Gov. Len Small arrested, 1921

The Aug. 9, 1921, arrest of Gov. Len Small for alleged corruption created a daylong drama in Springfield. It was performed on three stages: the Capitol, the governor’s mansion and the Sangamon County Courthouse.

Stars included Small, county Sheriff Henry Mester (1867-1946), Mester’s posse of peace officers, and a disputatious Springfield attorney, George Gillespie.

The audience? Much of Springfield.

The Register’s coverage included photos of the two main characters (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

A Sangamon County grand jury indicted Small and his lieutenant governor, Fred Sterling, in July 1921 for embezzlement, conspiracy and confidence game. The charges involved their handling of state money while serving terms as Illinois state treasurer – Small, a Kankakee Republican, served in the office twice, but the charges involved only his second term, from 1917 to 1919; Sterling, who was from Rockford, was treasurer from 1919 until 1921.

During those terms, the indictment said, Small and Sterling both loaned state money to a non-functioning Kankakee County bank. The state received about 2 percent interest, but the purported bank earned 3 percent or more by using the state funds to purchase short-term corporate notes.

Small, Sterling and the bank’s owners, state Sen. Edward Curtis and his brother Verne, Kankakee friends of Small, kept the balance themselves, according to the indictment – $500,000 in Small’s case, and $700,000 each for Sterling and Vernon Curtis. (Edward Curtis died before the indictment was brought.)

The state was the bank’s only depositor, the grand jury reported.

Small, who was elected governor in November 1920 and inaugurated in January 1921, contended an Illinois governor could not be arrested or tried while in office. Mester, however, was under judicial orders to serve Small with the arrest warrant. The result was a public spectacle neither official wanted.

The evening Illinois State Register, reporting the story while it was still in progress, published a colorful account of how the confrontation began.

Sheriff Henry Mester, backed by re-inforcements of police and a dozen regular and special deputies, laid siege to the state house shortly after 12 o’clock today. He came with the announced intention to “stick it out” until he got the governor. And he ate a big dinner before coming.

The twenty-five or thirty special deputies and policeme who accompanied the sheriff were placed at vantage points around the state house. A guard of three men was left at the east door, three others were placed on guard at the centennial and power house tunnels which lead from the Capitol.

The sheriff, himself, and his chief deputy, Ora* Lemon, assumed charge of the first floor corridor. Pacing up and down and keeping an eye on all doors, the sheriff looked like he had an unpleasant duty to perform but intended to get it over with as quickly as possible.

Word that the deputies had come spread rapidly over the state house. Many forgot their noon lunch and stayed to see the fun. Others returning after dinner were unable to go to work and spent a good portion of the afternoon in the first and second floor corridors watching the deputies and waiting for trouble.

Not wanting to interrupt the governor at work in his office, Mester said, he hoped to intercept Small when he took a break for lunch at the governor’s mansion. As it happened, however, Small usually didn’t go out for lunch, and Mester’s cordon of officers was unneeded.

The Illinois State Journal reported the end of the impasse in its Aug. 10 edition.

The arrest of the governor and the giving of a bond in the office of the sheriff marked the closing, temporarily at least, of an epoch in Illinois history. It marked also the close of a day of excitement in the state house where a siege existed for three hours. Sheriff Mester waited on the first floor of the capitol to serve the warrant, while the governor went on with his work in his office on the second floor.

Then came a gentleman’s agreement between the governor and the sheriff. The hostilities did not end until 5 o’clock when the scene shifted to the mansion. …

While curious crowds gathered in Fifth street and in Jackson street, Sheriff Mester, accompanied by his chief deputy, Ore* Lemon, drove into the mansion ground at 5:05 o’clock.

The spectators craned their necks as the sheriff stepped from his car, and mounted the steps leading to the mansion. An instant later he was admitted and shown to the library. Here he read the warrants to the governor and informed the executive he was under arrest.

Small didn’t bring up his claim that a sitting governor couldn’t be arrested, but he, Mester and Gillespie did argue for several minutes over whether Small could immediately post his $50,000 bond and avoid being taken into custody – Gillespie and Small obviously wanted to avoid the spectacle of Small having to appear at the courthouse. The Journal called the several-minute-long exchange “an interesting tiff.”

Gillespie repeatedly tried to give Mester a pledge signed by Small and three of his prominent Springfield supporters. Mester said he wasn’t authorized to accept it. Here’s part of the conversation:

“Am I under arrest?” Small asked.

Mester: “Yes, sir.”

Small: “Here is my bond for $50,000.”

Mester: “I won’t take that bond. You’ll have to go over (to the courthouse) with me.”

Gillespie: “He does not have to go over and sign a bond. He is tendering you a good bond and he does not have to come.”

Mester: “Yes, he does too. You come with me, governor, I am going to take you.”

Gillespie: “You have no right to take him into custody when bail is offered>

Mester: “I will stand all consequences. You come with me, governor.”

Mester won the debate, and Small, Mester, Gillespie and a cohort of reporters and spectators finally drove to the courthouse (today’s Old Capitol State Historic Site). There, State’s Attorney C. Fred Mortimer readily accepted Small’s bond document.

Ida Moore Small, undated (SJ-R)

Small’s criminal trial, held in June 1922 in Waukegan, was anticlimactic. His trial attorney, Charles La Forgee of Decatur, presented no evidence on the governor’s behalf, but appealed to the jury solely on the basis of the prosecution’s case. Jurors took less than two hours to find Small innocent. But tragedy struck the Small family the same evening. The Register’s story:

For more than an hour the governor and his wife had stood on the front porch (of their home in Kankakee), bowing as hundreds of friends passed by, welcoming the executive home. As the din of automobile horns and cheers subsided, Mrs. Small turned into the house. As she entered the door, she paused and placed her hand on the governor’s arm.

“I’m so faint,” she said.

She sank into unconsciousness in the governor’s arms. She did not speak again.

Ida Moore Small died of a stroke at 8 a..m. the next day. She had been sick for some time, but physicians said the strain of the trial contributed directly to her death. Gov. Small was described as “crushed and broken at his wife’s bedside.”

“Thank God she lived to see me vindicated,” he said.

Although Small was cleared of the criminal charges, the attorney general’s office pursued the case via civil lawsuits. In 1927, while still governor, Small was ordered to repay $650,000 to the state. According to Robert P. Howard’s 1988 gubernatorial history, Mostly Good and Competent Men: Illinois Governors 1818 to 1988. Small “raised the $650,000 by assessing state employees and contractors.”

*Newspaper stories reported Oriel Lemon’s nickname inconsistently, using either “Ore” or “Ora.” Lemon succeeded Mester as sheriff in 1922.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 


This entry was posted in Crime and vice, Illinois capital, Law enforcement, Local government, Politics, Prominent figures, Spectacles, State government, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *