Thursday, February 16, 1967 (Photo at end or article.)
The Impact of Judge Fred L. Wham
Federal Jurist, Mild in Private Life, Brought Respect for Law to Southern Illinois
By Carl R. Baldwin, Staff Reporter
United States District Judge Fred L. Wham presented two faces to the world, and both wore well. Off the bench he was quiet and unassuming. His manner bordered on the timid. On the bench he was a stern defender of federal laws. For the occasional sinner he always was ready with the lecture and the light sentence. A professional criminal could expect to have the book thrown at him.
Judge Wham’s death Feb. 2 at the age of 82 brought many memories to those who had followed his career. The scene that most frequently come to mind dates from the bootlegging era. The dignified judge, sitting tall in his high-backed chair, listening intently to the evidence as defendants were brought before him.
The old courtroom, in the Federal Building at Seventh Street and Missouri Avenue, East St. Louis would be crowded. Some would have to stand and others would be waiting in the hall. For Judge Wham, immaculately and conservatively dressed, his shock of dark hair carefully combed, would be prepared to take the cases one by one, disposing of 30, 40 or even 50 who might plead guilty.
Judge Wham was neither a lawyer’s lawyer nor a judge’s judge. His trial experience was limited when he first took the job. He had to feel his way. However, he brought to the office unimpeachable integrity and a strong belief in the old-fashioned concept that laws are made to be obeyed, and that those who violate the laws should be punished.
He was no legal hair-splitter. Some of his critics thought that he had little regard for individual rights. Defense lawyers, for instance, had to prove that any errors made in the issuance of search warrants were really flagrant errors. Minor legal faults did not count with Judge Wham, whose main concern was whether the raid had resulted in finding evidence of a law violation.
There was an embarrassing void on the East St. Louis bench when Judge Wham came to fill it. His predecessor, United States District Judge George W. English, had resigned rather than face an impeachment trial on evidence of wrongdoing disclosed in a large degree by a Post-Dispatch investigation. President Calvin Coolidge passed over three favored candidates, each with powerful political backing to appoint the little-known Wham, a Centralia, Ill., lawyer.
Respect for law was at a low point throughout the United States, but nowhere was it lower than in Southern Illinois. Gangsters were fighting over quick profits being made in a bootlegging industry that was operating without any serious restraint. Federal enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment was brining only moderate fines, which bootleggers considered part of the payoff.
This all changed in 1927, the year Judge Wham took his oath of office. The late Harold G. Baker, young and vigorous, had been named United States Attorney the year before, and the names of Wham and Baker became dreaded words to bootleggers, and to all others who violated federal laws. The late United States District Judge Walter C. Lindley, sitting at Danville, held up his end of the sprawling Eastern District of Illinois.
Before the team of Wham, Lindley and Baker went into action only about 20 percent of the bootleggers brought into court went to jail. The new regime quickly turned thing around. Eighty per cent of the defendants began going to jail, and the terms were much more severe than they had been. In the late 1920’s the Eastern District of Illinois had more jury trials of bootleggers than any other district in the United States.
Judge Wham was not a fanatical prohibitionist although he was a teetotaler and a prominent layman in the Presbyterian Church. It was only that the law was on the books and therefore had to be enforced. That was that.
"The only way to stop crime is by punishing it," Judge Wham said in 1932 when pronouncing sentence on four defendants charged with stealing from interstate freight shipments. His sermons from the bench usually were direct and simple.
Several firsts occurred in Judge Wham’s court, including the first sentencing of a bootlegger under the tough Jones "5 and 10" law, which carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Max Sonzinsky, a notorious East St. Louis fence, provided the court with another first. He was the first man to be convicted under the National Firearms act, which had been passed to curb the sale of automatic weapons to gangsters. It bars the sale of sawed-off shotguns, machine guns and silencers. Judge Wham sentence Sonzinsky to 18 months in prison and an appeal brought a Supreme Court ruling that the act was constitutional.
The high-ceilinged East St. Louis courtroom, in a building erected in the administration of President William Howard Taft, was not the best place to conduct a trial. It was not air-conditioned in Judge Wham’s time. In the hot summer, when open windows brought the clatter of Missouri Avenue traffic into the room, it became almost impossible to hear testimony.
Judge Wham never eased his rules of formality, however, and anyone entering the courtroom in shirtsleeves was ejected. The rule applied to defendants as well as spectators, officers of the court and newspapermen. The United States Marshal was called on to provide coats for defendants who showed up without them.
Once in Judge Wham’s first year, a juror reported for duty in a hazy state of intoxication. The judge, calling it "a most unfortunate incident," referred to the sinning juror in talks to subsequent jury panels. "This must not happen again in the court," he would say. "I demand that you refrain from drinking while serving here."
Judge Wham heard odd stories from some defendants. A bootlegger who had been operating on a small scale in one of the German communities of outer St. Clair County claimed as late as 1929 that he had "never heard of the Eighteenth Amendment." Four defendants from Birksville, in Monroe County, said that same year that they "had not been educated that the prohibition law was made to be observed."
From time to time Judge Wham criticized law enforcement officials and citizens of Monroe and Massac counties where there seemed to be an utter disregard of the Volstead Act. He frequently censured East St. Louis for allowing bootleggers, prostitutes and other appendages of organized crime to operate openly throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. He lived to see all this eliminated. Even the gamblers closed their doors.
Of all the liquor conspiracy trials before Judge Wham probably the most interesting and most controversial was that of a sheriff, a chief deputy and 14 other residents of Massac County. Thirty-six defendants had been named in the indictment. Nine had pleaded "guilty", and others had been freed or granted severances. Friends and neighbors from Massac County jammed the courtroom to hear Government witnesses tell about liquor seized in raids being channeled to prisoners in the jail or to consumers on the outside. After a week of testimony at which court sessions extended into the night, the jury found all defendants not guilty.
Usually, after an acquittal of this nature, the defendants advance to the jury box and shake hands with the jurors. Here the jurors, almost in a body, rushed to the counsel table to congratulate the sheriff. Later, friends of the sheriff visited the homes of Government witnesses in Masssac County. They gathered in groups outside and serenaded the witnesses by singing "How Dry I Am."
Probably the most spectacular of all trials in Judge Wham’s court was that of the eight "tumbling Womacks," an East St. Louis family which for more than 12 years pursued an astonishing career of collecting insurance money for fake accident claims. The family consisted of the father, mother, three daughter and three sons-in-law. Two of the sons-in-law made excellent "tumblers." They were professional wrestlers. There was a ninth defendant, a woman friend of the family.
The government proved that the Womacks had stumbled over objects, out of taxicabs and against busses to lay the groundwork for the insurance claims. The evidence accounted for 59 "falls." A jury found each defendant guilty of conspiracy to use the mails to defraud after a trial lasting two weeks in early 1938.
All were given prison sentences, terms ranging from two to four year. Judge Wham, on hearing the violent sobs of the mother of the Womack clan, eyed her sternly and said: "There is no excuse for a grown woman being involved in such operation."
An observer could take a good sampling of organized crime in Southern Illinois by watching Judge Wham’s court. Connie Ritter, the smiling sardonic lieutenant of gang boss Charlie Birger, appeared before the judge in 1930 to receive a two year sentence for liquor conspiracy after having already been sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of former Mayor Joe Adams of West City, Ill.
In 1938, Joseph Shelby Teague, biggest operator in The Valley, East St. Louis’s segregated vice district, was sentenced by Judge Wham to three years in prison for bring women to The Valley from Hot Spring, Ark., for prostitution. Teague had been traveling in high society and was a nationally known skeet shooter. He and his wife owned a modern brick bungalow designed especially as a house of prostitution.
Judge Wham often displayed compassion when dealing with small bootleggers, freeing them on probation if they were heads of large families or were hard up. In 1935 he reprimanded the son of a Civil War veteran who had been Judge Wham’s boyhood hero. After the severe words he placed the bootlegger on probation on hi promise to straighten up. The man had been operating an illicit still.
Railroad operators added to the burden of the already overloaded court in the Depression era by prosecuting out-of-work people for stealing coal from freight cars to provide heat for their homes. The charge was theft from interstate shipment, and the penalty usually was a fine or a short jail sentence. For a while the federal court took on the appearance of a justice of the peace court. Judges Wham and Lindley quickly rebelled against this imposition, however, and the railroads were told to take their cases to lesser courts.
Echoes of the violence of the extended war between the Progressive Miners of America and the United Mine Workers were heard in the East St. Louis court from time to time. Finally, in January, 1939, Judge Wham issued a precedent-setting decision by making the Progressive Miners and 55 individuals liable for $117,000 damages growing out of a conspiracy to commit illegal acts in a strike against United Electric Coal Co.
World War II brought a different type of defendant to the court. Jehovah’s Witnesses and other persons opposed to war appeared before Judge Wham and were sentenced to prison terms for violating the Selective Service Act.
One of the last big trials over which Judge Wham presided was that of Evan R. Dale, labor boss and politician, and James Bateman, a labor boss, who were found guilty of labor racketeering by a jury. Calling Dale, downstate Republican leader, "a menace to the union labor movement," the judge imposed a 15-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine. Bateman was fined $2000, avoiding prison.
It was an explosive trial. Judge Wham’s reputation for patience was sorely tried by Defense Attorney John J. Holban, who later was to become State’s Attorney of St. Clair Count. Hoban, seeking cause for a new trial, announced in court that he had found evidence that six of the women jurors were "semi-hysterical with fear" at the trial because of "armed hoodlums" in court.The allegation never was proved. Judge Wham was furious at the apparent attempt to interrogate the jurors, and threatened contempt action.
"The inviolability of the jury room from outside influence is a prime necessity in the administration of justice," he said. "Jurors must not be harassed in any manner. He who makes a studied inquiry as to what occurred in the jury room acts at his peril. A searching examination of jurors by a party to a trial is emphatically to be condemned." Nothing came of the Wham-Hoban exchange and Dale served his prison term.
Judge Wham was graduated from the old Southern Illinois Normal University in 1904 and obtained his law degree at the University of Illinois in 1909. The big raw-boned farm boy not only worked his way through school, but also became an all-star tackle on the Illini football team.
He first practiced law in Fort Smith and Fayetteville, Ark., and worked in the solicitor’s office of the United states Department of Agriculture from 1915 to 1917. He returned to Centralia to set up law practice with his brother, Charles, but was better known for his interest in education at the time of his appointment to the bench. He served on the Centralia Board of Education and was a trustee of the University of Illinois.
He was active in Boy scout work, was a Sunday school teacher in his church and was a thirty-third degree Mason. He held many lay positions in the Presbyterian Church.
Judge Wham retired as a judge of the Eastern District in March, 1956. When the last case was called they presumed that the judge would end his career on a lenient note. Judge Wham heard the evidence against a bookie who had failed to pay the federal wagering tax. The man was a repeater and obviously was a dedicated handbook operator. Judge Wham gave him the works.
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