The Outfit’s Downstate Boss
2. The Rise of the Wortman Gang
By 1944, the new Wortman gang — a franchise of the Outfit — began to really begin flexing its muscles. They first moved in on East Side gambling clubs. The gang’s second-in-command, Blackie Armes, was killed that year in a shootout at a tavern in Herrin, Illinois. During the shootout, Armes and his bodyguard shot his killer to death.
It was at this time that Wortman brought in another Shelton gangster, Charles “Black Charlie” Harris, also a Fairfield resident and childhood friend of the Shelton brothers. The two became fast friends in Leavenworth, where they had reportedly been cellmates at one point. Harris, too, had grown to despise the Sheltons and agreed to help Wortman plot their demise.
Wortman’s top lieutenant for a time after Armes was killed was former Egan gangster Frank “Cotton” Eppelsheimer. Then, in 1945, Elmer “Dutch” Dowling, a gangster who became a war hero and spent time in a German POW camp after beating an attempted murder case (assault with intent to kill a prosecution witness against another gangster), came home and signed up with the Wortman gang. Half-brother Edward “Ted” Wortman was also a trusted member of the gang.
After the end of World War II, the Wortman gang moved in on the local race wire. They also helped the Outfit take over the race wire in Kansas City, sending Cotton Eppelsheimer west across Missouri with a contingent of other St. Louis and Chicago hoods to muscle the wire service provider there.
The Wortman gang branched out, spreading their tentacles across Southern Missouri and Southern Illinois. They first targeted for extortion the illegal gambling clubs in Pulaski and Alexander counties, the two southernmost counties in Illinois. The gang’s calling cards were bullets and bombs.
It was Charlie Harris who helped Wortman take on the Shelton brothers, once and for all.
Carl Shelton was mowed down by gunmen on the outskirts of Fairfield in 1947.
Less than a year later, in 1948, a sniper took down Bernie Shelton outside his tavern on the outskirts of Peoria.
Other attempts were made on the lives of Earl Shelton, a Shelton nephew, a Shelton brother-in-law, a Shelton sister, and other Shelton family members and loyalists clear into 1951, but Wortman’s job was completed after Carl and Bernie Shelton were dead.
Most believe Harris was responsible for the mayhem following Bernie Shelton’s murder. He ran wild in Wayne County shooting Sheltons and blowing up and burning down their property like a crazed maniac. He was the Mad Hatter of the Southern Illinois underworld.
Wortman gave Harris most of Southern Illinois as his territory, especially Wayne and Williamson counties. He could do what he pleased in his territory — even if a lot of what he was doing was senseless, attention-grabbing violence.
One of the most ruthless, notorious killers in Southern Illinois history, before he went away to prison for the last time in 1966 to serve 15 years for a double murder, the FBI suspected Harris had been involved in more than 30 murders over the course of more than 30 years.
It was in 1948 following Bernie Shelton’s death that Wortman effectively took over all Shelton territory for the Outfit. Cotton Eppelsheimer died of a brain injury days after this murder. After that, Dutch Dowling served as Wortman’s undisputed second-in-command.
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