Helen Van Dale: A woman of the criminal underworld Part II

Please read Part I of Helen’s story here.

Bold lettered headlines covered the front page of local newspapers on the morning of August 1, 1922 in Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois. William “Bill” Gable, owner of a soft drink bar at 2319 Fourth Avenue, Rock Island had been gunned down with six bullets in front of his establishment at 12:05 a.m.

The Daily Times, August 1, 1922. Pg. 1

William Gable’s soft drink establishment was really a cover for illegal activities of gambling, prostitution, and alcohol. Located near the Rock Island Arsenal bridge that ran between Davenport and Rock Island, it was a prime spot for illegal activities that he and his next door neighbor, Helen Van Dale, engaged in.

In fact, early morning reports indicated the getaway car of the shooters fled over the Arsenal bridge into Davenport. Disappearing without a trace according to Rock Island Police Department officials.

Gable, it turns out, had moments before left a secret meeting with federal prohibition officers at the Rock Island Post Office. He was traveling alone that night back to his bar as the police officer assigned to protect him (as Gable had recently begun to talk to Prohibition agents about underworld crime) had been ordered to work in the police department that night instead of following Gable.

As Gable was secretly informing federal prohibition agents on local illegal activities when he was murdered, the U.S. government immediately assigned seven federal prohibition agents to come to Rock Island from Chicago to start an investigation into his death.

Rock Island Police Chief, Tom Cox, stated to newspapers that his department would do everything possible to find the guilty parties.

The Daily Times, August 1, 1922.

By the end of August, the William Gable case seemed stalled. Many of the eyewitnesses who spoke with police after the murder had decided to leave town in the weeks following his death. There were local rumors that men with Italian accents had been around town a day or two before the murder and had since disappeared. 

By the time Connor Looney, John Looney’s only son, was shot and killed in a street battle in Rock Island on October 6, 1922, it would seem from newspaper coverage that the murder of William Gable had been forgotten by local law enforcement.

The federal prohibition officers kept their focus though, as many illegal establishments in Rock Island were raided and closed. John Looney, Sr. left town and headed to New Mexico right before his establishments and house were raided on October 26, 1922.

As the Looney empire in Rock Island was collapsing, Helen Van Dale moved to Davenport to increase her businesses there. One of her largest establishments, the Palmer Inn on Nahant Road, thrived during this time.

The Rock Island Argus, December 6, 1922.

While Helen may not have needed women to work in her resorts in Rock Island anymore, her business continued as she not only found women for her Davenport establishments, but sent women to disorderly houses in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Peoria, Illinois as well.

It may have appeared quiet locally in relation to police activity, but federal authorities were still working. Helen found this out on November 24, 1922 when she, John Looney, Tom Cox, and twelve others were charged with illegal gambling, prostitution, and other offenses. Among those arrested were the mayor and city attorney of Rock Island.

The Davenport Democrat, November 24, 1922. Pg. 1

Federal officials were not done yet. On December 5th, Helen was arrested at her Palmer Inn under charges of violating the White Slave law (Mann Act) by taking a 16-year-old Iowa girl into Illinois and also violation of the federal prohibition act.  She was placed in the Scott County, Iowa jail pending charges in Iowa and faced extradition to Rock Island County, Illinois.

One of the official charges against Helen was bringing a young woman into her 4th Street Rock Island establishment for prostitution. While working there, the young woman and Helen reportedly quarreled and a “city official” intervened and attacked the woman with a beer bottle. Due to her serious injuries, the woman was transported to Peoria, Illinois where she later died.

This charge matched a rumor that had circulated since late Spring 1922, that William Gable had walked into Helen’s establishment to visit and witnessed Police Chief Tom Cox attacking a young working woman who had argued with his girlfriend, Helen Van Dale. Cox was rumored to have beaten the woman severely with a glass bottle. It was said this was the final action that convinced Gable to go to federal authorities and get out of the illegal underworld.

Helen’s boyfriend, Police Chief Tom Cox, was arrested and charged with planning the murder of William Gable with John Looney and Lawrence Pedigo, Looney’s Chief Lieutenant. Soon after Cox’s arrest, his wife visited him in jail.

According to newspaper reports, Helen was upset while in jail that many of her friends did not support her. There may be some truth to that report, as news was released on December 12th that Helen had made an official statement implicating many of her former friends and boyfriend in illegal activities.

Helen Van Dale, one of the most powerful women of the local underworld, was ready to talk.

The Daily Times, December 7, 1922. Pg. 1

By March 1923, Helen had been released from Scott County, Iowa jail on bond and was ready to be a state witness in Illinois testifying against former boyfriend Tom Cox and Lawrence Pedigo (as Looney was still on the run). With the promise of being a state witness, Helen worked a deal not to be held in the Rock Island County, Illinois jail on her charges.

In mid-March 1923, the trial of Rock Island Mayor Harry M. Schriver, Police Chief Tom Cox, and Lawrence Pedigo commenced. The men faced charges related to graft, illegal gambling, and alcohol. Helen, and surprisingly her ex-husband Lester Smith, would have prime roles in the trial.

Smith testified that in May 1919, shortly around the time of his marriage to Helen, he asked Tom Cox if he could open a house of ill-fame. He received permission from Cox and as long as he bought alcohol from John Looney, thus he would be under Looney’s protection. Smith soon asked Cox if he could open another establishment. Cox eventually agreed with another smaller establishment for Smith. He then inquired if it were true that he was with Helen Van Dale. Smith replied that she was his wife.

The Daily Times, March 23, 1923. Pg.

Soon after, Smith found Tom Cox and Helen were in a relationship and Cox had Smith arrested repeatedly and fined hundreds of dollars. Even after Helen divorced Smith, the arrests continued along with recommendations by Rock Island police officers that Smith should consider leaving town.

When Helen finally testified, she admitted there was a large party at her establishment next to William Gable’s the night of his murder. Attending the event were Police Chief Tom Cox, her sister “Dimples,” Rock Island Police Detective Charles Ginnane (who committed suicide right as the scandal broke in November 1922), Davenport Policeman Pat Dietz (who was working with federal prohibition agents unbeknownst to those at the party), and U.S. Prohibition agent R. C. Goss (also working undercover). She stated that when Tom Cox learned that William Gable had been murdered next door he didn’t respond and continued to partake in the party at Helen’s establishment.

The Daily Times, March 22, 1923. Pg. 1

Schriver, Cox, and Pedigo were found guilty on their charges.

The Daily Times, April 7, 1923. Pg. 1

The charges against Helen were dropped. No evidence was ever found relating to the beating death of the young woman by Tom Cox. Helen quickly returned to the Palmer Inn and her business.

Helen married for the fourth time on July 19, 1923 to local salesman Edward H. Wriedt. Wriedt was a World War I veteran and belonged to a well-known (and respected) family that had been in Davenport for years. He had been widowed after only 15 months of marriage in 1918. This was his second marriage.

Helen’s former underworld partner, John Looney, was arrested on December 1, 1923 as he returned from Mexico to his ranch in New Mexico. He would fight extradition to Illinois, but he would eventually be returned.

In September 1924, Helen filed for bankruptcy in Scott County stating she was living in Davenport. In her claim, she stated she had $1,386.18 in debt with no income.

The Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 22, 1924. Pg. 11

On October 13, 1924, former Police Chief Tom Cox died from heart problems, or an illness of the brain (polite wording for Syphilis), depending on which newspaper was reporting, in his home. His case was still pending on appeals. He was survived by his wife of many years and a married daughter.

On April 23, 1925, Edward Wriedt died from pneumonia at his parents’ home after an illness of about five months. Even though Edward was married to Helen, his father stated on his son’s death certificate that Edward was a widower. No mention of Helen was made in the obituary.

Being his legal wife, Helen appears to have been given the body for burial. She purchased a lot in Fairmount Cemetery in Davenport and buried Eddie there.  The funeral took place at his parents’ house. It is unknown if Helen attended.

In July 1925, John Looney went on trial for eleven indictments related to the shooting of his son and William Gable. Similar to the trial of Cox, Schriver, and Pedigo, this trial fascinated local residents.

Lawrence Pedigo, once Looney’s Chief Lieutenant, testified against his former boss. Pedigo’s testimony clearly outlined not only the connection between Looney and Cox, but also that Helen was a main part of the underworld decisions as well. “Heinie” Lee, Helen’s ex-brother-in-law and others also testified and in the process implicated Helen as being one of the three main figures in local crime.

On July 31, 1925, John Looney was found guilty on all charges and was sentenced to one to five years in prison. He still had nine other counts to be tried for including the murder of William Gable.

The Daily Times, July 31, 1925. Pg. 1

Helen appears to have kept busy during Looney’s trial as on July 20, 1925 her name appeared in The Rock Island Argus for a drag race against her sister in Moline, Illinois. They had been trying to see who had the faster car. It was reported they had reached speeds of 40 mph when stopped by a motorcycle officer. Both were fined $7.00.

On August 19, 1925, Helen Van Dale, John Looney, and seven others were officially indicted for the murder of William Gable. She was located and arrested on charges of complicity in the murder of William Gable on September 20, 1925 and taken to Rock Island County jail. She quickly began talking to prosecutors.

The Rock Island Argus, September 23, 1925.

Helen said she heard John Looney, his son Connor, and Tom Cox plan the murder of William Gable on July 28, 1922. Officials arranged for her to remain in formal custody until the trial of John Looney.

On November 23, 1925, jury selection began in Galesburg, Knox County, Illinois for the trial of John Looney. The courtroom was able to hold over 300 people and was filled daily.

Of special interest was former local school girl, Helen Van Dale. Newspapers reported that Helen had attended St. Mary’s Academy in Knoxville, Illinois near Galesburg (a private Episcopalian school) and many older residents could still remember her.

On December 14th at 1:00 p.m., Helen Van Dale took the stand against John Looney and she did not disappoint the crowd. From her sometimes coy answers about what type of establishments she ran to her detailed account of the meeting that took place between the Looneys and Tom Cox before the murder of William Gable, she had the audience captivated.

One of the more interesting exchanges during the trial was when Helen testified she had threatened to kill Looney if he ever wrote her up in his scandalous newspaper, The Rock Island News, he used to blackmail local residents. Helen said Looney responded no one could kill him as he was protected by the devil.

On December 23, 1925, John Looney was found guilty of the murder of William Gable and sentenced to fourteen years in prison.

Charges against Helen were not pursued in the case. The days of Looney’s underworld empire had ended. Helen was a 32-year-old widow who had somehow managed to avoid jail for her crimes, but now lacked the power and protection she had previously.

Helen’s name made the local newspapers on January 11, 1926, when her sister, “Dimples”, committed suicide by taking poison after drinking and arguing with her second husband, George Voege (also known as George Fay and once connected to John Looney), in their apartment at 412 ½ Second Street in Davenport. She left behind two young sons from her first marriage. She was eulogized in the newspapers as a beautiful social butterfly of the criminal underworld.

Lillis D. Voege, alias “Dimples” or Edna Smith, was 24 years old. She was buried in Fairmount Cemetery. Her sons, John and Victor, would be raised in Davenport and Peru, Illinois by Lillis’ mother, Nancy. Their father, Victor, spending most of their youth in jail.

There is not much on record for Helen in the following years. On March 28, 1929, Helen married Irvin Joseph Wonders of Davenport in Clinton, Iowa. She was arrested along with her husband in a beer raid at their Davenport apartment in January and April 1932.

The Daily Times, April 1, 1932. Pg. 6

On May 29, 1931, Helen’s second husband, Henry Van Dale, dies at age 37 in Soldiers’ National Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He had been a veteran of WWI.

In June 1934, Helen was arrested for keeping a disorderly house at 227 ½ Perry Street in Davenport. She was fined $30 and released. In December of that year she was arrested for being intoxicated in public. In court, she refuted the charge stating she had only had four beers so couldn’t have been intoxicated. The Police Magistrate agreed with her claim in court and released her from the charges.

Davenport Police Department Blotter. December 13, 1934 arrest of Helen Van Dale for intoxication.

On July 11, 1935, Helen’s third husband Lester Smith died from alcoholism in Yuma, Arizona.

About 1935, Helen and her husband Irvin moved to Peru, Illinois along with her mother and nephews. The 1940 United States Census lists the couple as owning a lunch room.

In April 1941, Helen filed for divorce from Irvin, but no evidence exists the divorce was ever finalized.

In August 1943, Helen was arrested along with other women in the Peru, Illinois area working in prostitution. The case against Helen and the others collapsed when main witnesses refused to testify and left the area.

On November 4, 1943, Helen’s husband Irvin and another man were killed when the car Irvin was driving was struck by a train in Davenport. The two men had been working on a house Helen owned on Nahant Road. It is unknown if Helen hoped to return to Scott County. She chose to remain in the Peru area after Irvin’s death.

The Daily Times, November 5, 1943. Pg. 1

Helen buried Irvin in the same lot in Fairmount Cemetery as her fourth husband, Edward.

On February 28, 1944, Robert J. Rathburn, Helen’s first husband, died in East Moline, Illinois. 

John P. Looney died in 1947 in a tuberculosis sanitarium in El Paso, Texas. He had served 8 ½ years of his 14 year sentence.

On July 2, 1949, Helen’s father, who had divorced her mother in 1926, died in Peoria, Illinois. He had remarried two more times (his second wife passing away a few years into their marriage) and worked as a fireman for the Central Illinois Light Company. Helen was listed as Helen Wanders of Peru, Illinois in his obituary.

For many years where Helen died or was buried was lost in records. With the many marriages and aliases used by Helen it was difficult to trace her.

With finding her fourth and fifth husbands and her birth certificate, we are finally able to answer those questions.

Eula E. Wonders, also known as Catherine/Katherine Helen(e), died December 11, 1951 in Peru, Illinois. She is buried in Fairmount Cemetery next to her last two husbands and her mother who died in Peru in August 1952. While Edward and Irvin have headstones, Eula and her mother’s graves are unmarked.

Unmarked grave of Eula E. Wonders at Fairmount Cemetery, Davenport, Iowa. Her husband Irvin’s headstone is on the left and husband Edward’s headstone is on the right. Helen and her mother Nancy are buried in between the two. Photo taken July 2019.

No obituary or funeral service information was located in our search.

While we may have answered the question of what became of Helen Van Dale, we are left feeling there are so many more questions than answers to her life story.

It appears from her probate (a copy was filed in Scott County, Iowa under Catherine Helena Wonders as Helen owned property here) that Helen was financially secure when she died. Did she plan on making a return to Scott County one day to reopen her long-shuttered business?

We don’t know if she continued in illegal activities in Peru until her death as the last prostitution-related arrest we located was in 1943. We do know that she owned land, at least one nightclub, and a taxi service around the time of her death. Were these businesses covers for illegal activity?

Did Helen choose to be buried as Eula or was that a decision her family made after her death?

Finally, we wish there was a written record of Helen’s dealings during the Prohibition era’s criminal underworld. 

Without that, we highly recommend reading the newspaper accounts of the trials Helen was involved in to learn more about the criminal empire started by John Looney.

(posted by Amy D.)


  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, December 12, 1922. Pg. 9
  • The Daily Times, March 10, 1923. Pg. 20
  • The Dispatch, March 22, 1923. Pg. 8
  • Iowa, Select Marriages Index, 11758-1996. Ancestry.com
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 22, 1924. Pg. 11
  • The Dispatch, October 14, 1924. Pg. 9
  • The Daily Times, April 23, 1925. Pg. 6
  • The Rock Island Argus, July 20, 1925. Pg. 4
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 23, 1925. Pg. 1
  • The Daily Times, December 5, 1925. Pg. 20
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, January 11, 1926.
  • The Daily Times, January 25, 1932. Pg. 4
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, June 18, 1934. Pg. 2
  • The Daily Times, December 14, 1934. Pg. 6
  • Arizona, County Coroner and Death Records, 1881 – 1971. Ancestry.com
  • 1940 United States Federal Census. Ancestry.com
  • The Times (Streator, Illinois), April 4, 1941. Pg. 7
  • The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), August 10, 1943. Pg. 14 
  • The Rock Island Argus, August 20, 1943. Pg. 4
  • The Daily Times, November 5, 1943. Pg. 1
  • The Dispatch, February 28, 1944. Pg. 13
  • Scott County, Iowa Probate #24699 Catherine Helena Wonders
  • Fairmount Cemetery, Davenport, Iowa GVA Lot#217

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8 Responses to Helen Van Dale: A woman of the criminal underworld Part II

  1. Rita says:

    What a fascinating story. Hope you find more little tidbits like this in the old newspapers.

  2. Tim says:

    Thank you so much for these posts, so amazing to read this history. Thanks for the hard work in assembling it all, MUCH appreciated.

  3. Dennis Ciesielski says:

    Lillis would have been my grandmother, My father (deceased) was her son John. Having grown up with the mystery of “Aunt Helen” and “Grampa Heinie,” I’ve always wondered about the life that our family kept from my brother and me. There seem to be a few myths that don’t line up with this story, but there was also a lot stuff the family tried to live down in the small town of Peru — 2which, of course, would have spawned unintended “facts.” For example, Lillis was said to have been hanged in a revenge crime, but I have just now discovered it was suicide by poison. Aunt Helen seems to have left a small fortune to my uncle Victor (known as Tom) consisting of a small ‘club’ and bordello across the river from Peru. I understand that she also left Uncle Tom the Yerllow Cab business in LaSalle, but I’m now in doubt as to the whole truth of this. I do know that Nancy (the kids called her Nammer) ran a railroad boarding house in Davenport for a while and that my father worked for Aunt Helen at the ‘club’ in Peru before joining the Navy in the early ‘40s. Hienie married a woman named Irene who was not very nice to anyone n the family . . . Anyway, thanks for the great research

    • SCblogger says:

      Dennis, Thank you so much for your comment. I first became interested in Helen’s life when articles I read indicated she “disappeared” from local record. The more I researched your family story, though, the more fascinated I became by your grandmother, great aunt, and great grandmother. These were very smart business women. When your grandmother died the news made the front page of all the local newspapers and the articles spoke very highly of her. I will send you a message through your email address to provide some information if you desire to do more research on your family in the future. – Amy D.

  4. Bethany says:

    This is amazing!! I printed out both parts. I am just a local who is obsessed with the entire story of Looney and Helen. I live in the neighborhood near Tom Cox’s old house. I also live near the location where Gable was killed and where Helen’s establishment was next door. Everyday I walk down my street and think of this whole era. I have also ventured down the west end to Nahant Marsh to see the empty space where the old Palmer inn used to be. The area is also so haunting be awesome. Thank you so much for all your hard work!

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