1851: THE PRAIRIE HANGINGS

by Norman V. Kelly

It was 1850 and the little village trading post had become a town in 1835 and a city in 1845.  The total make up of the entire Peoria city limits was only one square mile.  There were a few cabins, a house or two a couple of breweries and distilleries and a library.  It was astounding how this little city grew and in 1850 it had a population of 6,200 people.  Eventually there would be 32 other villages, towns or cities along the Illinois River but none grew and thrived like Peoria, Illinois.  You do not have to be a historian to quickly understand we grew so rapidly because of our distilleries and breweries.  They brought people to Peoria and businesses followed. By the time the Civil War came along we were known as “The Alcohol Capital of the World.”

There we were in between Chicago to our north and Saint Louis to our south and we were along side the Beautiful Illinois River.  An ideal place to be I can tell you that.  We had trains and steamboats that brought people to our city limits that settled down rather quickly and built schools, churches, businesses and houses. Of course we had a lot of tough, rugged citizens who wanted only to have a place to raise their children and worship in their churches.  All that traffic to Peoria, Illinois brought a lot of bad guys as well and this story is about only three of them. Fortunately for Peoria and its citizens the early settlers had among them men and women of vision and it was their vision that shaped our future as a ‘Gem along the Illinois,’ and ‘The Pearl Beside the Illinois River.’

Robber On The Prowl

Peoria had an adequate police department as well as a sheriff and a few deputies.  There were dangerous men in our midst and according to a local newspaper “Would cut your throat for a dollar or less.”  Thomas Brown, George Williams and Tom ‘Tit’ Jordan were among the worst of the lot.  They spent most of the day at our stockyards looking for a potential victim.  They found him and once they laid eyes on Harvey Hewitt, a wealthy ranch owner and buyer and seller of cattle, he was doomed. They kept their distance and when it looked like Harvey had completed his financial business they mounted their horses and left the stockyards.  Just a short distance away they spotted Mr. Hewitt guiding his horse and buggy west, they fell in behind him.  When they reached Spring Street and Harvey turned to go up Spring Street Hill they raced up and ‘waylaid’ their victim.  Waylaid in those days meant they hit him with their fists, rocks and a club.  The assailants tore his money bag from around his waist and took off riding south.  Harvey appeared to be on death’s door as he was taken to a doctor who had him admitted into the hospital.  The sheriff was called and immediately rounded up a posse that raced off toward the south hoping to overtake the three bandits.  Harvey Hewitt lived only nine days in and out of a coma before he died.  Harvey was able to tell his tale to the local newspaper reporters in great detail admitting that he had just over $2,500 on him when he was attacked. 

Meantime the posse led by the Peoria County Sheriff had gotten a description of the killers from a few witnesses and off they went.  In those days a posse out after killers usually meant that once they caught the culprits, members of the posse usually hanged them from the nearest tree.  However, to the surprise of the locals the sheriff came back with Williams and Brown.  Tom Jordan had managed to get on a southbound steamboat and was on his way to New Orleans.  He was arrested down there on another charge and Peorians did not get the pleasure of hanging him here.

Quick Justice

Judge William Kellogg set the murder trial of Williams and Brown for November 20, 1850 here in the Peoria Courthouse.  It took little time to select a jury, and the trial began in front of a very anxious city not used to murder trials.  The judge appointed two very competent attorneys for the hapless defendants and the prosecution called a few witnesses that claimed they saw the attack.  The newspapers covered the trial but in those days they pretty much waited for the completion of the trial before they printed their observations.  The defendants did take the stand in their own defense and both of them stated that they were there, but it was Thomas ‘Tit’ Jordan that struck the fatal blows with a rather large rock.  The jury took but a short time to make its decision, and on November 27, 1850 they found Williams and Brown guilty of murder.  Judge Kellogg set a hearing date for sentencing and the trial was over.

The courtroom was overflowing as it appeared that everyone in town wanted to get inside for the sentencing.   Once things settled down the spotlight fell on Judge Kellogg.  “George Williams and Thomas Brown you have both been found guilty by your peers to the capital crime of murder. It is the sentence of this court that you shall be hanged by the neck until both of you are dead. The execution will take place at a public hanging December 29, 1850.”  The decision was met with an uproar of screams, yells and clapping.  “Court adjourned.”

 Things Are Pretty Calm In Peoria

In the local saloons a rumor had started that the hanging was going to be postponed, which was the truth.  Judge Kellogg wanted to see if he could get Thomas Jordan up here to Peoria and try him for the murder of Hewitt as well.  That way, the two condemned prisoners would probably be happy to testify against him if it would save their lives.  The jury had pretty much believed that Jordan was the leader so trying him would really give justice to Mr. Hewitt. Now all that made sense, you think?  Well the local boys, most of them fired up on booze could not see the logic in it so they decided to hang Williams and Brown on their own. Now that sounded like the logical thing to do…so off they went in a loud, angry mob to face the sheriff and his one deputy.  “No sense you gettin’ kilt sheriff,” one of the leaders yelled at the sheriff who was holding his shot gun on the mob.   He looked out at all the drunks and realized he was helpless.  He yelled into the condemned prisoners; “Get ready to defend yourself boys I can’t stop em.”

The frenzied mob surged forward as the sheriff and his deputy walked away from the jail entrance.  One of the men took the keys from the desk top and unlocked the frail cell.  Men swarmed in screaming and yelling at the top of their lungs.  Brown had taken of his trousers and tied off the end of the legs.  He inserted some lose bricks inside them and began swinging furiously as the men reached for him.  He hit the first one and down he went, later that man from Canton, Illinois would die from his head injuries.  Williams had a small pocket knife which he stabbed at and swung into the men’s faces.  It was over quickly as the men swept up the prisoners and rushed them outside.  Suddenly it was quiet as the men carried the two condemned men down Main Street away from the jail. The sheriff went back inside and waited expecting to gather some men together to cut down the hanging men.  Maybe fifteen minutes passed before he heard a noise outside the jail.  There a dozen or so men stood holding Williams and Brown. “You can have ’em back, sheriff,” said the leader as two men shoved the badly beaten and bloody men towards him.  They fell at his feet as the men turned and walked away from the jail.  The sheriff was speechless as he and his deputy helped up the prisoners and returned them to the cell.  Nobody would believe him, he later revealed, but it really happened.  The next day’s morning newspaper told the facts as they were outlined by the sheriff.  The reporter had talked to several of the men in the mob and here is what he wrote.  “The men were returned to the sheriff because no one in the mob had a rope.”  It was the talk of the town, believe me.

A New Execution Date

Judge Kellogg moved quickly to calm the folks in his jurisdiction by publicly announcing that a new execution date would be January 15, 1851.  He ordered a gallows to be built “Out in the prairie,” and the site at what we now know as Second Street and Sanford Street was selected. Every day a large crowd gathered to watch the carpenters build the dual gallows and as cold as it was some people brought their lunch.  This was history in the making and they wanted to be part of it.

Williams and Brown did not have visits from clergy men as they languished in jail.  They still feared being attacked and they were certain that this time the mob would be sure to bring a rope. The day of the hanging, Reverend Parker and a deacon called Spencer stayed with them in the cell and rode in the wagon that took the condemned men to the gallows. As I mentioned our population was 6,200 people but according to newspaper reports well over 15,000 people swarmed all around the gallows on that cold, windy January fifteenth, 1851.  As the wagon pulled up near the gallows the crowd went into a loud, screaming frenzy, scaring the two horses half to death.  The fence that surrounded the gallows was quickly pushed aside as the crowd surged forward.  The terrified prisoners were afraid that the mob would just jerk them out of the wagon and literally tear them apart.  Apparently hanging was a much better fate for them than that horrifying mob.  

The Final Steps

As the men began to walk up the steps the crowd was out of control.  The few police there did all they could to hold the crowd away from the steps.  The two religious men were pushed up the steps followed by one local newspaper reporter.  Finally up on the deck of the gallows, the prisoners looked out at the mob causing it to become somewhat silent.   Most of the people seemed to be fixated on the hangman as he busied himself with ropes and the black shrouds he picked up from the floor.  The sheriff had been on the gallows waiting for the men to stand where he pointed, directing them to stop over the two trapdoors.  The hangman, after a signal from the sheriff, put two blackhoods over the men’s heads and adjusted them so that they fell over the men’s shoulders.  He was talking to the men but no one reported what he said, nor did the men make any last statements that were recorded. He then slipped the noose around Brown’s neck and then moved over to do the same to Williams. The crowd stared in fascination waiting for the final climax of the hanging.

The padre spoke to each man, his hand on their shoulders as he mumbled to them.  He stepped away and the hangman made some final adjustments and then nodded to the sheriff. A split second later both trap doors were opened at the same time and along with the loud crack of the trapdoor spring a massive roar went up from the crowd.  The two men hurtled to their deaths and for a brief moment there was silence as the crowd watched the two men wiggle and then slowly twist in the wind.  The two physicians waited until all moment had stopped before they checked the men for a heart beat. They check three more times before they made the official announcement that both of the men were dead.  A deputy stepped forward with a knife and quickly cut the rope allowing the bodies to fall into the arms of the other deputies.  They were then quickly put into wicker baskets and loaded onto the wagon.  The crowd parted as the driver hurried his horse through the parting crowd and headed west towards Bartonville, Illinois.  Somewhere out there before Bartonville was a pauper’s grave where they would be quickly buried and forgotten.  

The historical dual hanging was over.  The crowd had already begun to disperse and within a very short time the field was empty. A few reporters questioned some of the witnesses, and then rode off with their horses and buggies. In all of Peoria’s history, this hanging was the first since Peoria became a city. In all six more men were executed by hanging.  All of them inside or around the Peoria County Jail which was located on Hamilton Boulevard, across the street from the courthouse.  In 1882 that was the site of the Grand Peoria Opera House until it burned to the ground in 1909.  We had a gallows within our county jail, starting on the third floor and ending on the floor below. I got to see it in 1946 when our class was allowed to tour that building.  Later, as a private Investigator I spent a lot of time in that filthy, smelly place talking to clients.  They finally tore it down and built a new jail out by the airport.   In all ten men were executed for the crime of murder here in Peoria, Illinois; eight by hanging and two by electric chair up in Joliet, Illinois.  I hope to bring you all of those stories and many others over the months here on the space provided by PEORIA LIFE.   So be sure to check in every month to follow Peoria’s colorful, bawdy and wide open history.  Don’t be afraid to e-mail me.