- Our Sites
- The News-Gazette
- NewsTalk 1400 WDWS-AM
- Lite Rock 97.5 WHMS
- 107.9 WKIO
- Community News
By DAVE HINTON
Rantoul Press editor
Lester “Shot” Winchester was a 13-year-old during the pre-Prohibition era in Southern Illinois playing in a dice game when he caught one of the players using loaded dice and called him on it.
Winchester told the culprit he had to give all of his money back and they would start the game over using legal dice. The cheater refused and began calling
Winchester’s mother every foul name he could think of.
Winchester trudged home and grabbed a shotgun, returning and, after the cheater refused to admit that he cheated, shot him in the chest.
The fatal wound resulted in a 30-year prison sentence for Winchester at age 15, making hi mthe youngest person to be sentenced to Menard Correctional Facility.
It was there that the warden took notice of him, how, as he recorded in his journal, Winchester was “a good kid.”
Thanks to the warden, Winchester was released from prison after serving seven years of his sentence, but he didn’t follow the straight and narrow upon his release — hauling moonshine to make ends meet.
The southern region of the Land of Lincoln was a depressed part of the state. Still is in many respects, “and gambling and moonshine is what kept Southern Illinois alive,” Maureen Hughes, who resides in rural Penfield and is a former police investigator, said.
He would haul moonshine in 5-gallon milk cans to places as far north as Danville and east to St. Louis.
“What people need to understand is the Mafia, the Chicago crime family, the St. Louis crime families and East Coast crime families used Southern Illinois to funnel money through, to launder money,” Hughes said. “They hid hijacked furs, contraband of all kinds in Cairo.”
Moonshine running was just one way to make a living.
Winchester’s early years and his rise and fall as a prominent night club owner are detailed in Hughes’ book “Sins of the South.” The book tells how Winchester realized his dream of owning a swanky night club north of Cairo, Ill., in 1946, then paid with his life when he got crossways with a police official.
Even decades later, digging for the truth and surmounting obstacles put up by fearful people proved a formidable task for Hughes as she tried to get to the bottom of who killed Lester “Shot” Winchester.
“Ever since he was a boy he had this dream of having this big nightclub,” Hughes said. “All the years after he was released from prison he did whatever he could to make a buck to fulfill his dream.”
In 1946 he realized the dream, a dream that became Club Winchester, south of Olmstead — a “classy” place as Hughes called it.
“He had flower gardens all around it. In fact he was known for that,” Hughes said.
Big names came in to perform — Louis Armstrong, Perry Como, The Ted Weems Orchestra.
“Everybody respected Shot,” Hughes said. “He treated the high rollers from Missouri and farmers just the same.”
But not everyone was willing to let him run his business without interference. There was plenty of it.
“Back then the local police, the county cops, the judges, the politicians, the local mobsters all came around for their weekly or monthly payout,” Hughes said. “But he never worked with the big-time mobsters.”
Even so, mob members like Tony Accardo from Chicago and his wife, Clarice, would come down for the weekend to Cairo and spend time at Club Winchester.
“He never gave Shot Winchester any trouble,” Hughes said of Accardo, a former foot soldier of Al Capone’s Chicago “Outfit,” who later became boss. “The two of them loved the club. Accardo would go over and speak to Shot. They’d go and exchange pleasantries.”
Winchester ran the club for nine years until Adlai Stevenson’s crackdown on gambling in Illinois.
Stevenson’s attitude toward vice was well known during that era.
Nobel laureate John Steinback said, “Stevenson . . . has touched no political, economic or moral subject on which he has not taken a clear and open stand even to the point of bearding selfish groups to their faces” (opposing them face to face).
Stevenson, Hughes said, “would send state troopers down to bust up the night clubs and casinos and taverns and take out all of their equipment. Shot had the nicest craps tables east of the Mississippi River.”
But not after the troopers and their axes got through with them.
Winchester was forced to close the night club. He later built a smaller tavern on the same site along Illinois Route 37.
Things began to get even worse for Winchester after the owner of another night club was murdered, and one of the men who committed the murder, a felon from Chicago, implicated Winchester to, as Hughes said, reduce his own sentence.
The sheriff of nearby Alexander County also didn’t like Winchester, and Hughes said Winchester knew the sheriff was closing his eyes to illegal activities, namely trafficking in drugs brought in from South America, Mexico and Colombia.
“Shot did not participate in it in any way, shape or form,” Hughes said. “But he was aware of what was going on and knew who was involved. The sheriff knew if Shot lived, at his trial he would tell them what he knew and who was involved. The decision was made to do away with Shot.”
Two local gangsters were involved in Winchester’s death.
“It was a set up,” Hughes said. “They tried to make it look like suicide.”
They succeeded in getting a coroner’s jury’s verdict of suicide, but the jury urged further investigation by the state. It never happened.
While on a tour in Southern Illinois to promote a previously written book, Hughes was approached by Winchester’s son, Robert, to look into the case.
In her investigation of the case, she formed a distinct impression of Shot Winchester: “I think he was a very honorable man ... in spite of what he did early in life. He was very honest in a fledgling time in Illinois history.
“This man did not commit suicide. I proved it with documents and pictures. It was nothing more than a coverup.”
FORMER STATE REP: BOOK ON DAD BRINGS CLOSURE
Robert Winchester was 10 years old when his father was killed in 1956.
It was Winchester who asked Maureen Hughes of rural Penfield, a former police investigator and author, to look into his father’s death — a death that many believed was murder, not suicide as authorities said.
A former legislator — Robert Winchester served 10 years in the Illinois House — he would later serve with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and then on
Gov. George Ryan’s staff, where he was eventually promoted to deputy governor.
Winchester is pleased with Hughes’ book, “Sins of the South,” which points the finger at two local gangsters in the murder of Winchester’s father, Lester “Shot” Winchester.
“It brings closure to me,” he said. “I suspected it was one (person) or the other. I didn’t know both would be involved. I read it five times, and I couldn’t put it down.”
Hughes said she encountered a number of roadblocks investigating the case — 55 years after Shot’s death.
A graduate of Armstrong High School, Hughes lives on the family farm. She originally planned to study journalism after high school but switched to criminal justice, graduated from the Illinois Police Academy and earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from North Adams University in Massachusetts.
She got a job as a police investigator on the East Coast, which she held for 11 years. (She said she recently received a letter notifying her that a mobster that she helped send to prison had been released.)
Hughes later did police-security work at Chanute Air Force Base and then the University of Illinois. She is now retired.
“Sins of the South” is her sixth book, her second investigative piece.
After Robert Winchester asked her to look into his father’s death, she was skeptical. She wondered whether she would be able to find enough people who knew about the case to find the truth.
“I didn’t know if I could scrounge up enough people who could remember or enough documents,” Hughes said. “People in Southern Illinois were not cooperative. They’re very secretive.”
The investigation took a little more than eight months.
At one point two men approached her on the main street of Cairo and told her they had a message: Get out of Cairo and stay out.
That didn’t scare the former cop, but she took precautions.
“There were people who would talk to me, people who tried to help me,” Hughes said. “I didn’t want them to get hurt, and obviously I didn’t want to get hurt.”
She left town, got on Interstate 57 and then returned in a rented car and got back to work. She stayed in motels, but never the same one twice.
She was never threatened again — but that didn’t mean that everybody was rushing to help her. Part of the problem, she said, was because she was not originally from the area and people didn’t know her.
“And they have a poor record-keeping system,” Hughes said. “I got most of the information by threatening (to use a Freedom of Information Act) form. Then when I was allowed to view some records, they had been tampered with, altered and totally destroyed. They had been ripped out.
“That’s not to say all the employees were that way.”
Hughes said “Two or three people worked with me night and day. They backed my desire to do this.”
Robert Winchester said Hughes found out a lot of information that he didn’t know.
The night of his death, Shot Winchester thought he was to meet with one of his employees at his tavern. Instead, two well-known hit men for St. Louis mobster Buster Wardman — Jake Rubin and George Garner — showed up.
Winchester remembers his father, who was separated from Robert’s mother, always being a good father, a nice person.
“He bought me my first rifle, a .22, and turned me loose with it” in a secluded area. “I was shooting everything I could shoot at.”
Winchester would stay with his father for a week at a time and would often be in his tavern.
The younger Winchester would get behind the bar, reach in and get beer for people.
“Everybody thought that was the funniest thing in the world,” he said.
To Winchester his father was “a great guy. He was always very respectful to me.”