Diary of Our River City

Looking east from East Peoria to Peoria IL, 1911

Looking east from East Peoria to Peoria IL, 1911

by Norman V. Kelly

I thought I would bring you some early history in a form of a diary that was devotedly kept and guarded by our keeper of the records, the folks at the Peoria Public Library. Even before we became a city in 1845, there were newspapers located here, followed quickly by a library and record keepers, court files, and police reports. That record was scrupulously kept. Most importantly for me as a writer was the record of deaths kept in the coroner’s office.  The only time our records were distorted was during the time our pet gangster Bernie Shelton lived here. Then our uncles and grandfathers took over with gangster stories that they loved to perpetuate upon gullible listeners. A lot of so-called historians did the same thing. Me?  Why I stuck to the record, but it is always more fun to read fiction than it is musty old historical records. I did it because that is where you will find the truth about Peoria, Illinois, its people and its history. The truth in an informative way is what I promise to you here at Peoria Life.  

Here in Peoria, Illinois we are not a city yet, and there is a lot of activity way out in the county by January 1843.  By then Philander Chase, founder of Jubilee College, let it be known that “No baptismal rite performed on a Mormon by a Mormon had any saving value in the eyes of Heaven.”  Strong language and of course there were repercussions to Philander’s statement. We had so-called Mormon Wars in our area as well as a murder trial of a deputy sheriff over the killing of a Mormon during those troublesome times involving murders and massive destruction of homes and barns.  

On February 1, 1843 somebody must have had the authority and control of the town’s purse strings to issue this rule. Anyway the Peoria Waterworks Company was authorized by legislature to improve any spring water within two miles of Peoria.

On the evening of February 13, 1843 an Abolitionist meeting being held by The Anti-Slavery Society to pick officers was broken up by slavery sympathizers, led by Mr. Underwood.  Now this was a private meeting being held at the Main Street Presbyterian Church.  Didn’t we name a street after Underwood? Remember way back then, because of our Constitution and Bill Of Rights folks had the same inalienable rights as we do today.  Apparently Underwood and his gang did not believe that to be true.

During the very early spring folks still tried to cross the river to East Peoria on horse and buggy even though the local authorities warned people of the dangerous conditions. Two children riding with the Rodecker and Parker families drowned when their buggy broke through the ice on the Illinois River. That was February 28, 1843 at the foot of Main Street.  Once the river froze that was most certainly a short cut between Peoria and East Peoria. “It was much cheaper than a bridge,” a local farmer stated.

Newspapers were established in Peoria even before we became a Town in 1835.  By 1845 when we became a City and for decades the newspapers competed with each other not only politically but for the almighty dollar as well. Many local politicians, business men and women and police officers felt their wrath. A sample was this zinger:

“The thing called a ‘jail’ in this county is not worthy the name.”

Peoria: January 1844.

Printed on 2-7-1844, The Democratic Press went against the local newspapers in trying to squelch the rumor that folks in the Town of Peoria, Illinois were suffering and dying from a mysterious disease known only as ‘The Black Lung.’  The editor pointed out that the last death among the 1,600 inhabits was recorded way back on December 8, 1843.  Some folks laughed at this statement and the rumors persisted.  

November 4, 1844 certain newspapers gleefully reported that 

The County of Peoria registered their usual Democratic majority

by casting 1,169 votes for James Polk, Democrat and 846 for Henry Clay, Whig… for President of the United States.  By the way Lincoln never won here either.  Polk won the election.

On December 10, 1844, Charles Owen died. Owen had declared that he was 110 years old and came to Peoria from Virginia in 1822. The article went on to state that Mr. Owens came to Peoria carrying a load of whiskey, which he sold to one of the local Indian tribes. No not the Peoria Indian who had been driven out of this area by 1720.

A man that took it upon himself to be Peoria’s first census taker and local historian, S.D.W. Drown let the folks know on January 16, 1844

that Peoria’s population was 1,619.  Mr. Drown also published a ‘Town Directory’ which evolved into ‘The City Directory.’  There would be very little recorded history of early Peoria without the dedication of Mr. Drown. Most of the early historical stories that I wrote about contained information that only Mr. Drown was intimate with.  Fact checking him took hours upon hours of my time…he was always correct.

By March of 1844 steamboats were a vital link to the outside world and along with our whiskey moved Peoria along head and shoulders above all the other villages and towns that sprung up along the Illinois River.  However, none grew so substantially as Peoria, Illinois, ‘The Gem along the Illinois.’ Next time let’s take another look at very early Peoria, Illinois.  This will lay the groundwork for the many stories that I will bring to you right here at Peoria Life.  If you have comments or questions leave them here on this link of


In Diary, Part One, I introduced you to Mr. Drown who really began a recorded history of our town which evolved into out City Directories.  I thought I would pick up where I left off and see if we can dig up some interesting tidbits about those folks way back then.  

Over at the courthouse an interesting murder case was unfolding.  People vs. Nomaque described as a “half-breed” was charged with the murder of a Frenchman named Pierre Landre.  Nomaque entered a plea of ‘Not Guilty.’  I will tell you about this fascinating case that was the first trial for murder in Peoria, Illinois.  Believe me there would be many, many more over the following years.  In fact I wrote stories of 235 of them and you will be able to read many of them as the months go by here at PeoriaLife.

December 6, 1845:  There was a ‘war’ going on between Mormon and Anti-Mormons in Hancock County and as a result the sheriff of that county, J.H. Backenstoss was arrested for murdering Franklin Worrell, a Mormon.  He was tried here in Peoria, Illinois and the jury took all of fifteen minutes to find him ‘Not Guilty.’ That little war was serious business and during the conflict almost 100 homes were burned to the ground and several men on both sides were killed. 

November 20, 1850:  A jury of Judge Kellogg’s Court found Thomas Brown and George Williams guilty of robbing and murdering Mr. Hewitt, a cattle buyer from Peoria.  The beating and robbery took place on Spring Street here in Peoria and the men were hanged out in the Prairie.  I will tell you the horrid details of that sensation murder, trial and execution. I described that scene in my book Until You Are dead.  Our local library still has a couple copies.  Actually Brown and Williams were the first killers to face execution here in Peoria, Illinois.   Six more would follow and two other men were executed by electric chair. I will tell you details of every one of those murders and executions here in Peoria, Illinois.  Well, the truth is we hanged eight men and sent the other two to Joliet to be executed by electric chair. 

September 7, 1853:  School Master Seary was acquitted this day when a jury found him not guilty in the whipping of a ‘scholar.’  On that day Mr. Erford’s jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict in his trial for ‘Maliciously shooting a Mule.’

April 4, 1857:   At noon on that exciting day the first train passed over the first rail road bridge built across the Illinois River at Peoria, Illinois.

That span connected the Peoria and the Oquawka tracks heading towards the Tazewell banks. The massive bridge was 600 feet long and a draw span of 203 feet. It was a marvel to local folks and truly an important day for the future of Peoria, Illinois. Spectators cheered the wood-burning locomotive “George C. Bestor.”  Throngs of spectators screamed and yelled their welcome then the young boys ran after the locomotive as it passed over the bridge.

May 18, 1857:  Peoria was excited today as most of the town’s 12,000 citizens seemed to be flocked around the huge building on a downtown street as the ceremonies got under way for the opening of Rouse Hall.

The theatre and office complex covered the entire city block of Main and Jefferson Streets and would remain the leading show house in Peoria for almost a half century. The building was built by one of Peoria’s leading citizens, Dr. Rudolphus Rouse and leased to a showman named John Huntley who always put on great shows like the “Merry Monarch” and popular singers, actors and poets came herefrom throughout the United States. The theatre drew thousands of People from all over Europe and the United States to Peoria, Illinois All of this was of course before the influx of the great vaudevillians who flocked to Peoria for just over a decade.  As a result more theatres and other venues and hotels were built to accommodate them.   

May 23, 1851:  I had to bring you this piece since as a child the arrival of a circus or a carnival in Peoria drove all of us kids into frenzy.  We had a lot of outdoor activities on the river and the arrival of attractions like carnivals and circuses were always the high light of the summer.  Just look at how Peorians reacted in 1851. Nixon and Kemp’s Eastern Circus, certainly one of the largest traveling circus in America, arrived in Peoria today and the entire town rejoiced.  All of the circus members paraded through town followed by the largest Calliope ever built and certainly the first one to arrive in Peoria.  The massive contraption was pulled by 40 horses and sent the folks into a wild frenzy.  Clowns, acrobats, jugglers and get this…‘necromancers’ furnished most of the entertainment.                                           

Editor’s Note: Every month Norm will bring us a historical tale of old Peoria. Next month the author will tell us details of Peoria’s trio of killers; Williams, Brown and Jordon. This story will detail the murder and the dual hanging out in the Prairie that we now call Second and Fischer Streets.  Don’t miss it.