“Kelly” Wagle – The Bootlegger

During Prohibition of the 1920s and ’30s, Chicago was the headquarters for the illicit bootlegger activity of mob boss Al Capone and his syndicate. Capone held a tight rein on any buying, selling or transporting of alcohol in a territory that reached south of Peoria and further. “Kelly” Wagle of Colchester, known as the most notorious man in McDonough County, supplied most of the hard liquor sold in the county and nearby areas. Wagle was acquainted with Capone and smuggled liquor from Chicago to the region.

Thomas Henry Wagle was born on January 14, 1886, the third of six children, to Alice Walley and Arch Wagle from Colchester, Illinois. At the age of nine, he took the nickname “Killie” after Jake Kilrain, the fighter. The complexity of his character appears at a young age. He proves to be an intense competitor, have a violent temper, yet is generous, well liked and deeply attached to Colchester.

Wagle, like many bootleggers, was considered a sort of “Robin Hood.” While he was a known bootlegger, that was overlooked to a degree because he also did good deeds for the local people and helped to keep a lid on petty crime. But, he was also quite bold. One particular story details that in 1926 or 1927, the Christian Church in Colchester converted from coal to oil heat, leaving a large coal bin empty in the basement. Supposedly, Wagle acquired access to the bin and stored liquor there. Once the rumor got out, of course, the liquor was removed.

In 1921, when the bitter rivalry between the Colchester and Macomb city baseball teams heated up in a bid for the county championship, Wagle was responsible for a clever scheme. Just as the national headline grabbing “Trial of the Century,” involving eight Chicago White Sox players conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series, had drawn to a close, Colchester’s notorious bootlegger made a deal with the infamous “Black Sox” teammates, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte and Charles “Swede” Risberg, to play as ringers for Colchester.

Wagle was also apparently responsible for at least one murder himself, that of his second wife, who allegedly had betrayed him. Depending on how a person rated with Wagle, he “would do anything for you … or anything to you.”

On April 8, 1929 “Kelly” Wagle was shot and killed gangland style, or “with his boots on,” as it was called. Although his killer was never found, it was said that Wagle’s murder was most likely ordered by a rival gang.

McDonough County historian and author, Dr. John Hallwas documented the history of Wagle in his book The Bootlegger, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction and the National Book Award for Nonfiction.