Illinois Pioneers

Vice and Bootlegging


The presence of railroad workers, soldiers from Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul and University of Illinois students insured that Champaign always had its share of vice.

City officials sometimes ignored it, said John Paul, host of this WILL-TV’s Illinois Pioneers episode on the history of vice and bootlegging in Champaign. But occasionally, dramatic incidents made the community take notice and even take action.

Paul and his guest, city of Champaign history enthusiast Mark Chenail, talk about a 1939 case in which 20-year-old sophomore U of I engineering student William Spurrier was out drinking with some friends, when they decided to visit the Pullman Hotel, a brothel in near the Illinois Central tracks. After operator Margaret Strothers refused their entrance, the students pelted the door with bottles. Strothers fired her gun, hitting Spurrier, who died the next day.

Classes were cancelled the following Monday as students held a mass meeting U of I President A.C. Willard at Huff Gym to discuss the situation. The Daily Illini and News-Gazette demanded action from the city, as did U of I Trustees. Some officials ended up losing their jobs.

Paul and Chenail also talk about the days of Prohibition, including the time a 26-year-old federal agent named Eliot Ness, not yet a household name, went undercover as a student at the U of I to ferret out illegal drinking at fraternity houses. “He apparently blended right in,” said Chenail.

They also look at the time Carrie Nation brought her temperance campaign to Champaign in the days before Prohibition. Chenail looks at the reasons Champaign and Urbana banned liquor in May 1907, 13 years before Prohibition.

“I chose the subject of vice because it’s a forgotten, but shocking part of Champaign history,” said Paul. “We think of Champaign as a pretty nice city, but at one point, it wasn’t.”