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Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010 05:55 am

The deadly adventures of a southern Illinois gangster

Dapper and Deadly: The True Story of Black Charlie Harris, by Taylor Pensoneau. Downstate Publications, 258 pp. $18.95. Available in Springfield at Barnes
During the Prohibition Era of speakeasies, swanky gangsters and machine gun massacres, Illinois was home to some of the most powerful and respected figures in the underworld. When it comes to Illinois bootleggers, most people think of Al Capone in Chicago, but the rest of the state had its own collection of criminal figures who made names for themselves flouting the law – men who seemed to have no qualms about killing to protect their territory, reputation and honor.

Among them was Charles Bryan Harris, a southern Illinois native whose fate was intertwined with the infamous Shelton Gang. In a new book published earlier this year titled Dapper and Dangerous: The True Story of Black Charlie Harris, author Taylor Pensoneau of New Berlin tells Harris’ story, from his “Jekyll and Hyde” personality to his mysterious alleged involvement in numerous murders spanning 1947 to 1964. When Pensoneau published his previous book, Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons, chronicling the Sheltons’ lives and legacies, readers requested that Pensoneau flesh out the character of Charlie Harris as introduced in that book. Dapper and Dangerous is the result.

Born June 26, 1896, Harris grew up in Wayne County, near the county seat of Fairfield. He was a childhood acquaintance of Carl, Earl and Bernie Shelton, the brothers behind the Shelton Gang that practically dominated the state’s bootlegging operations outside of St. Louis and Chicago for much of the Prohibition Era. The Sheltons would give Harris his first real taste of the gangster life, but their association would eventually sour.

Harris was always known as the “black sheep” of the family, Pensoneau writes, and he would often skip school to work the family farm or get in some sort of trouble. Harris’ first marriage in 1915 ended the next year when he left his wife and newborn child for Arizona. There he worked in construction and did odd jobs for a while before his first major brush with the law. One day, as Harris was visiting “a notorious woman” in a house of ill-repute, two Phoenix police officers attempted to arrest Harris and the woman. Harris stabbed one of the officers and was later convicted and sentenced to a term of two to six years in prison. It would be the first of four prison terms Harris would serve in his life, but he would dodge many more convictions in the coming years.

After his release from prison in Arizona, Harris moved to Detroit and allegedly began working for the Shelton Gang as a bootlegger. But when a shipment of whiskey was busted by the feds, and Harris learned that the Sheltons had apparently given him counterfeit money to make the buy, he took it as a betrayal. He went back to prison for possessing counterfeit money, and the perceived slight at the hands of the Sheltons “stuck in his craw,” Pensoneau writes. That grudge would eventually erupt into violence, the author notes. But first, Harris would serve another prison term – this time for a parole violation that may not even have been his fault.

Returning to Wayne County, Harris became a suspect in the murder of Carl Shelton, as well as the attempted murder of Earl Shelton and several other members of their gang. He reportedly took on the role of protector to local farmers and shopkeepers who grew agitated at the Sheltons’ protection racket, perhaps explaining why Harris never lacked an alibi from corroborating witnesses when police came around asking questions about a machine gun murder, bombing or arson.

In the end, it wasn’t Harris’ feud with the Sheltons that would land him behind bars for a fourth time. Instead, a case of unrequited love in 1964 apparently stoked Harris’ fiery rage, prompting him to murder his crush and her platonic male companion by shooting them in the head, then burning their bodies in a vacant house. He fled the state and lived in the shadows for 10 months before returning to Wayne County, apparently to turn himself in. He was convicted of murdering Betty Newton and Jerry Meritt and served 16 years in prison before his release in February 1981. He died June 20, 1988, in Elkhart, Kan.

Dapper and Dangerous is probably best suited for those who remember hearing as kids the stories of Black Charlie Harris. Pensoneau’s writing style is folksy, if a little antiquated, and younger readers may be turned off by his sometimes puzzling organization and roundabout way of getting down to details. Extremely well-researched, this book offers a fascinating and intimate view of an enigmatic man and the times in which he lived.

Pensoneau’s publishing company, Downstate Publications, can be found at www.downstatepublications.com.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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