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Bootlegging gangster to Sunday school teacher, Prayer meeting changed Floyd 'Jardown' Armes

Jon Musgrave
updated: 5/11/2012 10:19 AM

Last Thursday during the National Day of Prayer more than a half dozen speakers stood before the Saline County Courthouse praying for divine guidance, protection, discernment, wisdom and blessings. They stood solemnly with full faith in the power of prayer to heal and change lives.

The night before a woman in Arizona gave her own testimony to the power of prayer in how it changed her own father, a man whose surname once spread fear and loathing for a quarter century in Southern Illinois.

The Armes brothers aren';t remembered to the same extent as the more notorious Shelton Brothers who ran the downstate gambling racket until their executions and exile in the late 1940s, but the oldest two brothers first served as Shelton lieutenants in the ';20s before the family switched sides to the Capone Syndicate out of Chicago in the ';40s.

Floyd Armes, known as "Jardown," was the oldest of the four brothers involved in the criminal gangs, born on the first Fourth of July in the 20th Century in 1901 in the unincorporated coal mining community of Petros, Tenn. Somewhat appropriately, the hometown was also home to the state';s maximum security prison, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.

He';s best recalled as one of the two gangsters who telephoned Charlie Birger taking credit for the aerial bombing Shady Rest, Birger';s headquarters and roadhouse on old Route 13 between Marion and Harrisburg. in the fall of 1926 at the height of the Gang War between Birger and the Shelton Brothers.

But for Pamela Goodwin, she knew none of this growing up. The father she knew had little in common with the man he once was. Not until after her father';s death and mother';s treatment for Alzheimer';s did an aunt inform her of the family legacy.

Armes got out of prison in 1932 and met Goodwin';s mother sometime thereafter in a restaurant where she worked as a waitress. He was actually on a date with another woman when he was smitten by his server and asked for a date.

"What about her?" Goodwin';s mother asked pointing to the other woman.

"You let me take care of that," Goodwin said he replied.

He did and a love began that saw the pair together 50 years before Armes'; died.

She doesn';t know the exact date her father';s life turned from organized crime to a future School teacher, but she does know where it happened and who to credit at a prayer meeting at her grandfather';s house where her parents lived sometime in the mid to late ';30s.

"The only one of the entire family that knew the Lord was my mother';s father. He was the one the pastor asked if he could have a prayer meeting. Wherever they were meeting they couldn';t meet so my grandfather opened up his house," she said.

That night both her parents accepted Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior, but not her grandmother who was bedridden with asthma.

"She would ask my mother, ';How do you know you';re saved?'; Mother said, ';Mom, all I can tell you, is you';ll know,';" Goodwin said.

The next day when she came home, Goodwin';s grandmother asked again.

"Ina, how do you know?" she asked.

"Mom, I can';t explain it," Goodwin';s mother said.

On the third day Goodwin';s mother came home and found her mother smiling.

"Ina, I know," Goodwin said.

"Everyone of them in family knew Christ because of that one prayer meeting. To me that was quite something," she said.

Her parents joined First Baptist Church in Herrin where her father, the former gangster and whose brothers still were, taught Sunday School to some the male youth of the church before he moved his family out to Arizona in 1944 for his health.

There Goodwin grew up in the church and became a Christian at the age of 11. She didn';t know her father taught Sunday School in Herrin, but does remember him active in the church in Arizona. At one point he helped build an arbor for the Baptist church just down the street.

"The pastor and deacon body met and wanted my daddy to be a deacon, but he turned it down because he didn';t feel worthy," she said. "He just felt honored enough to be a member of the church."

The church stood just three houses down from where they lived so she and her parents walked to church with her each Sunday.

"I remember them walking hand in hand just like young kids. My mother was head of the nursery up to first grade for 30 years. That was her ministry to the children. (They were both) very active in the church," Goodwin said.

Nothing she learned growing up though prepared her for learning her father';s real history.

"The Lord must have completely changed his personality. I never saw that part of daddy, it never came out," she said.

At one point Armes told his daughter a tidbit about his past.

"He told me he did some bootlegging," hauling booze across state lines during Prohibition, she said. "He didn';t tell me about the gang he was a part of or any of that."

He never mentioned his conviction of statutory rape in 1927 and his five years at the Southern Illinois Penitentiary at Menard.

The left out parts included his role in the Election Day Riot of April 1926 that took place on the street in Herrin right in front of the First Baptist Church and the Masonic Temple which hosted the polling place that day. Six men died, three Klansmen and three members of the Shelton and Birger Gangs who initiated the shootout.

The Sheltons had moved to East St. Louis by that point, but by the summer of 1926 the mayor of Herrin identified Armes, his brother "Blackie" and Ray Walker as the leaders of the gang left in city. He was probably also in the Shelton';s armored car that attacked Art Newman and his wife on Route 13 west of Harrisburg later that year in October.

He also never told about his brothers'; continued life of crime up through the 1940s and the first few years of Goodwin';s life.

Monroe "Blackie" Armes got out of Alcatraz in 1940 and joined the Capone Syndicate along with former Sheltonite "Buster" Wortman who ran the East St. Louis mob for decades. "Blackie" died in a shootout inside a Herrin roadhouse in 1944 just after Goodwin';s father moved out west.

Two younger brothers, Roy "Tony" and Ray "Lefty" Armes had been too young for the fighting during Prohibition but grew into juvenile delinquents during the Depression and felons by the ';40s. "Tony" was a suspect in Carl Shelton';s death in 1947 and lost his life three years later in a mysterious ambush outside the Green Lantern tavern north of Herrin in 1950.

All Goodwin knew was that her father was ashamed of his past, and "he didn';t want anybody here... to know anything about that."

"My father always said to me, ';Pam, the only thing you have is your word, and if you don';t keep your word you don';t have no character,';" she recalled.

"He worried about what people would think. I';d say, ';Dad, you can';t worry about what people think whether it';s true or not, but he said when your name puts fear in people or is bad, you';ve lost everything. Now I know why he was saying that to me.

"He said, ';You mention the Armes name, it either drew fear in you or you start running. I don';t ever want that to happen to you.

"The Lord is the one you have to answer to and He sees it all. You can';t hide things from God. And I think that';s why he put the fear of God in me that I was to do everything right and I wouldn';t have to worry about the next phone call or knock on the door."

Somewhat surprisingly considering his past as a bootlegger Armes was never a heavy drinker, even in the 1920s according to his prison records. Goodwin remembers him drinking the occasional beer when she was young but after she asked him one time to stop, he did.

Cigarettes were his major vice until he finally quit after his daughter';s urging.

"I have pictures of him smoking and there would be two or three cigarettes still left and he would have one in his mouth.

He was a chain smoker. I don';t remember how old I was and I asked him if he would quit and he said, ';Honey, I will, if you never start, and he quit cold turkey," she remembered.

The damaged was already done. Armes suffered the last few years of his life with cancer and black lung from his early years in the mines around Herrin.

When he was dying Goodwin said her mother would hear him talking so she would "get up and go into the room" to ask him if he needed anything. "He said, ';No, I';m just talking with the Lord.';"

Armes died 12:01 a.m. Sept. 1, 1974.

"I know he died in peace because the Lord had forgiven him," Goodwin said.

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