Bonus chapter from The Tri-State Tornado of 1925: Bush, Illinois

Bush, Illinois is nestled in Williamson County and has a long history of massacres, union-management strife, and, like much of the Midwest, a sordid relationship to the Klan.

I had a chapter in my upcoming book The Tri-State Tornado of 1925. Due to word count limitations, I had to cut it. But, as a bonus preview for subscribers like you, you can read it in full here. This chapter was never finalized, so a typo surely exists somewhere.

Chapter 6: Williamson County, Illinois

—Bush, Illinois—

About six and a half miles east of De Soto, Bush and surrounding Williamson County residents had been enduring a storm all their own for several months. In January, Illinois National Guardsmen were sent to patrol the streets of neighboring Herrin, Illinois after S. Glenn Young and Homer Warner, each a member of the county’s resurgent Klu Klux Klan, clashed with Deputy Sheriff Ora Thomas and his lieutenant, Ed Forbes, each a known gambler and bootlegger amid prohibition.[1]

On January 28, 1925, Young and Thomas confronted each other around ten PM in front of the European Hotel on Herrin’s Main Street. The cold January air was not nearly as frosty as the relationship between these two. Young and his men were Herrin’s ‘Inspector’ of the Illinois Constabulary Department, a private corporation with offices in Chicago and largely staffed by Klan members.[2]

Despite prohibition laws locally and nationally, local law enforcement had become underground agents working with illegal moonshine and bootleg alcohol distillers. The Klan had formed partly out of hatred for racial and immigrant minorities. But with relatively few migrants in and around majority-white Williamson County, the Klan turned their attention to other crusades against alcohol, gambling, and vice. In a scene repeated across dozens of counties and states, Klan membership swelled with citizens who saw themselves as crusaders of strict Christian morality first and anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Irish, and anti-Catholic sentiments second. In places like Williamson County, pro-Klan adherents were the majority.

Deputy Thomas had fled Williamson County months earlier, either as a means of self-protection or, more likely, to source new stills and alcohol operations. Word had spread quickly across Herrin and the rest of the county that Thomas was due back. Hearing the news, Young strapped on his six-shooters and began parading the streets with his thumbs characteristically tucked in his vest pockets, just above the heavy pistol butts hanging on either side of his waist.

Throughout the cold evening of Wednesday, January 28, the two men went on a hunt for each other. The Bioni Barber Shop, which also doubled as a cigar store and a de facto headquarters to anti-Klan sympathizers, stood at the base of the European Hotel. Young, a former Kleagle known as “the stormy petrel of the Klan,” along with a small group of Klansmen, including Warner, approached the hotel upon hearing Thomas was nearby when a shot rang out, instantly killing Deputy Charles Forbes.[3] The day before, on January 27, Forbes was on trial in Chicago with a St. Louis contractor facing charges of defrauding the government in connection with constructing a veteran’s hospital. 

Fearing retaliatory shooting, the otherwise quiet streets rang out with commotion as men scattered for cover, tables and chairs shuffled against doors, and windows lit up with dim lamplight. Forbes lay dead in the street, bleeding from a headshot wound. 

Deputy Thomas, seeing himself outnumbered by Young and his Klansmen, retreated into the Bioni barber shop and cigar store. Young pushed forward, firing into the store, shattering windows, and filling the night air with the smell of gun smoke. Crouched behind the counter, Thomas returned fire, blazing away with pistols in each hand as Young charged through the door. A bullet struck Young’s shoulder and another directly at his chest and heart. Young collapsed dead alongside Warner. The gunfire continued until Thomas was also shot, sinking to his knees. Standing over him, one of the Klansmen fired a fatal shot at point-blank range. 

The Klan, which had conducted hundreds of similar raids in the county over the last year, claimed Thomas or one of his men fired first. Ross Lizenby, a Herrin police officer and Klansman walking alongside Young, claimed the shot must have come from a window above the hotel. Less understood was how Forbes would have presumably been shot by one of his partners if the hotel and Brioni store were filled with anti-Klansmen.

The shootout that evening in Herrin broke a truce negotiated by both parties months prior. Leaders of both sides agreed that both Deputies S. Glenn Young and Ora Thomas leave Williamson County forever. Both men supposedly agreed, too. Williamson County Sheriff George Calligan was still in his elected office and was an avowed enemy of the Klan. But without clear control of the streets, Illinois Governor Len Small ordered National Guardsmen to patrol the streets after the Herrin shootout. The funeral for Young drew 15,000 people to Herrin, most dressed in full Klan regalia and providing full Klan rites.[4]

It wasn’t long before Sheriff Calligan was also kicked out of the county a month later in a deal negotiated under pressure from Governor Small, Attorney General Oscar Carlstrom, and Adjutant General Carlos Black in a series of conferences, the last of which was joined by five Williamson County supervisors friendly to the Klan and enemies of Galligan. Galligan at first refused to consider resigning, fearing that a Klansman would succeed him. He later agreed to turn over his duties to a deputy, effectively abandoning the county and its law enforcement to the KKK. The Klan immediately seized thousands of gallons of wine, moonshine, and other liquors and arrested hundreds of bootleggers, beer runners, and moonshiners. 

Gamblers, unmarried women, suspected religious or ethnic minorities, labor unions, and anyone with a whiff of political or industry corruption—or money—to their name were targeted by the Klan. “It is very hard to get people to talk in Williamson County. Very few people care to express an opinion. But a very reliable person unlikely to be prejudiced said there was a good ground for the…connection between the recent Klan trouble and the Lester mine affray of 1922,” wrote Thurber Lewis in a February editorial in the Chicago Daily Worker

In the summer of 1922, mine owner W. J. Lester violated a nine-month-old agreement with the United Mine Workers of America when he fired all union workers in pursuit of a coal bed at the Southern Illinois Coal Company. The workers went on strike. Lester hired mine guards and workers from Chicago to break the strike, and on June 16, 1922, the first sixteen rail cars of coal shipped out of Herrin. In response, strikebreakers and miners began shooting, with hundreds of union men overwhelming the fifty non-union men in the mine and forcing their surrender. Marching them back to Herrin, the mob lined up strikebreakers against a barbed-wire fence, told them to run for their lives, and opened fire. Many were killed point-blank, shot in the back, or hunted down as they fled for fences and cover. Captured men were marched to a cemetery and shot, hanged, or had their throats slashed. Since nearly all the region—and jurors – were union members, 214 indictments were acquitted, and all other charges were dropped. The public outrage that ensued nationally diminished the union’s power and led many to leave its ranks. Twenty-three people were killed in what became nationally known as The Herrin Massacre.

Afterward, Klan forces had risen in Williamson County, often attacking labor unions and other organized groups. “A prominent lawyer in Marion who did not wish to be quoted told the Daily Worker, ‘Glenn Young certainly must have had powerful forces behind him. He always had plenty of money. He drove around in the best car in the county. He had a paid bodyguard of some twenty men with him all the time. He made trips to all parts of the country. It is my belief this whole movement is an attempt to break up the labor unions in Williamson County.’”

One anonymous prominent person told a reporter in February 1925, “The reason [the Miner’s Unions] don’t do anything about this obvious attack on organized labor in Illinois is because they are either jellyfish or pussyfooters. Some of the officials are just plain scared, and others of them are in politics and looking for jobs.”[5]

Despite the hushed voices and whispers, it was the belief of everyone in Williamson County not affiliated with the Klan that the Klan and counter-Klan fight was ultimately a class struggle. It was without question that Glenn Young represented people strained under the strong organization of the Southern Illinois miners. “Even the mine union officials who talked with the utmost caution said there was ground to believe an undercurrent of wage cut propaganda is at work here. “They wouldn’t talk about the Klan. They merely said that miners who are members of the Klan are expelled as soon as their membership comes to light. They make no effort to find out who are members and who are not and they haven’t, they said, taken any official position regarding the Klan,” wrote a reporter for the Daily Worker. Some 200,000 Illinoisans were Klan members in 1925, with the highest concentrations in and around Williamson and Franklin Counties[6].

After months of scandal, corruption, Klan squabbles, and even a bombing after the Fowler building eight miles away was attacked a week earlier, 800 residents of Bush woke to a strange stillness on March 18.[7] Passersby milling about the streets of Bush finished late lunches, swept sidewalks, and worked in their places of business. Like much of southern Illinois, the primary industry in Bush was coal mining, and the streets and sidewalks demanded constant sweeping. It was a curious irony for residents. The more the region prospered, the grimier things seemed. Progress could be downright dirty.

At 2:45 PM, the wind picked up and the heavy clouds stirred almost as worryingly as the hearts and souls of the hatred embedded within the Klansmen below. In the streets and open air, the rain turned into steel sheets, and hail hit the ground with the force of clanging castanets. Anyone still outside immediately sought shelter. Men working underground in the coal mines hardly noticed anything unusual beyond a few flickers of the electrical lights. Above ground, it was an experience of transcendence. When thunder and lightning cracked the sky apart, the clouds and sky seemed so thick you could walk across it. Young children in town watched as forceful raindrops fell onto the dusty sidewalks. The raindrops stung skin and numbed a person’s body to any sensation. The wind thrashed and heaved against automobiles. The wind slapped shop signs in one direction, then another. 

Seeing what he called “a big wind” in the distance at his rural farmstead, a young boy declared to his mother, “I’m going to the cellar.” As he watched the horizon on the outskirts of Bush, the boy marched off with a sense of assuredness that seemingly escaped nearly everyone else in the tornado’s path. The boy’s family had built the cellar a few years earlier when a smaller storm passed overhead. Raising the door, he played with the thoughts of that storm in his head and stepped down into the small shelter. He looked back toward his mother, who had grabbed the two other children and was now racing for the cellar. 

Before she and her two other children could make their retreat, clouds came down and blotted the landscape. The tornado made a clean cut for their home, and all three were thrown violently against the floor and under the kitchen table. The tornado that had repeated the same pattern over so many homes, farms, and businesses was now overhead, ripping their home apart within seconds. The woman and her two children survived by lying on the floor, the children protected by their mother and praying. They were found later by her husband who returned from the mines worried about their other son. The family searched for the young boy for hours until, thinking of checking the cellar, the man opened the door. Looking up against the daylight, the boy calmly asked, “Is it all over, daddy?”[8]

Within three minutes, 33 of the 323 homes in the village were completely obliterated as a stampede of wind and debris damaged another 158. The sky came down on top of Bush, and most of the town vanished. But nearby Herrin, with all its drama and political strife, was hardly scuffled. Fully half of Bush was homeless, and all were without power. The swirling clouds blew dust, mud, and dirt through the air like blinding snow, wrapping everything aboveground in a film of fear and death. Faces froze in unshackled fear as the violent winds swept over their lives and town, leaving nothing but a naked expanse of land and despair. Like their fellow citizens in De Soto, Murphysboro, Gorham, Biehle, Annapolis, and Ellington before them, the residents of Bush were now bound by the same grief and tragedy. 

Seven people lay dead, including the town’s only doctor, and another 37 were injured.[9] School was in session, but the teacher was the only one there who died. It’s believed she went outside to look what was happening and was carried away by the wind. She was found two blocks away. Hardly a window was cracked at the school.[10] The crumpled mule-drawn wagon of two men passing by was found outside of town, but no drivers or mules were found.

Just as quickly as the storm raced in, it raced out through northern Williamson County and into southern Franklin County, leaving another 24 dead and 18 injured. Most of the injured were taken to Herrin for treatment on the backs of open-air trucks or carried on doors, blankets, and mattresses where the meager infirmary was about to be overrun with patients from De Soto and Murphysboro. 

The once great pines and oaks of the rural landscape shattered like brittle candy. A merciless sense of death brooded over survivors and the injured in a silent gloom that seemed as lawless as the earlier massacres that plagued the county’s politics for so long. Railroad axles lay strewn around rail yards, and wood beams had pierced water towers, trees, and torsos like arrows. Seven men survived at a nearby rail yard by crawling into the firebox of an idle locomotive. Three freight cars crashed into it, but the men were unhurt.

The tornado deposited almost as much debris in outlying areas as it blew away. Shoes, papers, straw, clothes, and bedding all stuck against the remains of splintered trees and stubby fence posts. All evidence of human life, from tax receipts to a barber’s chair—despite Bush not having a barber shop—was blown into and around town. Straws of wheat and grass were driven into the sides of houses, telephone poles, and the remnants of trees. Every shrub and tree was stripped limb-to-leaf of early spring growth, leaving the area physically reminiscent of a battlefield, the likes of which Bush and nearby residents had suffered politically and emotionally for months

[1] “The Ashton Gazette 29 Jan 1925, Page 6.”

[2] Smith, History of Southern Illinois: Narrative Account of Its Historical Progress, Its People and Its Principal Interests.

[3] “Belvidere Daily Republican 27 Jan 1925, Page Page 1.”

[4] Illinoisan, “White Southern Illinois Towns Reckoning with Racist Past.”

[5] “The Belleville News-Democrat 09 Feb 1925, Page 4.”

[6] Rice, The Ku Klux Klan in American Politics.

[7] “The Marion Evening Post 13 Mar 1925, Page 4,” 13.

[8] “The Marion Evening Post 23 Mar 1925, Page 6.”

[9] “The Dispatch 23 Mar 1925, Page 1.”

[10] “Herald and Review 22 Mar 1925, Page Page 5.”