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Dev-Lin illegal gambling house flourished in 1930s just outside Chicago

Casino and Gambling IndustryIllinois GovernorJustice SystemLocal GovernmentExecutive Branch

"This vice is hard to remedy. It grows out of the restlessness and excitement of man, and prevails most where such restlessness and excitement are strongest. Every one understands its horrid effects; none better than the victims to it. Yet, when it takes possession of the mind, it makes man a mad man — cursing him with an agony which no language can describe. The law seems powerless against it. Now and then, impulsive movements are made by officials in cities, and the hells are broken up, and their inmates scattered. But a lull comes, and in that these hells are re-opened and quickly filled."

This Tribune editorial about gambling was published April 19, 1856, but it could have run in 1956 or any decade in between. The editorial writer described the scourge in almost biblical terms even as he wrote what amounted to a prophecy of how anti-gambling efforts would roll out over the next 125 years.

The pattern became very familiar. A new mayor or sheriff or governor was elected. He announced that he wouldn't tolerate gambling of any sort. Raids followed, along with the big, bold, banner headlines. Maybe there was a photo of a cop taking a sledgehammer to a slot machine. Time passed. Inexplicably, the raids stopped or the prosecution faltered. And the gambling continued. A trip through the Tribune archives shows the pattern repeated at least once a decade, sometimes two or three times in 10 years.

Much of that changed when the state introduced the lottery in 1974 and legalized riverboat casino gambling in 1990. But as the General Assembly considers gambling expansion this session because Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed the last attempt saying it lacked ample regulatory muscle, the history of illegal gaming in Illinois reared its head.

A search of the Tribune's archives revealed one illegal casino in particular that seemed to illustrate how such an operation thrived in Illinois.

It was May 1935, and Chicago was in the midst of another crackdown. For two months, city and county police had been making life difficult for gamblers, particularly handbook operators betting on the horses, everywhere in Cook County. Everywhere, that is, except Tessville. (It would be renamed Lincolnwood later that year.) The Hide Away sat just outside the Chicago city limits at Lincoln and Devon avenues, and as a Tribune story on May 19, 1935, reported, business was so brisk at the multibuilding casino that three guards were out on Lincoln directing traffic. The big draw, attracting some 500 bettors, was the horse-race action in the backroom, but others enjoyed roulette, stud poker and slots. County police, however, "reported at the end of a hard afternoon of anti-gambling enforcement that they could find no violations," the Tribune pointedly remarked.

That poke in the eye was enough to get The Hide Away shut down (permanently, vowed police) the very day the Tribune reported business was flourishing.

It didn't stay closed. On Aug. 25, the Tribune ran a story that the joint was running "wide open" again under the new name Dev-Lin. But what got everybody's attention were the three candid blockbuster photos — shot secretly by a Tribune photographer — of men and women eagerly playing dice and roulette and betting on the horses. The story reported more than 600 people were jammed into the gaming emporium, and a fourth photo showed a packed parking lot outside.

The story pulled no punches, written in a tone that was nearly gleeful: "The highway police have reported that there are no gambling violations in their territory. Strangely enough, they don't seem to be able to get to the Dev-Lin while the gambling is in progress. The resort is operating day and night."

The result again was immediate, though this time, the Tribune said, it was the "Chicago gambling syndicate" that shut it down and "sat back to await developments."

So began a game where Tribune reporters would ask various officials why gambling joints operated unmolested in Tessville, and officials would make various excuses, ranging from ignorance of the problem to being too busy handling traffic accidents. The gambling continued.

So what was going on here? The Tribune connected the dots. Dev-Lin, reported as tiny Tessville's biggest industry, was one of a number of casinos run by Bill Johnson, a well-known figure in "the field of politics and a close friend of (Cook County) Sherif John Toman."

Another story described Johnson as "an honest gambler" and a "gambling king," who worked for years in Chicago before being forced to the city's border. The Tribune said that "he was associated politically with the late Mayor Anton Cermak and the late Moe Rosenberg, a Democratic ward committeeman."

Simply put, the Dev-Lin was "immune from interference." It would appear to remain so until at least 1939. That's when the illegal gambling issue was finally brought before a Cook County grand jury that took it seriously. The grand jury raked the sheriff and other officials over the coals and released a withering report of its investigation that blasted the sham raids and the "practice of passing the buck between policing bodies" that allowed gambling to flourish.

The next year, the U.S. attorney went after Johnson, charging him with income tax evasion. During the trial, he was closely linked with not only Toman, but also Cook County State's Attorney Thomas Courtney, Mayor Edward Kelly, Democratic Party boss Patrick Nash and multiple aldermen.

Johnson was convicted on all counts in October 1940, failing to report nearly $2.8 million in income. (That's more than $45 million in inflation-adjusted 2013 dollars.) He served just half of a five-year prison sentence.

But how does this story end? Very appropriately. On Christmas Eve 1952, President Harry Truman granted Johnson, the former overlord of Chicago gambling and convicted tax cheat, a full pardon. Johnson lived out his days on a large estate on Butterfield Road near Glen Ellyn.

sbenzkofer@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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