Title: Sins of the South
Author: Maureen Hughes
Genre: non-fiction, true crime
Price: $16 paperback
Point of Sale: Amazon
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib
I grew up in a small town, and now live in a suburb of a big city. When I tell people in my current community where I grew up, they immediately think of “Mayberry RFD” and seem to think that my local police officer carried a gun with one bullet and the height of his day consisted of dealing with grade-school candy thefts. I smile, and remind myself that, of the 78 kids who graduated in my class in high school, three of them (that I know of) have spent time as inmates in prison. In short, small-town life is not anything like Mayberry.
So, it was with great interest that I purchased Maureen Hughes’ book Sins of The South, billed as exposing the “shocking mafia influence in small towns in Illinois.” The book primarily tells the story of Lester “Shot” Winchester, a nightclub owner in far Southern Illinois who died of a gunshot wound in April, 1956. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to note that Hughes at least thinks Winchester was murdered.
“Shot” Winchester was no saint, having at age 15 killed a boy for cheating him at a floating craps game. After Winchester got out, Prohibition was in full roar, and so he got a variety of jobs running moonshine, managing speakeasies / whorehouses, and related illegal activities. Perhaps ironically, Winchester was killed over a crime he probably had nothing to do with.
Sins of the South is an interesting book, but alas not a particularly well-written one. Hughes’ story wanders in and out from Prohibition to the post-WWII era of legalized gambling in Illinois. Much of the book is a laundry list of the various local mobsters in Alexander and Pulaski counties (both at the bottom of the “V” formed by the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers). These mobsters and the corrupt local sheriffs, judges and other political figures were sub-fiefs of the big crime operations in Chicago, St. Louis and for a time Detroit (important due to its easy access to Canadian booze). Still, whether the triggerman is a local ne’er-do-well or an out-of-town hitman, the victim is every bit as dead.
Much of Sins of the South is stories told to Hughes by anonymous and elderly survivors of the period, which leads to some of the conversational quality of the prose. And again, Hughes storytelling is a bit convoluted, apparently in an attempt to create a bit of drama where there isn’t much. Still, I found Sins of the South an interesting book, and a useful antidote to the Mayberry RFD story of rural Illinois. It’s a book more for history buffs than casual readers, but at 198 pages it’s accessible to all.