Looney may have died, but his story lives on

Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2013, 6:00 am
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By Roger Ruthhart
The funny thing about history is that no matter how hard you try to change it, the past remains. That is something Rock Island has learned when it comes to John Looney and the wild, lawless days of yesteryear.

First there was the movie "Road to Perdition" with Paul Newman and Tom Hancks. Then the book I helped write, "Citadel of Sin: the John Looney Story." Last week, cable TV's The Dead Files was in town filming an episode for the series which is the highest-rated show on The Travel Channel. It airs here Friday nights at 9 p.m.

The show offers a unique blend of sleuthing to try and discover what might be causing strange things to happen -- usually in a home or business.

Amy Allen is a medium who walks through the property to detect any spirits that may be residing there and try to figure out why.

Her partner, Steve DiSchiavi, is a retired New York City homicide detective who probes history and uses his investigative skills to try and find reasons why the same things are happening.

They do their work independently and often uncover information that, when put together, explains what is going on. In the end, they come together with the property owner to present a sometimes-terrifying conclusion.
If you believe in the spirit world, it's an awesome show; if not, it is still entertaining.

Last week they visited a homeowner who has been having strange things happening in their house in south Rock Island.

Where the Looney story comes into play is that the home was built on land once owned by the notorious gangster. While there is no apparent tie between the home and Looney and his gang, that doesn't seem to matter.
Producer Brian Kniffel explained that, according to Ms. Allen, spirits don't have to have lived in the building, but the land has to be important to them to attract them. That makes the site -- once part of Looney's farm and his rural citadel of sin -- open to almost anyone who enjoyed life, or perhaps died out there.

Richard Hamer and I, co-authors of "Citadel," were called in to share what we know about John Looney and possible ties to the property. I loaded them down with some other potential contacts with historical knowledge of the area, in case spirits of a different sort were found residing in this home.

This area of town was originally settled by William Carr. Before that it was home to the Sauk Indians and other native Americans for many generations before that dating back to man's first arrival 13,000 years ago. Since then, many different civilizations have lived and hunted along the Rock River. Their burial mounds provide an every-day reminder of these earlier civilizations.
The segment is tentatively scheduled to run in mid-April, but watch our paper for more details.

No spoiler alert needed here: I have no idea what they found and how the final show will come together. I was interviewed by Mr. DiSchiavi and the crew as, I'm sure, others were.

If I were a betting man, my money would be on the spirits of the Native Americans -- especially the most recent, the Sauk, who settled at Saukenuk. They believe the spirit world is always present and that when people die, their spirits are still here. That is why they oppose the excavation of burial mounds and other sites where their ancestors were laid to rest.

I'm not sure why Looney would have an interest in a home that was built after his death, but gangsters certainly make better TV than ancient natives.
During one of his trials, Helen Van Dale, his Queen of the Prostitutes, testified that once when she threatened him, Looney told her he was invincible.

"He said he couldn't be killed, that the devil protected him. He told me to turn out the lights and stand over by the switch, and if his shoes were not wet, he'd light up the room," Mrs. Van Dale testified, as reported in "Citadel of Sin."

Why the spirits of John Looney and his gang wouldn't go straight to hell instead of hanging around to bother people I can't imagine. But then I'm not well versed in how spirits make their decisions.

Hopefully Amy Allen will clear that all up when the show airs. Until then, if you happen to see a shadowy Marmon roadster coming at you out of the mist, you might want to pull over and let it pass -- just in case.
Roger Ruthhart is managing editor of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus. He can be reached at rruthhart@qconline.com.


Local events heading

  Today is Monday, July 28, the 209th day of 2014. There are 156 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: Port Byron passengers and mails will be transported by the Sterling and Rock Island railroad.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The congregation of the First Methodist church worshiped in Harper's theater, where construction work is being done at the church site.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Three-eye baseball for Moline was assured the Danville Franchise will be transferred to the Plow city.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Roseville Methodist Church is observing its 100th anniversary.
1964 -- 50 years ago: The last remaining unfinished portion of Interstate 80 between the Quad-Cities and Joliet will be opened to traffic by Aug 12.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Of all the highlights of the last 12 years, this is the greatest of all, said Dennis Hitchcock, producer director of Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, as he torched the mortgage, clearing a $220,000 loan financing the downtown Rock Island theater's beginnings in 1977.

(More History)