The 1920 census of Centerville lists 40 countries of national origin. McMurry was so convinced this was an extraordinary statistic that she called Ellis Island to discuss it with the chief archivist there. She said he informed her that this was nothing compared to Peoria, Ill., which is considered the benchmark for diversity at that time.
But she followed up with a call to Peoria, where she was informed that the most diverse census there was not the 1920 one but rather the 1930 one, and that it showed 44 countries of origin, only four more than Centerville in 1920 despite the fact that Peoria was five times bigger at the time.
“It’s not just northern European,” she said. “There were Turks here, and the Jews were from Poland and Russia, and there was a Chinese laundry on the Centerville Square.”
The Mafia was very active in the county. There were even two reported sightings of Al Capone, McMurry said. This past October, she gave a haunted history tour that told the story of Fred Burke, the main gunman in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, who changed his name, took out a marriage certificate in Appanoose County and got married here (though, she pointed out, he was already married).
There were more illegal stills producing alcohol in Appanoose County than any other Iowa county, McMurry found, at least by the arrest rate. The average number of arrests for counties was 25, and it was 68 here. The stills produced an alcohol called grappi that sold in New York City for $40 a gallon.
A high number of Mafia-related murders occurred here, with the bodies often dragged up onto the railroad tracks. One time, near the present-day post office, the Mafia blew up a house.
The Ku Klux Klan
In response to the Mafia murders, the Ku Klux Klan put an ad in their newspaper asking Klan members to move to Centerville and take it back from the Mafia.
They did so by taking over the local Democratic Party. In 1922, the party was having a meeting to choose representatives for the state convention. In walked between 30 and 40 people, enough to take over the meeting and elect their own representatives.
McMurry said there are many good reasons that local people should be interested in the history of Centerville and Appanoose County. One is that the way their ancestors dealt with the Klan after that was heroic.
“How the people in the town stood up to the KKK, it should be a Stephen Spielberg movie,” she said. “If they knew not just what these people have gone through but the decisions they made—not all of them, some of them were straight racists—but if they knew, it would be a moral guide.”