Joseph Bush was killed in what the May 14, 1926 edition of the Daily Register Gazette newspaper called the “strangest accident” in the annals of the police. Prohibition was the law of the land from 1920 until 1933 but it was a tough law to enforce. Bootlegging was a very lucrative business in the big cities and even the small towns. Rockford was no exception.
The area on the West side of the river including South Main Street, Rock Street, and Montague Street seemed to be the center of the illegal activity, but many speakeasies, as the illegal taverns were called, were located throughout the city.
In 1926, the police raided a house at 1418 Rock Street and found a large stockpile of illegal “moonshine”. The business Joseph worked for, the Floyd E. Pence Transfer Company, was called in to remove the illegal material and equipment. The truck was called after Deputy Sheriff Paul Johnson and motorcycle Officer Omar Showalter raided the house.
The raid yielded two of the largest stills ever confiscated in Rockford, plus 47 barrels of mash, 35 gallons of moonshine, and 13 sacks of sugar.
The owner of the house was not arrested at the time. He apparently escaped by jumping onto the kitchen counter and climbing out of the window then jumping twelve feet to the ground below.
The officers entered the house and found one still that was steaming with a stream of moonshine slowly running into a ten gallon crock. They noticed a door that had been blocked with bags of mash. Moving these aside, they found another still and about twenty more gallons of moonshine on the second floor of the house.
Joseph arrived with Claude MacKinney who was driving the truck from the Pence Transfer Company. Bush jumped out of the truck to help direct Claude up the driveway. Claude backed up and Bush didn’t get out of the way quickly enough and was caught between the truck and the house. Mackinney quickly pulled forward but Joseph had been severely injured.
Joseph stood up right away and stated he was fine, but within a few minutes he collapsed and the police officers loaded him into the squad car and rushed toward the hospital. Within ten minutes, Joe was dead. Dr. Charles H. Boswell conducted the autopsy and he reported a broken back, ruptured blood vessels, and a gallon of blood in his lungs. His heart had been crushed.
Fred C. Olson, the coroner at the time, conducted an inquest and declared this tragic event as an accident. His main concern was to find a relative to claim the young man’s body.
Interviews revealed that Joe, only twenty five at the time of his death, had been born in Milwaukee. When he was four years old, disaster struck when his parents were both killed. Joseph was raised in an orphanage until his release at the tender age of 12. He was told then that he had four brothers and three sisters and even though he attempted to find them, he was unsuccessful.
At the time of his accident, Joe had only lived in Rockford for a year but he had made many friends here. He roomed at the house of the owner of the transfer company at 722 North Church Street. Claude Mackinney, the driver of the truck was a close friend of Joe’s and was devastated by the accident. Claude spoke highly of Joe and told the doctor that Joe hadn’t been feeling well lately but never complained and always reported for work.
Joe’s boss, Mr. Pence called Joe one of his best workers. Mr. Pence could not offer any clue to Coroner Olsen about the identity or location of any of Joe’s family members.
The coroner held the body for a few days but no one ever came forward and Joe was buried at Cedar Bluff Cemetery using his life insurance money. His estate was left with over $1,700.00 but no family came forward to claim it.
“Victim’s Back broken by heavy machine”, Friday, May 14, 1926: Daily Register Gazette (Rockford, IL)
“$1,700 Estate not claimed”, Friday, May 21, 1926: Daily Register Gazette (Rockford, IL)
“Trucker Crushed by Auto”, Friday, May 14, 1926: Rockford Republic (Rockford, IL)
Copyright © 2014, Kathi Kresol