Friday, June 22, 2012

Bootlegging in Illinois

In downtown Big Grove (a.k.a. Champaign, Illinois) there’s a new bar and restaurant called Seven Saints. It used to be a sporting goods store and before that, a drugstore—with a speakeasy on the second floor. According to a 1999 newspaper article, patrons of the speakeasy escaped out a back door into an adjoining building and through an underground steam tunnel to avoid Prohibition agents. This part of town, conveniently located near the railroad station, was chock-full of illegal speakeasies, “blind pigs,” gambling dens, and houses of ill repute during the 1920s. Blind pigs were legitimate stores such as laundries, candy stores, or lawyers’ offices that housed speakeasies hidden away in the back or on another floor.
            When I began to write my first historical mystery, The Bootlegger’s Nephew, I thought my theme would be archaeology in its “Wild West” days, before it became an academic discipline. To my surprise, Prohibition and the practice of pre-antibiotics medicine took over. With the year 1923 as my starting point, I plunged into a world of cheerful corruption: bribery, transporting bad booze, and all kinds of illegal behavior by perfectly ordinary citizens. My research taught me about the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in Illinois and Indiana, rabid anti-immigrant prejudice, the changing roles of women, and birth control in the age of Margaret Sanger.

Unexpected characters strolled onto my stage. My protagonist, Doc Earl “Illinois” Junker, is a forty-year-old physician and an amateur archaeologist who accepts artifacts looted from local sites instead of cash for medical treatments. Doc Junker travels his community in his Model-T Ford dealing with farm accidents, difficult pregnancies, and illnesses caused by imbibing adulterated liquor along with prescription medicines and home remedies. His daughter Anna, a nursing student who frequents local speakeasies, helps him track down a murderer and break up a local gang of bootleggers.

Martha Junker, Anna’s mother and Earl’s wife, is the other heroine. Martha is a rather straight-laced German immigrant, the daughter of an alcoholic and a member of the local temperance league. Encouraged by a fellow immigrant, Martha breaks out of her usual roles of obedient wife and strict mother and becomes a bar maid in an effort to locate illegal liquor distribution hubs. >Born and raised on the East Coast, I had no clue the Midwest would become my home.  Writing this book led me to take an architectural history tour of our university town, visit local archives, sit mesmerized in front of Ken Burn’s PBS series on Prohibition, and soak up the stories of local residents. All this has enriched my appreciation of where I live.