According to the book The Countess and the Mob by Maureen Hughes, some of Champaign’s noted families (Robeson and Davis) helped keep Champaign wet during Prohibition. Another name connected with gangsters were the Sansones, an 11-member family born in Sicily that had immigrated through Ellis Island before settling in Champaign.
Michael Sansone’s profitable taffy concession stand was kept at Crystal Lake when it wasn’t touring the summer county fairs, while his brother Henry’s popcorn wagon was parked near the Virginia Theater. That popcorn had the most amazing taste and I’m sure many others tried to coax out the secret ingredient to no avail.
Local lawyer Julius Hirshfeld was one of Henry’s regular customers and Henry’s stories of pheasant hunting on his property somehow spread through Hirshfeld all the way to Al Capone, and thus began the annual pheasant hunting pilgrimages to the Sansone property just outside Champaign.
According to local legend, sometimes Capone and his boys would rent out the entire Turk’s Head rather than drive back to Chicago. The other option was booking the top three floors at the fanciest hotel in Champaign, located across the street from the train station. Turk’s Head may have used by his crew when they wanted to keep a low profile while in town, as the police station and newspaper office were all clustered within a block of that train station, while Turk’s Head was buried in campus-town.
Henry realized that setting up hunting trips could be quite lucrative and decided to expand his hunting schedule to include George Bugs Moran, an enemy of Capone. This shouldn’t have been a problem, writes Hughes, Sansone scheduled Moran and his boys on opposite weekends from when Capone was down.
This would have worked well, except the scheduling was done by word of mouth, and one weekend the dates got mixed up. One particular Saturday when Moran was hunting, three black cars pulled up two hours later, and five men got out, including Al Capone. Everyone was dressed in hunting gear, so it was hard to positively identify anyone. By mid-morning, the men from both gangs were just two or three hundred feet apart when one of Capone’s men asked why Moran was there.
That’s all it took for the shooting to start.
Both gangs retreated to their cars, and several had to lie in the back seats all the way to Chicago because they had lead shot in their rear ends. So ended the hunting trips to Champaign.
Did you know the world’s only hippie memorial is located along the Illinois Central train tracks in Arcola, Illinois? The town I grew up in was actually a hotbed of radical activity in the 1960s. The fledgling Students for Democratic Society (SDS) picked Urbana, Illinois, in fact, as the site for their 1965 conference, and hundreds of members arrived from all around the country. Soon, we had the state’s best garage band, The Finchley Boys, as well as the country’s greatest experimental artist, John Cage, both performing in our little community 120 miles south of Chicago. We also had the first landmark performance of a masterpiece called “MacBird!” which theorized JFK had been murdered and President Johnson was an accomplice in the crime.
Jim “Chef Ra” Wilson was my high school senior class president, the first black elected to that position. He organized the first black appreciation celebration in the history of Urbana High. It was held late at night and included free soul food and a series of performances by notable black musicians who were also students at the school.
My best friend Larry Green, recently arrived from Baltimore, somehow became one of the star attractions of the evening by commanding a gaggle of black girls around him at all times, all constantly cracking up at his improv performances. The alpha chick among them was also the girlfriend of the star of the show, who played keyboards and sang, among many other talents. I remember him from the stage suddenly stopping the show to ask his girl what she was doing with her arm around Larry Green’s neck? Somehow, Larry turned that all around into a big belly laugh and the performance went on. I don’t know if any long-term inter-racial relationships were born that night, but it certainly was a wonderfully healing ceremony for all who attended and I hope we left many of our fellow black students with a sense of our appreciation for their culture, despite the institutionalized racism that had afflicted the school up until then and the fact few of us would actually try the chitlins.
Jim’s ceremonies would continue to evolve and mature as he grew up. One of his best was his annual appearance in the July 4th parade, which wound its way through much of the town before culminating at the football stadium, where the state’s largest fireworks display would be set off come darkness. Jim could often be found in some wild, colorful outfit, roller-skating through the entire parade route and doing circles and stunts the whole way. He was well over 6 foot tall, and had placed third in the state high jump his senior year so his athletic abilities were unparalleled.
In 1968, someone applied for a permit for anti-Vietnam war demonstrators to march in the annual parade and the permit was duly granted on grounds of free speech after a brief court battle even though members of the town councils wanted it denied as un-American and inappropriate. We happened to be driving past Green Street when the protestors were attacked by a gang of men wearing hard-hats, some of whom wielded clubs and chains. Jim Cole, leader of the Finchley Boys, was one of the protestors and would later describe grabbing a fist aimed at his face and then realizing it belonged to someone he knew quite well. I really felt I’d missed out on something exciting, but I wasn’t much of a street fighter anyway. My time, however, was soon coming.
Later that day, I was hitchhiking with Larry and Carole. Carole, at this point, had become Larry’s girl friend. I’d already read “The Sun Also Rises” so the part of discarded ex-lover who hangs on for dear life had already been portrayed as a noble cause. Whenever I saw films like “Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid,” I immediately recognized my role.
Anyway, a white car slowed to a stop. “We’ll take the girl, but we won’t take you,” said a dude in the backseat, whose mouth seemed full of marbles. He had a southern, redneck accent and was barely understandable. I looked inside the car and noticed some guys in uniform and thought I saw a hardhat on one of the seats.
“Would you like to ride with these guys?” I asked Carole, who, of course, said, “No.”
As I was explaining the situation, the dude in the shotgun seat reached down on the floor and produced a steel chain. He opened the car door and I began backing away from the car, while holding Larry and Carole behind me. But we couldn’t back up fast enough for the dude swung that four-foot chain and it whipped around my side while he began yelling about his contempt for long-haired hippies like me. At this point, my only thought was to get Carole out of there before the other three dudes got out of the car and tried to abduct her. She seemed to be the real center of interest in all situations, so I grabbed her arm and yelled, “Run!”
Meanwhile, Larry, stepped around me and confronted this dude. Larry had the supreme confidence he could talk his way out of any situation as well as being somewhat fearless. Larry probably began with some comment like: “Hey, now wait a minute, this doesn’t call for violence…” Meanwhile I was already halfway around the house wondering why Larry hadn’t taken off running with us when I yelled “Run!.” Although I couldn’t see what was happening, I soon surmised that Larry had been pushed into a large bush and beaten on his back a couple times with the chain.
Some guardian angel appeared out of no where, claiming to be a Vietnam War Vet. The dude beating on Larry was talking about the war while he was beating on him. And this Vet wanted him to know that all Vets didn’t feel like him and that he should leave Larry alone and let him go. Carole, meanwhile, refused to stay hidden on the other side of the house with me since she was delirious with concern over Larry.
Eventually the three of us re-united and the car drove off. Back at her house, Carole scolded me pretty harshly for running away from the scene and abandoning Larry like that after he tried to stick up for me. But we got over it pretty quick and headed back to Campus-town, where everyone was hanging out in front of Turk’s Head. Larry showed off his chain marks for all to see while we recounted the story of our adventures. Much later than night, while I was alone in the bathroom, I would finally notice the chain welts across my own back.