PART II: the wandawega hotel (Circa 1925-1942)
‘This American system of ours, call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you will, gives each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it.’ - Al Capone
Anna Vikkoria Andersen was born in Ransberg, Sweden, more than 4,000 miles east of Walworth County, Wisconsin. And while little is known about her family and early life in Scandinavia, in her early teens Anna immigrated to the United States on the steamship Hellig Olav in either 1904 or 1906. It is unknown whether Anna spoke English at that time or if she traveled to America by herself.
In the first years after arriving in America, Anna proved to be a resourceful young woman. She made her way from New York to Illinois and found work as a domestic servant in the homes of wealthy Chicagoans. And then, with some combination of resourcefulness and simple good fortune, and despite being in her late teens, Anna was legally adopted by German-born architect Frank Schoenfeldt and his wife. Shortly after adopting Anna, Mrs. Schoenfeldt died of unknown causes. By 1914, Anna had become an American citizen and, in March of 1917, she married Harry Beckford, a private chauffeur. Five short months after being married, Harry Beckford was on his way to work as an army machinist in France during the first World War. Two years later, Beckford was honorably discharged from the army as a result of injuries sustained in Europe and he returned to his wife in Chicago.
And then, in 1925, perhaps as a retreat from the clamor of the city, as a simple real-estate investment, or, perhaps, with even more creative aspirations in mind, the widowed architect Frank Schoenfeldt decided to move his home and family to Walworth County, Wisconsin. They would leave the big city behind and start a new life on the shores of Lake Wandawega.
After purchasing four acres on the west side of ‘Lot 2’ from a farmer named Parsons, Schoenfeldt designed and built The Wandawega Hotel, the first modern building ever built on the site. In the two decades following the construction of Schoenfeldt’s little lakeside hotel, a motley ensemble of Prohibition-era characters would find their way into its rooms and eat at its restaurant and picnic under its trees: vacationers and gamblers, bootleggers and corrupt cops, prostitutes, ‘Johns,’ and even Chicago’s infamous ‘Sweetheart Murderer’ John Gabriele.
A ‘Real Summer Resort’ (1925 - 1928) The original Wandawega Hotel was built in a simple, vernacular cottage style. Its structure was constructed with the modest 2x4 lumber elements typical of the region. Clad in drop siding, roofed with asphalt shingles, and outfitted with a field stone fireplace, the Wandawega Hotel was typical of the kind of structures built around the lake in the early 1920’s: utilitarian, efficient, and well-positioned. The design and materials used to build the hotel were intentionally simplistic and unpretentious. Located near a main road and, yet, still out of the way, the Wandawega Hotel was an ideal destination for the working and middle classes of Chicago, in need of an escape from the urban grind or the inconvenient restrictions of prohibition...or perhaps both.
Little is known about why Schoenfeldt chose the exact site on Lake Wandawega (beyond the location’s proximity to Chicago) or why he chose to build a hotel. It is also not known whether or not The Wandawega Hotel had always been intended as a place where illegal liquor and illicit sex would be made available to customers. At least on the surface, and in the early years, the Wandawega Hotel was marketed as a genuine, American summer getaway. A 1928 advertisement in The Oak Parker Newspaper beckoned readers to The Wandawega Hotel with this menu of wholesome pleasures:
"Why not enjoy your vacation at a real summer resort, plenty of good fishing, wonderful swimming beach right at our door, a real golf course near at hand, dancing every night at ‘Wandawega Paradise,’ plenty of airy rooms overlooking the lake, real southern cooking, and, above all, 25 wooded acres of land to roam in, equipped with swings, benches, and the like. Boats, smokes, candies, and tasty sandwiches as well as soft drinks and ice cream. $20.00 per week - room and board, Breakfast and Lunch - 50 cents each, Dinner - 75 cents, Chicken or Steak Dinners - $1.25 each"
And yet, despite the ‘all-American’ lingo and the promise of ‘enjoy[ing] your vacation at a real summer resort,’ one has to wonder why there were so many trap doors installed in Mr. Schoenfeldt’s new hotel, why so many hidden rooms? Perhaps as extra storage space for all those ‘smokes, candies, and tasty sandwiches?’
Sometime during 1928, Frank Schoenfeldt turned over ownership and management of The Wandawega Hotel to his adopted daughter Anna. By that time, Frank was in his mid seventies and his health was deteriorating rapidly. It is not known for how much longer after 1928 that Frank continued to live along with Anna at the Wandawega Hotel. But, five years later, in 1933, Frank Schoenfeldt would die in the Wisconsin hospital for the insane.
Over the course of the next fourteen years as owner and operator, Anna Beckford would become the personality most associated with the The Wandawega Hotel. During this time the ‘real summer resort’ would become known for more than its ‘good fishing’ and ‘real southern cooking.’ In Walworth County and as far away as Chicago, Anna’s hotel became known as a cozy, convenient and discreet getaway for gentlemen with very specific appetites.
As a result of the highly ‘specialized’ services available under her roof during the years of Prohibition, Anna’s reputation would grow to mythical status in her own lifetime. Anna Beckford, previously Anna Andersen - the immigrant girl from rural Sweden, was about to become known as ‘Orphan Annie:’ innkeeper, bootlegger, madame and mistress of Lake Wandawega’s most notorious ‘house of ill repute.’
A Bawdy House of Ill Fame (1928 - 1942)
"Why don't they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as well as Prohibition did, in five years Americans would be the smartest race of people on Earth.’" Will Rogers
The Prohibition years in Walworth County were rowdy and wet; a place where illegal booze and loose women could be enjoyed at several remotely located ‘roadhouses’ located just off the well-traveled roads between Chicago and Milwaukee. Not least among these rural speakeasies was The Wandawega Hotel, whose chief attractions were ‘Orphan Annie’s Bar’ and the availability of ‘sporting girls’ willing to keep hotel guests warm at night...for a small fee, of course.
During the days of Anna Beckford, the legal term for a brothel was a ‘bawdy house.’ The Women’s Christian League called them ‘houses of ill repute.’ But the madames, the working girls themselves, and the ‘Johns’ who patronized such places called them, simply, ‘resorts’ or ‘sporting houses.’ And while the resorts of that era came in many different sizes and shapes (and with variable price tags) two things were essential: liquor and girls.
Under the ownership and management of Anna Beckford, The Wandawega Hotel was known as a mid-range ‘resort:’ not an exclusive establishment, reserved for the upper classes, but neither was it one of the back alley Chicago whorehouses that the Temperance League blamed for exacerbating America’s moral decline. For somewhere between two and five dollars, a guest at The Wandawega Hotel could expect a warm bed for the night and a warm body to share it with.
The women and girls who worked in resorts such as The Wandawega Hotel were from primarily Catholic families. They paid rent at the resort, something like three dollars a week. They bought their own clothes. The girls answered to the madame of the house, who, in turn, answered to the bosses (who were, as a rule, almost always men). And, in the end, ‘the house’ kept fifty percent of whatever a girl brought in from clients. Despite the lively jazz music, the ‘dancing every night,’ and the free flow of illicit alcohol, it’s hard to imagine that being a ‘working girl’ at The Wandawega Hotel was a glamorous life. There was, most certainly, a measure of abuse, neglect, and physical and psychological danger inherent to the work. And then, in addition, there was the wide spectrum of men who wandered in each night - bringing with them a wide assortment of bawdy cravings and unpredictable temperaments.
Throughout the 1930’s, Madame Anna’s ‘guest list’ was made up of both the anonymous and the illustrious: travelling salesmen and passers-through as well as local law enforcement officers, judges, businessmen and politicians. In a sweeping 1914 study of prostitution in Wisconsin, researchers found that about half of the ‘Johns’ partaking in the service of prostitutes were married men. They came from all walks of life, and all strata of class - many were devoted fathers, civic leaders, and church goers. And, for many years, it was the more influential clientele that made sure The Wandawega Hotel stayed open. For without the help of justice’s blind-eye and the greasing of official palms, The Wandawega Hotel would never have become such a well known or profitable an enterprise. The pervading idea at the time was that even dirty business was good business for the economy of Walworth County. In later years, it would come to light that many local officials saw the ‘resorts’ as a necessary evil—that by confining the bootlegged liquor and prostitutes to out-of-the-way areas, such as the edges of Lake Wandawega, they were actually doing the public a service: keeping the bawdy girls and the destructive drink far away from Main Street USA.
And, so it was that while The Volstead Act was the law of the land, the officials of Walworth County never sincerely intended to board up or close down The Wandawega Hotel. Tucked away in Walworth County, Anna Beckford’s little getaway was safe from reproach, scaffolded by local corruption. If ‘Orphan Annie’ was ever going to have serious trouble with the law, it wouldn’t be the local law. They were too busy having fun.
Repeat Offender In October of 1931, after an undercover sting operation, Federal Prohibition officers raided and padlocked The Wandawega Hotel, along with fifty seven other roadhouses in five Wisconsin counties. Each federal padlock brought with it a one year ban on doing business of any kind. ‘The injunctions include all manner of places,’ the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune of October 30, reported, ‘from sandwich stands to saloons to the elite old Heidelberg Cafe in Milwaukee.’ As one of the targets of the massive crackdown, Anna Beckford was, for the first time, found guilty of violating The Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.
But, with it’s influential client base being what it was, The Wandawega Hotel did not stay padlocked for long. Reports from Anna’s neighbors at the time claim that the US Prohibition office’s padlocks were cut off as soon as the federal officers had left town. And just like that, ‘Orphan Annie’ was back in business.
At some point between taking over ownership of The Wandawega Hotel in 1928 and the summer of 1934, Anna divorced Harry Beckford and remarried a man named Gordon M. Peck, known in Walworth County for his laziness and reckless, drunken behavior. The marriage was turbulent from the beginning. It is not certain what role, if any, Gordon Peck took on in the operation of The Wandawega Hotel, but his marriage to Anna did signify a sea change for the legal fortunes of the establishment. From 1934 onward, Anna Beckford Peck would be arrested several times.
In 1931, Anna was arrested for contempt of court and served thirty days in jail. In the summer of 1934, twenty pints of illegal booze were found hidden in The Wandawega Hotel’s piano and Anna was arrested once more. In the years that followed, it can be assumed that Anna, Gordon, and The Wandawega Hotel were by then perpetually ‘on the radar’ of local, state, and federal law enforcement departments. And, despite the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, it was becoming more and more difficult for The Wandawega Hotel to exist as a thriving ‘house of ill repute.’ It is unknown how many more times during the 1930’s that The Wandawega Hotel was raided or how often the Pecks found themselves in police custody. One thing is certain, in the first years of the 1940s, there was growing pressure from local and state officials to deal with the illicit and ongoing goings-on of the infamous Anna Peck.
In 1940, following an investigation by the Wisconsin beverage tax commission, the Pecks were once again charged with sale of illegal beer at the Wandawega Hotel. And yet, for reasons unknown at the time, Walworth County District Attorney Robert Bulkley dropped the charges against the Pecks and business at the hotel resumed. Two years later, however, after a complaint had been made to then Wisconsin Governor Julius Heil about the Walworth D.A.’s inability to prosecute Gordon and Anna Peck, the Wandawega Hotel found itself at the center of a minor statewide political scandal. What followed were a series of letters between the governor and district attorney Heil, in which the governor called for an explanation as to why the Pecks hadn’t been prosecuted. In what can, in retrospect, be seen as an audacious example of political ‘back scratching’ Mr. Bulkley responded to the governor’s inquest and explained that the state’s evidence against the Peck’s was ‘insufficient to prosecute.’ The governor, thus satisfied by this official explanation, then responded to Mr. Bulkley on June 16, in praise of the district attorney's office’s legal expertise, and ensured all concerned parties that,
"I [Governor Heil] appreciate your full and complete report in the Ann Beckford Peck case...this fully explains the position you have taken...I have every confidence in your integrity and feel that you should have an opportunity to make a record of your position in a matter where a complaint had been made to the governor’s office. This will make a permanent record for your protection."
And while District Attorney Bulkley’s professional protection was insured by the governor’s office, no such assurance existed for Anna and Gordon Peck. Under pressure from local and state officials, the unofficial and long-standing legal protection that Anna had so long relied upon to operate in Walworth County, had disintegrated. Late in 1942, the owners of The Wandawega Hotel were, once again arrested and charged with the ‘illegal sale of beer’ and for ‘operat[ing] of a house of ill fame.’ And so, with it’s innkeepers in mounting legal, financial, and tax troubles, the era of The Wandawega Hotel finally came to an end.
On October 15, 1942, Anna was sentenced to serve one to three years at Taycheedah, the Wisconsin state prison for women. By the time she was released from Taycheedah, The Wandawega Hotel property had been impounded by the county. The hotel’s windows were boarded up, its liquor seized, and its doors locked to Madame Anna ‘Orphan Annie’ Beckford Peck forever. It would be several years before the property would be renamed and resurrected as a legitimate getaway destination. But, despite the many changes to come - the ensuing decades of history and the personalities who would later populate the biography of the site where the notorious Wandawega Hotel once operated - none is able to hold the imagination of guests in the 21st century quite like Anna Beckford Peck.
Anna lived in Walworth County the rest of her life, just steps away from the county courthouse where she had been sentenced to serve her prison term. It is not known whether she ever visited the Wandawega Hotel property ever again. She died on June 30, 1980 and was buried in Lafayette Cemetery.
The Tragic End of ‘Johnny Sweetheart’ (1942) One more event from the last days of The Wandawega Hotel deserves to be mentioned here: the origins of the ‘first ghost of Camp Wandawega.’ The Ghost of Johnny Sweetheart.
Monday, August 31, 1942, Chicago: a lover cast aside, a man pushed to the breaking point - then to murder and kidnapping, a stolen car, and a high-speed getaway up Route 12, over the Wisconsin line and into Walworth County. This is the rough sketch of the violent events that led John Gabriele, 35, to make the Wandawega Hotel his last hiding place before, ultimately, committing suicide at a cottage on the grounds of the Peck’s notorious hotel.
From the frontpage report of the Elkhorn Independent, three days later, the lurid crimes were explained in more expansive detail, ‘reminiscent’ the paper noted, of the ‘sensationalism’ Walworth County had known much of during the ‘late roaring twenties.’ Sometime during the summer of 1942, Mr. Gabriele had been cast aside by his sweetheart, Miss Virginia Bodziach, despite his insistent advances and pleas for forgiveness.
‘From friends and relatives,’ wrote the Independent, ‘police pieced together the story of the blasted romance.’ It had been trouble from the start. The couple had quarrelled often. Gabriele was violent; once, after Miss Bodziach had pulled away, John had smashed the front windows of her Chicago home and, ‘threatened to kill her when she declined to forgive and marry him.’
And then, on that fateful afternoon in August, John Gabriele lost control. At around 4:30pm that day, Gabriele was waiting for Virginia outside her workplace, Chicago’s Appleton Electric power plant. He confronted her and begged, one final time, that she take him back. When she once again refused him, John Gabriele dragged Virginia Bodziach into a deserted alleyway and shot his ‘one true love’ to death. During his escape from the murder scene he also confronted and shot Virginia’s sister Leona, who would later recover.
Before leaving Chicago, John Gabriele commandeered the vehicle of an acquaintance, Irene Carpenter. John confessed his crime to Irene, then held a gun to her head and forced her to drive northwest to Walworth County. The pair escaped at high speeds, and upon arriving at the Wandawega Hotel, Gabriele rented a room under the name of Jack Redmond. He asked the Pecks to borrow a radio, under the guise of wanting to hear the evening news. That evening, Irene Carpenter left Gabriele at The Wandawega Hotel and drove her car back to Chicago. There, she informed the police of all that had transpired and where they could find John Gabriele. She knew that Gabriele was still armed. He was a desperate man, capable of doing almost anything.
When Walworth County police officers arrived at The Wandawega Hotel around 12:30 am, they woke Gordon and Anna Peck, and knocked on the door of the guest cottage adjacent to the hotel proper.
There was no answer. No one stirred inside the cottage. The only sound the officers heard was the quiet hum of radio static somewhere behind the locked door.
When the police finally entered the cottage, John Gabriele was found slumped in a rocking chair, dead, a .32 caliber revolver on the floor at his feet. On a nearby table, twelve letters were found, all written in Gabriele’s hand. The letters were address to various people. In them, Mr. Gabriele asked for forgiveness. For understanding. ‘Remember me as a good fellow, Steve’ he wrote to an old friend, ‘Thanks for all you have done for me...take good care of your wife...believe me and forgive me. A man has to have nerve to kill himself. Believe me. It’s the truth. I died at 11:20 pm.’
In the days following the suicide, the body of John Gabriele was sent back to Chicago. The news reports of the ‘blasted romance,’ the murder of Virginia Bodziach, the kidnapping and escape, and John Gabriele’s desperate suicide ran its course in Elkhorn and Chicago. The story was soon set aside, overshadowed by the inevitable occurrence of ensuing and more news worthy Windy City crimes. The papers, their readers, and the world beyond, moved on.
And yet, though his body was only within proximity of The Wandawega Hotel a few short hours, some say the presence (nay, the tortured spirit) of John Gabriele, aka ‘Johnny Sweetheart,’ still lingers on the hotel grounds: the last notorious guest from the days of ‘Orphan Annie’ and, yet, the first among the ghosts reported to haunt the shores of Lake Wandawega.
In the eighty years since he made his getaway to Walworth County, dozens (or is it hundreds?) have reported seeing a young man, not unlike John Gabriele, wandering along the distant shore of the lake, just beyond the night mist. The mysterious figure is seen, so they say, wearing an old fashioned bowler hat, standing at the far end of the pier that stretches out into the lake. He stands at the edge of the pier looking out across the lake. Looking for something in the distance. Perhaps he looks for something, or someone, that has long been lost.