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The King of Rock Island

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Most cities in the United States feel slightly un-American if they can't boast at least one outlaw or crook of some stature, a Capone or a Jesse James.

Rock Island, Illinois, was fortunate; it had John Looney. Looney arrived in Rock Island in 1895 to work as a telegraph operator for Western Union. A typically ambitious American, he studied law on his own, was admitted to the bar, acquired several powerful business associates. Then he ran for the Illinois State Legislature as a Democrat—and lost.

Perhaps it was this loss that turned him against society. He was involved in minor skirmishes with the law until, in 1905, he found his most potent weapon: journalism. Looney began publishing The Rock Island News. He used his paper to blackmail local citizens who were threatened with exposure in the paper if they didn’t pay a fee.

Journalism soon gave Looney and a growing gang of followers control of most illegal activities in Rock Island: prostitution, extortion, gambling, and when prohibition came, booze.

Soon Looney controlled even the police, but all this power meant enemies, who grew increasingly bold.  After World War I, whenever he and his gang were in town, there was a citizen's curfew because of the danger.

Then, in the summer of 1922, Looney went the inevitable step too far. A prominent enemy, Bill Gabel, was gunned down as he was getting out of his car. Enough, cried the people of Rock Island. The following October, his emboldened enemies engaged in a shootout with Looney in the town square by the Sherman House. Looney escaped, but his son, Connor, was killed.

Looney fled to New Mexico, where he was found in 1925, and brought back to be tried, convicted, and sent to prison for the murder of Bill Gabel.

Since then, Rock Island has kept alive the legend of John Looney, the King of Rock Island. But, at a price.  The shadow of John Looney still depresses Rock Island real estate values, and the city itself must try twice as hard as its neighbors to get any respect.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.