1919–1941: “Roarin’ Peoria”

When Marie Pryor relocated her family from Decatur, Illinois in the early-1930s, she landed in “Roarin’ Peoria,” a city that had become famous for its stubborn resistance to moral reform. During the Prohibition Era, the city’s informal motto was “Sin Is Here to Stay.” “I had my share of reforming,” declared longtime mayor Ed Woodruff, who served in the position for twenty-four years and set the tone in the city. “It was all right, but it didn’t work.”

An Outlier During Prohibition and After

In 1919 the 18th amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcohol, aroused nothing short of righteous indignation on the part of Peorians; by a margin of 20 to 1, Peorians opposed it. At the time, Peoria had the largest whiskey distillery in America, and its citizens came together to protect their local industry and retool it. Incredibly, federal agents who raided Peoria’s speakeasies during Prohibition were themselves recommended for indictment by a Peoria grand jury, which decried the “dry terrorism” of the government.

In the Woodruff Era, a whole range of illicit pleasures were protected by arrangement with the city. Prostitutes were licensed and ostensibly given regular health exams, and madams were well-known public figures. Slot machines could be found in drug stores, and more elaborate gambling establishments were at the center of the city’s nightlife.

While many Peorians, of course, kept their distance from the city’s casinos and brothels, the city developed askew from other mid-size Midwestern cities. For one thing, it had a divorce rate double the US average — a phenomenon that inspired considerable number-crunching and sociological analysis from one local scholar.

Diamond Lil, a madam who ran a black-and-tan resort in the "good old Woodruff days"