A Southern Illinois gangster known as “Black Charlie” Harris wasn’t as famous as the Shelton brothers, Charlie Birger or Frank “Buster” Wortman.
But his thick FBI file labeled him a “vicious criminal” responsible for more than 20 murders.
“They contend he was a major hit man,” said Taylor Pensoneau, 69, of New Berlin, an Illinois historian who recently published a book on Harris.
“They said starting in the late 1940s and going into the ’50s, he was portraying himself as a gentleman farmer in Wayne County, but he was being contracted by organized crime. He was leading a double life.”
The book is called “Dapper & Deadly: The True Story of Black Charlie Harris” (Downstate Publications, $18.95).
Pensoneau got much of his information from newspaper clippings and law-enforcement records, but he also tracked down and interviewed the gangster’s elderly niece, Bea Riley, in Kansas.
“It was definitely a coup,” said Pensoneau, a Belleville native who retired as Illinois Coal Association president and previously served as Illinois political writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Harris was living in a mobile home on Riley’s property when he died of natural causes in 1988, seven years after his third and final incarceration. He was 91.
Harris was buried under a cottonwood tree next his third wife, Rena.
“It was peaceful for a man who, near the end of his life, remarked to (Riley) that he ‘never killed anybody who didn’t deserve to get it,’” the book states.
“Bea, who knew her uncle better than anyone else, was convinced that ‘he had no second thoughts, no regrets in looking back.’”
Harris was born in 1896 and lived most of his life in Fairfield, near Mount Vernon. He claimed the Sheltons, who grew up in the same Pond Creek neighborhood, gave him the derogatory nickname “Black Charlie.”
Other sources indicate it was simply a way people differentiated between Charles Harris, who had black hair, and a red-haired man by the same name.
Harris skipped out on his teenage wife and baby in 1916 and moved to Phoenix, where he had his first brush with the law. Undercover officers caught him with a prostitute.
“They started to rough him up, and he pulled a knife and stabbed one of them,” Pensoneau said. “That got him 14 months in a state prison at Florence.”
Harris later worked as an apprentice carpenter in Detroit while serving as an agent for the Sheltons, buying bootleg liquor and shipping it back to Illinois.
That led to his second prison sentence for passing counterfeit money. He met Wortman, an East St. Louis gangster, at Leavenworth.
“They developed a kinship,” Pensoneau said. “Both were there because of their relationship with the Shelton gang. Both felt they had been screwed by them.”
Pensoneau describes Harris as a “good-looking” and “hot-tempered” man with loyal friends and fierce enemies.
“He dressed like a million bucks,” Pensoneau said. “He was a ladies man. Whether they were single or married, that didn’t matter to him.”
His crush on Fairfield resident Betty Newton, a married woman with five children, landed him in jail a third time. She was murdered in 1964 while having an affair with a younger man.
“They were in bed together in a vacant farmhouse, and somebody came in and shot them both to death and then burned the house down,” Pensoneau said.
“It was kind of hard to investigate. The torsos were burned so badly, they were almost unidentifiable. But everybody in the world knew it was Black Charlie.”
Harris was indicted for double murder and arson and went on the lam for 10 months. He made the FBI’s Most Wanted list before getting caught and convicted and serving 15 years in prison.
Pensoneau began working on the book about two years ago. He asked a private detective friend to find Riley and eventually spent three days at her home in Elkhart, Kan.
“She said, ‘Charles’ life was so extraordinary, and he had a lot of good with the bad,” Pensoneau said.
Pensoneau’s first job was delivering newspapers for the Belleville News-Democrat. He also worked as a fledgling reporter while in high school.
Pensoneau returns to the metro-east once a year to induct High Mount School students into a National Junior Honor Society chapter named after his brother, Terry, who was killed in the Vietnam War.
Pensoneau has authored or co-authored six books, including “Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons,” now in its sixth printing, and biographies of former Illinois governors Dan Walker and Richard Ogilvie.