Hamilton’s checkered ‘Little Chicago’ past: Gangsters, booze and John Dillinger

Editor’s note: This article, featuring insight from local historian Jim Blount, who died in 2017, was originally published on Aug. 22, 2009.

The nickname “Little Chicago” is not unique to this city.

Based on a quick Google search of the phrase and the word “nickname,” at least 16 other American towns and cities emerge that earned the same dubious distinction during the Prohibition Era, including four Ohio municipalities, Warren, Canton, Youngstown and Lima.

By far the foremost expert on Hamilton’s “Little Chicago” era is Jim Blount, local historian and former editor of the JournalNews.

Credit: Daggy, Nick

Credit: Daggy, Nick

Motivated by the stories he heard as a child in his dad’s bar, Blount said he began researching the topic as a teenager in 1952 and continued to conduct interviews and document evidence while working as a reporter. More than 20 years later, Blount wrote a series of articles in the Journal which became the backbone of his two-volume publication, “Little Chicago: A History of the Prohibition Era in Hamilton and Butler County, Ohio.”

MORE: Resident cites city's "Little Chicago" days in concern over new downtown drinking area

Blount said many residents weren’t happy that he dredged up Hamilton’s checkered past, but he added, corruption didn’t end with the legalization of beer sales.

“I saw what my dad went through in business,” Blount said. “He had slot machines in the basement, and he had to pay certain people to stay in business every week. A lot of things like that went on into the early 50s.”

A raid on South Second Street

Blount compiled what most would consider by today’s standards unbelievable accounts of gang wars that led to shootouts and bullet-riddled bodies being found on the outskirts of the city, murdered trial witnesses and car bombs exploding outside of speakeasies in the downtown area.

The cast of characters are among the worst in Hamilton’s history: Bob Zwick, gang leader and alleged killer; Lyman Williams, a leading bootlegger who boldly defied law enforcement with a bar on Court Street; and George “Fat” Wrassman, another leading bootlegger with a parlor on Court Street who was suspected and charged in several murders but never convicted.

Credit: Daggy, Nick

Credit: Daggy, Nick

But the most infamous and boldly defiant outlaw with links to the city was John Dillinger, about whom the HD-filmed biopic “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp, has grossed more than $173 million worldwide since its July 1 debut, according to The-Numbers.com.

Blount’s research indicates that the brazen bank robber and his gang used a hideout at a house on South Second Street in early October 1933. Around that time, Dillinger’s gang broke their leader out of a Lima jail, killing the sheriff in the process. From there, the outlaws are believed to have returned to Second Street where they felt safe from detection.

After receiving a tip as to Dillinger’s whereabouts, Indiana police joined local authorities on Oct. 16 and zeroed in on the location, but Dillinger and his crew had already fled.

“A lot of what people tried to tell me over the years has not panned out,” Blount said. “I heard Dillinger shot someone while he was here, but there were no murders during that brief time. It took a long time to sort things out.”

‘Bridge to the past’

Aside from Blount’s research, reels of microfilm of newspapers and the book “Debris of Destiny: The memoirs of John P. Loftus,” a former detective who worked as a rum-runner during the Depression, there seems to be little evidence that remains of Hamilton’s violent, lawless past.

Among the remnants are photos of Hamilton police officers who were killed in the line of duty between 1916 and 1938.

Slain officers Arthur Walke, George Lentz and Charles Stegemann can be seen in uniform with other officers in a souvenir book; Lentz and Stegemann also appear in an old black and white group photo that’s part of the Cummins Collection at the Lane Public Library.

And on the training room wall at the police department, an old photo shows officers toting “Tommy” guns out at the firing range.

Credit: Daggy, Nick

Credit: Daggy, Nick

No Hamilton police officers have been killed while on duty since 1938, said Chief Neil Ferdelman.

“We still talk about the police killings when we do training. That’s one of the things that’s still a bridge to the past,” Ferdelman said.

Recalling the days when his father, Robert Ferdelman, was on the force,

Ferdelman said he heard many lurid tales about the night clubs and speakeasies.

Back then, the goal among officers was to be the biggest and strongest and to be able to win a fight, he said.

“The town was kind of wide open back then. Things were a whole lot looser.”

But crime and corruption eventually went on the decline. By the time his father retired as a lieutenant in 1976, Ferdelman said a “police supervisor couldn’t fix a ticket.”

“In terms of integrity of the system here, I don’t see the type of favoritism that happened many years ago. There’s too many checks and balances in place and I think that’s great,” he said.

Contact this reporter at (513) 820-2122 or rwilson@coxohio.com.

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