Reform This Town!

When Marie Pryor moved to Peoria in the mid-’30s, the brothel business was not a risky business. Peoria’s red-light district was booming, and vice of all kinds was protected through an elaborate network of palm-greasing that connected brothels and casinos to the city’s aldermen and mayor. But organized vice soon came under assault: by 1953, when Richard was honing his comic skills in middle-school classrooms, Peoria’s reformers had triumphed and changed the city dramatically. Gangsters and racketeers had been all but driven out, politics “cleaned up,” and the red-light district demolished — forcing the Pryors to relocate and rethink their livelihoods.

Sin City vs. The Spirit of Reform

Through the 1930s, Peoria’s citizens tended to embrace its reputation as a “wide open” or “liberal” town, a “city of high spirits” that welcomed visitors with a glad hand. During Prohibition, Peorians had leaned by a margin of 20 to 1 for repeal. The face of wide open Peoria was longtime Mayor Ed Woodruff, who drew on Peoria’s working-class “valley” for his votes and proclaimed proudly that “we are what we are around here.”

At the same time, there had always been those who disagreed strongly with Woodruff and had long fought to change both the city’s image and its political reality. For Peoria’s reformers — a group populated by churchgoers, middle-class aspirants, and businessmen from the city’s bigger enterprises — this meant they had to get rid of the brothels and slot machines as well as the aldermen, mayors and police officers who had arrived at an accommodation with such businesses. But the reformers’ ambitions did not end there. In the long tradition of American Progressivism, the reformers wanted not only to drive corruption and graft out of town, but also to make city politics nonpartisan. Reformers drew back from the brawl, hustle, and deal-making of urban politics — what they called “bossism”. They wanted government to be professionalized and run by experts. The management of their city, they thought, should be rational and efficient.

The Reform Coalition Gains New Partners

The onset of World War II began to tilt the scales in favor of reform. Pressure from the military during the war to address the spread of venereal diseases lent strength to the cause of reform. And returning GIs with middle-class aspirations had a very different vision of what their city could be, and joined the reformers in droves.

The first major wave of reform swept the city in 1945 when the “bluff,” Peoria’s wealthier area, mobilized to oust Ed Woodruff after his eleventh term as Mayor. Their reform candidates promised to take on the gangs running Peoria’s most infamous rackets. Aided by internal gang warfare and the broader reform of Illinois’s legal institutions, reformers drove many of the larger gangs from the city by the early 1950s. But not without blowback: Peoria’s reform-oriented Mayor and District Attorney both had their homes bombed and their lives threatened.

The Triumph of Reform

In 1953 the reform movement succeeded in rewriting the rules of Peoria’s municipal government. The city’s business and civic leaders organized under the banner of Peorians for Council-Manager (PCM) and successfully campaigned to replace the alderman system with a new city council and professional city manager. While claiming to be a politically neutral organization, the PCM effectively broke the grip the valley had on the city’s political structures. Whereas elections played out on a ward-by-ward basis under the old aldermanic system, the new council was elected on a citywide scale — with the result that the bluff could largely dictate the direction of the city’s government. With their newly solidified political hold on the city, the reformers continued to clamp down on vice and closed the chapter on “Roarin’ Peoria” once and for all.

The reformers were so successful in changing the national image of Peoria that it was named an “All-American City” by Look magazine and the National Municipal League. But the PCM also had overreached. The working-class valley started to question the “nonpartisan” facade of the PCM. Unhappy with ceding so much power to what increasingly seemed a political party for the city’s business class, Peorians voted all of the PCM candidates out of office in 1955.

By the late-’50s, reformers had won the war if not every battle. The new council system remained in place. The old slot machines were gone and not coming back. The brothel business was a fraction — one-fifth the size — of its former self. When Marie Pryor’s son Buck ran brothels in the 1960s, he struggled to keep his business hidden, and faced criminal prosecution as his mother never had.

Police padlock a brothel in the early-1950s