Last January, smoking was banned in all Illinois restaurants and saloons, but that doesn't stop anyone from lighting up in Alton's many dive bars. The only evidence the law even exists is that taverns no longer furnish its customers with ashtrays. At this lounge, patrons flick their ashes into Altoids tins and near-empty bottles of beer.
Lining the wall behind the bar is a row of video slot machines, and every few seconds the games draw attention to themselves with an explosion of lights and whistles. Pasted above each game is a small sign that reads: "For Amusement Only." Though like similar slot machines found in watering holes throughout southern Illinois, everyone knows these games pay out behind the bar.
But we're not here tonight to witness anything as humdrum as illegal gambling or the flouting of state smoking laws. No, we've driven twenty miles north along the Illinois side of the Mississippi River from St. Louis to eyeball more wanton acts.
It was this past summer when an Alton local first informed us about how bartenders served drinks in his hometown. You might call it bartending au naturel. Venture into any of a half-dozen bars in this quirky river town, our informant told us, and you'll find female bartenders slinging drinks in the buff.
These aren't strip bars, mind you. They're blue-collar juke joints, where showing some skin has become commonplace over the years. As our source explained, you might compare it to the serving of tapas in a Spanish wine bar. Whereas in Spain you expect to receive a small morsel of food with every drink you order, in Alton you expect that Bud Light to come with, well, headlights.
Apparently our man from Alton wasn't lying. In September, sheriff deputies in nearby Jersey County walked into a bar in New Delhi, Illinois, to find a 33-year-old bartender wearing nary a stitch. Less than a month later, police made an arrest in Alton when someone called to complain that they just saw a woman working "totally nude" at the Pub Room, an establishment known for its lascivious proclivities.
With all the recent crackdowns, we figured we'd better hightail it to Alton to behold this nudie phenomenon before it's too late. We're seated at our barstool for all of five minutes when things start to look promising. A heavyset man in a St. Louis Rams jacket walks over to the jukebox in this dark, smoky lounge and cues up the song "Show Them to Me" by country-music comedian Rodney Carrington. The tune may as well serve as unofficial anthem of Alton's underground boobie bars.
Show them to me
Lift up your shirt and let the whole world see
Just disrobe and show your globes
And a happy man I'll be
Show them to me...
As Carrington's lyrics spill from the jukebox, several male patrons goad the barmaid to play along. Soon everyone, including the lone female customer, is encouraging the barkeep to reveal her breasts. "C'mon," screams the man in the Rams jacket. "You heard him! Unclasp your bra, and set those puppies free!"
The bartender protests for a second, then reaches into her shirt and fishes out two goose-bumped, quivering mounds. "Dammit!" she replies to whoops and whistles. "Why can't there be a song that encourages men to show their junk? I'd like to hear that one."
Similar scenes are unfolding at a handful of taverns located down the street on Broadway, Alton's main drag. In a biker bar just a block from city hall, a freakishly top-heavy waitress dressed in jeans and a tank top informs an inquiring customer that her enormous bosom can only fit into a bra with an L-cup or larger. Later, this same barmaid will consume several shots of Rumple Minze and lift her shirt to unleash a snow-white avalanche offset only by two angry brown eyes. Picture a pair of basketballs stuffed into tube socks.
Behind the bar her rail-thin colleague struts about in a bikini top and a miniskirt so short it fails to cover her ass cheeks. She's not wearing panties. When a customer tosses a $1 tip onto the floor, the woman pushes her derriere into the air in an exaggerated effort to collect the money. Proctologists rarely have such a vantage point as do the patrons seated on their barstools.
For a $10 tip the woman grabs a horsewhip from behind the bar and leads a male patron with an S&M fetish to the rear of the tavern. She pulls his jeans down around his ankles, bends him over a pool table and starts flailing away on his hairy, exposed buttocks.
The fun soon ends when a drunk sneaks off without paying his bar tab. As the scofflaw heads for the door, the bartender drops her whip and dials 911. Police arrive minutes later, just as the barmaid is pulling on her panties and barking at patrons to extinguish their cigarettes.
The cops don't seem to notice the smoky haze or, for that matter, the bulletin board behind the bar displaying photos of near-naked tavern employees. When one of the officers asks to speak to the bartender privately about the unpaid bar tab, she calls out to everyone: "The lieutenant wants to make out with me! I'll be right back."
A block down the street, it's much quieter in a lonely Broadway saloon that reeks of disinfectant and stale beer. The 50-year-old bartender, dressed like a Catholic high school girl in a tartan skirt and a tight T-shirt, tells us that the bar usually has a band, but tonight's act canceled last minute. When we cheekily ask how she plans to entertain us without live music, the woman lifts her shirt and responds: "Oh, I can think of a couple ways."
To hear Dennis Grubaugh tell it, Alton has always been an eccentric town.
"It's pretty much a reporter's paradise here," opines the long-time city editor of the Alton Telegraph. "Rarely do we have a lack of subjects to write about — especially when it comes to the outlandish."
On one weekday last month, the lead story in the Telegraph detailed the sentencing of an Alton man who'd recently been found guilty of strangling to death a mentally disabled man and then chopping up his remains.
"We get a good amount of murders for a town our size," confirms Grubaugh. "We had another guy recently take a pickax to his father's head. Then there's the case of Paula Sims. She was the woman who claimed masked intruders broke into her home and kidnapped her baby. She would have gotten away with it if she didn't pull the same ruse three years later when she had another baby. Turns out she killed both children."
Lately, though, Grubaugh says the usual horror stories emanating from Alton have taken a back seat to the exploits of nude bartenders.
"When they busted one of the barmaids it made CNN," says Grubaugh, who doesn't quite understand the media appeal surrounding the naked bartenders. "It's nothing new around here," he says. "When I moved here in 1979 there were nude barmaids. One was even famous for supposedly mixing drinks with her breasts."
Regardless, Grubaugh used the recent arrest of a naked tavern employee to pen an editorial in the Telegraph calling for the city to crack down on the indecency. "We're all for freedom and liberty in this town, but sometimes you've got to side with what's best for the community," states Grubaugh. "I don't think anyone really wants naked barmaids marching up and down Broadway."
If only there were an easy solution to removing these dens of iniquity.
Seated at his tidy desk inside Alton's century-old city hall, Mayor Donald Sandidge points out several inherent challenges in tackling the town's nudity pandemic. "The problem is, when a bar owner finds out about this and fires the bartender, she'll just move down the street and get a job at another tavern doing the same thing," says Sandidge.
The mayor, who also serves as liquor commissioner and was once the city's police chief, says local laws also make it difficult to target topless barmaids. "The way the ordinance reads now is that it's only illegal for a woman to show her chest in a tavern," adds Sandidge. "If we start arresting women for this, it could be seen as discriminatory by the Supreme Court."
In Jersey County, sheriff deputies discovered the naked barmaid working a New Delhi tavern while making a routine check on the state smoking ban. Illinois state attorney Benjamin Goetten, who serves as Jersey County's top prosecutor, says the nude bartender was obeying the law when it came to smoking. "She was outside having a cigarette in the nude," says Goetten. "So she was following the law in that respect."
Similar barroom sweeps are less common in Alton. "Our police just don't have the manpower to send officers into bars to see if people are smoking or not," notes Sandidge.
As for the slot machines in Alton taverns, the mayor says he tried to get rid of them during his tenure as police chief. "A judge ruled that they were legal so long as they were only for entertainment," he says. "Later on, I sent undercover officers into bars to see if the games were paying out. My guys couldn't win anything. The way they got those machines rigged, if people are winning money on them, it isn't much."
Nowadays, anyway, Sandidge has bigger gambling concerns than the nickels and dimes won and lost in Alton taverns. Revenue at the Argosy Casino, located along the riverbank downtown, plummeted 31 percent this year, a gaping loss in gaming tax revenue that threatens to put a serious crimp on city spending. Alton depends on the casino for approximately one-fifth of its $28 million operating budget.
"That casino has done great things for this town," says Sandidge. "Unfortunately, its business is getting hurt by the economy. People just don't have as much money to spend anymore."
In 1991, when Alton became the first city in Illinois to get a casino, riverboat gambling was seen as a necessary evil to jump-start the town's beleaguered economy. Nearly two decades later, much of Alton's historic downtown remains littered as ever with collapsing and vacant buildings. Much of the town's riverfront, once home to bustling factories and mills, also sits barren and abandoned.
With the loss of factory jobs has come a sharp decline in population. The 2000 census reported 31,000 people living in Alton, a nearly 40 percent decline from the 50,000 who inhabited the city in the 1960s.
Today, Alton is perhaps best known for Fast Eddie's Bon-Air, a sprawling roadhouse that lures day-trippers from St. Louis and beyond with its 99-cent hamburgers and 29-cent shrimp.
Trivia buffs may also recognize Alton as the hometown of Robert Wadlow, whose overactive pituitary gland made him the tallest man ever to walk the earth. When he died in 1940, the 22-year-old Wadlow stood a stupefying 8 feet 11 inches tall. He weighed 439 pounds and wore size 37 shoes.
Alton is also known as the venue for the seventh and final debate on October 15, 1858, between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. It was here, too, that an angry pro-slavery mob in 1837 shot and killed abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy. Nearly a century later, Alton would give birth to James Earl Ray, the assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The impoverished Ray grew up in a ramshackle home on Alton's Ninth Street and began his life of crime soon after dropping out of school at the age of fifteen. In 1967, Ray escaped from a Missouri prison, and while on the lam many people believe he returned to his hometown to rob the Bank of Alton.
The unknown robbers got away with $27,000, and the day after the heist — July 14, 1967 — Ray journeyed to East St. Louis where he paid cash for a used Plymouth. Nine months later, in April 1968, Ray resurfaced as the chief suspect in King's murder in Memphis.
"I was working as an Alton police detective on the day J. Edgar Hoover fingered him as the killer," recalls Mayor Sandidge. "Our telephone lines just lit up. We had people calling from all over the world wanting to know more about Ray and his ties to Alton."
While Ray remains Alton's most infamous outlaw, the city's ties to crime can be traced almost as far back as the city's founding. In 1833 Illinois opened its first state prison on the riverbank in Alton. The limestone structure was later used to house Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Thousands of rebel soldiers would die in the notoriously unsanitary prison, mostly as a result of smallpox.
In the 1920s Alton took on a reputation as a haven for the infamous Birger and Shelton Brothers gangs. The outfits worked together managing slot machines and running bootlegged liquor in southern Illinois before launching a violent war against each other.
In 1928 ringleader Charlie Birger was the last person to be publicly hanged in Illinois when he went to the gallows for ordering a mob hit. The Shelton Brothers posse, once described by the Saturday Evening Post as "America's Bloodiest Gang," disbanded around the same time key members of its organization went to prison for robbery.
Later, in the 1970s and '80s, Alton became a dumping ground for government snitches in the witness protection program. "They used to put them up at the old Ramada Inn while they searched for permanent housing," recalls Sandidge. "And you know, half those government witnesses are former criminals themselves. One time back in the early 1980s, three of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted were either discovered in Alton or last seen here. You got to wonder: What's the attraction?"
While riding shotgun in Don Huber's rusty 1993 Buick station wagon, it's easy to get a sense of Alton's rich and animated past. Huber holds elected office as Alton's township supervisor, but the crusty raconteur is perhaps better known as the city's chief historian and organizer of the annual Halloween-night parade. The festival is said to be the oldest Halloween celebration in the country.
"The German heritage societies started it back in 1916 as an attempt to keep kids from tearing shit up on Halloween night. You know, tipping over outhouses and stuff like that," Huber says, as he steers his 1993 Buick along part of the parade's two-mile route. "Now it's probably the biggest event in town. This year we had 90 different entries."
Farther along the riverfront, Huber points to a vacant patch of land that once housed the Illinois Glass Works. "It employed 3,400 people when it closed in 1984," says Huber, who calls the plant's closing "the beginning of the end" for Alton industry. "Every family in town had someone who worked for the glass factory. It used to be that you couldn't even buy a can of beer in this town. Everything was in a bottle, and if you dared to show up to a party with a six-pack of canned beer, they'd make you pour it out."
It's not that Alton has always been economically depressed. High up on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River lies the Fairmount neighborhood, a gated community dating to the early 1900s, back when Alton was said to have more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation. It's in sprawling Fairmount that Alton's factory owners and industry titans built their estates.
Pulling up in front of the largest property in Fairmount, Huber stops his car to relay how the 13,000-square-foot mansion was once the playground of the late John Olin, whose ammunition company continues to employ generations of Altonites. These days the Olin estate is home to alleged huckster J. Lloyd "Coach" Tomer, whose YTB International, Inc. Internet travel company has been called a "gigantic pyramid scheme" by the California attorney general.
Across town, in a decidedly poorer neighborhood, sits a home even more impressive than the Olin mansion — at least in Huber's opinion. "See that house over there?" he says, pointing to a weathered green home with its curtains drawn. "That's where Miles Davis was born — not that anyone seems to give a damn anymore."
Perhaps there'd be more interest in the jazz master's birth home if Miles Davis' ghost were to suddenly materialize in Alton. In the past decade reports of hauntings and supernatural phenomena have earned Alton the distinction of being "one of the most haunted small towns in America." The city has a haunted theater, haunted hotel, haunted cracker factory, haunted dessert shop, haunted bookstore, several haunted houses and even a haunted Masonic lodge — the latter of which is said to be inhabited by "Mr. Butt Print," a phantom who leaves cheek marks as his calling card.
In recent years, the ghost tales have sprouted a cottage industry with several different companies offering tours of Alton homes and buildings that are reportedly haunted. Competition is so fierce the Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau reports that it's common for tour operators to call the tourism board and complain that other guides are invading their turf.
"This ghost business does bring people to Alton, I'll give them that," agrees Huber. "But personally, I think all this haunting stuff is a bunch of hocus-pocus bullshit."
But don't tell that to Wayne Hensley, a barber at the Mineral Springs Mall, located in the heart of downtown Alton. At the age of 66, Hensley says he's the oldest living human being to work in the building that opened as a hotel in 1914. The first thing Hensley wants to know when we stop by his small barbershop inside the building is: "Are you a believer?"
"It's all right if you're not," says Hensley as he finishes giving a client a flattop. "On a scale of one to ten, I'd say I used to be a two. I didn't put much stock in ghosts. Now I'd say I'm definitely a ten. There's just no way to explain some of this stuff."
Since moving his business into the building in the early 1980s, Hensley says he's heard voices when no one is around, had his hands slapped by invisible specters, and smelled the perfume and pipe tobacco of the ghosts who haunt the building.
"Back when this hotel opened, Alton was a very violent place," recounts Hensley. "It's incredible the number of murders that happened here. It stands to reason that one or more people were killed in this hotel. Others probably died of suicides or drowned in the mineral pool. Their spirits still haunt this place."
A few years ago, Hensley and a business partner began offering ghost hunts inside the old hotel. Customers pay $30 for the tour and $50 if they elect to eat dinner in the old hotel. For $100, Hensley will even let you sleep on the floor of the swimming pool located in the building's dank basement.
"Business has been good," he boasts, "even through the recession."
Theories differ as to why Alton is haunted. Some say the Mississippi River serves as a channel of sorts to the spiritual world. Others argue that the mystery lies in the Indian legend of the Piasa bird, a winged monster that used to terrify Native American villagers. Others, like 72-year-old Antoinette Eason, believe the answer can be found in the local limestone rock used to build Alton.
"Limestone is a great receptor for psychic residue," explains Eason, who moved to Alton from St. Louis in 1975 and soon set up shop as the city's first licensed psychic. "When something catastrophic happens, it creates an energy that hangs in the air."
Eason believes the assassination of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy still resonates in the spiritual world that haunts Alton. "I don't think the city ever recovered from his murder," she says. "It changed our history. We could have been the state capital instead of Springfield. Now we're not as prosperous as we might have been."
In her 30-plus years in Alton, Eason says she's watched as the town has grown "dirtier," and seen many of the town's treasured buildings disappear due to decay. In 1992, Eason started "Antoinette's Haunted History Tours" which showcases many of Alton's remaining landmarks and their supposed connection to the supernatural.
While her tour initially raised eyebrows, Eason says it continues to sell out month after month. "I'll say this about Alton," she says. "People are more open-minded than they used to be, and not just about metaphysics, either."
It is safe to say that Alton officials are not likely to ever fully embrace topless bartending.
Last month, city attorney Jim Schrempf introduced a change to the Alton ordinance that currently makes it unlawful to expose "any portion of the female breast at or below the areola" in a bar or tavern. The amended ordinance, which might be approved by the Alton City Council on December 17, also makes it unlawful for men to expose their breasts in bars. Violators face fines up to $750.
"So far as anyone knows, we don't have a problem with topless male bartenders in Alton," explains Schrempf. "But we have had some recent incidents with women exposing their breasts in taverns, and the police asked me to draft this change in the law. Apparently there have been some cases where federal courts have said that anti-nudity laws, only for women, would be constitutionally suspect."
What impact the potential change in the law will have on Alton taverns remains to be seen. It could be, too, that the ordinance only addresses half the issue when it comes to nudity. There's still plenty to show off below the waist.
As we head out of Alton we swing by a Broadway bar for one last round. When we ask the svelte brunette barmaid for a Busch, she coyly responds: "You mean the beer, right?"
What other Busch do they have behind the bar?
"None," she replies. "At least not since this afternoon."
Then, for five bucks, she offers to show us something she's just shaved. It's not her legs.