Alton Confidential: Naked truths about bare-breasted barmaids, horrific murders and the ghosts that haunt our favorite little river town

It is a quarter till six on a Thursday night last month, and a small group of regulars is seated around a bar in downtown Alton, Illinois. The male crowd wears five-day-old stubble on their cheeks. A few sport Harley-Davidson T-shirts and orange bandanas tightly affixed above their brows. In the corner of the dimly lit lounge, a lone female customer cackles and coos each time someone sends a shot of Jägermeister her way.

Last January, smoking was banned in all Illinois restaurants and saloons, but that doesn't stop anyone from lighting up in Alton's many dive bars. The only evidence the law even exists is that taverns no longer furnish its customers with ashtrays. At this lounge, patrons flick their ashes into Altoids tins and near-empty bottles of beer.

Lining the wall behind the bar is a row of video slot machines, and every few seconds the games draw attention to themselves with an explosion of lights and whistles. Pasted above each game is a small sign that reads: "For Amusement Only." Though like similar slot machines found in watering holes throughout southern Illinois, everyone knows these games pay out behind the bar.

model: Kellee baker
Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg

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But we're not here tonight to witness anything as humdrum as illegal gambling or the flouting of state smoking laws. No, we've driven twenty miles north along the Illinois side of the Mississippi River from St. Louis to eyeball more wanton acts.

It was this past summer when an Alton local first informed us about how bartenders served drinks in his hometown. You might call it bartending au naturel. Venture into any of a half-dozen bars in this quirky river town, our informant told us, and you'll find female bartenders slinging drinks in the buff.

These aren't strip bars, mind you. They're blue-collar juke joints, where showing some skin has become commonplace over the years. As our source explained, you might compare it to the serving of tapas in a Spanish wine bar. Whereas in Spain you expect to receive a small morsel of food with every drink you order, in Alton you expect that Bud Light to come with, well, headlights.

Apparently our man from Alton wasn't lying. In September, sheriff deputies in nearby Jersey County walked into a bar in New Delhi, Illinois, to find a 33-year-old bartender wearing nary a stitch. Less than a month later, police made an arrest in Alton when someone called to complain that they just saw a woman working "totally nude" at the Pub Room, an establishment known for its lascivious proclivities.

With all the recent crackdowns, we figured we'd better hightail it to Alton to behold this nudie phenomenon before it's too late. We're seated at our barstool for all of five minutes when things start to look promising. A heavyset man in a St. Louis Rams jacket walks over to the jukebox in this dark, smoky lounge and cues up the song "Show Them to Me" by country-music comedian Rodney Carrington. The tune may as well serve as unofficial anthem of Alton's underground boobie bars.

Show them to me
Lift up your shirt and let the whole world see
Just disrobe and show your globes
And a happy man I'll be
Show them to me...

As Carrington's lyrics spill from the jukebox, several male patrons goad the barmaid to play along. Soon everyone, including the lone female customer, is encouraging the barkeep to reveal her breasts. "C'mon," screams the man in the Rams jacket. "You heard him! Unclasp your bra, and set those puppies free!"

The bartender protests for a second, then reaches into her shirt and fishes out two goose-bumped, quivering mounds. "Dammit!" she replies to whoops and whistles. "Why can't there be a song that encourages men to show their junk? I'd like to hear that one."

Similar scenes are unfolding at a handful of taverns located down the street on Broadway, Alton's main drag. In a biker bar just a block from city hall, a freakishly top-heavy waitress dressed in jeans and a tank top informs an inquiring customer that her enormous bosom can only fit into a bra with an L-cup or larger. Later, this same barmaid will consume several shots of Rumple Minze and lift her shirt to unleash a snow-white avalanche offset only by two angry brown eyes. Picture a pair of basketballs stuffed into tube socks.

Behind the bar her rail-thin colleague struts about in a bikini top and a miniskirt so short it fails to cover her ass cheeks. She's not wearing panties. When a customer tosses a $1 tip onto the floor, the woman pushes her derriere into the air in an exaggerated effort to collect the money. Proctologists rarely have such a vantage point as do the patrons seated on their barstools.

For a $10 tip the woman grabs a horsewhip from behind the bar and leads a male patron with an S&M fetish to the rear of the tavern. She pulls his jeans down around his ankles, bends him over a pool table and starts flailing away on his hairy, exposed buttocks.

The fun soon ends when a drunk sneaks off without paying his bar tab. As the scofflaw heads for the door, the bartender drops her whip and dials 911. Police arrive minutes later, just as the barmaid is pulling on her panties and barking at patrons to extinguish their cigarettes.

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