Immigrant’s 1923 death in East Alton leaves open questions

A poker game in a western Illinois river town turned deadly one weekend in October 1923, claiming the lives of two men, one of whom was a Latvian immigrant described in a local newspaper as a “gallant soldier.” His story, still in pieces, is a reminder that among the many Latvians who settled in America in the early 20th century are those who vanished from their ethnic roots and community.

John Preede (Jānis Priede) immigrated to the United States in May 1906, according to his Declaration of Intention.1 He was just 18 years old. In stature, he was short and a bit on the heavy side: 5 feet 7 inches and 160 pounds. He had the typical Latvian blond hair and gray eyes. One can only speculate about the reasons for leaving his homeland. Was he involved in the 1905 Revolution? And why did he land in San Francisco, rather than at an East Coast port like the majority of his compatriots?

John Preede's Declaration of Intention
Latvian immigrant John Preede’s Declaration of Intention, originally filed March 31, 1913, in Madison County, Illinois.

He made his way to St. Louis2 and then to nearby East Alton, Illinois. In 1917, he worked for the Egyptian Powder Company near the village of Energy in southern Illinois, according to his draft registration.3 Powder mills made the blasting powder needed for the coal mining industry in the state. When the United States entered World War I, Preede enlisted in the Army. He was assigned as a private to the 311th Regiment of the 78th Division. In May 1918, the regiment shipped off to France.4 After the war, Preede returned to East Alton, where in 1920 he was reported to have served for a while as a constable. He also worked in a powder mill near Peoria5, but then returned to East Alton and took a job as a millwright for the Equitable Powder Company.

On the Saturday night of Oct. 23, 1923, the 34-year-old Preede and several other men were playing poker in an upstairs room of the Shamrock Hotel — just blocks from his residence — when someone knocked on the door. The Alton Evening Telegraph explained what happened next:

“Who’s there,” was the query propounded by one of the poker players.

“Open up. It’s Red,” was the reply from outside.

The door was opened, the card players expected to be confronted by the proprietor of the hotel, H. A. Jenkins, who is red haired. But the newcomers were quite different. They bristled with revolvers, they wore black masks that completely concealed their faces. The masks had been cut from some black cloth and holes made for the eyes.

“Stick ’em up,” was the command from the three masked men, and everybody complied.

“Face the wall,” was the next command and the poker players did that, too. Then the bandits required the men to interlace their arms with palms against the wall overhead, the arms of the men crossing the arms of the men on either side next. Then the bandits were ready to go through the party.

One man had been searched, and next was John Preede. Those who knew him wondered what was about to happen. They knew Preede had a big revolver, they knew he was a crack shot, they knew of his war record and the citation for pure nerve hanging on the wall in his room, and they knew what he had often said he would do. Nobody was surprised then, even if they were scared, over what began to happen. Preedy (sic!) reached into his belt for his big revolver. A bandit noted the move of Preedy and a revolver went off. One of the bandits had tried to shoot Preedy in the left shoulder. The powder burned Preedy’s leather trench coat on the shoulder and a bullet ploughed through the coat, but did not touch the skin. That made Preedy mad. He pulled his gun and he shot once.6

As the robbers retreated out of the room and down the dark staircase, according to the newspaper, the gunfight continued. Preede was hit by a bullet that pierced his heart, while one of the bandits also was killed.

Although Preede’s life story received some coverage in the local press, it was the dead robber who got more attention. He was identified as Joseph McMahon, an employee of the McMahon Brothers Construction Company of St. Louis, which had been founded by his father. A superintendent at the company described McMahon as “a good boy” and “a hard worker.”7

As in so many previous cases, I happened upon Preede’s story by chance, exploring another historical lead. And, as in so many previous cases, learning more about him was complicated by a number of factors, including the lack of documentation and the fact that “John Preede” was not an uncommon name. Having exhausted my usual sources — digitized newspapers, city directories, FamilySearch.org, and Ancestry.com among them — I had just about given up hope of finding anything of value without the expense and time of on-site research. While Preede appeared in 1910 and 1920 federal census records, little else was available. His military record could well have been part of the millions of documents destroyed in a 1973 fire.

Local history channels also were not of much help. However, then I happened upon the website of the Madison County Circuit Clerk’s Office. Among public records the office has digitized are immigration and naturalization documents from 1850-1959, a total of 122 volumes. That’s where I found Preede, but also more questions.

His Declaration of Intention and later his naturalization application clarified some details. According to these documents, Preede entered the United States around May 18, 1906, through San Francisco, a month after the massive earthquake that devastated the city. He supposedly arrived on a ship called the Massachusetts. However, no ship named the Massachusetts was reported to have come into port around that time in San Francisco.8 It is possible that Preede was confused about the date or the name of the ship.

The Alton Evening Telegraph reported that while serving in France, Preede saw action: “He was wounded, gassed and once lay in a shell hole three days and three nights wounded, before he was rescued.” Does that suggest he was wounded at least twice? And why does a 1932 application for a headstone9 from the federal War Department, submitted by Robert H. Streeper, describe Preede’s rank as cook?

Preede is buried in the Upper Alton Cemetery, also known as the Oakwood Cemetery. He did not leave much behind — some cash, his Army discharge, and a framed citation for valor on the battlefield — and nothing was known about his heirs, at least according to one newspaper report. Four years after his death, the state’s Service Recognition Board tried to locate Preede and many other World War I veterans who were entitled to bonuses. Preede was due $200.50, according to the Alton Evening Telegraph. As late as 1952, the money was still waiting.10


1. John Preede declaration of intention (1913), naturalization file no. 817, Madison County Circuit Court, Edwardsville, Illinois; Naturalization Record Book 34, p. 817, http://bit.ly/2CX3aMw, accessed 2 March 2018.

2. “United States Census, 1910,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GRJY-JP3?cc=1727033&wc=QZZ7-J4G%3A133639601%2C141939001%2C142037001%2C1589088932 : 24 June 2017), Missouri > St Louis (Independent City) > St Louis Ward 6 > ED 102 > image 14 of 26; citing NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

3. “United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G1HW-9ZM6?cc=1968530&wc=9FCL-7M3%3A928312901%2C929047101 : 14 May 2014), Illinois > Williamson County no 1; D-Z > image 2843 of 4338; citing NARA microfilm publication M1509 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

4. Ancestry.com. U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.

5. “United States Census, 1920,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MJC7-13F : accessed 4 March 2018), John Preede in household of Earnest Hedwig, Rosefield, Peoria, Illinois, United States; citing ED 139, sheet 2B, line 60, family 35, NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992), roll 400; FHL microfilm 1,820,400.

6. “Gallant Soldier Slain in Fight, But Kills One of Hold Up Trio,” Alton Evening Telegraph, October 29, 1923, p. 1.

7. Alton Evening Telegraph, op. cit. See also “Man Slain While Robbing Gamblers Held a Good Job,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 29, 1923, p. 3.

8. “Shipping Intelligence,” San Francisco Call, 99:172 (20 May 1906), p. 26.

9. “United States Headstone Applications for U.S. Military Veterans, 1925-1949,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GP8J-DT8?cc=1916249&wc=MDBL-W68%3A205942801%2C211648401 : 17 May 2016), 1925-1941 > Porter, Deck-Price, James T > image 1680 of 2255; citing NARA microfilm publication M1916 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.). For a history of the unit to which Preede was assigned, see Barnard Eberlin, History of the 311th Infantry (78th Division) (Flavigny-sur-Ozérain (Côte-d’Or), France: n.p., 1919).

10. “Holdup Deaths Inquest is Set for Thursday,” Alton Evening Telegraph, October 31, 1923, p. 1.; “Seek Addresses of Three Local Veterans of War,” Alton Evening Telegraph, November 22, 1927, p. 3; “Bonus Checks Waiting for 3 Area Veterans,” Alton Evening Telegraph, January 28, 1952, p. 1.