The Flynn Machine: Early 20th Century Vice in Champaign
On February 16, 1939, the tragic death of University of Illinois student William Spurrier drew attention to the gambling halls, after-hours bars, and prostitution houses that had existed since Champaign’s early days, but openly flourished under Mayor James D. Flynn. Flynn, Champaign’s first mayor to win consecutive terms (1935-1943), used vice, political contacts, and public works projects to initially win and remain in the mayor’s seat. He even survived a “massive grand jury investigation that resulted not only in his indictment, but also charges being filed against the rest of the city council, the Champaign police chief, the Champaign county state’s attorney, and nearly fifty other individuals.”
The Courier’s editorial page after the death of Spurrier outside a prostitution house took the town, the mayor, and the News-Gazette to task. In a series of editorials the Courier lambasted the mayor and other government officials for not enforcing established anti-gambling laws and allowing gambling to openly operate. The Courier pointed to its 1937 series where it “laid before the community an accurate picture of Champaign’s million-dollar gaming industry.” After the series concluded, the Courier turned over its floor plans, original betting receipts, and other gathered evidence to State Attorney Fred Hamill where it was placed before a grand jury. The jury indicted 19 individuals but they received no convictions.
Mayor Flynn continued to state his opposition to organized gambling, but insisted that without witnesses willing to “sign warrants and testify in court” his hands were tied. The Courier cried foul and hoped that the University of Illinois’ appeal to Illinois General Attorney John Cassidy would improve the vice situation in Champaign. That was not the case. Flynn handily won the 1939 election even though the vote took place just six days after he was indicted for malfeasance. It would take World War II and all the changes it brought to the community to end the Flynn era and open gambling in Champaign County.