Saturday, March 31, 2012
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Saturday, March 24, 2012
The following article is currently appearing in the April edition of The Wanderer Magazine.
The Hanging of Betsey Reed
By Rick Kelsheimer
On May 23, 1845, Elizabeth “Betsey” Reed, became the first and only woman to be legally hanged in the State of Illinois when she went to the gallows in Lawrenceville. Betsey was accused of killing her husband Leonard, by putting a little arsenic in his sassafras tea. To this day folks in the Wabash Valley still argue whether she was guilty or a victim who was falsely accused and sent to her death.
In the summer of 1844 Betsey along with her husband Leonard were living on a farm near Heathsville, Illinois, a small burg approximately fifteen miles north of Vincennes Indiana. Leonard had been feeling a bit poorly for a spell and sent for a local doctor by the name of Logan. Doc Logan, the owner of a nearby apothecary shop, rode out and immediately saw that Leonard was in dire straits. He declared that Leonard had a gangrened stomach (stomach cancer) and wouldn’t be among the living much longer. Logan’s diagnosis turned out to be accurate and Leonard slipped into eternity on August 19, 1844.
At first, nobody suspected foul play, but when Betsey started wailing like the grieving widow and threw herself on top of Leonard’s coffin, folks started to raise their eyebrows. It turns out that Betsey wasn’t known for showing much emotion and her sudden outburst seemed to be a little out of place if not over the top.
But it wasn’t until a neighbor girl by the name of Eveline Deal came forward and claimed that she had witnessed Betsey pouring a white powder from a folded white paper into Leonard’s tea, did people begin to suspect that Leonard had been murdered. Eveline Deal went on to say that Leonard didn’t want any tea, but Betsey insisted that he should drink it to settle his ailing stomach. Deal reported that Leonard became immediately and violently ill.
In the 1840s, it was common practice for pioneers to send a teenage daughter to help a neighbor who was infirmed or injured. That was the case with Eveline Deal who was only fifteen years of age at the time. It was said that Betsey had problems getting along with women, so it is reasonable to believe that Betsey was not thrilled to have the young girl in her cabin. It was said that the two females didn’t take kindly to each other.
Acting on the girl’s accusation, Eli Adams, a local constable, was called along with Doc Logan. They took Eveline Deal back to the cabin, where she showed them the empty paper which supposedly had contained the powder. Apparently, Deal had watched Betsey discard the evidence after pouring the poison into her husband’s tea. Logan confirmed that not only had the paper contained arsenic, but it had apparently been acquired from his apothecary in particular; although he had no recollection of Betsey Reed making the purchase.
Some neighbors came forward and said that Betsey had worn a disguise
Logan decided to change the cause of death from death by natural causes to death by poisoning. Betsey was arrested and twelve men from the neighborhood were called to a grand jury.
It should be noted that Betsey was loathed by the women in the neighborhood. They said she had a “hardened disposition” and a disfiguring scar on her left cheek. The men on the other hand considered her to be beautiful and mysterious. Betsey was also a midwife. She doctored people in the old mountain ways. She could blow the fire out severe burns, stop bleeding with her poultices, and divine for water wells. Some called her a “granny woman” while others called her a witch It’s no wonder why the women didn’t like her.
That being said, Betsey appeared to have gotten results with her “mountain healings.” Even those who scoffed her during the daylight were known to bring a sick loved one to Betsey’s cabin in the middle of the night for one of her remedies.
The grand jury voted unanimously to indict and Betsey Reed was sent to nearby Palestine, Illinois to stand trial for the murder of her husband. Most folks considered it to be a foregone conclusion that she was guilty and couldn’t wait for her to get what she deserved. Times had been tough around Palestine and the local merchants figured that a hanging of the local witch would be just what the local economy needed.
Betsey was incarcerated at the Crawford County Jail which sat next door to the United States Federal Land Office. There was excitement in the air as the town prepared for the hundreds of people who would be coming for the trial. The jail was made of double layered oak logs which made the walls thirty-six inches in width. It was considered as secure as a frontier jail could get. The jail was considered so escape proof, that prisoners were left unattended much of the time.
Children used to gather outside and taunt Betsey by singing songs while she waited for her trial.
Betsey Reed brewed some tea
Leonard drank it happily
When she saw that he was dead
She clicked her heals and then she said
We all fall dead
But before the circuit judge could make it to town, Betsey managed to burn the jail down in an attempt to escape. She had hoped to burn through the walls by starting a series of small fires and then putting them out before they got big enough for anyone to notice. Unfortunately one of the fires got out of control and the jail started to burn. Betsey would have been consumed in the fire if it wouldn’t have been for a man, named Sam Garrard, who happened to be passing by the jail in the middle of the night. He broke in and rescued her, just as the jail was about to collapse. The fact that Betsey didn’t have anything in her possession to start a fire, only added to the hysteria of the citizens in Palestine.
Betsey was taken to the house of newly elected Sheriff Leonard Cullom and chained to a bed in the attic. Cullom immediately realized he had crisis on his hand. The citizens of Palestine were livid over losing their jail and were in favor of lynching Betsey before the judge arrived. A bigger problem for Cullom was the fact that he was a newlywed and his bride was not happy about having the most notorious woman in the state sleeping under her roof. To subdue the civil uprising and maintain marital bliss at home, Cullom deputized a posse to take the prisoner out of town. They rode twenty miles on horseback in the middle of the night and delivered Betsey to the county jail in Lawrenceville. Upon arrival, Cullom transferred custody to Lawrence County Sheriff, Samuel Thorn and then immediately rode back home.
Because of an outbreak of Yellow Fever in Lawrenceville, Betsey’s trial was postponed until the spring of 1845. Not accustomed to housing a female prisoner, Sheriff Thorn enlisted his pastor, Reverend John Seed of the Lawrenceville Methodist Church, to be in charge of Betsey’s incarceration. Reverend Seed in turn recruited the Methodist Ladies Auxiliary to tend her physical and spiritual needs. The ladies spent countless hours sharing The Gospel and reading stories from the Bible, but as the time for the Trial grew near, Betsey had still not seen the light and refused salvation.
The case of the State of Illinois verses Betsey Reed was called to order on the morning of April 21, 1843. Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice, William Wilson presided over the trial. At that time, Supreme Court Justices still had to ride the circuit, which was the case of Wilson, who was from Carmi.
Betsey was represented by what could be called a frontier legal dream team; Augustus French and Usher Linder. In 1846 only a year after Betsey Reed’s trial, Augustus French was elected the ninth governor of Illinois. Usher Linder on the other hand, had been the youngest States Attorney in Illinois history and was a very close friend and colleague of Abraham Lincoln. Governor Thomas Ford said that Usher Linder would have been the greatest statesman ever produced by the State of Illinois if it wasn’t for his excessive drinking and heavy use of profanity. The States Attorney for Lawrence County, was Aaron Shaw, who would later become a United States Congressman.
Hundreds of people came from miles around to try to get a seat at the trial of the accused, murderess. Betsey seemed uninterested in the proceedings as the prosecution presented their witnesses for three days. And when it came time for the defense to speak, Betsey refused to say a word on her own behalf. When the jury returned a with a guilty verdict after deliberating for less than an hour, Betsey still refused to show any emotion at all.
It was at that time that Judge William Wilson sentenced Betsey Reed to be hung by the neck until dead on May 23 at a place to be determined by the sheriff, not more than a half mile from the Lawrence County Court House. He ended his statement with the chilling words, “and may God have mercy on your soul.”
Governor Ford had sent word that he would commute Betsey’s sentence to life in prison if she would show some remorse of any kind, but Betsey continued to remain completely silent on the subject of her innocence or guilt. Despite the best effort of the Methodist Ladies Auxiliary, Betsey refused to speak.
But on a morning shortly before the day she was to be hanged, Betsey broke down in tears and begged to be baptized. That night under the supervision of Reverend Seed, Betsey was taken to the Ambraw (Embarrass) River and was baptized. She was back in her jail cell before she had time to dry off.
The Vincennes Sun estimated that twenty thousand people had migrated to Lawrenceville to see the Hanging of Betsey Reed. Even the New York Herald sent a reporter to cover the event of the first woman to be hung in not only Illinois, but the in entire Old Northwest Territory. Some of the onlookers had been on the road for over a week and had traveled over a hundred miles by horse, oxen or on foot.
On the balmy morning of May 23, 1845, thousands gathered around the courthouse to get glimpse of the “wicked witch” Betsey Reed as she made her way to the gallows. But instead of a wretched murderess, Betsey appeared in a long snow-white ascension gown with her long dark hair flowing down on her shoulders. She was placed atop her coffin in the back of an ox-pulled wagon and then started the half mile ride to the Ambraw River. People were stunned at the spectacle. Instead of a convicted witch, Betsey acted as if she were going to Sunday church meeting. She looked up towards Heaven, while singing hymns of praise during the journey. She ignored the jeers and insults until they arrived at the fateful spot at the river’s edge.
People gathered on the hillside and in the tree tops around the gallows. Nobody wanted to miss the exact moment when Betsey received her justice. Sheriff Thorn had built a simple upside down L-shaped frame with a platform that was held in place by a single rope. Thorn had tried to resign from his position as Sheriff to avoid acting as the executioner, but withdrew his request when he realized it wouldn’t be honorable for someone else to have to carry out his duty.
But before the hanging could proceed, as was the custom in those days, a few words from The Good Book needed to be read. As Betsey sat on her coffin beneath the gallows, Reverend John Seed jumped on top of the wagon beside her and began to preach a sermon filled with fire and brimstone. Twenty thousand people at one location was the largest gathering in the history of the State of Illinois Reverend Seed decided to take advantage of the situation. He preached to the captive audience for over an hour from his pulpit at the gallows. He even offered an altar call, while Betsey exhorted him on with a chorus of “Amens!” and “Hallelujahs!” Dozens of souls actually found salvation that morning at the hanging.
Once the preaching ended, Betsey was given a chance to say her final words. Once again she refused to declare her innocence or guilt. Sheriff Thorn placed a black hood over Betsey’s head and tied her hands behind her back. The sheriff grabbed his ax and as he was about to sever the rope, there was a large crash on the hillside. Several men and boys had climbed out on the limb of a giant sugar maple tree and overloaded it to the point that it snapped and fell to the ground. Much of the crowd had turned around to see the commotion at the precise moment that Thorn cut the rope and Betsey dropped from the gallows. When they turned back around, witnesses said that Betsey’s lifeless body was twirling like a dancer in the air. The crowd remained eerily silent as Betsey twirled in the breeze for the next few minutes until she was lowered into her coffin in a shallow grave.
A few hours later, Betsey was moved for burial in the town cemetery but was denied entry. Many of the local citizens were outraged and refused to let the murderess be laid to rest on hallowed ground. Fights broke out until a compromise was reached and Betsey was buried in an unmarked grave just outside the cemetery gates.
Unfortunately, Betsey’s travails didn’t end there. On the very next night, some local medical students decided that nobody would care if they used her body as a cadaver. Under the cover of darkness they exhumed Betsey’s body and performed an autopsy. What they found was quite surprising. Betsey apparently had eaten small chucks of brick and mortar from her jail cell in an attempt to take her own life and avoid the shame of the gallows. It was concluded that at most, Betsey could have lived only a few more days.
Betsey’s relatives became outraged when they learned that her body had been stolen, so they broke into the doctor’s office and reclaimed her corpse. They put her coffin in the back of a wagon and took her back to Heathsville, where she was buried in the middle of the night next to her husband, Leonard. They share a single headstone which reads:
Died August 19 1844
Death by Murder
Elizabeth Betsey Reed
Died May 23 1945
Death By Hanging
Part of the mystery about Betsey Reed is that because she never admitted killing Leonard, there is still some doubt about her guilt. If she was guilty of murder, her silence leaves us without the knowledge of her motive. Some folks said she had a man on the side and others said Leonard was unfaithful or perhaps even beat her. We will never know.
It should be noted that because Governor Ford offered Betsey clemency if she would show remorse, her death row conversion and demeanor at her hanging could only mean one of two things. The first one is that she never confessed to the murder of her husband. If she was innocent, there wouldn’t be any need for confession. The second reason could be that she did confess and showed remorse for killing Leonard, but Judge Wilson simply refused to commute her sentence. It would be reasonable for Wilson to believe that there would be a riot and probably a lynching if the execution didn’t go a planned. Twenty thousand people had come to Lawrenceville to witness the hanging of Betsey Reed. Her death was the only outcome that would satisfy the mob. Even to this day, people argue what really happened on the day Betsey Reed was hung.
Today many people make the pilgrimage to Baker Cemetery near Heathsville Illinois and visit Betsey and Leonard’s grave. It’s a peaceful place on a hill overlooking a quite steam beneath the shade of an ancient maple tree. Whatever differences they had in life, have long since been forgotten as they rest in peace, side by side in infamy.
Rick Kelsheimer is the author of four novels about the lower Wabash Valley including, The Hanging of Betsey Reed. You can contact Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.rickkelsheimer.com.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
|General Ambrose E Burnsides|
While doing some research on my new book, South Union, I came across the picture of Union General Ambrose E. Burnsides. He became famous during the Civil War because of his unusual style of facial hair. After several of his soldiers grew their hair in the same manner, the look was soon called "sideburns" to honor Burnsides. The style became popular and the word sideburns became a part of our vocabulary.
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Wednesday, March 14, 2012
The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not and I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them!