Friday, October 19, 2018

Illinois' first female serial killer, Elizabeth Reed, was hung in 1845.

In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM introduces present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Presentism is a form of cultural bias that creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. Historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present fact-based and well-researched articles.

Facts don't require one's approval or acceptance.

I present [PG-13] articles without regard to race, color, political party, or religious beliefs, including Atheism, national origin, citizenship status, gender, LGBTQ+ status, disability, military status, or educational level. What I present are facts — NOT Alternative Facts — about the subject. You won't find articles or readers' comments that spread rumors, lies, hateful statements, and people instigating arguments or fights.

When I write about the INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, I follow this historical terminology:
  • The use of old commonly used terms, disrespectful today, i.e., REDMAN or REDMEN, SAVAGES, and HALF-BREED are explained in this article.
Writing about AFRICAN-AMERICAN history, I follow these race terms:
  • "NEGRO" was the term used until the mid-1960s.
  • "BLACK" started being used in the mid-1960s.
  • "AFRICAN-AMERICAN" [Afro-American] began usage in the late 1980s.


The commotion inside a dilapidated cabin in the heart of the forest near Lawrenceville, Illinois, on the Embarras River in late December 1824 was loud enough to keep all wildlife at bay. A clay pitcher shattered through a dirty window, and two people arguing echoed over the ancient mass of pine and fir trees surrounding the crude dwelling.

Elizabeth Fail, a painfully thin, fifteen-year-old girl, flung the door of the cabin open and tried to exit. Her face was swollen and bruised, and her lip was bleeding. She was halfway outside when she was jerked back into the cabin by an unshaven brute of a man with eyes inflamed by whiskey. He knocked Elizabeth onto the floor and kicked her hard in the side. She struck a table filled with dishes, food, and a kerosene lamp, and they fell onto the floor as she struggled to crawl to a corner of the shabby, one-room structure. The plates, cups, and a lamp broke into pieces when they hit the hard ground, and the kerosene spilled out of the busted glass dome. 

The enraged man picked up a Barlow-style pocket knife from a hunk of cooked deer meat lying on the floor and advanced toward Elizabeth. Her eyes were wide with terror. She screamed as he carved the left side of her face with the knife. Blood gushed everywhere. In between stabbings, Elizabeth punched him in the throat with all her strength. The out-of-control thug grabbed his throat and dropped the knife. His knees buckled, and he gasped for air. Elizabeth quickly made her way to the stone fireplace and snatched up a long, iron rod, the end of which had been lying in the fire and was flaming red hot. She held the hot iron in front of her, ready if he came after again. 

Antique Barlow Pocket Knife.
Elizabeth was a fountain of blood as she raced to the door. The injured man caught her leg before she could leave, and she hit him over the head with the iron rod. He let go of her and slowly sank to the floor. Elizabeth anxiously waited for him to come, but he was unconscious and motionless. She threw the iron rod and the spilled kerosene next to the table, and the heated end ignited the liquid and set the table on fire. Panicked, Elizabeth turned and hurried out of the cabin.  

Leaves from low-hanging tree limbs smacked Elizabeth's arms and bleeding face as she ran away from the violent scene. A flash of light and the sound of roaring flames prompted her to stop and look back. The cabin was engulfed by fire. The man Elizabeth left behind staggered out the cabin door, brutally burned. She watched in horror as he collapsed, still burning, and died.

Elizabeth "Betsey" Fail was born in Purgatory Swamp [1], south of Palestine, Illinois, in the fall of 1807. She was the youngest among seven children, her parents Abraham and Sarah, and history records her life as complex from the moment she entered the world. The Fails were poor farmers, and the fertile land near the Wabash River where they lived was stubborn and could only be subdued with vigorous cultivation. Crops were often washed away by floodwaters or overtaken by insects. 
A Visual Aid of Elizabeth Reed.
Abraham struggled to keep his family clothed and fed. When Elizabeth turned nine, her parents decided that anyone in the home unable to strenuously work the fields as needed would have to go. A peddler traveling through Lawrence County in 1815 offered to take Elizabeth with him if the Fails were willing. Sarah agreed but demanded a cast-iron skillet and five pounds of lard in exchange for her daughter. 

The green-eyed, auburn-haired girl scarcely understood what the peddler expected of her when she was traded again to another man at a make-shift camp near the Embarras River. Elizabeth's new guardian was a gambler who mistreated her. After several years of being abused, she fought back. The physical altercation resulted in the gambler's death. Elizabeth fled the burning cabin where he lay and hid in the woods at various points along the river's bank. In time, the deep cuts on her face healed; a long scar extending from her left cheekbone to the center of her chin bore witness to her struggles. 

Elizabeth found employment at a boarding house in Logansport, Indiana, one hundred and eighty miles from where she was born. The establishment was a frequent stop for immigrants traveling up and down the Wabash and Eel Rivers that converged near the town. Historians speculate this is where she met her first husband, John Stone. The couple was married for ten years, and stone had a series of odd jobs. Elizabeth educated herself in the practice of midwifery and learned how to cure a variety of ailments using herbs and other natural remedies. Quiet and aloof, she kept her pale and scarred face covered with a bonnet and handkerchief-style veil. Her conspicuous manner of dress and reserved demeanor made her a mysterious figure to those with whom she came in contact.

It is unknown how old Elizabeth was when the stone left her, only that she returned to Lawrence County after he departed. She then met and married Leonard Reed, a native of Barren County, Kentucky, who owned a small farm south of Palestine, Illinois. According to the August 18, 1932, edition of the Lawrence County News, Reed was a "thin, frail man with salt and pepper hair, an oversized nose, and a perpetual smile." Born in 1795, Reed was twelve years older than Elizabeth. In addition to raising wheat and corn, he was also a trapper. The pair lived in a rustic cabin, and apart from Leonard's niece, sixteen-year-old Eveline Deal, few knew much about Reed's personal life. It wasn't until the summer of 1844 that the pair became the focus of attention. (
Some newspaper accounts of the incident state that Eveline Deal was not related to the Reeds but simply a neighbor and friend helping to care for Leonard.)
Elizabeth was peculiar to most in the community. Because she concocted treatments for various sicknesses using items such as bark from trees and bits of the internal parts of animals and kept her face mostly hidden, some believed she was a witch. When Reed was not seen for an extended time working his land or tending to his traps, it was rumored that Elizabeth had put a hex on him to make him violently ill. Reed was sick, but Eveline told curious neighbors that dark magic was not to blame. She did suspect her aunt was responsible. She claimed that Elizabeth and her uncle had quarreled and that Elizabeth had poisoned him. After Reed languished for three days, a Lawrence County doctor named James Logan was called to the home to examine him. The doctor determined the man was close to death but could not find a reason for his declining health. He prescribed some medicine for Reed and asked his wife and niece to ensure he took it. Doctor Logan promised to call on his patient again in a few days to monitor his condition. 

Eveline sat beside her uncle on the bed and dabbed beads of sweat off his tortured face with a damp cloth. Elizabeth prepared a pot of sassafras tea and helped her husband drink a cup. His situation did not improve. He died on August 19, 1844.

Arsenic Powder
According to the Mt. Vernon Register-News, Reed's funeral was well attended. Neighbors expressed their sympathy for his widow. Elizabeth nodded politely but said very little about her husband and his passing. After the ceremony, she returned to the cabin alone. She barely had time to adjust to life without Reed when Eveline made a public accusation that her aunt poisoned her uncle and that she had witnessed the crime. The teenager told law enforcement officials that Elizabeth had slipped some white powder into Reed's tea. Eveline suspected the powder to be arsenic, and she gave police a small piece of butcher paper she said contained the deadly powder. When tested by authorities, the paper proved to have contained arsenic. 

Elizabeth looked on in silence as Eveline escorted the sheriff and his deputies into the cabin and walked them through what occurred the night she believed her uncle was given the dose of poison that took his life. She said her aunt kept paper filled with arsenic in the cupboard. After depositing the fatal dose into Reed's tea, Eveline noticed Elizabeth toss the paper out of the cabin. Eveline's suspicions were incredibly aroused, and she snuck outside after dark and retrieved the paper. The authorities thoroughly searched the crude house and found a similar piece of paper with a small amount of arsenic. 

According to court records, authorities decided to arrest Elizabeth after two county physicians had Reed's body exhumed and examined and then determined he had died due to chronic arsenic poisoning. For physicians to establish that he had been poisoned, they had to convert body tissue and fluids into arsenic gas. It was estimated that Reed was poisoned for over a week and died in great agony. The doctor's report and the witness' statement were enough to take Elizabeth into custody. Further investigation led to the discovery of the location where Elizabeth purchased the arsenic. The druggist at a mercantile in Russellville, a village in Lawrence County, Illinois, remembered selling Elizabeth the poison. He claimed she was in disguise when she entered the store, but authorities believe he mistook her natural state of dress, the low-hanging bonnet and kerchief-style veil over her face, as a disguise. 

Court records show that all evidence compiled by authorities was presented to a grand jury, and they found that Elizabeth was responsible for Reed's death. 
According to their report, Elizabeth Reed murdered her husband with a mixture of white arsenic and sassafras tea. 

The crime's motivation was unclear, and Elizabeth did nothing to help the case against her. She offered no defense and refused to speak to anyone who asked her questions about her late husband. Public sentiment was not in her favor either. Many people in the area saw her as cold-blooded and unfeeling, and they didn't doubt she murdered Reed. 

Elizabeth was held at a jail in Palestine, Illinois. Those who believed the dark, brooding woman was guilty of the crime of murder stood outside the building and demanded that the authorities release Elizabeth to them so they could lynch her. She watched the angry crowd from her cell window, never voicing an objection.

Although she expressed no emotion to the public over her desperate circumstances, she was anxious to escape the ordeal. The proof came when she attempted to escape jail by setting fire to it. The blaze was subdued before it got out of control, and Elizabeth could run. Deputies who had searched the prisoner before placing her in the cell claimed not to know how she started the fire. Supposedly, 
Elizabeth had nothing in her possession that could set off even a spark. When news that she apparently started a fire from nothing reached Palestine, residents were convinced that Elizabeth was a witch. Court records note residents believed Elizabeth was "practicing in the art of the occult and had summoned flames from the pit of hell."  

People feared Elizabeth, and her attorneys, August French and Usher Linder, did not believe any impartial individuals could be found in Palestine to serve on a jury. They petitioned the court for a change of venue. Before it was granted, authorities kept Elizabeth chained to a bed in the sheriff's cabin. Since she attempted to burn down the jail, there was no other place to hold prisoners. 
After more than a nine-month wait, Elizabeth was transferred to Lawrenceville. The prosecution and defense teams estimated the hearing would take three days. According to the Mt. Vernon Register-News, Judge William Wilson oversaw the case, and the prosecuting attorney was Aaron Shaw. Wilson was a farmer and a judge from Carmi, Illinois. He was a well-respected chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court and the father of ten children. 

News of Elizabeth's trial spread throughout Illinois and even reached papers in the New York area. Readers of the article were shocked by the tale of such a calculated murder and followed the case closely as it progressed. According to the court records, witnesses testifying against Elizabeth were James Logan, the attending physician, Eveline Deal, and the two physicians who examined Reed after his death. Logan was the first to take the stand when the trial started in late April 1845. He told the jury that Reed died of "inflammation of the stomach, induced by some poisonous drug." He reported that when he examined Reed the day he passed away, his stomach was in a state of "incipient mortification." Although he had no personal knowledge that Elizabeth purchased arsenic from the store in Russellville, he felt sure she did acquire poison from the location.

Eveline Deal's statement about Elizabeth's actions leading up to her uncle's alleged murder proved to be most damning. "I saw Mrs. Reed take a small paper of white powder, and she put it in a cup of sassafras tea, and she gave it to Mr. L. Reed," she testified. "That seemed to make him very sick and caused him to vomit immediately…she emptied the powder from the paper. She intended to throw it out of the door, but it fell on the doorstep. I took up the paper and looked between two glass tea plates that sat in the cupboard and the same place that I saw her take the powder form, and there I found another paper… the same kind of paper… along with pieces of an old book leaf that was considerably smoked. The first opportunity I gave [the pieces of paper] to authorities."

Once Eveline left the stand, the two physicians who examined Reed after his demise were called to tell what they knew. Both testified that Reed's death was caused by the internal use of arsenic. Court records do not show that anyone was called to champion Elizabeth. She was not allowed to stand because her lawyer felt she might incriminate herself. Still, she vehemently declared her innocence from the defendant's table where she sat during the trial. No amount of protesting could sway the opinion of the judge and the all-male jury. On April 29, 1845, Elizabeth was found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Confined to the small jail cell until the date of her hanging on May 23, 1845, Elizabeth decided the wait to be intolerable. She began eating rocks and pieces of mortar from the cell walls to expedite her death. The desperate actions did not bring about her death; they only caused her to become sick.

Her confession was published in a small pamphlet, which was not distributed until after her death. The pamphlets were sold, but no copy can now be found.

Victims (according to "confession" report):
1. Child No. 1 was starved to death.
2. Child No. 2 was starved to death.
3. Unknown name adult No. 1, poisoned to death.
4. Unknown name adult No. 2, poisoned to death.
5. Nephew, murdered.
6. August 15, 1844 – Leonard Reed, husband, died

Just after daybreak on May 23, 1845, Elizabeth was led to the gallows a mile from the courthouse where her trial was held. According to eyewitnesses, at the scene, Elizabeth was transported to the spot where she was to be hanged on the back of a wagon. She was dressed in a long, white robe given to her by the local minister and his wife. The garment was said to have once belonged to a known member of the Millerites religion. The Millerites, who lived and worshipped in the Lawrenceville area, believed the second coming of Christ was to occur in 1843. They each made white robes for their journey. The group disbanded when the event did not happen on that date. The minister who attended to Elizabeth's spiritual needs during her incarceration felt it was fitting she wore one of the robes to meet her Maker. It was his contention that Elizabeth had "confessed her crimes to him, sought and was granted forgiveness from the creator."

The Mt. Vernon Register-News reported that more than twenty thousand people were on hand to witness the execution. They watched Elizabeth ride to the scene, sitting on the coffin she'll be buried in. It was a bright and balmy morning, and Elizabeth sang hymns of praise as she was led to the gallows. 

John Seed, a well-known Methodist preacher, delivered a ninety-minute sermon to the crowd of on-lookers about the need for their salvation. After the 
preacher's speech, a noose was placed around Elizabeth's neck, and a black hood was draped over her head. The accused fell to her death when the executioner activated the lever attached to the trap door. The Mt. Vernon Register-News noted that she "revolved several times but did not struggle much."  

After Elizabeth's passing, the community debated over a motive for why she killed her husband. According to the Mt. Vernon Register-News, some insisted she was involved with another man and wanted Leonard out of the way so she could live a new life. Some stated that Leonard found out Elizabeth was an outlaw who had murdered a man and burned his remains, and others maintained it was Leonard involved with another, and Elizabeth had caught him in the act. 

Betsey's body was moved to a small cemetery called Baker outside of Heathsville. She was buried next to her husband, Leonard, and they shared a headstone. Under Leonard's name, it reads 'death by murder,' while under hers, it reads 'death by hanging.'

Elizabeth Reed was the first woman in the United States to be publicly executed and the only woman executed by hanging in Illinois. 

So the story goes . . . 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] Purgatory Swamp was flooded land between the Wabash and Embarras Rivers. It was challenging and dangerous to pass through any season of the year. Building levees to confine these rivers' waters successfully drained the prairie land, leaving it with very fertile soil.


  1. Very interesting article, although I doubt that photo is of her. That dress and hairstyle are very Victorian era, not 1845 fashion at all.

    1. The Victorian Era is identified as being 1840 to 1900. Followed by the Edwardian Era-a brief ten years-ending in 1910.

  2. I agree, was going to say the same about Victorian era according to Anon BUT if you look closely she has a light scar on her cheek to the left. So it's a possibility that 'could' be her picture. Interesting story.

  3. A few days ago, I saw a few articles of the first woman hanged in Illinois. It caught my interest and I have been researching, trying to find more details and
    the history. This article was interesting and gave me more details than any other article I have seen so far.
    Also, I want to say that there is an old legend of this woman. I read an article that stated that Elizabeth Reed was a school librarian before her passing. There was an old librarian that died in the past. She died close to the school and that is where Elizabeth Reed died. The gallows were replaced with a football field. A couple years ago, the old high school in Lawrenceville, IL, the place where Elizabeth Reed died, burst into flames. No one really knows the exact reason but some say it was her ghost seeking revenge. Some say that they could see ELizabeth Reed in the burning school looking out the window. I feel like this legend makes some sense because Elizabeth Reed did set fire to the prison she was held at, so she could do it again. Of course, I am not saying this legend is true. It is what you think but there is always a possibility. There are some things in this world that even science cannot solve. If you believe in spirits, you may believe this legend but I am not sure how to feel about it. I think spirits are people who passed, who could not get to heaven. Well, whatever you think of this I hope it was an interesting legend to you.

    1. Yes, I live in the town and all of that is true.

  4. Poor woman. Such a rough start and who knows if it was she who killed him, or indeed was the niece. If she did, I cannot say why, other than to remember that most women who kill their mates are victims of abuse. I doubt very much that the confessions published after her death are true.

  5. My guess is that Evilene Deal was the real killer, the same of person that testified that they saw the defendant in the light of the full moon in another case in which Abraham Lincoln proved that on the night in question it was a new moon. That's just the way people were like back then, and still are. No doubt in my mind that not only was she innocent, but that all the jurors believed she was innocent as well, but found her guilty any way for over considerations.


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