Molly Crusen Bishop: The Shelton Gang history, as told by a Shelton

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I first met Ruthie Shelton last fall at the North Branch of the Peoria Public Library, where she was speaking to a room filled to the brim with people. She was speaking about a book she’d written about her father Carl Shelton, of the infamous Shelton Gang. She captivated us with her stories and was very charming. I waited my turn in line to meet her and found her approachable and authentic.

I kept seeing her posts online about several other books she has written and saw she was coming to Peoria for another book tour and signing for her latest book, “The Untold Story: Help, Hope, & Happiness.” She is on the Peoria Prohibition Shelton Tour. I was thrilled when Ruthie agreed to talk to me about her life, her family, and her book.

All Peorians have heard of the Shelton Gang, the infamous group of men from Wayne County, Illinois, that wreaked havoc in our city, and all around the state as well. Ruthie Shelton is a mom, wife, and grandmother and grew up in Florida. Her father was Carl Shelton and when she was small, she believed him to be a member of the Carpenter’s Union down in Florida. He would be gone most of the week at work and would come home every weekend, basically being an All-American Dad to Ruthie and her older brother.

Little did Ruthie know that her father was probably participating in illegal activities when her parents divorced in the mid-1960s, when Ruthie was 6 years old. Ruthie’s mom was born and raised in Georgia and knew nothing of Carl’s gang-filled past. She filed for divorce once she found out and her realistic fears carried out in her parenting Ruthie and her brother.

Ruthie said her Mom would not even allow her and her brother to go out to the mailbox by themselves. She would often check doors, possibly being tripped with a wire-explosive, among other safety compulsions that were not understood by the naïve Ruthie, who understandably thought her mother a bit on the paranoid side.

Fast-forward to December 2003, when her father Carl had open-heart surgery at 79 years old that left him unconscious for several days. As her father began to slowly come out of the coma, he would say and shout out random things about shootings, and speaking as if in dangerous situations. “We have to get them, we have to shoot them!” said Carl Shelton. 

Ruthie said the nurses and doctors were nervous, not knowing how bad the surgery and his unconsciousness would affect his brain functioning. Ruthie’s awakening on the truth of her father came crashing down hard.

She straight out asked her father what was he shouting out and what on earth did it mean?

He admitted to the harsh and ugly truth about his life and past and insisted that he had to tell her. Slowly but surely, Ruthie received the dark details of her father’s past. Her older brother, Rick Shelton, had been more knowing of something not adding up with their dad. He was four years older and a natural quiet observer and knew some of his dad’s behavior was odd. He remembered regular phone calls from Puerto Rico, collect calls.

Ruthie, who still lives in Florida, began to put the pieces together. She said every emotion passed through her when she realized the depth of the deception.  Ruthie and her brother realized everything they had ever been told had been one lie after another.  She began to remember the jaunts to random pool houses and many other places a little girl had no business going with her dad.

She said her dad had some ‘Come-to-Jesus’ moments and lived the last few years of his life connected with his family, including a sister Ruthie found out about as an adult after the 2003 revelation. Carl was able to finally have a relationship with the daughter Elaine he had left behind, and Ruthie and Elaine are true sisters and the best of friends. He spent his last years with honesty and healing.

Ruthie even talked her father into returning to Wayne County, so that she and her siblings could see their family’s lands in person. They were greeted with much fanfare, including local TV and newspapers and crowds. This left her father Carl nervous and he insisted they leave.

The family history included violence. Carl Shelton, one great uncle, was murdered at Pond Creek, in Fairfield, Wayne County, Illinois in 1947. Ruthie’s great Uncle Bernie owned the Parkway Lounge on Farmington Road in Peoria, now known as Kenny’s Westside Pub, and he was murdered there on July 26, 1948.

Ruthie had a heart-warming photograph of another Shelton, Big Earl, at Pond Creek, at a picnic with all of the nephews with a down-home feel to it.

Danger followed the Shelton family for decades, with a grandmother who witnessed a murder in 1967. The grandmother had stayed behind in Wayne County, living a quiet life. She took care of a younger man in a wheelchair and witnessed him being shot to death. She went into shock and never recovered her mind. Her death certificate listed nine ounces of methanol in her stomach contents.

Ruthie’s Great Aunt Lula was another shooting victim in 1970, in Jacksonville, Florida, but survived.

Ruthie learned her mother had been protective and wise, hardly paranoid.

Ruthie’s first book was called Inside The Shelton Gang; One Daughter’s Discovery.

Her subsequent series is based on the Shelton’s after Carl came to Florida and is a three-book set:

Bernie Drake of the Peoria Historical Society will join Ruthie in Peoria to guide a tour of the Shelton gang’s old stomping grounds. They will visit the Peoria Riverfront Museum Prohibition Exhibit. All food and exhibits are included in the price of the guided tour. Ruthie will be the host on the bus ride and will share her history of the Shelton family, as it was told to her by her dad, Little Carl Shelton, as well as some other family members. She will also give detailed history she has researched on her own. 

Cameras are welcome, as well as questions. Ruthie said this is a very relaxed tour and there is always interaction amongst those on the bus. My friend Linda Herron attended an earlier tour in Wayne County, Illinois and said it was fun and very informative.

Ruthie Shelton Author Talks and Book Signings and Tours May 2016 Schedule (all of her books will be available to purchase at each event):

You can find all of Ruthie Shelton’s books at

She will be at Kenny’s Westside Pub for lunch at 12:45 o May 14 for a book signing, which is open to the public.

This is the tavern her great Uncle Bernie Shelton owned, and ultimately where he was murdered. It was then called Parkview Lounge.

About the Author
Molly is a life-long Peorian and an author, speaker, and storyteller. She is married to Doug Bishop and has five children and one grandchild. Molly loves history and Peoria and loves to share her passions with anyone she can get to listen to her. She loves to research, interview, and write or speak about history. The youngest and ninth child of Don and Joani Crusen, she grew up on the West Bluff in the house her great grandparents built in the 1880s. She writes a historical column in Woman’s View magazine, and will be writing a column called The Peorian Perspective in The Peorian.