Several commenters on Re-Making the American Dream mention Burnt Prairie and my stories of growing up on the farm. Although that is the shortest part of the book, I tried to set the base on how values are passed on from family, the culture and hard work of farming, and the influence of the Baptist Church in the Bible Belt. Some of those who comment would like to hear more.
I mentioned in the book growing up in the extended period of the Depression, or its aftermath, in farm country that was less impacted by the recovery of the New Deal during World War II than urban areas more influenced by war industries. In Burnt Prairie, we were also part of the recovery from the organized crime reign of the Shelton gang. Their home base was in Pond Creek, an area just a few miles from our bottom land farm near the Little Wabash River near the Wayne/White county line.
Taylor Pensoneau in his books on the Shelton Gang and his complete biography of Charlie Harris gives a great account from the bootleg era of Prohibition until the Shelton’s gang’s demise just after World War II and Charlie’s demise many years later. See Brothers Notorious: the Sheltons—Southern Illinois’ Legendary Gangsters, Taylor Pensoneau, (Downstate Publications, 2002) and Dapper & Deadly: the True Story of Black Charlie Harris, Taylor Pensoneau, (Downstate Publications, 2010) His account sets forth in a convincing way that Charlie Harris was a key actor in the assassination of key leaders of the Shelton gang. He then supposedly retired onto his farm just up the road from ours.
My closest encounter with Charlie came after I managed to get our pickup stuck in the mud in the bottoms. I would go down there sometimes when we weren’t busy with crops just to see how well I could make it through the mud holes on the un-maintained dirt roads connecting the maintained gravel roads with our farm fields. It was a teenage wasting time kind of adventure, mixed in with feeding cattle, cleaning the manure out of the barn, fixing fence, and other productive work. I saw it as a great benefit of being a farm boy too young to have a driver’s license but with a pickup to drive nonetheless.
I was stuck after poor judgment in trying to spin my way through too much mud. It was a good five mile walk to town for help, or I could try a closer farmhouse to meekly ask for a tractor pull from a neighbor. I started down the road to Burnt Prairie, still contemplating what short cut I might take to a friendly neighbor for help. But here came Charlie in his white Chevrolet with the small red stripe by the chrome down the side. Everyone in Burnt Prairie recognized that car from a distance. No one wanted to throw gravel at his windshield speeding past him too fast or crowd him off to the side of the road. No one did that to Charlie Harris.
We all had an understanding about him. He was a mean guy, and he took offense easily and quickly. Most teenagers were taught to hold their horses with Charlie, to say hello to him and treat him with respect while keeping as much distance as we could. One of us later found out the penalty, when Charlie shot Jerry Merritt and Betty Newton in a bed in an old farm house and set them on fire. We had watched Jerry play sports in school and drive too fast through town, but we didn’t know until it happened that his young adventurous streak got him in deep trouble with Charlie.
Everyone knew everyone else in Burnt Prairie, or at least a little about them. I knew I wanted little if anything to do with Charlie Harris, but here he came down the road anyway, a friendly neighbor offering me a ride to town. I thanked him and got right into the right front seat. He didn’t say much, but he did want to know what happened to my pickup that caused me to be walking to town.
It was an uneventful ride. He was friendly and peaceful and nice. I didn’t see the gun he usually carried under the seat or in the glove box, but carrying a gun was not at all uncommon in Burnt Prairie. I just kept my eyes on the road and my tone thankful and friendly.
When we pulled up to Bill Coale’s gas station in Burnt Prairie, we both got out and walked in. There was generally a 42 game with dominoes going on in the station at one of those short tables surrounded by wooden Coke cases turned on end to make up for the shortage of chairs around the table. Lots of Cokes with peanuts got consumed in that gas station, and the talk at the 42 table kept everyone informed of what was going on in town. They all paused and looked up as Charlie and I walked through the front door, as if to ask why on earth were the two of us arriving together.
I told Bill what my problem was, seeking to establish right off that Charlie helped me get to town and that was the end of our business that day. Bill offered to call my father on the phone as the most expeditious way to change the subject and help me out. Charlie got a Coke and just hung out there for no particularly apparent purpose, like many did around the gossip of the 42 table. My father had words with me about getting stuck and becoming dependent, even in a minor way, on Charlie Harris.
Years later, I would have another indirect encounter with Charlie. After he murdered Jerry Merritt and Betty Newton, Charlie fled town after his indictment, going on the run to avoid arrest for his final murder trial. The FBI knew about him, and this was their opportunity to charge him with a federal offense, interstate flight to avoid prosecution. I was in Washington, D. C., on a lobbying trip with my father and a delegation from the Wabash Valley Association, and decided to take a tour of the FBI building. I really liked it, especially its more dramatic ending when the tour guides stepped back and some real FBI agents came into the room, looking armed and serious. The whole tour group was impressed, just with that.
The agents then turned to the business at hand, describing and pointing out their bulletin board on the wall. It was filled with ten wanted posters, like you used to see often in the post office, but this one was their top ten, the top ten most wanted criminals in the United States. They told us to look closely because one of them could be our neighbor down the street, quietly hiding out in our neighborhood, or someone we saw at a gas station, filling their car with gas. “Look closely,” they said, “because now is your opportunity to help us. Someone will give us a lead someday to catch each and every one of them, and this could be your day.” They continued: “If you recognize any one of these top ten criminals, please raise your hand.”
“Sure, I know Charlie,” I said as my hand went up. The crowd of those on the tour whirled back into a circle away from me, leaving me alone in the center of a big empty circle surrounded for just a moment by that tour group looking back at me from a safer distance. They wanted to see from a little more distance who was this young teenager with his hand up. Just as quickly, there were two FBI agents at my elbows, saying come right this way with us. We went into a small room and sat down, while they peppered me with questions about how I knew Charlie Harris. I told them the story of my ride to town when my pickup was stuck in the mud and made clear to them that was all I really knew about Charlie Harris.
They caught him a few years later, when they followed some friends and relatives of Jerry Merritt tracking him down with the intention of taking their own revenge. The FBI stepped in, and the next jury sent Charlie to prison for the rest of his life.