Who Was George Davenport?

The Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Department of the Davenport Public Library is pleased to present another installment in our ongoing Local History Lecture Series this coming Thursday evening, August 15th, at 6:30PM in the Large Meeting Room at the Main Street location. Local historian Gena Schantz will help us to answer the question: ”Who was George Davenport?”

Ms. Schantz has been researching Colonel George Davenport and his family for decades; adding significantly to our knowledge of both the man and his milieu. Her 1991 Master’s thesis, “The Davenport House and Family on Rock Island: A Case Study in the Transformation on the Midwestern Frontier to 1858″ (SC 977.3393 Sch) belongs to our collection here at the Center, as do many of the sources she and others have consulted in pursuit of the early history of the Quad-Cities area. These include Franc B. Wilkie’s 1858 history Davenport, Past and Present (SC 977.769 WIL), genealogies, newspaper items, court records, and original documents written by members of the Davenport family, all assembled in this handy research guide on our website.

We also invite you to see a selection of the actual books, ephemera, archival materials, and images included on our George Davenport guide on display at the Center this month!

Posted in Genealogy, Library, Local History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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 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 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 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, 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 the 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, 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 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 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 December 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, known as “Dimples” or the alias Edna Smith, was 24 years old. She was buried in Fairmount Cemetery. Her sons, John and Victor, would be raised in Davenport and then Peru, Illinois by Lillis’ mother, Nancy.

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 to restore it. It is unknown if Helen hoped to return to Scott County and resume her resort here. 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 years before, died in Peoria, Illinois. He had remarried 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.

Did Helen choose to be buried as Eula or was that was 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
Posted in Local History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Summer 2019 Internship Experience

This summer, The Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center had the wonderful opportunity to have Tyler Watts, a senior at St. Ambrose University, intern with us. He is interested in a career in the library and museum profession. During his time in Special Collections, he was able to get a glimpse of different types of work we perform to preserve and describe our local history and genealogical collections. Tyler acquired hands-on experience of digitization of photographs and textual materials, encapsulation and book preservation, and archival processing. We have asked Tyler to share his experiences in the blog below.

Best of luck with your future endeavors, Tyler!

From May 23 to July 25, I worked in the Special Collections as an intern.  The experiences I have had up to now and continuing are helpful for understanding what the job requirements and duties are for working in special collections.  One of the first activities that I did was to get familiar with the Special Collections area and to know the layout of the area.  This was done by a tour of the facility which showed each of the sections followed by an explanation of what each area was used for or what types of materials were housed in a particular piece of storage. I also had a formal orientation in the employee area where I informed the policies for working at the library.

As an intern, I had plenty of activities to do and learn for Special Collections.  One activity I did was to read and reflect on articles published by professionals in the library field and explore a variety of educational websites dealing with archives and special collections related information.  By reading and exploring these sites, I learned a lot about different processes and what steps to take to be successful in the archives.  These also have shown me the background knowledge of the various task perform in special collections and how to do each accordingly, so these were completed as accurately as possible as well.  The activities were done in conjunction with the readings which has also been helpful since the hands-on experiences help with the visual aspect and to understand how things need to be done in a certain way.  The activities which I worked on were:  assisting with creating a display of NASA materials for the Summer Reading Program, mounting bookplates, encapsulating a document using Mylar and double-sided tape, basic tear mending on a page and digitize materials using the KIC scanner and flatbed scanner.  Another was sorting some newspaper clippings in chronological order and creating an inventory of items donated in a manuscript collection.

            In conclusion, I found the summer internship experience in the Special Collections very important and helpful.  The experience has helped me to understand the process and the care of each item more carefully and what is needed to be done for the types of artifacts and how to handle them as well.  The internship has also reinforced my decision to work in this area after I am done with college.  I found the experience enjoyable as well and I will be thinking of ways to improve my education for the position as a result.

Below are some images of our stuffed animals performing the same task Tyler learned during his internship.

Animal Interns in Special Collections.

Animal Interns in Special Collections.

Animal Interns in Special Collections.

Animal Interns in Special Collections.

Animal Interns in Special Collections.

(posted by Tyler)

Posted in Library | Tagged , | Leave a comment


Local newspaper coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing and images in government document publications from the Federal Depository Library Program. 

NASA, The First 25 Years 1958-1983. (Washington, DC: GPO, 1983), 80.

Space Flight: The First 30 Years. (Washington, DC: Office of Space Flight, 1991), 14-16.

Space Flight: The First 30 Years. (Washington, DC: Office of Space Flight, 1991), 14-16.



(posted by Cristina)

Posted in Local History | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Most individuals living in the Quad Cities are familiar with the name John Looney. From his home base across the Mississippi River in Rock Island, Illinois, Looney created an illegal empire that included gambling, prostitution, protection money, and illegal alcohol starting in the early 1900s. His control included Rock Island, Davenport, and surrounding towns.

It was only with his permission that “disorderly houses” or “resorts” (which involved gambling, prostitution, and later illegal alcohol) could be opened. Protection fees were paid by the owners to Looney along with his input in how many women could work at the resorts and who supplied the alcohol to the establishments. Many of these businesses operated under legal business titles such as soft drink parlors, boarding houses, or hotels.

Looney’s underworld empire flourished until 1922, when the murder of saloon owner William “Bill” Gable on July 31st of that year led to a gang war that soon resulted in the death of Looney’s only son and the arrest of notable underworld figures including Looney himself. However, this blog isn’t about John Looney, but someone else.

One woman played a central role in this criminal world from the late 1910s into the early 1920s. Her name was Helen Van Dale. She arrived in the Quad Cities an unknown young woman soon involved in prostitution, but Helen would rise to local prominence by the early 1920s, so the rumor goes, as the one person John Looney feared.

Then just as quickly as Helen Van Dale became a frequent headline in local history, she disappeared into the unknown until 2019.

With a few genealogical clues, we were finally able to piece the details of Helen’s life together and have an ending to her story. We thought we would share her story in her birthday month of July. We will only touch on the underworld crime scene of the Quad Cities in the late 1910s into the 1920s here, but we strongly encourage readers to do more research on this fascinating subject.

We have put together a history of Helen Van Dale’s life and the lives of those involved with her for this blog.

On July 18, 1893, Eula Elizabeth Lee was born in Paris, Edgar County, Illinois near the Indiana border to James P. and Nancy J. Lee.  Through U.S. Census research, we find in 1900 the family of three living in Paris, Illinois with James working as a day laborer. By the 1910 U.S. Census, the family had grown with the birth of Eula’s sister, Dimples (as recorded in the census record), in 1902. The family had left Paris and moved to Galesburg, Knox County, Illinois near the Rock Island/Davenport area. James Lee was now a fireman working with the railroad.

When Eula was about 17 years old, the United States government passed the Mann Act on June 25, 1910. This Act prohibited the transport of girls and women for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery. This Act would later have a major impact on Eula’s life.

Eula married Robert J. Rathburn in 1913. The marriage took place in Knox County, Illinois.

We learn from the 1910 U.S. Census that then 19-year-old Robert lived in Moline, Illinois and worked for the U.S. Government as a Lock Tender. We think as Robert was working for the Rock Island Arsenal in 1917 according to his WWI draft card that after the marriage the couple returned to Rock Island, Illinois to live.

We have not currently located a record for a divorce between Robert and Eula. We think their marriage was brief and divorce likely occurred in Rock Island County, Illinois. It was during this time that Eula began to use Katherine Helen/Catherine Helen as her first and middle names. She used Katherine/Catherine mainly on official documents for the rest of her life while Helen became the name she used daily. Occasionally, she added an “-e” to the end and went by Helene.

In December 1914, a Mrs. Mary Van Dale of Rock Island, Illinois filed for divorce from her husband, Henry. She asked for custody of their only child. The reason for the divorce was Henry, a bartender, had become involved with Helen Howard who operated a restaurant at 2109 Fourth Avenue.

We believe Helen Howard was the former Eula Lee Rathburn. We know in May 1915 from newspaper records that a Helen Howard was arrested and fined $25 and costs for running a “disorderly house” called Waukeska located in Rock Island on 16th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. Interestingly, a Lester Smith was also arrested in the raid. They were both arrested by Detective Tom Cox of the Rock Island Police Department. Both men would have a greater place in Helen’s life in the near future.

Helen Howard continued to be in the newspapers during 1915, arrested for running “disorderly houses”. The newspapers mention that once a house was shut down in Rock Island, the girls would leave town for Davenport until an arrest there would have them returning to Rock Island.

The Daily Times, May 17, 1915. Pg. 14

Finally, on August 3, 1915, Mrs. Mary Van Dale was granted a divorce from Henry in Rock Island County, Illinois on grounds of adultery with Helen Howard. On August 23, 1915, Catherine Helen Lee married Henry G. Van Dale in Clinton, Iowa. From this point on, Helen Howard disappears from local newspapers and Helen Van Dale takes her place.

Over the next few years, Helen must have gained favor with John Looney as she soon operated multiple “disorderly houses” in Rock Island and Davenport with girls being moved between the establishments.

In June of 1918, we find the record of a Mrs. Florence Smith filing for and receiving a divorce in Rock Island County from her unfaithful husband Lester “Society” Smith. This is the same Lester Smith arrested in 1915 at the Waukeska with Helen. Soon after the divorce, Lester Charles Smith served in the military from September 3, 1918, through November 27, 1918. After discharge, he returned to Rock Island.

In April 1919, Catherine H. Van Dale filed for divorce charging her husband, Henry,  had married her within a year of his previous divorce.

The Daily Times, April 3, 1919. Pg. 16.

On May 1, 1919, Detective Tom Cox (who arrested Helen Van Dale and Lester Smith at the Waukeska in 1915) was promoted to Police Chief of Rock Island.

On May 9, 1919, Helen Van Dale and Lester Charles Smith were married.

Soon after their marriage, Lester “Society” Smith began to appear frequently in the newspapers for various arrests.

Helen Smith filed for and received a divorce from Lester Smith on January 15, 1920.

Around the time of her divorce from Smith, rumors began that Helen Van Dale (as she was commonly known) was keeping company with Police Chief Tom Cox. Another local rumor was Cox began to spend a great deal of time in girlfriend Helen’s establishments, which were filled with Looney associates.

Between 1918 and 1919, Helen’s parents divorced in Galesburg, Illinois. Her mother and younger sister (identified in the 1920 U.S. Census by her real name Lillis Lee) moved to Davenport and began to help Helen with her growing business of “disorderly houses”.

Lillis (also known as Dimples or Edna Smith), gave birth to her first son with Victor Joseph Ciesielski in October 1920. She married Ciesielski in February 1921 in Scott County, Iowa. Victor, known by the alias Heinie Lee, was involved with Looney’s operation and worked in Helen’s establishments. They would divorce in June 1923 with Lillis receiving custody of their two children.

Helen most likely needed the help of her mother and sister as her businesses grew. Her mother and sister seemed to manage to Davenport part of the business while Helen oversaw Rock Island. Two of her most important houses were the Palmer Inn in the Nahant Road area of Davenport and the building at 2327 Fourth Avenue in Rock Island. Originally, the focus of these establishments most likely involved gambling and prostitution with John Looney using various methods of corruption to keep everyone in line with him.

With the passage of the 18th Amendment and the start of Prohibition on January 17, 1920, a new element was added into local disorderly houses and underworld crime as bootlegging and illegal alcohol became a new source of revenue to fight over.

By 1922, Helen was a successful figure in underworld crime. She appears protected by both John Looney and Tom Cox. But not everyone was happy with the special treatment Helen received. One individual who was growing tired of Looney and Van Dale was William “Bill” Gable who owned a “soft drink parlor” and “resort” next to Helen at 2319 Fourth Avenue, Rock Island.

While Helen was rarely raided on the Rock Island side of her business (Davenport raids were frequent), Gable was raided by the Rock Island Police several times and was still paying protection fees and other fees to Looney. Helen’s fees were reduced or nonexistent.

Whispers began that by late spring 1922, Gable wanted out. He wanted to leave the underworld scene behind him and start legitimate businesses. More whispers began that he had seen something in Helen’s Fourth Avenue establishment involving Tom Cox. Other whispers stated he was talking to Federal Agents and had been given police protection. 

It was nearly midnight on the night of July 31, 1922, when Gable drove to his establishment at 2319 Fourth Avenue and parked his car. He got out, walked around his vehicle and stepped on the sidewalk. No one knows if he knew a large car had been following him that night. His police protection having been told to stay at the station for duty. 

Six men reportedly appeared from the shadows and two opened fire. Gable fell dead on the sidewalk.

The Davenport Democrat, August 1, 1922. Pg. 1

The world of Helen Van Dale and her colleagues was about to change.

Who will talk? Who will stay silent? 

And what does the future hold for Helen Van Dale?

Part II will appear the week of July 29, 2019.

(posted by Amy D.)



  • United States Census Records, Marriage Records, and World War I Draft Card information found on Ancestry.Com
  • The Rock Island Argus, Rock Island, Illinois. December 26, 1914. Pg. 12
  • The Daily Times, Davenport, Iowa. May 17, 1915. Pg. 4
  • The Rock Island Argus, Rock Island, Illinois. July 21, 1915. Pg. 5
  • The Rock Island Argus, Rock Island, Illinois. June 26, 1918. Pg. 5
  • The Daily Times, Davenport, Iowa. April 3, 1919. Pg. 16.
  • The Rock Island Argus, Rock Island, Illinois. March 10, 1919. Pg. 3
  • The Rock Island Argus, Rock Island, Illinois. May 10, 1919. Pg. 16
  • The Daily Times, Davenport, Iowa. February 5, 1921. Pg. 16
  • The Davenport Democrat, August 1, 1922. Pg. 1
Posted in Genealogy, Local History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mr. Feeney and Fireworks: The Prince of Punk

Dazzling displays of pyrotechnics symbolize the sense of exuberance and patriotism felt on the fourth of July, also known as Independence Day. One family helped ensure the children and families of the Quad Cities celebrated with a colorful bang! In 1898, John A. Feeney established a grocery store called Feeney’s Grocery which had several locations throughout its history. During the early days of his business, Mr. Feeney sold fireworks alongside the produce and dry goods.

Mr. John A. Fenney photographed by J.B. Hostetler ca. 1912

In 1927, Mr. Feeney saw an opportunity to grow the fireworks section of his business by renting empty store fronts in Davenport and Rock Island for the month around July 4th. He stocked his stores with a delightful array of firecrackers including: roman candles, lady fingers, Vesuvius fountains, and more. Mr. Feeney’s four sons: Herbert, John Jr., Loras, and Harold, also known as Pete,  helped their father at the various fireworks stores selling the fireworks to the eager children and making sure that the stores were protected from fire starters. The risk of fire loomed over a store packed with explosives, but there was only one close call that was quickly swept out the door. 

“Mr. Firecracker.” The Quad City Times, July 4, 2004.

Feeney’s Grocery garnered the communities affection even more by offering the first 200 children a free bag of  firecrackers including: “a sky rocket, a Roman candle, a package of Attaboy fire crackers, and a punk” on their opening day (Wundrum, “The Prince of Punk”).  Some may be wondering what a punk is—a punk is a smouldering stick used to light fireworks. It looks like a tiny cattail. For children who wish to celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks, this is a safer alternative than burning the tips of their fingers.

The joyous celebrations of lighting off your own fireworks display lasted until Janurary 1, 1938, when a law prohibiting the sale of certain fireworks was passed.  The law also provided a caveat which “only allows fireworks displays by municipalities, fair associations, amusement parks or other organziations with the permission city, town, or township authorities” (“Iowa Law Forbids Fireworks Without City or Town O.K., The Daily Times, 8).  For the citizens of Davenport, this changed how they celebrated this national holiday.

“Iowa Law Forbids Fireworks Without City or Town O.K.” The Daily Times, June 24, 1938.

Although this law probihited the sale and use of fireworks, it did not prevent the community members of the Quad Cities from remembering the Feeney’s and their fireworks stores.  One of the contributing factors for enacting this was the devasting fire that burnt down most of the city of Remsen, Iowa in 1936. It started when a fireworks stand exploded.

Arpy, Jim. “Who can Forget the Feeneys and their Fireworks Stores?” Times-Democrat, July 4, 1965.

Slideshow of fireworks advertisements:

Feeney’s Grocery was last located at 422 Brady Street and closed its doors in February 1970. Its history and legacy of fond memories of firework displays are remembered by all its customers.

Wishing you all a Happy Independence Day! 

(posted by Kathryn and Cristina)

Posted in Local History | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Davenport’s First Police Matron: Annie E. Davis

130 years ago this week, Davenport City Council hired Miss Annie E. Davis from Chicago, Illinois to be the first police matron for the city. On June 26, 1889, Miss Davis arrived in Davenport on an early morning train and immediately was shown to City Hall to be sworn in by Mayor Earnest Claussen.

By late morning she was already at work.

The Davenport Democrat Gazette, June 26, 1889. Pg. 1

The role of police matrons had begun in larger cities across the United States in the 1880s as part of an ongoing national reform movement. Police matrons worked in police stations and houses of detention with women and children brought in for various illegal activities such as prostitution or pick-pocketing. Others in their care had become homeless or suffered from alcoholism. For the first time, women and children were separated from male prisoners and placed under the care of female police matrons who not only took care of their physical needs while in custody but also worked to find safer situations for those who wished to leave the lives they were living behind.

Many of Davenport’s social organizations and charities had worked for months to bring a police matron onto the Davenport Police Force. This was considered an experiment by many in the community. Would this reform approach work in Davenport? Only time would tell.

Police Matron Record, June 26, 1889 – Dec. 30, 1896. First page of Police Matron record written by Annie E. Davis with women brought in to her care.

Little has been known of Annie E. Davis in our records, but through research and luck, we finally have learned a little about her life.

Anne E. Davis (referred to as Annie in newspaper accounts and documents) was born March 17, 1855, in Cincinnati, Ohio to John and Mary Davis who had immigrated a few years earlier from Wales. The 1860 United States Census lists Annie as living on a farm in Madison, Jackson County, Ohio with her parents and three brothers. The 1870 United States Census lists Annie living with her parents still in Madison, Ohio on a farm. Another brother and sister had been born into the family during the early 1860s.

By 1880, Annie and her family moved to Madison, Jefferson County, Indiana. Annie was 25 and unmarried in the census record, which was not extremely uncommon for a woman her age during this time period. Many young men died during the Civil War and those who survived or were too young to join had begun leaving the settled areas of the mid-west to go further westward to cheaper land and new opportunities. Many women of Annie’s age may have struggled to find suitors. These factors, or a lack of interest in marriage, left her as a single adult female in her parents’ household. 

We learn through genealogical research that Annie’s mother dies in 1882 and her father in 1883. Around this time, Annie moves from Indiana to Chicago, Illinois to live with extended family and becomes a police matron at the Des Plaines Street Station for the Chicago Police Department. 

A great deal of Annie’s work background comes from two newspaper articles published around the time of her hiring by The Davenport Democrat Gazette (June 26, 1889. Pg. 1) and The Morning Democrat (June 27, 1889. Pg. 4). The newspapers describe a well-built woman of about 35 years of age who talked about her previous job of several years with the Chicago Police Department and her efforts at reform with women and children. The one thing she noticed about Davenport was its lack of a house of detention for only women and children. When she was hired, women and children would be kept in the same general area as men.

By October 1889, a house of detention for women and children had been created at 124 W. 5th Street. Once home to Company B of the United States Army, the building was given to the city and renovated to not only house women and children in three rooms with bunks, but to serve as stables for police horses and wagons as well (it would later be known as the Ambulance Barn).  Police Matron Davis had living quarters in the building as well. She was paid $50 a month to live onsite and was available 24 hours a day. The average salary listed for male police officers in the Davenport Police Department roll call books during this time was $55 a month.

The Davenport Democrat, March 14, 1892. Pg. 2.

Police Matron Davis’ duties were largely confined to the house of detention and court appearances. She was not considered a female police officer nor was she expected to patrol. Newspaper accounts would sometimes heap praise on her work while other times critique it strongly. The question that always surfaced, it appeared, was trying to reform these women and children actually working?

The Davenport Democrat, April 7, 1891.

In May 1893, a movement began in City Council to try to reduce the police matron’s salary from $50 a month to $25 dollars to save money. Annie Davis still lived in her quarters attached to the house of detention and was considered on duty 24 hours a day. This motion by some in council failed to pass.

We do not know if the attempt to reduce her salary was a factor, but on May 28, 1893, Annie E. Davis resigned as Police Matron of Davenport, Iowa effective May 29, 1893.

The Morning Democrat, May 28, 1893. Pg. 1.

The newspaper articles seemed to indicate regret at her leaving her position. All that was known was she had no position awaiting her and she returned by train to the train Station on Des Plaines Street in Chicago. It was assumed she was going to stay with family.

For many years our hunt for what happened to Annie E. Davis ended with these last newspaper accounts in May 1893. All we knew of Annie came from local newspaper articles during her service. She was a single woman of about 35 years old who came from Chicago, Illinois and returned there after she left Davenport in 1893.

Annie Davis – we quickly learned was a very common name in Chicago, Illinois in the 1880s and 1890s. So very common.

It wasn’t until a staff member came across an item in The Morning Democrat from May 25, 1892, on page 4 that we had our break in research.

The Morning Democrat, May 25, 1892. Pg. 4.

Annie E. Davis had a sister married to an Elmer Scott from Madison, Wisconsin. We quickly searched census records of Madison, Wisconsin to find no Elmer Scott listed. Not one.

Knowing local newspapers frequently made mistakes with names and places listed under the personal items, we expanded our search to nearby states. With luck, we finally found the connection. Mrs. Elmer Scott of Madison, Indiana was born Emma Davis in 1860. She was Annie Davis’ younger sister.

Once this connection was made, we finally learned what happened to Annie E. Davis, the first Police Matron for the Davenport Police Department.

After leaving Davenport, she did return to her extended family in Chicago, Illinois. In the 1900 United States Census, Annie E. Davis is living with her aunt, Annie Francis, who ran a boarding house in Chicago. No job is listed for Annie E., but she may have been assisting her aunt with managing the boarding house.

By 1910, the United States Census shows Annie E. living with her sister and her family in Madison, Indiana. Emma Davis Scott passed away on June 23, 1910, from typhoid fever.

Annie remained living with her brother-in-law and helped raise her sister’s children until her death on October 18, 1913. Her obituary in The Madison Daily Herald (Madison, Indiana Pg. 4) on October 18, 1913, mentions an illness of five months preceded her death.

Annie E. Davis was buried in Springdale Cemetery in Madison, Jefferson County, Indiana near her sister Emma and parents.

The position of police matron did not end when Annie E. Davis resigned in May 1893. Mrs. Sarah Hill was the next police matron from July 24, 1893, until November 1, 1920. Miss Tillie Boettcher became the third police matron from November 1, 1920, through May 15, 1948. Both Mrs. Hill and Miss Boettcher lived in Annie E. Davis’ living quarters at the house of detention and maintained the same 24-hour duty as she did.

With the retirement of Tillie Boettcher in 1948, the position of police matron was ended in the Davenport Police Department and the house of detention at 124 W. 5th Street closed. Modern facilities and services made the position of matron and the house of detention obsolete.  

It was an experiment in social reform that began on June 26, 1889, with Miss Annie E. Davis during a time when many women and children were overcome by their life circumstances. It is amazing to see the dedication of Miss Davis, Mrs. Hill, and Miss Boettcher had to helping others.

(posted by Amy D.)

Posted in Genealogy, Local History | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Davenport Transport: A Journey Down Memory Lane

This past Tuesday evening, June 18th, local historian and collector Merle Vastine treated the audience at the Main Street library to stories inspired by selection of images from his vast private collection as part of “True Tales of the Quad Cities: Photographic Memories.” His presentation focused on various modes of transportation in Davenport’s past, including autos, railways, streetcars, steamboats, firetrucks, and horse-and-buggy delivery vehicles. Mr. Vastine has graciously granted us permission to share the slideshow of images here on our blog.  Enjoy, and stay tuned for his next visit to the DPL!

Don’t forget that the RSSC Center’s own Photograph Collection includes approximately 60,000 images of Davenport, Scott County and Quad-City area people and places, many of which may be viewed online via the Upper Mississipi Valley Digital Image Archive. Our staff is always available to help you!

Posted in Library, Local History | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Museum Week: German American Heritage Center

This year’s Quad Cities Museum Week runs from June 8th through the 16th. Participating institutions have special activities, exhibits, and promotions during the week.

One participating museum, the German American Heritage Center, is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year. They were incorporated on August 4, 1994.

Their mission:

“The German American Heritage Center seeks to preserve the heritage of our German ancestors for present and future generations, to enrich our knowledge of the German Immigrant experience through the creation of a library archives and museum, and to encourage German American cultural exchange programs”

Signers of the Articles of Incorporation:

Scharlott Goettsch Blevins, Kory Darnall, Michael Hustedde, James Stelk, Shirley Glover, Rose Marie Rivera, Michael Hibbs, Fred Jansen, Arlene Vogel Phillips, Richard Muller, Wayne Jens, Glenn Sievers, and Robert Voelcker. 

Soon after they purchased a building at 712 W 2nd Street to use as a museum. Built in 1868, this hotel for new German immigrants was first called the “Germania House”. In 1876 it was purchased by John Fredrich Miller and renamed the “Miller Hotel”. In  1924 the name changed to the “Standard Hotel”. The upper floors of the building were used as hotel rooms while the first floor housed restaurants and bars over the years. The basement even was home to a barber shop in the early days of the hotel business. The hotel closed in 1990.

The museum opened in the first floor of their new home on May 27th, 2000. They added a gift shop the following year. An elevator was needed so that the rest of the building could be restored and used by the public.

2019 also marks the 10th anniversary of their interactive permanent exhibit, “The German Immigrant Experience”, which opened on the second floor of the building on October 3rd, 2009. 

Visit their website gahc.org for information on current exhibits, tours, and events!

These are membership brochures from our collection:

And here is a sampling of issues of their quarterly newsletter, Infoblatt:

The German-American Heritage Center will also be the host location for the Quad Cities Archives Fair to be held on October 26, 2019:


Infoblatt 21, no. 1 (Spring 2019)
Infoblatt 14, no. 4 (Fall 2009)
Infoblatt 6, no. 3 (Summer 2001)
Willard, John. “Willkommen! German American Heritage Center unveils museum”, Quad-City Times (May 23, 2000)
“The journey of the German American Heritage Center”, Quad-City Times (September 27, 2009)


Posted in Local History | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

75th Anniversary of Invasion of Normandy

June 6, 1944, marks an important turning point for the Allied powers in the European Theatre. 75 years ago the beaches of Normandy were host to thousands of armed forces from the United States, Britain, and Canadian tasked with defeating the German forces. D-Day is the more common appellation of the amphibious invasion of France also known as Operation Overlord.  

With this anniversary, we remember the soldiers who fought in this battle. In 2014, we showcased oral history conducted by Special Collections of World War II veterans. These men and women featured in this blog tell of their D-Day stories. We would like to share these memories with the community again.

In Their Own Words: D-Day

 On June 12th at 6 PM at The Library | Eastern, the Army Sustainment Command will be presenting the history of Invasion of Europe 75th Anniversary & Battle of Normandy. All are welcome to come to this event.

Helps us to celebrate this day in history by reading the blog mentioned above or attending this presentaiton. 

Posted in Local History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment