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The true story of Black Charlie Harris: Dapper & Deadly
 By Gary Thomas

"When Charlie Harris went on trial for the murder of two Fairfield residents in 1965, a writer for “Master Detective,” a national
magazine that was covering the trial for that publication, summed up the killings as being a “drama of death by bullets and desecration by fire [that] included a former henchman of the infamous Shelton brothers; a sexy blonde with a husband, five children and two lovers; and a crazed vigilante mob bent on vengeance.”
That might have been a bit of overkill to sell magazines, but it nevertheless put Black Charlie Harris and tiny Fairfield, the
southern Illinois community where he lived, back in the national spotlight, a place he had been occupying since the 1930s.
I tend to be one of those “whatever happened to” kind of people. I don’t like loose ends, and I found that this book provided
closure to the southern Illinois gang wars and criminal activities that permeated from the 1920s into the 1960s in downstate Illinois. If that’s of interest to you, consider the purchase of Taylor Pensoneau’s “Dapper & Deadly: The True Story of Black Charlie Harris.”
If you don’t know the criminal history of southern Illinois during the first half of the 20th century, the book will give you a
quick tour. It also wraps up the lives of the gangsters of this era, putting the finishing touches on books ranging from Paul Angle’s “Bloody Williamson,” Gary DeNeal’s “A Knight of a Different Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger,” and to Pensoneau’s own “Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons.”
Pensoneau, a New Berlin author, did meticulous research of police records and old newspaper files, plus conducted numerous
interviews with people who lived in and around Fairfield when Harris was alive, then compiled the complete life history of one of Illinois’ most infamous outlaws.
Pensoneau gives you a birth to death look of Harris, a man he describes as having a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type personality. And
that is a good way to portray the man who became the last of southern Illinois’ big name outlaws. He could be comfortable in the company of the nation’s biggest gangsters and convicted killers, or just sitting around a gas station chatting with local farmers on a Saturday night. He could be a charming gentleman or a ruthless killer. You just knew you didn’t want to get on Black Charlie’s bad side. And it didn’t take much to make you one of his enemies.
Harris never actually looked the part of a desperado. Photos depict him as a sharp dresser with a cool demeanor, someone who might
be a salesman or a mid-level executive for a small company. And in his later years he looked more like a kindly grandfather than a ruthless killer.
Harris is probably one of the biggest reasons the Shelton gang--the biggest downstate Illinois gang of the 1930s through the
1950s--went out of business, and he probably had a hand in the killing of two of the brothers and a few gang members as well, plus the wounding of a third brother and other relatives.
The FBI viewed Harris as someone important in American crime and kept a close watch on him throughout his career. He eventually
made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, one of the oldest persons to be included on their list.
And whereas Harris went to prison three times during his 91 years on earth, he still led a rather charmed life. He got off from a
number of crimes he undoubtedly took part in, several of which might have led to his taking a seat in the electric chair.
Pensoneau, a former political correspondent for the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” and former president of the Illinois Coal
Association, has penned five previous books, “Dan Walker: The Glory and the Tragedy” (coauthored with Bob Ellis), “Governor Richard Ogilvie: In the Interest of the State,” “Powerhouse: Arrington from Illinois,” “Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons,” plus one novel “The Summer of ‘50.”
“Dapper & Deadly” is published by Downstate Publications ( and is available at most local www.downstate
bookstores, or can be purchased by sending $18.95, plus $3 shipping to Downstate Publications, P.O. Box 320, New Berlin, IL 62670.

Illinois residents must include $1.18 tax.
If you’re a lover of Illinois history or just curious about the gang wars in downstate Illinois during the 20th century, “Dapper &
Deadly” should probably be your next read."

Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons

-A Neglected Chapter in Organized Crime, September 23, 2003
by Edward D. Terhune (Basking Ridge, NJ)

(As taken from reviews for Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons)

"Finding a book dealing with American organized crime is not a difficult task. Indeed, such books are ubiquitous - a small library could be created out of the books written about John Gotti and his various associates. The problem is finding a book that is accurate, historically sound, and entertaining, as well. Taylor Pensoneau has covered all the bases with this volume. He writes with a credible reporter's accuracy. Just as important, however, is that this book is never boring. This is a chapter of American organized crime that few people will find familiar. The stereotypical gangster is generally portrayed as an urban Italian or, in more rare cases, a Jew. The Sheltons were rural WASPs, but at their height, they were as powerful and ruthless as an Al Capone or a Lucky Luciano. Their personalities were diverse: there was personable Carl, who acted as their boss, and there was the sullen, brutal Bernie, who acted as their enforcer. Despite this diversity, they both ended their lives violently. Thankfully, however, Personeau avoids the simplistic morality of some organized crime books, which pit virtuous Government representatives against the pernicious, immoral racketeer. The reality of organized crime is that it could never exist without the active participation and/or connivance of those in the world of business and politics. Pensoneau demonstrates this clearly in his writing. In addition, the whole saga contains a combustible cast of secondary characters that probably couldn't be imagined in fiction- a flamboyant Jewish racketeer named Charlie Birger whose charm doesn't quite hide his homicidal propensities; venal politicians and craven law-enforcement officials that we'll wish were an anamoly or a relic of the past, but assuredly aren't; and Ku Klux Klan "crusaders" who make the racketeers seem to be models of virtue and enlightenment in comparison to their own vicious, narrow-minded nativism. For those who are beginning to find the "True Crime" genre as boring as the Vampire Novel, or the Gothic Romance, this book is a refreshing and informative find."

-The Sheltons Get Their Due, March 3, 2003 
by Rick "Mad Dog" Mattix (Iowa)

(As taken from reviews for Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons)

"Among the legends of the Prohibition era, the Shelton-Birger gang war, perhaps because of its rural setting, has been long overlooked by most gangster books and it's a shame. A lot of stuff happened outside New York and Chicago. In the mid-to-late '20's, the Birger and Shelton gangs rivaled Capone's Chicago beer wars in terms of both publicity and body count. Spectacularly so, with not only machine guns but armored trucks and even the first aerial bombing in U.S. history. What Gary DeNeal did for Charlie Birger, Taylor Pensoneau has now done admirably for his rivals. Birger was hanged in 1928 but the Shelton boys continued to prosper, in bootlegging, gambling and labor racketeering until the late '40's, when their story came to a violent end and this well researched and highly readable account tells the whole story. Read up, Hollywood - the Sheltons deserve a movie!"

Powerhouse: Arrington from Illinois

-Author Successfully Captured the Essence of the Man, March 2, 2007
by Reader Views (Austin, Texas)
Reviewed by Debra Gaynor

(As taken from reviews for Powerhouse: Arrington from Illinois)

"Taylor Pensoneau is an exceptional writer. He tells an exhilarating story of an extraordinary man. He is careful to demonstrate that his subject is not faultless. Mr. Pensoneau shows Russell Arrington as he truly was, supercilious, a man that loved clout and wasn't afraid of it, a man that used those talents to work for the betterment of his state. The photographs bring the reader closer to the life of Russell Arrington. I highly recommend "Power House: Arrington from Illinois" to those that enjoy biographies, politics and history."

-A Study in Power, Integrity, and Accomplishment, May 28, 2009 
by Leon L Czikowsky (Harrisburg, PA) 

(As taken from reviews for Powerhouse: Arrington from Illinois)

"The book provides insights into the historic Illinois legislature. Democratic legislators and Republican legislators congregated in different hotels. Lobbyists would frequent visit these hotels, especially since this was before the days of lobbyist spending disclosure. Thus, many legislative decisions were made in the hotel restaurants and bars.

This is a well written and informative capture of a life of an influential political leader. It is good that this history is remembered. Readers should note that it was only a few decades ago when part time legislatures were easily manipulated by lobbyists and Governors. Voices like Russell Arrington changed the way state politics operated."

Governor Richard Ogilvie: In the Interest of the State

"[A] solid reconstruction of those eventful years [1968-1972] ... a valuable biography..."
-Chicago Tribune

"Named one of the ten most notable political books of 1997"
-Chicago Sun-Times

"A thorough, well-written study of a politician who did the right thing and paid the price"
-Steve Neal (Chicago Sun-Times political columnist)

"We are fortunate to have had Dick Ogilvie as governor, even for one brief term. And we are fortunate to have a classy biography by Taylor Pensoneau. So much the better for us to understand where we have been in Illinois, and where the state might be headed."
-Robert E. Hartley (Illinois Times)

"[Taylor] has written a solid reconstruction of those eventful years... The result is a valuable biography..."
-F. Richard Ciccone (Chicago Tribune associate editor)

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