It had been a special night for Grace and Charles Kalb. December 22, 1937 was Charles’ 46th birthday and their wedding anniversary. The couple were married for 24 years by then. They had already celebrated with a fancy party for their friends at the Faust Hotel.
On this night they had taken Charles’ best friend and business partner, Harry Dunn to a night on the town to celebrate. They were almost back to their house where they were going to eat cake with the couple’s two sons, Charles Jr. who was 18 years old and John Robert who was 13. Both of the boys were home for Christmas break and excited to celebrate this special day with their parents. Charles Jr. attended Northwestern University while John went to St. John Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin.
The three adults had been to see a show and were driving down Oxford Street toward their house located on Clinton Avenue. Charles always turned onto Cottage Grove to take the alley in the middle of the block. Their house was on Clinton Avenue but the garage opened toward the alley in the back of the property.
Charles was proud of the things that he had been able to give Grace and the boys. He loved living in a nice, big house and Christmas was one of his favorite times of the year. The house was all decorated for Christmas and looked very festive. Later, the newspapers would emphasize the contrast with the beautifully decorated lights on the house and the dark scene that played out behind it.
Charles slowed down as he made the turn onto Cottage Grove Avenue and Grace mentioned that there was someone behind them. Charles pulled over to let the car pass on the left before he made the turn into the alley. As the car passed Charles’ vehicle the night exploded with gunfire.
Later, a 12 gauge clean bore shot gun shell would be found in the street making it very clear to the police that whoever had fired the gun meant to kill Charles Kalb. The slugs entered the left side of Charles’ face piercing his brain and causing instant death.
The glass from the shattered window flew through the car and caused cuts to Grace’s face and damaged her left eye. She began to scream.
The car with the shooter or shooters pulled slowly away from the scene. The witnesses would say later they heard the purr of its engine as it slowly made its way down the street. The driver didn’t increase his speed; there was no squealing of tires, just a calm drive down the block.
Once the car moved down the block, Harry Dunn jumped from the car, handed Grace the house keys, and sent her for help. He was concerned for his friend and held his head up to help ease his breathing. But Charles would never take another breath. He died there in his car as his wife ran down the alley screaming for help.
By the time the police arrived a huge crowd of people had gathered at the scene. One neighbor who lived behind the Kalb’s on Oxford was George Mulholland. He rushed to Grace’s aid as she approached her back door. He told her that his wife had already called the police and an ambulance. They walked back down the alley both knowing that the ambulance would arrive too late to save Charles.
Grace must have thought about how ironic it was that Charles would die on his birthday. She must have been thinking about how differently their wedding day had ended 24 years earlier when she began the day as Grace Sullivan and ended it as Mrs. Charles Kalb.
Grace mentioned to Mr. Mulholland that she didn’t want the boys to see their father like that. She grew frantic as the time neared for them to arrive home. Mr. Mulholland agreed to intercept the boys and keep them inside the house.
The police arrived quickly. In fact, since the victim was considered high profile, State’s Attorney Robert Nash, Assistant Chief of Police Sheriff Carl Palmgren and the Mayor at the time, Charles E. Brown showed up, as well.
Everyone knew who Charles was, especially law enforcement and politicians. Charles and Grace had lived in Rockford for over 20 years at the time. Charles ran his own business and was the head of the Rockford Dyers and Cleaners business.
But he had made his real money running a bookie business. His office was in the Stewart Square building in downtown Rockford. He held leases for all of the horse race track wires in Rockford and this allowed him to keep all of the other “bookies” away from the downtown area. Rumors have been floating around that some of Kalb’s competitors though he was getting “too big for his own good”. They were upset that he held all of the power to dictate not only where they could open up a shop but also who could run the business.
The former sheriff in town, Sheriff William C. Bell had made things rough for Kalb by raiding his business. But Kalb would cooperate with the authorities and then go right back to business as soon as they left. He was a smart businessman though and the raids were costly.
It was never made clear who approached who but whether Charles made the first move or the Assistant Police Chief Homer Read doesn’t matter. One of them approached the other with a proposition. Charles (along with others in his business) started paying Read an insurance fee. This worked well for all parties until 1934 when the Fire and Police Commissioners brought Read and Charles before a grand jury on charges of bribery. The grand jury indicted both of the men for the charges but the cases were both dropped before they came to trial. Homer Read resigned from the Police Department and Kalb was fined $500.00.
Police grew frustrated very quickly with the investigation into Charles’ murder. Newspapers stated that when they went to question some of his fellow businessmen that they met “an impenetrable wall of silence.” Most of the owners suddenly decided to take family vacations in other states.
City leaders were afraid that Charles’ men would retaliate against whoever had placed the hit on him. They were also afraid of what tactics the lesser men would use as they tried to scramble to the top to gain Charles’ share of the business. Authorities decided to shut down the gambling in Rockford. James Kieley who was president of the Rockford Operator’s Association at the time and represented the legitimate gambling establishments in town, agreed to their demands. All slot machines would be removed from business and clubs by January 1, 1938.
The legitimate gambling places in town had been hoping that the state would pass new licensing ordinances to help stop all of the illegal gambling. The men felt that the new law would also help to stop the illegal shake down by police officers who would take the bribes to look the other way.
In fact, officers discovered an article in Charles’ wallet describing the actions taken in Chicago to hurry the law along. But that decision wouldn’t help Charles or his family.
Grace continued to live in the house on Clinton Avenue. The boys, Charles and John Robert grew into fine men. Charles became an aeronautical engineer, married and moved to California. John Robert became a Staff Sergeant in the Air Force proudly serving his country. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Charles would have been proud of both of them.
Charles Kalb’s murder was never solved. It was a case that had too many suspects and not enough witnesses.
Copyright © 2019 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events