violators. The war, it seems, stemmed from the roadhouse raids. But it escalated into a war for power in Williamson County that saw Klansmen and anti-Klansmen take the law into their own hands.

The conflict began when Young and his Klansmen, deputized by federal Prohibition agents, began raiding roadhouses, where alcohol, gambling and prostitution were rampant. The initial three raids resulted in 256 arrests. But out of those raids and others that followed, Young and his Klansmen, numbering in the thousands, were accused of abuses ranging from robberies to beatings to the secret imprisonment of men.

Eventually, Young lost the support of federal agents, but the raids continued. The raids were a threat to many men's livelihood - albeit, at that time, an illegal one.

The people of the county were accustomed to men getting killed over differences concerning their livelihood, whether it was coal mining or selling alcohol during Prohibition, according to Donald Richardson in a 2004 interview who at that time still resided in the Carterville home that he lived in as a boy at the time of the massacre and the Klan War.

Being mostly coal miners who faced death every day, the people of the county possessed a certain attitude about death, said Richardson, who owned the Richardson Coal Co. near Carbondale from 1948 to 1950.

"Killings didn't really shock them because they had known this all their life. The conflict went on for such a long time that it just seemed to be the same story over and over. Somebody was getting killed all the time," Richardson said.

"I mean, it was so common that the best business to be in...was to be an undertaker," he said. "Some people were getting buried all the time. And it wasn't just some, it was quite a few. It was like saying, ‘Well, it rained today.'"

Law enforcement could do little to prevent the war. At one point, Herrin police officers were replaced with Klan sympathizers, and Young - without any apparent authority - declared himself chief of police in Herrin. Sheriff Galligan often had to rely on sources outside the county to keep peace.

"The lawmen didn't want to have a confrontation with (Young) because they knew that it was not going to be resolved very peacefully. They knew that there was going to be a shoot-out, and that's exactly what happened," Richardson said.

Young and Thomas were killed on Jan. 24, 1925, in a shoot-out that also killed two other men inside the Canary Cigar store in Herrin. Although expelled from the Klan a few months earlier, Young was given a full Klan burial attended by thousands of people.

When they died, Angle wrote, there were 73 indictments against Young, including falsely assuming a public office. Thomas was under 13 indictments, including rioting and murder.

Arlie O. Boswell, an attorney and Klan supporter who later became Williamson County state's attorney, faced 11 indictments. Galligan, Herrin Mayor C.E. Anderson, two Herrin police officers, the coroner, the Herrin police chief and Sam Stearns, chairman of the county board of supervisors, also faced multiple indictments.

In 1926, Boswell filed a motion asking that 145 court cases be dismissed. The motion was granted.

- Reprinted from The Southern's Legacies of Little Egypt



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