(Above: Illinois Gov. Len Small and the newspaper page announcing his 1921 indictment)

Every family has its "black sheep." Sometimes while researching family history on various occasions over the years, I've often wondered in perhaps my family hasn't had more than it's share. 

But none of them can hold a candle to the man who served as Illinois' Republican governor during the same period that saw Al Capone establish himself as the King of Chicago. Indeed, I often wonder if my familial kinship to this crook that may have helped spur me, even unconsciously, to becoming a Democrat.

Lennington "Len" Small (1862-1936) was the first of Kankakee's three Illinois governors (Sam Shapiro and George Ryan were the other two). Small was the only one of the three actually born in Kankakee, and the only one of the three to win re-election. He was a cousin to my great-great-grandfather. 

At the age of 21 Len Small was appointed as secretary of the State Board of Agriculture, and soon was serving as its president. He served for many years as secretary to the Kankakee Interstate Fair, and on March 16, 1903, was recognized as one of the principal stockholders of the newly formed Kankakee Republican newspaper; that paper later merged with the Kankakee Daily News in 1931 to become the Kankakee Republican-News, and later still was renamed the Kankakee Daily Journal

(Gov. Small's son, Leslie C. Small, became manager of the paper in 1913 and continued in that capacity without interruption for 40 years. The governor's grandsons, Len H. Small and Burrell L. Small, became co-publishers following Leslie Small's death in 1957. The parent company also owned several broadcast interests, which were split off into a separate operation in 1969 with Burrell Small heading that company. Len H. Small continued as publisher of the Daily Journal until his death in an automobile accident on March 10, 1980;  his wife, Jean Alice Small, became Editor and Publisher of The Daily Journal and President of Small Newspapers 10 days later, and on June 1, 1983, was named Chairman of the Board of the Small Newspaper Group while continuing as editor and publisher of the Daily Journal. She served until her death in September of 2002; her son Len Robert Small is the current president of the company. I worked at the paper twice; from 1979 to 1982 while in high school as a member of the inserting crew; and again from 1988 to 1991 while in college as a sports and entertainment correspondent.)

President Taft appointed him assistant U.S. treasurer in Chicago. Twice elected State Senator and twice elected Illinois Treasurer, he first ran for governor in 1912, the first of six campaigns for that office.  Victory came in 1920. Small won a four-way primary by 7,902 votes and then was carried in by Warren Harding's "Return to Normalcy" landslide.

Small was a popular governor. He passed a state bonus for war veterans and pushed through a new state school aid formula to help poor districts. A state conservation department was created. A concrete marker designating land on the Shapiro campus as part of the state fish hatchery can still be seen. He is also credited with building 7,000 miles of concrete roads, the most in the nation by 1928; construction was funded by $100 million in bonds and a two cent a gallon gas tax.

He is best remembered, though, as one of the most corrupt politicians in the history of state known for its corrupt politicians. (Since 1900, the people of Illinois have elected 20 men as the state's chief executive. Six of them — nearly 1 in 3 — have been accused of wrongdoing; Four – including the aforementioned George Ryan, a Republican like Small, and more recently Democrat Rod Blagojevich – have been convicted or pleaded guilty and two were acquitted at trial.)

But in the eyes of many, Small - one of those acquitted at trial - was the dirtiest of them all.

Just seven months after taking office, Small was indicted on charges of embezzling millions of dollars during his second term as state treasurer from 1917 to 1919. He allegedly deposited the state's money in a fictional bank, lent it out at almost 8 percent interest, paid the state less than 2 percent interest and pocketed the difference.

Small’s lawyers argued in court that as governor, he was above the law, citing the Divine Right of Kings. Their argument essentially was, "The King Can Do No Wrong." According to a book on the subject - Len Small: Governors And Gangsters by Jim Ridings - Small ran from the sheriff to avoid arrest and even threatened to call out the National Guard to keep the sheriff away at the point of a bayonet.  

On Saturday, June 24, 1922, after a five-week trial that detailed the complicated financial shenanigans, a jury deliberated barely 90 minutes before it acquitted him of all charges. (His wife, Ida Moore Small, died of apoplexy the day the verdict came in.)

But questions of jury tampering arose even before the jury was impaneled. Almost all of Al Capone's career in Chicago happened at the same time as Small’s tenure as governor, and according to Ridings there definitely was a tie between the governor and the gangster. Ridings' book states that jurors in Small's trial were bribed and intimidated by Capone's gangsters.

Eventually three people - a juror and two mob heavies, were indicted on charges of tampering with the Small jury. All three were acquitted, also without putting on a defense. The jury in that case deliberated for just an hour. Two other mobsters went to jail for six months after refusing to testify before a grand jury. Small pardoned them.

Over the next few years, eight of the jurors who acquitted Small ended up with state jobs. Other people associated with the case also landed on public payrolls, including the presiding judge's brothers.

Still, in 1924, Small was re-elected - despite a Chicago Tribune editorial declaring him the "worst governor the state ever had."

It seemed that some modicum of justice might be served when, in December of 1925, the state Supreme Court ruled in a civil case brought by the Illinois attorney general that Small had indeed taken the people's money and must repay $1 million.

But Small forced state employees to pay into a "defense fund" (higher-paid workers were told to pony up as much as a month's wages), and he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Small then struck a deal with the state — a state he was still running — to settle for just $650,000.  Small sold thousands of pardons and paroles, including pardons to gangsters, murderers, white slavers and even cop killers. Some were reportedly sold by Small and his emissaries to Capone and to other mobsters. According to Ridings, some of the more notorious gangsters who bought their way out of prison inlcuded Fur Sammons and Bugs Moran. 

Small's administration operated a pardon mill where thousands of convicts could buy their way out of prison. When Small became governor, he wrecked the civil service system and brought back the spoils system, giving jobs based on politics rather than merit. He changed the utilities commission for the same political reasons. He tried to change the tax commission so that he could trades bribes for lower tax assessments. Small thwarted attempts at impeachment, and in one instance, he successfully had his Republican majority ram through a bill that exempted the present governor from the constitutional quo warranto provision for removal from office. 

Small reportedly failed to send National Guard troops to prevent the Herrin Massacre in June of 1922 because he was too busy bribing his jury. (The Herrin Massacre, named for the Illinois town in which it occurred, began after an early morning gunfire attack on non-union miners going to work on June 21. Three union miners - Jordie Henderson, Joseph Pitkewicius and one other - were killed in a confrontation after the striking union members marched on the mine; the next day, union miners killed nineteen of fifty strikebreakers and union guards, many of them in brutal ways. A twentieth victim from the non-union group would later be murdered, bringing the death total to twenty-three. The nation reacted to the massacre with disgust; President Warren Harding called it a "shocking crime, barbarity, butchery, rot and madness.")

If all this wasn't enough, Len Small was a favorite of the Ku Klux Klan (the group endorsed his campaigns in 1924, 1928 and 1932). As governor, Small also pardoned twenty members of the Communist Labor Party convicted under the Illinois Sedition Act. He also pardoned or paroled over 1000 convicted felons - including Harry Guzik of Posen, who was convicted of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into lives of prostitution (a practice then commonly called white slavery).

Another criminal who benefitted from Small's "generosity" was notorious bootlegger Edward "Spike" O'Donnell, who was released from prison by Small in 1923 and returned to Chicago as the leader of one of the most powerful bootlegging gangs in the city

In 1928, voters finally said they had had enough. Small lost in the GOP primary to longtime Illinois Secretary of State Louis Emmerson in what was seen as a mandate for reform. Emmerson would serve one term.

By early 1932, the public record was clear about Len Small's blatant corruption, how he pardoned people implicated in fixing his own trial, how he used the state's road-building program to punish enemies and reward loyalty, and how he made public employees reimburse the money he stole from the state as treasurer. (It was said that, when he left office in 1929, Small even stole the silverware and other valuables from the governor's mansion.)

But Republicans nominated him anyway  in April of that year as their candidate for governor. He lost in November to Judge Henry Horner and the Franklin Roosevelt-led Democrats.

Small died on May 17, 1936. He is buried at Mound Grove Cemetery in Kankakee. The Kankakee County Historical Society is headquartered at the Gov. Small Memorial Park, located on the site of the pioneer home of Gov. Small's parents Abram and Calista Small.