Tom Kacich: 100th anniversary of Champaign officer's murder
Saturday was the 100th anniversary of one of the most notorious crimes in the 150-plus years of the city of Champaign: the murder of Champaign Police Officer Thomas Dodsworth and the wounding of Police Chief A.U. "Al" Keller.
The city, by law considered "dry" at the time but in reality something much less, was in the midst of one of its frequent wars with bootleggers. Weeks before, Mayor O.B. Dobbins stayed late into the night with a police representative to inspect cargo loaded off an Illinois Central train, hoping to find shipments of alcohol bound for an address in the city.
On the Sunday afternoon of July 6, 1913, Dodsworth and Keller went to a two-story house known as "the old Dump house" at 111 N. Champaign St., armed with an arrest warrant for Ed Williams, a well-known bootlegger. The "Dump" was near the junction of the Illinois Central and Big Four railroads, a fine spot for a business that would appeal to railroaders and those who rode the rails.
Keller climbed the stairs to Williams' room, and began to read the warrant out loud to Williams. Suddenly the bootlegger, also known as "Chicken" and "Duck," pulled out a revolver and shot Keller twice. Dodsworth quickly mounted the stairs but as he neared the top Williams shot him too. Dodsworth died at the scene. The wounded Keller then struggled with Williams, finally shooting him three times and, as the Urbana Courier put it, avenged the death of Dodsworth. A fourth man at the scene, Oliver Harding, a young accomplice of Williams, also was shot. Months later he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to serve time in the Chester state prison. Twenty years later Harding was back in Champaign, arrested for burglary and larceny.
Champaign, not exactly a law-abiding town at the time, still had never seen anything like this. Even without modern communications, a large crowd of several hundred people soon had gathered at the north Champaign scene of the shooting. Ice cream cone vendors "flocked to the scene where they did a rushing business," said the Courier.
The next day the Champaign Daily Gazette had its big front-page headline, complete with photographs of Dodsworth, Keller and even Williams.
There was an interview with Dobbins, who pledged to continue his war with bootleggers.
"The bootlegger and the lawless element must go," the mayor said. "The shooting on Sunday will be no scare to us. We deplore it, but we are going to clean Champaign of this element and we are going to take cognizance of those whom we believe may be carrying arms. There is a law against this and we are going to ferret out the gun toters as well as the bootleggers."
Dobbins issued a proclamation urging business owners to close their stores and offices during the time of Dodsworth's funeral the next day. The Daily Gazette began a campaign to erect a memorial to Dodsworth, pledging the first $25 for what it later said would be "a fountain in some public spot in the city." By the end of July there was $355.69 in the fund. Later a modest water fountain was erected in the northeast corner of West Side park as a memorial to the slain officer.
Dodsworth, believed to be about 49 years old at the time of his death, had been born in Yorkshire, England. He came to the United States as a young man and moved to Saginaw, Mich., where he worked for a lumber company. About 10 years before the shooting he moved to Champaign, becoming a police officer around 1905. He married Celia Strode of Champaign, who also had been born in England. They had no children.
Keller's story was more interesting.
He had been born in Cumberland, Md., shortly after the Civil War, was married in Tolono in 1892 and became chief of the Champaign police in 1900. He served as chief for almost 32 years, under at least seven different mayors.
He retired on April 1, 1932, and died about two weeks later. At the time of his death a number of the mayors praised him as a man of honor and integrity.
"The most honest, reliable and patient person I have ever had dealings with," said former Mayor C.J. Mullikin.
"Al Keller was one of the squarest men — if not the squarest man — I have ever been in contact with," said former Mayor E.S. Swigart.
Williams, on the other hand, was portrayed in the newspapers as a ragpicker, a bootlegger and an all-around ne-er do well.
The Courier recounted the story of the time he was tried and convicted for an attempted murder. Just as a judge was to impose his sentence, Williams jumped up, ran to the second-floor window of the old county courthouse and cried, "Good bye, Judge." He didn't get far, breaking a leg in the fall, and was captured on the courthouse lawn.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.