Mar 10, 2014

John Looney, the Gay Ganster of Rock Island's Past

Growing up in Rock Island, we had our share of local celebrities, but not only heroes -- anybody who we could use to fight our image as a "hick town" surrounded by cornfields.  So not only writers (Carl Sandburg), artists (Grant Wood), actors (Ken Berry), and musicians (Bix Beiderbecke), but gangsters.

Our resident ganster was John Patrick Looney (1865-1947), a lawyer and politician, who began his life of crime with extortion and embezzlement, then moved on to gambling, prostitution, protection, and violence. In 1912 he started his own newspaper, The Rock Island News, to print pro-Looney articles and blackmail prominent residents by threatening to reveal their secrets in print.  After a shootout with rival editor W. W. Wilmington in 1915, he left town, and lay low for awhile in Texas.   

Prohibition brought him back to Rock Island, where he ran the town like Capone in Chicago, managing 150 prostitution, gambling, and bootleg liquor establishments, paying off the police and the mayor, having his hit men rub out anyone who got in his way (including his former associate William Gambel).

He lived in this 5,000 square foot 5-bedroom, 5-bathroom mansion adjacent to Longview Park in Rock Island (now a private home).

On October 6, 1922, Looney's adult son Connor was killed in a shootout, and his empire quickly crumbled.  Looney was arrested, tried for smuggling, bootlegging, and murder, and sentenced to 14 years in prison.  He served 7 1/2 years.

What's the gay connection? Teachers at Denkmann Elementary School and Washington Junior High  who told us the story, and writers who wrote it up in "Rock Island History" retrospectives, never mentioned a wife for either John or Connor Looney, but they did mention several very close male associates.  It was an all-male crime family, with Connor almost a boyfriend rather than a son, and the grief over his death caused John to lose control of his mind and his empire.

By the way, I thought that Connor Looney was a pretty unique name, but it turns out that there are several in the U.S., including a medical intern on Staten Island and a freshman basketball star at Hawaii Pacific University (left). Probably no relation.

The 2002 movie Road to Perdition features Paul Newman as Looney (renamed Rooney) and  Daniel Craig as Connor.  But the main characters are Tom Hanks as hitman Mike Sullivan, and Tyler Hoechlin (left, later photo) as Sullivan's son.

Besides, it takes place in the 1930s, when Looney was already in prison, and Rock Island isn't even mentioned.

See also: Rock Island Boxing.