Note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is sponsored by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200Illinois.com.
John Looney was the original Quad Cities’ vice lord and also one of the nation’s earliest organized crime leaders.
He was a thin, cold, gaunt, sort of dour-looking man with haunting eyes. He wore the same baggy, dirty suit every day and ate raw liver on toast. He ran for the Illinois House as a Democrat and lost. His bitterness over the defeat launched his career as the undisputed godfather of the underworld.
Looney controlled a vast and unmatched empire of extortion, bribery, booze, gambling and prostitution. There were downtown shootings, political graft and bombings and behind it all a scandal sheet newspaper. His influence reached into Wisconsin, Missouri, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and the East Coast.
His power in Rock Island grew almost absolute because he was able to control portions of two key elements of society — politicians and the press.
Looney published the Rock Island News from about 1905 to 1923. The papers of that era said “no filthier, more libelous newspaper has ever been printed in the United States. All of the stories were written in the foulest of language.” The News and The Rock Island Argus waged a vicious newspaper war for years.
While Looney had several homes, his mansion overlooking the Rock River called Bel Air was famous for its weeklong parties, drunken orgies, nude swimming in the Rock River, and cock fights, boxing and bulldog fights.
In 1912, Looney got mad at Rock Island Mayor Harry Schriver when he pressed for prosecution of Looney's associate Anthony Billburg on gambling charges. He attacked the mayor in a series of articles in The News. Schriver had Looney brought to the police station where he beat him as officers watched. Looney was hospitalized.
The next night, March 27, 1912, Looney’s gang convened a meeting in Market Square. The crowd grew to more than 2,000 and the angry mob stormed the police station and police fired back, killing two bystanders, wounding eight others. Martial law was declared and the governor sent in 600 troops to quell the riot.
Looney left town to recuperate at his 25,000-acre ranch in New Mexico, but returned in March 1921, revived The News and re-established his control over local vice. Looney controlled almost all gambling and prostitution houses — about 150 over a vast region — run by Helen Van Dale, known as “Queen of the Prostitutes.” This time around, he added corrupt police, judges and city officials to the list of things he controlled.
While Looney rose to power by blackmail and gunfire, it was also his downfall. When Looney raised the “protection fee” charged to Bill Gabel, a former police officer who owned one of the city’s largest bootleg saloons, Gabel refused to pay. Instead, he turned over 12 canceled checks made out to Looney to federal investigators.
Gabel met with agents at the Como Hotel July 31, 1922. He was getting out of his car just after midnight when shots were fired. One bullet hit him in the head and he died instantly.
Drive-by shootings had become commonplace. On Oct. 6, 1922, Looney’s one-time lieutenant, Dan Drost, joined forces with Anthony Billburg, another former lieutenant turned enemy. With two other men, they ambushed Looney and his son and bodyguard outside the Sherman Hotel. Looney fled to the hotel, while his son, Connor, 21, returned fire before he slumped to the ground. He died the next day. The four men were sent to prison for the murder.
By Oct. 26, 1922, all of Looney’s saloons and brothels were closed. Six stills were destroyed. One of Looney's homes was raided and its arms cache seized. With its influence gone, The News ceased publication. A federal investigation revealed that 170 or more illegal businesses had been paying for protection from Looney.
After his son’s funeral, Looney fled to New Mexico. Federal conspiracy charges were filed against him.
Federal prohibition authorities joined state, county and city law enforcement officers in an anti-vice campaign aimed at cleaning up the community. Looney was captured in Belen, N.M., on Nov. 30, 1923, and returned to Rock Island. He was sentenced to prison for conspiracy and the murder of Gabel. Looney was released from prison in ill health on April 7, 1934, at age 68 and never heard from again. He died March 4, 1942.