Authors: Darcy O'Brien
Tags: #Murder, #General, #Biography & Autobiography, #Criminals & Outlaws, #True Crime, #doctor, #Murder Investigation, #Illinois, #Cold Case, #Midwest, #Family Abuse
Premier Digital Publishing - Los Angeles
who went down to Egypt
“Pap warn’t in a good mood that morning—so he was his natural self.”
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS, CALLED EGYPT BY ITS NATIVES, IS THAT inverted triangle bounded by the Wabash, the Ohio, and the Mississippi, bordered by Kentucky on the south and by an indeterminate line drawn east from St. Louis on the north. In this land between the rivers, people lead lives that are self-contained, known only to themselves, cut off, if it were not for television, from the rest of the country. Down there they know that Chicago is up north, but they seldom think about it, and they know that the people in Chicago rarely think about them. A joke has it that in southern Illinois, mothers frighten their children not with the bogeyman but with the threat of never going to St. Louis. This Egypt is a secret and a secretive sort of place, an outback and a throwback to earlier, murkier times.
The rare visitor to this other Illinois may seize on the word surreal to describe the landscape: peaceful-looking small farms, white churches, little brick-faced towns, lakes where Canada geese spend the autumn and winter, the big muddy rivers, the Ozark hills that, covered in hardwoods, rise in the Shawnee National Forest—a reassuring prospect, idyllic if you care for isolation, but disrupted every few miles by enormous coal pits, strip mines scarring the land with their huge power shovels several stories high, tearing up the ground, leaving behind black heaps where not even weeds can grow. Local children call the shovels monsters and ask to be taken on Sunday drives to see them. Their great booms reaching skyward, they look like giant mechanical insects rooting in the earth. At night the coal dust, lying in gob piles, sometimes spontaneously ignites, lighting the air with a weird orange flicker. Southern Illinois gets its share of sunshine, but night and gray, gloomy days seem to fit the place, its black mines, and its obscurity.
It has been called Egypt since the rugged winters of 1824 and 1831–1832, when northerners journeyed south to buy corn and seed, imagining themselves as the sons of Jacob, who went “down to Egypt to buy corn” in Genesis 42. After 1832 the term Egypt came into general use, as people enjoyed thinking that they had settled in a land of plenty sanctioned by Scripture, though the soil was actually thin compared to the rest of Illinois. In 1837 the town of Cairo (pronounced Kerro) was chartered at the Nile-like delta where the Ohio joins the Mississippi; Karnak and Thebes followed, and many Biblical names, Palestine, Lebanon, Mt. Carmel, Eden, Goshen, Olive Branch, Herod, even a Sodom that vanished early in this century.
In the heart of Egypt, often called Little Egypt, lie Eldorado and Harrisburg, coal towns that have not changed much from sixty or seventy years ago, except for the K marts and Wal-Marts and Huck’s Convenience Food Stores that line the highways on their outskirts. They stand seven miles apart on Route 45 about thirty miles west of the Ohio, separated by Muddy, which is mostly just the Gateway motel, restaurant and liquor store, formerly a Holiday Inn, still the major social center for both towns, the site of Peggy Ozment’s annual Christmas party, to which four hundred of the local business and social elite get invited. 5200 FRIENDLY PEOPLE says the sign on Route 45 outside Eldorado, AND ONE OL’ SOREHEAD, with a cartoon of a sour-faced man in overalls; Harrisburg has twice as many people, equally friendly, though not to strangers.
A stranger in Eldorado (pronounced Elder-RAY-dough) feels uneasy, as in any small town where everybody knows everybody and an out-of-state license plate provokes stares. Except for the hunters who come in for the geese or the deer in the Shawnee forest, this has never been a big tourist area in spite of the beauties of the Ohio, and the people are unused to dealing with outsiders. State your business, the silence asks as you pay for a Hershey bar at Terry’s Market. The sense of not belonging, and of not being wanted particularly, haunts the stranger as it does in parts of Arkansas and in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee. Family ties and local associations matter here, one can sense, and nothing else.
You can tour Eldorado in half an hour. Once the town had the only railroad station in Saline County; now that there are none, it has the Depot Inn restaurant, which serves ham and eggs and chicken-fried steak in part of the abandoned station. Downtown the new First State Bank building, right angles of red brick and glass, stands out among the old, weathered red-brick structures, the boarded-up movie theater, the pool hall, Bertis Herrmann’s tin shop, and the Jet Set beauty parlor, located in a trailer that needs paint. The Ferrell Hospital on Pine Street, with its green awnings and clearly marked emergency entrance, appears prosperous, more so than the Pearce Hospital over on Organ Street, a rectangular, bunkerlike building of thin, pink-purplish brick that brings to mind a large veterinary clinic. The number of churches impresses, sixteen in all, twelve of them Baptist, fundamentalist, or charismatic of one kind or another.
Eldorado’s neighborhoods range from neat little white frame houses on hilly, tree-lined streets to shacks in irregular rows that straggle out along and beyond the railroad tracks. In the tidy areas pride and industry are everywhere apparent in the trimmed lawns and shrubs, the garden furniture ranged around the outdoor grill, the pots of flowers and plaster statuary—toads, deer, flamingoes, the rare nymph—and the polished automobiles, mostly Fords and Chevys, many pickups, a few vans. Emblems of the season, pumpkins or Christmas wreaths and lights, never fail to appear here. Elsewhere rusty trailers and pickups get parked in yards along with other junk. Tiny houses look patched together. Eldorado seems about half proud and half given up. In a ramshackle area a portable sign, the kind with stick-on plastic letters, stands beside a Laundromat and tells a story:
WE DO MINING CLOTHES.
Harrisburg has more enterprise and more money. Several of the houses in the two-hundred block on Walnut Street approach elegance, many of them nicely landscaped, two and three stories high with porticoes reminiscent of the Old South. The Bar-B-Q Barn on Main Street, lately spruced up and decorated with old farm and kitchen implements, also feels southern, offering different kinds of pickled vegetables and fried okra along with the ribs. The accents of the diners sound southern, too, indistinguishable from those of neighboring western Kentucky except for an “ar” sound for “or,” as in “barn again” for born again, “park roast” for pork roast.
The families of most of the people of southern Illinois migrated from the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky before and immediately after the Civil War. A coal boom early in this century brought in Italians, Czechs, and Poles to work the mines, but the Anglo-Saxon and Scotch-Irish southern strain still predominates. These are white southerners. You can spend all day in Eldorado or Harrisburg without seeing a black person. Eldorado has no black families, Harrisburg only a handful.
“Poor, shiftless, and ignorant outcasts,” a writer from northern Illinois called the immigrant southerners in 1871. “Of the humbler class,” a sympathetic, local historian described them in 1875, adding that “there were no half-breeds, neither of Indians nor other obnoxious races. In private life they lived with austerity, and in society moved with chivalrous spirit.” But by the turn of the century the phrases “worthless as an Egyptian” and “scabby as an Egyptian” were in common use, and it was said that to call a man a “son of Egypt” was considered an affront and meant “a fight or a foot race.” In the early days of the nineteenth century, southern Illinois had been the commercial center of the state, but it declined into poverty after the Civil War, inviting the northerners’ contempt. Today incomes remain low, unemployment is perennially between thirteen and twenty percent, dependence on public relief double that in central and northern Illinois. Over fifty percent of the people of Eldorado have for decades relied on public assistance of one kind or another, a rate matched or exceeded only in the Chicago ghettoes.
In the town square of Harrisburg, however, sometimes called Shawnee Square, people move about with a certain determination, something short of a bustle but businesslike. They have been here a long time and intend to stay, no matter what the rest of the state thinks. The word Chicago can provoke an epithet and the wish that that city be shoved into Lake Michigan with a bulldozer. In the center of the square stands the almost windowless, modem Saline County Courthouse, brick and concrete, not beautiful but new and substantial. On a comer of the square the Harrisburg National Bank, founded 1876, occupies the town’s tallest building, a seven-story red-brick tower with ornate cornices, built during the coal boom.
Over at the First Bank and Trust on Walnut, you can receive a two-gun set of Smith & Wesson automatic pistols on purchasing special certificates of deposit, a promotional gimmick so successful that the Associated Press carried a story about it in 1986, attracting money from as far away as San Francisco, as the bank’s officers will tell you proudly.
The free pistols epitomize certain aspects of the character of Egypt. To understand this, and the vague sense of apprehension a visitor feels, it helps to know that Saline County, like the entire eleven-county area known as Little Egypt, is one of the most violent places in America, with a murder rate per capita comparable to or exceeding in any given year that of Chicago or New York City. Compared to the United States as a whole, the annual murder rate in Little Egypt is nearly double, about 10.1 per 100,000 inhabitants, 6.6 for the rest of the country. Of rural and semi-rural areas, only Harlan County, Kentucky, rivals it for violence.
Many Egyptian murders have a special, local flavor to them, as with the wife who shot her husband to death, cut him up, and fed him to the hogs; or the thirty-year-old son who loved his mother so much that he laced his daddy’s iced tea with antifreeze. Bar fights ending in shoot-outs take their toll.
This violence has been an unbroken tradition for nearly two hundred years.
“There’s not a lot of murderers and cutthroats in southern Illinois,” Will Rogers told a reporter for the Marion
in 1926. “They are real people, congenial and hospitable. But instead of being like a lot of committees, fussing and arguing, calling each other names, they just shoot it out if it’s necessary.”
Will Rogers was reacting to the gangsters who were shooting each other with impunity all over Little Egypt in the mid-twenties. But before them the Ku Klux Klansmen ruled, murdering at least fifty people in two years, all in the cause of Americanism, which in southern Illinois meant temperance: There were not enough blacks in the region for even a white supremacist to worry about, so the Klan united against Italian and Irish Catholics in defense of Prohibition, with the Klan’s contributions to local Protestant ministers assuring their support. And in 1922, twenty strikebreakers were shot to death, mutilated, and their corpses spat on by a union mob in what became known as the Herrin Massacre, a labor dispute at a strip mine, the culmination of a thirty years’ war between union and management. Nine men went on trial after the Herrin Massacre. All nine gained acquittal, and the state gave up on further prosecutions, accepting that local loyalties made convictions impossible.
From 1868 to 1876 the Bloody Vendetta, a feud involving four prominent families, took the lives of at least six men and terrorized the countryside. When local authorities seemed unable or unwilling to gain indictments, let alone convictions, the
thundered from the north, “The feud is a disgrace to the whole State of Illinois—a disgrace to the courts of the State, to the government of the State, to the Governor of the State, and to the people of the State.”
Southern Illinois was notorious for violence long before the
was founded, back in the days when Shawneetown, twenty-five miles east of Harrisburg on the Ohio, was a commercial and banking power and could turn down a request for a ten-thousand-dollar loan from the village of Chicago with the message, “You are too far from Shawneetown ever to amount to anything.” Some historians have suggested that Cave-in-Rock, a cavern overlooking the Ohio below Shawneetown, was the birthplace of organized crime in the United States. Robbers, counterfeiters and murderers used the cave as a headquarters and a place to store booty plundered from immigrant families floating down the river in flatboats.