by NORMAN V. KELLY
The truth is that over the past thirty-five years I have discovered numerous men and women that were either born here or lived here in the Peoria area that went on to accomplish things that in many instances made them famous. I did feature stories on them and to this day I still write a series of stories called Child of the City. The seven men that I want to tell you about will all come together for the first time in an article I entitled The Forgotten Seven. Every one of them at one time in their lives was called a hero because each of them died in the line of duty. For most of them, we here in Peoria buried them with appropriate honors, and then allowed them to slip back into obscurity; and that is how they became forgotten men. As I discovered them, wrote and lectured about them the process of getting their names on monuments took close to two years. I am proud to say that they are on the monuments in Peoria, Springfield and the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington D.C. They are now listed along side their comrades who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.
Theophil “Joe” Seyller: Officer Joe, as he was known here in Peoria in 1894 was the first Peoria Police Officer to die in the line of duty. While serving an arrest warrant the man he was trying to arrest pulled a weapon on him and during the scuffle four slugs ended up in the chest of Officer Joe, killing him instantly. Local folks wanted to hang the man that shot the officer; but cooler minds prevailed and an immediate murder trial was arranged for Hausel Hopmeyer Sr. The trial was held in Peoria’s old court house and when the verdict came back ‘Not Guilty’ for murder of the officer a near riot broke out in downtown Peoria, Illinois. Officer Joe, Badge Number 9, was buried with honors and forgotten. Well over a hundred years later his name was added to the monument to our fallen officers at the city hall.
Constable Arthur Smith: At one time Peorians elected 5 constables to augment our police force and Arthur Smith was one of the most popular of that unique group. On June 12, 1922 he was patrolling out near the area we now call Sterling and Nebraska. He walked up to two cars that were parked in the dark along side Nebraska. Suddenly multiple shots rang out killing him instantly. Since he was not a member of the Peoria Police Department he was buried without honors and forgotten. His name is on the monument we have here in town for the Peoria Park District Officers and is also on the Washington and Springfield police monuments.
Charles E. DeBolt: On a hot July 4, 1924, Charles DeBolt was on duty as a motorcycle officer for the Peoria Park District. Being the Fourth of July it was a busy time in the city and especially around the river and the Peoria Parks. Chuck, as DeBolt was known was on duty patrolling the Grand View Park area and looking for speeders since the place was packed with picnickers and sightseers. He saw a touring car loaded with young men whiz by him and he took off after it. As he sped along his front wheel began to slide on gravel and down he went. He found himself airborne just before he collided with the edge of the hard road. He lived briefly but died before medical aide got to him. His name is on the Peoria Park District Monument, Springfield, and Washington, D.C. Police Monuments.
David W. Gaul: On August 4, 1937, David Gaul was on duty in Bradley Park, sitting on his motorcycle under the shade tree near the tennis courts. In those days the parks were crowded and busy with folks wading in the creek, picnicking and watching baseball games. Gaul was watching a group of kids and calling out to them to be careful crossing the road, when he heard the sound of a car coming at a high rate of speed. He got off his cycle and walked out to the middle of the road to confront the car. A 1930 Coupe, being driven by a young man, struck the officer tossing him some 30 feet into the air. Officer Gaul died of multiple injuries on the way to the hospital. His name is on all of the previously mentioned police monuments as well.
Charles E, Barden: The last week of August here in Peoria the temperature had been at the highest for the year 1938. On the 24th of the month some clouds rolled in with the promise of rain. Officer Barden was on duty at Glen Oak Park and was having trouble with his motor cycle. He drove over to the State Police maintenance building there on Knoxville and had it fixed. He drove north on Knoxville to check it out and on the way back his kickstand began banging on the highway. He looked down to check it and when he looked up he was off the roadway and out of control in the gravel. The last thing he saw was a huge dump truck parked in front of the State building. He slammed into the massive grill and impaled himself…killing him instantly. Barden had been on the job for 6 weeks when he died.
The monument with these four men’s names on it can be found on North Adams Street at the lower entrance to Grand View Drive. The monument was dedicated and placed under the lighted American Flag in what seems to be a perfect location. My personal complaint is again these men are forgotten since the Park District has not chosen to honor them annually on Memorial Day. The City does have an annual ceremony for their officers and firemen, but the Peoria Park District ignores those that have fallen in the line of duty. That, my friends is a damn shame.
George Henry Ellis: George was born here in Peoria, Illinois in 1875 and as soon as he was old enough he joined the United States Navy to see the world. On July 3, 1898 he was a Chief Yeoman on board the USS Brooklyn during the blockade of the Spanish Fleet moored within the harbor of Santiago de Cuba during the Spanish American War. The Spanish ships made a run to open sea and were annihilated by the U.S. Navy. In that sea battle the only sailor killed was George H. Ellis; he was later buried in Brooklyn, New York. The United States Navy not only buried him with honors they named a small battleship after him. It was designated DD-154 the USS ELLIS. As far as I can tell that is the only naval ship named after a Peorian. Thanks to Mayor Jim Ardis, Steve Sonnemaker and the Peoria County Board I hope we will dedicate a plaque to this Peoria hero in the spring of 2018.
PFC Lester B. Zimmerman: It was by chance that I found out that Bernard Zimmerman was not on the Korean ‘monument’ inside the Peoria County Courthouse. I just happened to read about the death of Zimmerman and was going over the names on the Viet Nam list and the Korean list and I did not see his name. It turns out that not only was PFC Zimmerman killed during the Korean war from Peoria; he was actually the first one reported killed in that war or police action or whatever the hell it was later designated. I spent four years in the United States Air Force during that time and believe me it was important to those of us that served. I later spoke at the Memorial Day ceremonies and I had Bernard on my mind while I was there. I am hoping and praying that this Memorial Day the new Viet Nam and Korean Monuments will be dedicated there in the court house square not far from the WW1 and WW11 memorials. Call Steve at the Peoria County Clerk’s office and find out how you can contribute. It still irritates and saddens me when I look out and see the sparse crowd that shows up each year. Hell, it is also ungrateful and Un-American that all of us cannot take a few minutes once a year out of our texting and smart phones to honor our fallen heroes. Bernard Zimmerman was sent to the Pusan perimeter in Korea about six weeks after the war started. Zimmerman was just a young kid who grew up in our area, fresh off the farm and into the Korean War. I think his sister speaks for a lot of us, at least those that attend these ceremonies, when she said, “We can’t dwell on this and remember every day, but it is wonderful to do it at least on Memorial Day.”
Editor’s Note: Norm is a true crime writer, author and Peoria Historian.