Saturday, April 29, 2023

The Murder of Labor Racketeer, Timothy “Big Tim” Murphy in 1928 Rogers Park, Chicago.

On June 26, 1928, Chicago labor racketeer Timothy D. Murphy, “Big Tim” (May 23, 1885-June 26, 1928), was shot to death at his Bungalow at 2525 West Morse Avenue in Chicago's Rogers Park community. Murphy was a Chicago mobster, labor racketeer, and U.S. mail thief who controlled several major railroads, laundry and dye workers' unions during the 1910s and early 1920s.
2525 West Morse Avenue, Rogers Park Community, Chicago, Illinois.

Timothy Murphy grew up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. He was a towering 6' 3," slab-bodied and mostly genial boy who later boasted of selling newspapers to the famous meatpacker Jonathan Ogden Armour outside of the main offices of Armour & Company at 43rd Street and Racine Avenue. When he was older, Murphy got a job as a railroad switchman for the Chicago junction line, which would give him lifelong sympathy for the working man's plight.

Murphy was a devoted family man and had many friends. He was regarded as a great pal to just about everyone, but his dual nature made him dangerous when provoked. All the good work that he might have accomplished in labor organizing and politics was sabotaged by his associations with criminals and hoodlums ─ and by his own dabbling in crime. In 1909, he became involved with Mount Tennes, the so-called “Telegraph Gambling King” of Chicago. Tennes set up his first telegraph switchboard in a train station in Forest Park and received race results from tracks in Illinois, Kentucky and New York. Tennes had an illegal monopoly on the information. For a share of the profits, his operators sent the results to hundreds of bookie joints, gambling parlors and pool halls all over the city. Murphy’s alliance with Tennes earned him a huge amount of money but two years later, he sold Tennes out to a grand jury and walked away without a blemish on his record.

While working with Tennes, Murphy had learned the art of bribing public officials and decided to try out politics. In 1915, he ran a highly successful campaign for the state legislature, getting elected from the working-class, Irish-Catholic Fourth Ward. He used the clever slogan “Elect Big Tim Murphy ─ He’s a Cousin of Mine!” Murphy spent just one term in Springfield, returned to Chicago, and got involved in the labor rackets.

Through his friend, Maurice “Mossie” Enright, an organizer with the American Federation of Labor and a convicted murderer, he was able to organize gas station attendants, garbage collectors, and then street sweepers. Strikes, wage increases, and higher union dues followed, and Murphy got a percentage of everything. He and Enright operated from Old Quincy No. 9, a famous saloon at Randolph and LaSalle Streets, and for a time, the two men were inseparable. Eventually, the two men had a falling out over the division of proceeds from the settlement of a labor strike, and their friendship came to an end. Like Mount Tennes years before, Enright was blindsided by Murphy’s ruthless ambition.

On February 3, 1920, Enright was getting out of his car in front of his home on Garfield Boulevard when five men in another automobile pulled up and opened fire on him before he could draw his own revolver and defend himself. Enright was hit 11 times and was dead when the other car pulled away. His wife found him moments later, lying in a pool of his own blood. Tim Murphy, Michael Carozzo, the head of the Street Sweeper’s Union, and several others were arrested and questioned about the murder, but each man had an alibi and was let go.

You’re likely not surprised to learn that Enright’s murder still remains unsolved.

Murphy continued to run the three unions but was too restless and greedy to be happy with the small amount of money that was coming in. In 1920, he organized his first mail robbery. It went off without a hitch, understated and bloodless, and occurred after informants told Murphy about an overheard telephone conversation concerning money coming into the Pullman station. Two bags of cash that amounted to just over $125,000 were sent by insured, registered mail and arrived at the Illinois Central Station in Pullman on August 30. When the train pulled in, a bank messenger named Minsch was waiting on the platform. He signed for the sacks and tossed them onto a mail chute. Three boys with a cart earned a quarter each from Minsch by loading whatever he sent down the chute into his car. The boys were waiting but had trouble lifting the two bags. Two men were standing nearby, apparently waiting for someone, and saw the boys and walked over to help. The boys directed the men to take the bags to Minsch’s car, but they kept walking, tossed the two bags into the backseat of another car, and drove away. One of the men was Big Tim Murphy, and the other was his partner, Vincent Cosmano.

Unfortunately for Murphy, someone talked, and the two men were arrested and indicted by a grand jury. Murphy needed money for lawyers, so he decided to rob another train to get it.
(L-R) Tim Murphy, Fred Mader, John Miller, and Cornelius Shea during their murder trial in 1922.

 This time, he bribed a mail clerk in Indianapolis for a tip on a weekly shipment of cash and government Liberty Bonds that was sent to the Federal Reserve in Chicago. Murphy put together a crew (which included Cosmano, his long-time driver, Ed Guerin, Mike Carozzo, and two brothers, Frank and Pete Gusenberg), and they set up surveillance on the Dearborn Station at Polk Street. After they learned when the money shipment arrived, they pulled off the robbery on April 6. They escaped in a stolen Cadillac with $380,000 ($5,735,000 today).

It didn’t take long for the police to get suspicious, and the mail clerk that Murphy had bribed was the first to confess. Ed Guerin also talked because Murphy never gave him his share of the money. A judge issued a search warrant for the house where Murphy’s father-in-law lived, and postal inspectors found a trunk in the attic that was so heavy with cash and bonds that it took four men to haul it out. The bills in the trunk were brand new, and the Federal Reserve had a list of their serial numbers. The money, plus the two confessions, sent Murphy to Leavenworth for four years.
Big Tim Murphy and His Wife, Phyllis, in 1926.

Murphy was washed up when he was released from prison. But he was an eternal optimist and began devising new schemes to make money while his long-suffering wife, Florence, pestered him to find a suitable line of work.

Murphy wasn’t interested. There was too much money to be made as a criminal. He began cooking up a series of hare-brained schemes, including a banana plantation in Texas, a portable grocery store on wheels, a dog track, a travel agency, and even a plan to manufacture stop-and-go traffic lights. The latter was an idea ahead of its time, but no one was interested in what Big Tim was selling. He finally realized that the union dues of the rank and file, not his get-rich-quick schemes, made money, and he decided to take up where he had left off with labor organizing. He tried organizing tire dealers, jelly manufacturers, gasoline dealers, and garage workers, but none of them worked out.

Finally, he hatched a plan to take over the Cleaners and Dyers Union, a union with 10,000 members that was already controlled by Al Capone. Murphy stormed into the business office of the union on South Ashland Avenue with a gunman at his side and announced a “hostile takeover.” They surrendered.

Murphy’s attempt to take over a union run by Al Capone was the last mistake he ever made.

On the evening of June 26, 1928, Murphy was spending a quiet night at home in the West Rogers Park neighborhood on the far North Side. His wife was away at a church festival, and he was listening to the 1928 Democratic National Convention on the radio with his brothers-in-law, Harry and William Diggs. Around 11:00 pm., someone knocked loudly on the front door. Instead of going to the door, Murphy and Harry Diggs slipped out the side door and went around the house to see who was there. When they saw no one, Murphy walked across the front of the house and onto the lawn. Just then, gunfire broke out from a sedan that was parked on the street, and Murphy was shot down in the yard. As the car sped away, the Diggs brothers spotted four men inside, although none of them were ever identified.

Murphy was carried into the house, and as he lay dying, he tried desperately to say something to his brothers-in-law but died before he could speak. The police arrived before Florence returned from church. When she found her husband’s bloody body lying on the living floor, she collapsed on top of him and began to weep. She promised revenge: “If I knew who had killed Tim Murphy, I wouldn’t tell anybody ─ I wouldn’t wait for anybody. I’d take a gun and kill them as they killed him.”

Big Tim Murphy was laid to rest at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Alsip, Illinois, and unlike the gaudy gangster funerals of the 1920s, only a modest crowd attended the service. No gangland officials or politicians were at the service, although a few South Side and Back of the Yards characters did turn out for the wake the night before the burial. Too much had changed while Murphy had been in prison, and his hold on the Chicago rackets had slipped away in his absence. He was not a man anyone wanted to get close to, and even the tags on the funeral flowers were removed so that no outsider could know who sent them. The Catholic Church refused every form of funeral service, so an old friend who was an undertaker on the South Side recited the Lord’s Prayer, the only words spoken over his body.

It was a sad end to a man who started out with a lot of potential but greed and a failure to realize when ambition had gone too far finally cost him his life.

Ninety-five years after the shooting that claimed Big Tim's life, the bullet holes from that violent summer night are still visible in the yellow bricks of the bungalow where he once lived. They serve as the visible reminder of a man who never achieved fame in the annals of Chicago crime but left a bloody mark on it nonetheless. His murder was never solved.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Couch Place, an Infamous Alley in Chicago's Loop.

The main walkway next to where the Oriental Theatre is called Couch Place [1]. It's the same alley that was adjacent to the Iroquois Theatre at the northeast corner of Randolph and Dearborn Streets 79-83 Randolph (after the 1911 Loop Renumbering; 36 West Randolph Street).

On Wednesday, December 30,1903, the deadliest theatre and single-structure fires in United States history occurred at Chicago's new "Iroquois Theatre." The first performance at the theatre, a standing-room-only matinée, starred the famous comedian Eddie Foy.

A stage light shorted and sparked during the show, setting fire to the curtain and quickly spreading doom throughout the theatre. Though everyone tried to make a break for it, there were some major flaws in the building design, like how all the fire escapes were unlabeled, locked, and opened inward, and the second-floor fire escape over the alley named Couch Place was unfinished. 

The Iroquois Theatre was billed as "Absolutely Fireproof" in advertisements and in the performances playbill. The spread of the fire is attributed to the large amount of inflammable stuff on the stage. Many people had been found dead in their seats in the balcony and gallery.

Regular "Iroquois" Prices: $1.50, $1.00, 75¢, 50¢

So, by failing to make it outside or jumping to the alley below out of desperation, 602 people died because of the Iroquois Theatre Fire (my robust article) that day.

One hundred and twenty years later, Couch Place is still considered haunted.

Compiled By Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

People that believe there were no real safety standards for public buildings during the turn of the 20th Century, nothing could be further from the truth.

The construction manager, W.A. Merriam, had declared the building “absolutely fireproof”, although he had ignored a number of contemporary safety precautions. On the day of the fire, audience demand was so great to attend the ornate new theatre that there were 200 standing attendees; the fire vents were closed, and the theatre doors were locked. Even by the looser standards of the day, the construction company and theatre owners committed flagrant safety violations. According to some reports, the city safety inspectors had been bribed with free theatre tickets to ignore the offenses.

Very soon after the fire, a grand jury indicted five people: theatre owner Will Davis, Iroquois treasurer and assistant manager Thomas J. Noonan, and stage manager James E. Cummings–for manslaughter, and Chicago’s Building Commissioner Williams and Building Inspector Edward Laughlin–for malfeasance. Ultimately, the defense got the judge to dismiss the case by arguing that the city’s fire ordinances were invalid. No one was punished for the deaths of 602 victims.

The only positive outcome of this tragic event was the major overhaul of the city’s fire safety standards. Not only did the city of Chicago tighten its fire code, but other major cities changed their practices almost immediately as well. Shortly after this fire, New York and London made rules to stop locking theatre doors. The doors of the Iroquois had been locked to prevent people from sneaking in the theatre, which was one of the contributory factors to the high death toll. On June 8, 1904, New York introduced new building standards for theatres in response to the Iroquois tragedy. In 1904 the Von DuPrin company developed the panic bar (also called push bar or crash bar), a version of which is still used today so that people inside a locked building can now exit in an emergency. Most importantly, fire codes were updated throughout the country.

[1] Ira Couch (1806-1857) was a prominent early settler and entrepreneur in Chicago, Illinois, during the mid-19th century. Born in New York in 1806, Couch arrived in Chicago in 1834, just one year after the town was incorporated.

Upon his arrival in Chicago, Couch quickly established himself as a successful businessman. He founded several businesses, including a livery stable, a stagecoach line, and a hotel. In 1837, he built the Tremont House, one of Chicago's most famous hotels during the mid-19th century. The hotel was known for its luxurious accommodations and was a popular destination for politicians, business leaders, and other prominent figures.

Couch was also active in politics. He served as an alderman in the Chicago City Council in the 1840s and was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1846. 

In 1850, Chicago was booming, and the Tremont Hotel was so overbooked that guests had to sleep in the halls. Within three years, Couch was a rich man. He rented the hotel to two men from Boston and retired on his riches.

In 1852, he was elected to the Illinois Senate.

Despite his success, Couch suffered financial setbacks in the mid-1850s. He was forced to sell the Tremont House in 1854 and was later sued by his creditors. He died in 1857, reportedly from complications related to alcoholism.

Couch lies in his Mausoleum in Lincoln Park when the area was a city cemetery.

The free PDF book, "The Great Chicago Theater Disaster, The Complete Story Told By The Survivors," published in 1904 by Marshall Everett. 

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Illinois Governor Thomas Ford (1842-46), Joseph Smith, and Mormon, Nauvoo, Illinois, Murderers.

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.


Thomas Ford, Governor of Illinois from 1842 to 1846, saved the credit of the state, fought bravely against financial and civil chaos, wrote "one of the two or three remarkable books written in the state during the formative period," worked through his last illness in a courageous endeavor to leave some kind of estate to his children — and is remembered only as one of the villains in a drama far greater than his own. Ford was perceptive and intelligent; dying, he foresaw his ultimate reputation. Toward the end of his "History of Illinois," he wrote: 

". . . the author of this history feels degraded by the reflection, that the humble governor of an obscure state, who would otherwise be forgotten in a few years, stands a fair chance, like Pilate and Herod, by their official connection with the true religion, of being dragged down to posterity with an immortal name, hitched on to the memory of a miserable impostor."
 Thomas Ford, the Eighth Governor of Illinois, 1842-1846.
Many judgments of Ford's conduct during the struggle in Hancock County in 1844-1845 have been moderately or severely critical. Fawn Brodie  condemns Ford as "weak." John Hay said he was "plagued by the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet (flighty, gossipy)." Though Joseph Smith Jr. relied upon Governor Ford for protection and seemed not unfriendly to a man who, he wrote, "treats us honorably" and "continues his courtesies," the opinion of the Mormons after the Smith murders were strongly condemnatory. The governor was accused of ignoring warnings of the evil intentions of the militia — an accusation undoubtedly correct — and of being party to the murder plot. 
Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844) founded Mormonism and the Latter-Day Saint movement. At the age of 24, Smith published the Book of Mormon, and by the time of his death, he had attracted tens of thousands of followers. 
It is easy to condemn Governor Ford for his conduct at the time of the murders. He was the state's chief executive, he was on the scene, and yet the murders took place. But few people realized the difficulties under which he labored. Any complete study of the murders of the Smiths must consider the society which demanded and condoned those murders and the conditions so different from our own, within which that organization operated in June 1844, Governor Thomas Ford faced really insuperable difficulties. 

In 1842 the state of Illinois was still a frontier territory, facing all the troubles of a changing and expanding society with few settled traditions, financial or social, from which to operate. A series of sanguine speculations and an almost unbelievably rickety economic structure had resulted in a state government that was bankrupt in everything but hope and name. When Ford was elected governor in 1842: 

". . . the state was in debt about $14,000,000 for monies wasted upon internal improvements and in banking; the domestic treasury of the state was in arrears $313,000 for the ordinary expenses of government; auditors' warrants were freely selling at a discount of fifty percent; the people were unable to pay even moderate taxes to replenish the treasury, in which not one cent was contained even to pay the postage to and from the public offices; . . . the banks, upon which the people had relied for a currency, had become insolvent, their paper had fallen so low as to cease to circulate as money, and yet no other money had taken its place, leaving the people wholly destitute of a circulating medium, and universally in debt . . ." 

This lack of a circulating medium of exchange is made more vivid by Ford's testimony that the half-million or so people of Illinois in 1842 possessed only two or three hundred thousand dollars in good money, about 50¢ apiece on the average, "which occasioned a general inability to pay taxes." The Mormons in Nauvoo continually recorded difficulties collecting a couple of dollars, or even 50¢, in good money. Robert Flanders has noted that bonds for deeds and other evidence of land ownership were commonly used as currency in Nauvoo. This simple lack of acceptable cash made complex business transactions of ordinary life encourage counterfeiting and made all kinds of chicanery (trickery) possible.

In the 1840s, there was no official currency in the United States. People used a variety of forms of money, including gold and silver coins, banknotes, and even barter. The concept of "good money" versus "bad money" referred to the quality and reliability of the currency being used.

"Good money" referred to currency that was widely accepted and had a stable value. This could include gold and silver coins issued by the government, or banknotes from well-established banks that were backed by a reserve of gold or silver. These types of currency were considered reliable and trustworthy, and people were willing to accept them in exchange for goods and services.

In contrast, "bad money" referred to currency that was not widely accepted or had an uncertain value. This could include banknotes from banks that were not well-established or did not have a reserve of gold or silver to back their notes, as well as counterfeit currency. Because these types of currency were considered less reliable and trustworthy, people were less willing to accept them in exchange for goods and services.

Overall, "good money" was considered to be a stable and reliable form of currency, while "bad money" was seen as risky and unreliable.

It wasn't until February 25, 1863, when President Lincoln signed The National Currency Act into law. The Act established the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), charged with responsibility for organizing and administering a system of nationally chartered banks and a uniform national currency.

Another major problem of the state was transportation. The Mississippi was a great high road, but the state's interior was a wilderness of trails and rutted lanes. In 1841, when wheat was one dollar a bushel in Chicago, the price in Peoria was 40¢. Springfield is but one hundred miles from Nauvoo, yet the Sangamo Journal for July 4, 1844, a week after the murders of the Smiths, reported only rumors of troubles in Hancock County. The railroads and the telegraph were only a few years away, but in 1844 the tired horseman and the mired wagon could have stood as symbols of the state. 

The cow-town Westerns of the movies and television have almost obscured that violence was a significant factor on the American frontier long before Dodge City and Tombstone. Illinois' History was typical enough. The nearly legendary bandits of Cave-in-Rock were eliminated early in the century. In 1816 and 1817, regulators had whipped and run out of the state rogues who, according to Ford, had included sheriffs, justices of the peace, and even judges. But as late as 1831, a gang almost controlled Pope and Massac counties and even built a fort that a small army of regulators had to take by storm. The better-known riots at Alton occurred in 1837. A mob threw into the river the press of the Alton Observer, an Abolition newspaper published by Elijah Lovejoy. Lovejoy and a mob member were killed in a subsequent clash, and a second press was destroyed. At about the same time, Ogle, Winnebago, Lee, and De Kalb counties all suffered from "organized bands of rogues, engaged in murders, robberies, horse-stealing, and in making and passing counterfeit money."

In 1841 in Ogle County, a family of criminals named Driscoll shot down Captain Campbell, of the county's respectable, before his family's eyes. Driscoll and one of his sons were convicted of the murder by a kangaroo court. "They were placed in a kneeling position, with bandages over their eyes, and were fired upon by the whole company present, that there might be no legal witnesses of the bloody deed. About one hundred of these men were afterward tried for the murder and acquitted. These terrible measures ended the ascendancy of the rogues in Ogle County." 

One would think that the violence at Carthage Jail in 1844 would have sickened the state's people, but the conflicts that followed in Hancock County were by no means the only disturbances to trouble Governor Ford. Another small civil war took place in Pope and Massac counties in 1846. The militia of Union County called in to keep the peace, refused to protect the suspected bandits and left the counties to the government of regulators, who, as always, began by terrorizing known criminals, moved to threaten the alleged, and ended hated and feared by honest and peaceful men. 

A party of about twenty regulators went to the house of an old man named Mathis. . . . He and his wife resisted the arrest. The old woman being unusually strong and active, knocked down one or two of the party with her fists. A gun was then presented to her breast, accompanied by a threat of blowing her heart out if she continued her resistance. She caught the gun and shoved it downwards when it went off and shot her through the thigh. . . . The party captured old man Mathis and carried him away with them, since which time he has not been heard of but is supposed to have been murdered.

Of Hancock County itself, Ford wrote: "I had a good opportunity to know the early settlers of Hancock County. I attended the circuit courts there as States-attorney from 1830, when the county was first organized, up to 1834. To my certain knowledge, the early settlers, with some honorable exceptions, were, in popular language, hard cases." 

All of these citations, which could be multiplied, clearly show that the murders at Carthage Jail fitted a reasonably common pattern. The people of Hancock County, of many places in Illinois in 1844, were not horrified at taking the law into their own hands. That had been done before by neighbors and friends and would be done again. Thomas Ford was trying to govern a state without money, adequate transportation, and no practical way of rallying public support in areas of the state not directly involved in the Mormon troubles. In a society where violence becomes commonplace, domestic peace must largely depend upon the speed of communication and transportation. Local feuds, riots, and even revolts are best handled by forces, not themselves directly involved and, therefore, relatively objective in their actions. In 1844, in Hancock County, the non-Mormons were bitter partisans, judges, jury — and executioners.

In Illinois, in the 1840s, the conflicts were between groups or groups on one side and individuals on the other. The central government left these problems to the states in the mid-nineteenth century. The state governments were frequently almost powerless or intensely partisan on one side or the other of each conflict. There is no lack of possibilities if we search for causes of these resorts to violence in Illinois. 

Criminals are always with us, quick to take advantage of weakness in government, unstable currency, flimsy jails, or poor communications. And common crime is not only harmful in itself; it begets crime through success and retribution. 

Another cause for violence may well have been simple boredom, with its concomitant yearning for any kind of action. Anyone who reads the letters and records of the mid-nineteenth century is struck by how often a writer dropped whatever he had in hand and set off on some vaguely motivated journey and how easy it always was to attract a crowd.  

William Daniels, who wrote an eyewitness account of the Smith murders, began his story:

"I resided in Augusta, Hancock County, Ill., eighteen miles from Carthage. On June 16, I left my home with the intention of going to St. Louis. . . .The next morning a company of men was going from . . . [Warsaw] to Carthage for the purpose, as they said, of assisting the militia in driving the Mormons out of the country. Out of curiosity, as I had no particular way to spend my time. . . ."

Daniels, setting out from his home on June 16, was a witness of the murders eleven days later and apparently never did arrive in St. Louis. 

Sheriff J. B. Backenstos supplied a list of those he was supposed to have been active in the "massacre at Carthage." Backenstos was not present at the murders and used hearsay in these accusations, which could not have been proved in court. He listed about sixty men as active participants. Of these sixty, six are listed as having "no business," two as "land sharks," one as "loafer," and one Major W. B. Warren as "a damned villain" — apparently his full-time occupation. Out of about sixty men, ten apparently had no trade known to the sheriff, and ten others were farmers at a season of the year when farming might have been expected to take all of a man's time. 

The best pictures of boredom, the deep inner need for excitement, for some kind of action, are in the writings of Mark Twain. Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, a river town near Warsaw and Nauvoo. One of the most famous passages of American writing, and one of the best, could have been a description of Warsaw, though it was Hannibal that Mark Twain wrote of: 

After all these years I can picture that old time to myself now, just as it was then; the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer's morning; the streets empty, or pretty nearly so; one or two clerks sitting in front of the Water Street stores, with their splintbottomed chairs tilted back against the walls, chins on breasts, hats slouched over their faces, asleep — with shingle shavings enough around to show what broke them down; a sow and a litter of pigs loafing along the sidewalk, doing a good business in watermelon rinds and seeds; two or three lonely little freight piles scattered about the "levee"; a pile of "skids" on the slope of the stone-paved wharf, and the fragrant town drunkard asleep in the shadow of them . . . . Presently a film of dark smoke appears . . . instantly a Negro drayman, famous for his quick eye and prodigious voice, lifts up the cry, "S-t-e-a-mboat a-comin' " and the scene changes! The town drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up, a furious clatter of rays follows, every housand store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving. . . . Ten minutes later the steamer is under way again, with no flag on the jack-staff and no black smoke issuing from the chimneys. After ten more minutes the town is dead again and the town drunkard asleep by the skids once more.

In the novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain shows us a town in Arkansas. The description, and particularly the bored cruelty at the conclusion, fit into the picture of possibilities for violence in any Mississippi river town:

There were empty drygoods boxes under the awnings and loafers roosting on them all day long, whittling them with their Barlow knives and chawing tobacco and gaping and yawning and stretching — a mighty ornery lot. . . . You'd see a muddy sow and a litter of pigs . . . and pretty soon you'd hear a loafer sing out, "Hi! so boy! sick him, Tige!" and away the sow would go, squealing most horrible, with a dog or two swinging to each ear and three or four dozen more a-coming, and then you would see all the loafers get up and watch the thing out of sight and laugh at the fun and look grateful for the noise. Then they'd settle back again till there was a dogfight. There couldn't anything wake them up all over and make them happy all over, like a dog-fight — unless it might be putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to his tail and see him run himself to death. (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 21 Page 3.)

From September 1845 until well into the spring of 1846, a substantial part of the population of Hancock County seems to have done little except harass the Mormons. If only the loafers and poor farmers had been bitter against the people of Nauvoo, the Mormons could have lived in Hancock County without any substantive problems. The respectable of Warsaw and Carthage made common cause with the "butcher boys." The new religion was feared and condemned, of course, since any new religion was built upon a belief in the inadequacy of established tenets. Nauvoo also threatened Warsaw's trade and Carthage's position as a county seat. When it became apparent that Nauvoo's voters were a bloc to be directed as he chose by Joseph Smith, and when the Prophet declared himself a candidate for the Presidency, the old settlers united against the new. The Mormons, strangers and isolates, had to face a county, a population accustomed to the idea of violence, contemptuous of government, filled with hate, and armed.

It was deeply ironic that the beginning of the end came with the destruction of the press of the Nauvoo Expositor. In Alton, a few years before, the mob had twice destroyed presses belonging to the Abolitionist Lovejoy. They rioted against the freedom of the press. In Nauvoo, the Mormons did the destroying, and the mob rioted for freedom of the press. In truth, of course, the mob cared nothing for the abstract space of the Bill of Rights; it hated Abolitionists and Mormons and did them both to death. 

Governor Ford became closely involved with the Mormon troubles on June 17, 1844, when a committee of men from Carthage waited on him in Springfield and asked that the state militia be called out to keep the peace in Hancock County. There was reason for their fear. The Mormons had destroyed the press of the Expositor on June 10; the very next day, a mass meeting at Carthage adopted the following resolutions:  

Resolved . . . that we hold ourselves at all times in readiness to cooperate with our fellow citizens in this state, Missouri, and Iowa, to exterminate - UTTERLY EXTERMINATE, the wicked and abominable Mormon leaders, the authors of our troubles.

Resolved . . . that the time, in our opinion, has arrived when the adherents of Smith as a body, shall be driven from the surrounding settlements into Nauvoo; that the Prophet and his miscreant adherents should then be demanded at their hands, and if not surrendered, A WAR OF EXTERMINATION SHOULD BE WAGED, to the entire destruction if necessary for our protection, of his adherents.

Ford, listening to the delegation from Carthage, made the first of three fateful decisions; he would go to Carthage and see himself what the situation was. This was a perfectly sensible thing to do, but it made possible the murders of the Smiths. If the governor had stayed in Springfield, the Smiths would not have surrendered; only Ford's personal protection guarantee persuaded Joseph Smith to ride to Carthage and give himself into custody.

Ford had to find out what the situation was, but Joseph Smith was under no illusions as to the attitude and plans of the mob. When Ford, after hearing the Mormon side of the Expositor affair, demanded that the Smiths surrender to the magistrate at Carthage, Joseph Smith stated the situation very accurately and appealingly in a letter dated June 22, 1844: 

. . . we would not hesitate to stand another trial according- to your Excellency's wish, were it not that we are confident our lives would be in danger. We dare not come. Writs, we are assured, are issued against us in various parts of the country. For what? To drag us from place to place, from court to court, across the creeks and prairies, till some bloodthirsty villain could find his opportunity to shoot us down. We dare not come, though your Excellency promises protection. Yet, at the same time, you have expressed fears that you could not control the mob, in which case we are left to the mercy of the merciless. Sir, we dare not come, for our lives would be in danger, and we are guilty of no crime.

You say, "It will be against orders to be accompanied by others if we come to trial." This we have been obliged to act upon in Missouri; and when our witnesses were sent for by the court (as your honor promises to do) they were thrust into prison, and we left without witnesses. Sir, you must not blame us, for "a burnt child dreads the fire." And although your Excellency might be well-disposed in the matter, the appearance of the mob forbids our coming. We dare not do it.

Joseph Smith's plan to leave for the far West, his crossing the river to Montrose, and his final decision to return and give himself up to the law were crucial for his life but were unknown to Governor Ford, who would probably have been best pleased had that plan been followed.

The Smiths arrived in Carthage at about midnight, June 24-25. They were exhibited to the militia the next day, were charged with a riot — the Expositor case — and were released on bail. Joseph and Hyrum Smith were immediately rearrested on a trumped-up charge of treason and were not released on bail; they were committed to the county jail "for greater security." 

At this point, Ford made his second crucial decision: he did not interfere in the jailing of the Smiths. In his History, Ford gives a detailed explanation that is persuasive as to the technical legality of the charges and of his position but which has little to do with the facts of the matter and the murderous intention of the mob. The magistrate in Carthage refused to accept bail on the charge of treason and, without the kind of hearing required by law, committed the Smiths to jail amid their enemies. A different type of governor might have overborne the magistrate and freed the Smiths, but Ford had been a lawyer and a judge. He felt that, as governor, he was only another state citizen, with peculiar responsibilities, of course, but with those responsibilities sharply delimited. "In all this matter," wrote Ford: 

The justice of the peace and constable, though humble in office, were acting in a high and independent capacity, far beyond any legal power in me to control. I considered that the executive power could only be called in to assist, and not to dictate or control their action; that in the humble sphere of their duties they were as independent, and clothed with as high authority by the law, as the executive department; and that my province was simply to aid them with the force of the State. 

A more forceful and less legalistic chief executive could almost certainly have freed the Smiths; indeed, Ford wrote of the planned trip to Nauvoo on June 27. "I had determined to prevail on the justice to bring out his prisoners and take them along." If he could have persuaded the magistrate to release the prisoners on the twenty-seventh, he could have done the same thing on the twenty-fifth. But this begs the question. A more forceful and less legalistic chief executive would have been likely, in those times, to have been more violently anti-Mormon than Ford. Governor Boggs of Missouri would probably not have hesitated to override a magistrate, but neither would he have hesitated to authorize the killing of the Smiths. 

Once the prisoners were in Carthage Jail, events rushed to a tragic ending. Visitors came and went; a pair of pistols was left with the prisoners; there was a feeling of a siege. Ford told Joseph Smith that he could not interfere with the law's slow — and, in this case, partial — process. Ford had planned to take the Smiths to Nauvoo if he went there on the twenty-seventh, but on that morning, the governor changed his mind — which was his third crucial decision. He wrote, "I had determined to prevail on the justice to bring out his prisoners and take them along. A council of officers, however, determined that this would be highly inexpedient and dangerous and offered such substantial reasons for their opinions as induced me to change my resolution." 

It is exciting and significant that in his History, Ford passed over this decision as rapidly as possible, did not give the "substantial reasons" of the officers, and moved immediately to the story of the expedition. Had the Smiths been taken to Nauvoo, they might have been shot on the road, or they might have been killed in a trumped-up attack in Nauvoo if the original plan to take the whole militia to that city had been followed. That would have meant war. If the Smiths had been taken along with the small company that finally made the journey, they might have been kidnapped by the Nauvoo Legion. It is hard to believe that had the Smiths returned to Nauvoo, they would have been willing to return to Carthage and the jail; they had seen and heard the mob and knew what justice to expect from everyone but the governor. 

The rest of the story is familiar to anyone who has studied Mormon history. Having decided to leave the Smiths in jail, the governor ordered almost all the militia to be disbanded. He left with a small force for Nauvoo, where he made a hurried speech to the assembled citizens and exacted a pledge against violence. In the meantime, the militia from Warsaw had marched north toward Golden's Point and had been met "at the shanties" with the governor's order to disband and the news that the governor had left Carthage for Nauvoo and that the Smiths were still in Carthage Jail. John Hay's retelling of the story is probably accurate; his father was with the troops and knew all the men, and the account must have been told and retold in Warsaw: 

Colonel Williams read the Governor's order . . . Captain Grover soon found himself without a company. Captain Aldrich essayed a speech calling for volunteers for Carthage. "He did not make a fair start," says the chronicle [it would be interesting to know what chronicle Hay referred to] "and Sharp came up and took it off his hands. Sharp, being a spirited and impressive talker, soon had a respectable squad about him. . . ." The speeches of Grover and Sharp were rather vague; the purpose of murder does not seem to have been hinted. They protested against "being made the tools and puppets of Tommy Ford." They were going to Carthage to see the boys and talk things over. . . .

While they were waiting at the shanties, a courier came in from the Carthage Grays. It is impossible at this day to declare exactly the purport of his message. It is usually reported and believed that he brought an assurance from the officer of this company that they would be found on guard at the jail where the Smiths were confined; that they would make no real resistance — merely enough to save appearances.

And so the men from Warsaw, led by Sharp, Grover, and Davis, and welcomed by the Carthage Grays under Frank Worrell, rushed the jail, disarmed the guard, and murdered Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Governor Ford heard the news when he met messengers two miles outside of Nauvoo; for safety's sake, he took the two messengers with him back to Carthage so that the knowledge of the murders would be kept from the people of Nauvoo as long as possible. 

Everyone expected a war. The anti-Mormons had been violent enough, and the Mormons had been accused by their enemies so often of being bloodthirsty outlaws that the accusers had come to believe their own lies. In this case, the Mormons quite typically followed the advice of John Taylor and kept the peace. But Ford, expecting the worst, felt that he could trust neither the Mormons nor the murdering Gentiles and retreated to Quincy in a panic. His feelings about the murders he put into a letter to Nauvoo on July 22, 1844:

The naked truth then is, that most well informed persons condemn in the most unqualified manner the mode in which the Smiths were put to death, but nine out of every ten of such accompany the expression of their disapprobation by a manifestation of their pleasure that they are dead.

The disapproval is most unusually cold and without feeling . . . called for by decency, by a respect for the laws and a horror of mobs, but does not flow warm from the heart.

The unfortunate victims . . . were generally and thoroughly hated throughout the country, and it is not reasonable to suppose that their deaths has produced any reaction in the public mind resulting in active sympathy; if you think so, you are mistaken.

Ford foresaw the continuing persecution, which resulted in the Mormon War of 1845 and the evacuation of Nauvoo.

How far, then, can Governor Ford be held responsible for the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith?

Ford arrived at Carthage on the morning of June 21. He discovered that Hancock County was already at the point of civil war, with approximately 1,700 men of the combined militia threatening to attack Nauvoo, which was defended by the Nauvoo Legion, 2,000 strong. His first act was to place the men of the militia under their regular officers and get pledges of support from them. He then demanded the surrender of the Smiths for their part in the Expositor affair, which was the immediate cause of the threatened struggle. He then asked for and received the state arms from the Nauvoo Legion. After the Smiths were committed to jail, Ford met with the militia officers to consult on the following steps. He disbanded the militia, rode to Nauvoo with a small party, and pleaded with the Mormons to keep the peace. Then he was faced with the fact of the murders. 

Ford's primary concern was not to save the Smiths but to avoid civil war. He felt that he had to push for the surrender of the Smiths partly because of the legal requirement and because their immunity from punishment after the Expositor affair made the old settlers of Hancock County furious. He first put the militia under their regular officers in an attempt to enforce discipline, and then, finding the officers as bad as the men, discharged almost the whole militia, feeling that they would be less dangerous as individuals and that many would return to their homes. He took the state arms from the Nauvoo Legion to relieve the fears of the old settlers and then discovered that those fears were mainly pretended and that the old settlers themselves were the real danger. Ford felt a responsibility for the Smiths — he had guaranteed their safety — but when he had to choose between leaving the Smiths and making another effort for peace, he decided to meet what he thought was his first responsibility.  

No one can tell what might have happened, but there seems every reason to believe that if Ford had stayed in Springfield and the Smiths had remained at Nauvoo, civil war would have occurred; that if Ford had arranged for the Smiths to escape to Nauvoo, civil war would have happened; that if Ford had taken the Smiths with him to Nauvoo, civil war would have occurred. He did none of these things, and civil war ensued. The old settlers of Hancock County did not want peace and would not have peace. Hay reports of the Warsaw militia on the last grim march to Carthage, "These trudged . . . towards the town where the cause of all the trouble and confusion of the last few years awaited them. . . . The farther they walked, the more the idea impressed them that now was the time to finish the matter. The avowed design of the leaders communicated itself magnetically to the men until the whole company became fused into one mass of bloodthirsty energy." 

Those writers who have called Ford weak and pointed out, quite correctly, that he changed his mind during those last days of Carthage have never suggested just what Ford should have done to save the Smiths and prevent the war. The governor tried almost everything to keep the peace; it was not his fault that nothing worked. 

The mob wanted Joseph Smith dead and the Mormons out of Illinois. Even after the Smiths were killed and the Mormons leaderless, civil war broke out the following year, and the Mormons were finally expelled. The lesson that Thomas Ford learned is given in his History:

In framing our governments, it seemed to be the great object of our ancestors to secure the public liberty by depriving government of power. Attacks upon liberty were not anticipated from any considerable portion of the people themselves. It was not expected that one portion of the people would attempt to play the tyrant over another. And if such a thing had been thought of, the only mode of putting it down was to call out the militia, who are, nine times out of ten, partisans on one side or the other in the contest. The militia may be relied upon to do battle in a popular service, but if mobs are raised to drive out horse thieves, to put down claim-jumpers, to destroy an abolition press, or to expel an odious sect, the militia cannot be brought to act against them efficiently. The people cannot be used to put down the people. 

Ford failed to save the lives of the Smiths, and he failed to prevent a future civil war. It is doubtful whether anyone, given that time, that place, those people, could have succeeded.

Joseph Smith, the founder and leader of the Latter Day Saint movement, and his brother, Hyrum Smith, were killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, United States, on June 27, 1844, while awaiting trial in the town jail.

As mayor of the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, Joseph Smith had ordered the destruction of the facilities used to print the Nauvoo Expositor, a newly established newspaper created by a group of non-Mormons and others who had seceded from the church. The newspaper's first (and only) issue was highly critical of Smith and other church leaders, reporting that Smith was practicing polygamy and claiming he intended to set himself up as a theocratic king. In response, a motion to declare the newspaper a public nuisance was passed by the Nauvoo City Council, and Smith consequently ordered its press destroyed.

The destruction of the press led to public outrage, and the Smith brothers and other members of the Nauvoo City Council were charged with inciting a riot. Warrants for Smith's arrest were dismissed by Nauvoo courts. Smith declared martial law in Nauvoo and called on the Nauvoo Legion to protect the city. After briefly fleeing Illinois, Smith returned and the brothers then voluntarily traveled to the county seat at Carthage to face the charges. After surrendering to authorities, the brothers were also charged with treason against Illinois for declaring martial law.

The brothers were in the Carthage Jail awaiting trial when an armed mob of about 200 men stormed the building, their faces painted black with wet gunpowder. Hyrum was killed almost immediately when he was shot in the face, shouting as he fell, "I am a dead man!" After emptying his pistol towards the attackers, Joseph tried to escape from a second-story window, but was shot several times and fell to the ground, where he was shot further by a makeshift firing squad.

Five men were indicted for the killings but were acquitted at a jury trial. At the time of his death, Smith was also running for president of the United States, making him the first U.S. presidential candidate to be assassinated. His death marked a turning point for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and since then, members of the Latter Day Saint movement have generally viewed him and his brother as religious martyrs who were "murdered in cold blood."

By Keith Huntress
Contributor and Editor, Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

The 1833 Winnebago Murder Trial in Frontier Illinois.

Indians of the Great Lakes region subscribed to a kinship-centered system of justice.  

In the case of murder, the victim's family was obligated to retaliate in kind against the perpetrator's family unless the presentation of a suitable gift could be arranged to "cover the dead," that is, assuage the aggrieved relatives. Similar customs applied as well to intertribal killings, and quite naturally, Indians expected to continue their practice of justice in whatever conflicts would arise with white settlers. In doing so, they were frustrated by the Anglo-American legal system, in which, rather than the family, administered justice. One such confrontation in frontier Illinois occurred when Winnebago Indians attempted to assert their ethos in coping with the intrusion of whites into the upper Mississippi Valley.

The Winnebagos were a Siouan-speaking people encountered by the French in the Green Bay vicinity in the early 1600s. Over the next two centuries, members of the tribe pursued the fur trade throughout south-central Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois along the Rock River and its tributaries. In the War of 1812, several Winnebago bands fought alongside the British and their allies, Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet. Later, leaders of the bands were upset when they learned that their British allies had made peace with the Americans. The leaders remained disgruntled when Superintendent of Indian Affairs William Clark invited them to send a peacemaking delegation to his headquarters at St. Louis. Still influenced by British traders, they were not anxious to acknowledge fealty to the Americans. While at least one band of Winnebago under Choukeka (Spoon or Ladle) Decora signed the June 3, 1816, treaty of amity, other bands refused. 

Tensions increased as lead miners, traders, and military men penetrated Winnebago lands. The newcomers commonly assessed the Winnebago demeanor as fiercely independent, resistant to "civilization," sullen, and aloof. 

American officials expressed irritation that the disaffected Winnebago bands continued to make seasonal visits to British posts at Fort Maiden across the strait from Detroit and at Drummond Island at the northern end of Lake Huron. There they received presents and encouragement from sympathetic British commanders.

American efforts at stopping the trips could have been more effective. Colonel Joseph Lee Smith, commander of the Third Infantry Regiment at Fort Howard (Green Bay), regarded the Winnebagos as "vicious," "active," and having a "mischievous character." As proof, in January 1820, he related the following example of Winnebago's duplicity with the British. A band claiming they were bound for Mackinac had stopped making friendly statements States. On departing, however, instead, Drummond obtained British gifts; on bypassed Fort Howard. Discovered and destroyed a hill near Lake Winnebago Green Bay. He argued that only the presence of an intimidating force of Americans would hold in check the tribe's "evil and unfriendly propensities."

At about the same time, traders and government officials at Green Bay experienced hostility as they attempted to cross waterways near Winnebago villages. An Indian from a village at Lake Winnebago fired a shot that pierced the awning of a boat carrying Captain William Whistler, his three children, and four or five soldiers. The boat flew the American flag. Whistler stopped the vessel and ordered his interpreter to make inquiries. The Winnebago declared that they controlled the route and that no vessel could pass without their permission. As no one was injured and because Whistler did not wish to press matters at that point, he and his party proceeded unmolested.

In retaliation for the harassment, John Bowyer, the Indian agent at Green Bay, soon arrested The Smoker, a visiting "great chief of the Winnebagos." Replying to Bowyer's interrogation, The Smoker professed ignorance of the attack but stated that if the reports proved true, he would bring in the band's leader (who, in the meantime, had reportedly gone on a hunt up the Mississippi) "before the Ice [is] made." With that guarantee, Bowyer released The Smoker and announced that the first chief who approached the fort would be imprisoned if the matter were not resolved by spring. 
Lewis Cass, Governor of Michigan Territory from 1813 to 1831.
In a letter to Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass, Bowyer described the Winnebagos as "unfriendly to the Government." He cautioned that "their character with the white and red people are bad, they are great liars and robbers" and that "no dependence can be placed in what they say."

Bowyer's reports described several confrontations. A boat belonging to a trader named Ermatinger was shot in the mast while crossing Lake Winnebago. On the Fox River, an army surgeon reported that he had been treated "insolently" by Winnebagos, who seized and searched his baggage. Nothing short of placing a strong garrison at the Fox-Wisconsin portage, Bowyer insisted, would "keep this tribe in order."

In the spring of 1820, Thomas Forsyth, an agent at Rock Island, reported to Clark that the Winnebagos had been "daring and impudent" in the vicinity of Fort Armstrong, killing government-owned cattle and repeatedly stealing corn from the Sauks. Clark showed little inclination to trust a delegation of principal men from a Rock River Winnebago band who met him in St. Louis "on a visit of inquiry and friendly professions." In passing on Forsyth's report, Clark claimed to Secretary of War John Caldwell Calhoun that "no confidence can be placed in this vicious Tribe" because "they have later been very insolent and even threatened Fort Armstrong after having killed their cattle." Clark asserted that a lesson for the Winnebago renegades was long overdue, for "they appear not to have any respect for our government, and friendly councils have never produced any favorable effect in preventing their excesses." 
John Caldwell Calhoun, U.S. Secretary of War.

To Forsyth, Clark urged vigilance, yet he admitted that he did not know what the federal government intended to do about the murderers. In April 1820, when Governor Lewis Cass was embarking on a tour of the Northwest, Calhoun reminded him that "certain individuals of the Winnebagoes, Chippewas, and Menomonee have evinced a hostile spirit, which must be repressed." In consultation with each tribe, wrote Calhoun, Cass should "represent to them the desire of the Government to cultivate friendly dispositions towards them, but which cannot be continued unless they effectually restrain the hostile conduct of their people."

In July, the scholarly Jedidiah Morse spent fifteen days in the vicinity of Green Bay on an expedition authorized by the War Department. In his final report, Morse stated that he found it difficult to obtain reliable information on the Winnebagos, partly because of the language barrier and partly because "no other tribe seems to possess so much jealousy of the whites, and such reluctance to have intercourse with them." Morse also commented on Winnebago's sense of territoriality. He confirmed that "they will suffer no encroachment upon their soil; nor any persons to pass through it, without giving a satisfactory explanation of their motives and intentions." Whites who failed to take that customary and precautionary step, said Morse, endangered their lives.

At the time, Morse's antipathy towards whites bated to a "state of consideration." Two young warriors' relatives had been accused of the murder and scalping of two soldiers just outside the gates of Fort Armstrong. Both Indian and white behavior during the episode is well documented in letters and reports, and a close analysis of those records reveals important cultural divergence in the matters of retributive justice and punishment. 

Francis Paul Prucha observes in his study of United States Indian policy that normal federal procedure in the early 1820s was to demand that accused Indians be surrendered by tribal leaders. If the chiefs resisted, various threats, military expeditions, seizure of hostages, or rewards to cooperative Indians generally achieved the purpose.

To American authorities, the murder and scalping of John Blottenburgh and Clement Attley Riggs, two unarmed soldiers on a woodcutting detail, appeared a wantonly savage act. Leaders of the suspected Winnebago bands were summoned and ordered to surrender the culprits. Calhoun directed Cass and Indian Agent Richard Graham to clarify to Winnebago leaders that such atrocities would not be regarded with impunity. Unless the chiefs demonstrated their loyalty by promptly surrendering the "wicked authors" of the crime, the government would consider the chiefs as participants in guilt, and the entire Winnebago nation would be "made to feel the just vengeance and retribution of the Government." Calhoun asserted that it was the responsibility of the chiefs to avert "disastrous consequences and annihilation." Indian gestures of friendship, while expected, were insufficient; the murderers had to be handed over to federal authorities.

Calhoun, however, urged restraint. Rather than overreact to frontier reports of a contemplated general Winnebago attack on Fort Armstrong, he described the killings as the work of a few individuals acting "without the knowledge or authority of the Chiefs." The latter, he correctly predicted, would "disavow it, or any hostility on the part of their nation towards the United States, but take the most prompt and active measures to cause the perpetrators to be arrested and delivered for punishment." 
Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth
Although his frontier commanders ─ impatient with slow-moving courts and aware of the difficulties of assembling creditable witnesses ─ often preferred summary execution by firing squad, Calhoun ordered that the accused Winnebagos be transferred to civil authorities. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth, who had been summoned from Fort Snelling for the investigation, grumbled: "It would have been better to have executed them and then have tried them ─ If they are tried, they must be executed, or we shall feel the weight of the Winnebago Tomahawk." 

To ensure compliance, the Army seized four Winnebagos as hostages. They were released when the chiefs, as promised, brought three men to Prairie du Chien, "preceded by a white flag, and attended by a large concourse of the tribe." The next day Prairie du Chien justices of the peace interrogated the three Indians while the chiefs looked on. 

All three of the prisoners belonged to Winnebago bands on the Rock River. In the spring of 1820, they had set out for Fort Armstrong, ostensibly as traders. Sometimes en route, the eldest, Chewachera [or Chewacuhra], implored the other two's assistance in avenging the death of his sister and her husband, who the Indians claimed was attacked and left to drown by American soldiers. One of the warriors was as young as fifteen, and the other was Chewachera's nephew and therefore bound by custom to obey his commands. Jerago, the youngest of the trio, said that he resisted because he knew the act's consequences and their agent would be angry. He cried and begged the others to "forget our Relations that the Americans had killed." After unsuccessfully attempting to wrest the guns from his companions, he fired shots to alert his mother and thwart the plan. Jerago would not disavow his loyalty to his fellow tribesmen in yielding to interrogation. "They went off and killed two soldiers," he said. "I did not wish to be drawn into this business, but since I have had Irons put upon my hands, which hurts me, I will remain with them."

According to stories told separately by each prisoner, there had been no elaborate scheme for ambushing officers at the fort; the act was premeditated only one day. Wading from their camp on the east bank of the river to the island on which the fort stood, the three determined to lie in wait for someone to come out. If no one appeared after a considerable time, they resolved to forego revenge and simply enter the fort, shake hands, and have a friendly smoke ─ the original preference of the two younger men. But when Blottenburgh and Riggs appeared, the warriors shot them, and Chewachera bashed their heads with the back of an axe and scalped them. The three headed back up Rock River without stopping to stretch the scalps on a hoop. En route to their village, they were taunted by their tribesmen for their rash act. Chewachera and his nephew Whorahjinka were "so much cursed" at their lodge that they unceremoniously threw away the Soldiers' scalps.

Winnebago society placed restrictions on individuals who wished to seek retribution. Permission had to be secured from the chiefs. Warriors who failed to receive that permission, or refused to pursue it, subjected themselves to the only restrictive measures that the chief and the community could adopt ─ temporary loss of prestige, the sort of treatment suffered by the three Winnebago.

Chewachera openly admitted his guilt. He absolved the other two of murderous intent and corroborated their versions of the affair. He did, however, amplify his reasons for revenge:

I knew that my sister had been ill-used below I did not think any more of that. I never had any ill intentions until I heard that my sister had been abused ─ Women ought to be respected. My Father did not encourage any person to use women ill. But my sister had been ill-treated. . . and when I came near the place where it was done, I lost my senses and did a bad act I have done it I delivered up my body to the Chiefs what more can I say.

Whorahjinka added that when they were leaving their lodges, the women had cried on behalf of the slain relatives, and the recollection of that scene helped to trigger the killing of the soldiers. Twice he tried to prevent the contemplated act but finally acquiesced because "my body belonged to my Uncle. I was obliged to do as he did or told me to do."

In an effort to ascertain the facts and project an impartial posture, White authorities attested to the veracity of the interpreters used in the proceedings. One of them, an Indian of an unspecified tribe known as Fast Walker, satisfied the whites before he was sworn in that he knew the purpose and obligations attached to an oath, stating that the Great Spirit would not forgive him ─ even beyond the grave ─ should he lie under oath. When asked the customary way in which to bind an Indian's word, Fast Walker replied, "By laying the hand on a Medicine Sack, a ball or an arrow and saying, 'May my Medicine prove bad, or may the ball or the arrow pierce my heart if I tell a lie.' " Rather than request a medicine bag for his own swearing-in, he told the whites: "The Americans know more than the Indians. I see you have a book there you say is the word of God (or the heart of God). I believe it and will attest upon it as you do."

Leavenworth conducted the interrogation before an assemblage of Rock River Winnebago. Referring to Chewachera's accusations, Leavenworth insisted that the matter had been looked into by Nicholas Boilvin, the United States Indian agent at Prairie du Chien. Boilvin, after talking to a man who had buried the Winnebago couple, reported that although one of the bodies bore marks that might have been attributed to an accident, neither body had broken bones, nor was there evidence that the woman had been assaulted. He said they drowned after falling through the ice. Leavenworth dismissed the charges against the Americans as a lie sung in the Indians' ears by "some bad bird." He claimed that two years had elapsed since the disputed incident and that it was as unreasonable for Winnebago to kill his young men at Rock Island in retaliation for those drowning victims as it would be for him now to kill Winnebago at Prairie La Crosse or Black River in response to the murders of the soldiers.

As on previous occasions, Leavenworth promised that if tribal leaders reported to him any cases of Americans killing Winnebago, he would punish the perpetrators. In a rhetorical flourish that his listeners could not have taken seriously, the Colonel claimed that if his own Father or brother killed an Indian, he would spare no effort to have him hanged, and "such are the sentiments of every white man."

In order to demonstrate "our love of justice [and] that we do not wish to harm the innocent," the authorities released Jerago after concluding that he had done everything possible to prevent the crime. That magnanimous gesture, Leavenworth warned, should not be misconstrued; justice also required that the guilty be punished. Glossing over such Winnebago concepts of justice as payment to relatives of victims, Leavenworth asserted that the "unfortunate young men" had "committed a crime which by your laws subject them to the punishment of death." "Our laws," he concluded, "are the same."

Commending the Winnebago for their good faith in surrendering the murderers and lifting the cloud of distrust that hung over their nation, Leavenworth reminded them that for several years the Rock River bands had had had a bad reputation among whites. He hoped that their future conduct would disprove that negative appraisal. Finally, he warned against asking for the release of the two remaining prisoners, who, in his opinion, deserved the death penalty. In fact, he saw no reason why the Winnebago did not execute those of their nation who killed whites.

Apparently, the Winnebago made threats when they learned that only Jerago would be returned. The delegation had the temerity to tell Leavenworth that he should release the others for the sake of his "Forts and children." Leavenworth scolded them:

What do you mean by that? Is it war? If war serves your intention, you should have kept the prisoners and not given them up. Neither my Forts nor my soldiers are afraid of war ─ they are always ready and would be pleased with it if the Winnebagos wish it. You behaved like men in giving up the prisoners, but in asking me to release them again, you act like old women asking for bread.

The Colonel claimed to have made no promises regarding Chewachera and Whorahjinka. He judged that they were guilty and that Jerago was innocent. Leavenworth instructed the delegation to close any pending business with their agent and return to their villages. He expected assurances that the chiefs would restrain their men.

After meeting in the council, Shungapaw spoke for the Indians. He wished to know when Leavenworth was leaving to go upriver so that the band could accompany him. The suspicious Colonel refused to reveal his plans beyond saying that he intended to hold the prisoners until receiving orders from the President. Upon noticing that Shungapaw no longer wore an American medal (a gift of friendship), Leavenworth accused the Winnebago of mischievous intent. "When you are desirous of any favor, you are very good Americans and appear to be proud of wearing their medals," he said, "but when your wishes are disappointed, you throw them aside." Indeed, he warned them that a watchful eye would be kept upon them because he expected to hear of more murders. Next time, the Americans would not await a surrender; annihilation would be the result for those who began warfare. Shungapaw denied any evil intention and explained that he had given his medal to the brother of one of the prisoners in order to assuage his grief. He maintained that neither the chiefs nor the warriors present had mentioned war and that all were satisfied that their "Great Father, the President," would decide the prisoners' fate.

Reporting to Calhoun after a tour through Winnebago country, Governor Cass expressed satisfaction with Leavenworth's "wise and decisive" handling of matters. The Indians had learned a lesson, said Cass, and the United States should regret nothing except the "untimely fate of the soldiers." Commenting on the likelihood of future complaints, Cass was confident, after talking with men he termed principal Winnebago chiefs, that only the "intemperate passions of Individuals" would again produce such conduct. The chiefs, he believed, would disavow violent acts and would surrender offenders as quickly "as the relaxed state of their Government" would permit.

Leavenworth took the prisoners from Rock Island to Edwardsville in the autumn of 1820. From there, they were transferred to the jail at Belleville. The trial finally took place on May 12, 1821, after Chewachera and Whorahjinka had been held for nearly a year. Jacob Hough, a soldier from Fort Armstrong, testified that he and Andrew Peeling found the bodies of Blottenburgh and Riggs less than a mile from the fort. The two victims had been shot and scalped, and Blottenburgh was hacked in the left side with an axe. Jerago, having been called to testify, told the same story he had related in the earlier interrogation. The jury took only half an hour to reach a verdict of guilty. The following day Chewachera and Whorahjinka were sentenced to death by hanging; the execution was set for mid-July.

The physical condition of the two prisoners was a matter of grave concern both in the Illinois press and among their fellow Winnebago. According to one account, the two had been "hearty, robust men" in the fall of 1820 but were "scarcely able to stand or move by the trial." Upon inquiry by Leavenworth and others, the Indians made specific complaints about their treatment in jail during the winter. According to their statements, they had neither fire nor bedding and were made to sleep on a hard floor. Their daily rations consisted of "cornbread of the size of a small biscuit and half that quantity of meat." On one occasion, they received no food or water for three days and nights. The Illinois Intelligence called for an investigation in the belief that the allegations of inhumanity were exaggerated. One editorialist asked rhetorically: 

Do we call ourselves a Christian nation: Do we boast of our humanity ─ our justice? Were these men in the custody of American people and American laws? If this is true, in what do our prisons differ from those of the Spanish Inquisition or ourselves from nations we are pleased to call barbarous and uncivilized?

William A. Beaird, sheriff of St. Clair County and keeper of the Belleville jail, was accused of mistreating the Winnebago prisoners. He responded to the charges by writing a letter to the newspaper "to teach editors not to injure the characters of innocent persons on the false statements of murdering Indians." In reply to the sheriff, the editor reminded readers that the Indians' statements were not false merely because of their source and that at least one of the two men might still be vindicated of the murder charge. Sheriff Beaird maintained that the prisoners were kept in a thick-walled dungeon in which a fire would have been impossible but through which no cold drafts could penetrate. There was no suggestion, he said, that the Indians be moved near a fireplace. He labeled the charge regarding the bedding "a most absolute falsity" because Indian Agent Thomas Forsyth, wintering in St. Louis, had provided two blankets and two buffalo robes. Although Beaird said the prisoners had not fared well over the winter, he claimed they had more food than they could eat. Noticing that during the incarceration, one "dangerously. . . broke out in large sores, and bleeding at the nose, toothache, and scurvy," Beaird frequently had ordered that soup be prepared as "an extra dainty." The unaccustomed salt provision and their "close confinement in a very tight prison" caused what he called their "meager appearance."

Following the sentencing, Naw Kaw Carmani, the last Winnebago claiming a tribal-wide chieftainship, spoke to the assemblage. Although he would live until after 1830, Naw Kaw was already in his late eighties. In an opening litany of stock phrases, he claimed to be an American, pleading by the Great Spirit that he stood sincerely for peace, and stated that he had less power in his nation than the judge who had just pronounced the sentence. Then bitterness came through in his closing remarks:

When I came down here, I had hoped to find that Che-wa-cha-rah and Who-rah-jin-kah had been better treated, but my heart is oppressed at the cruelty that they have received. I did hope that pity would have been found for them. . . . But let peace be between us. I look up to our Great Father as I do to the Great Spirit for protection.

My Father ─ I came here to see justice, but find none ─ Cah-rah-mah-ree is honest, speaks what he thinks, and shakes you by the hand for the last time.

A report of the trial and verdict was sent to Washington. President James Monroe approved of the sentences meted out to the "misguided" Winnebago, but he had reservations regarding the pre-trial examinations of the accused. As a result, Secretary of War Calhoun was instructed to send word of a temporary reprieve for Whorahjinka. That decision showed at least some sensitivity to Indian perceptions of the circumstances. Whorahjinka's "extreme youth" certainly figured into the move, but so too did an appreciation that he acted as the nephew of Chewachera, "to whom he appeared to consider his body to belong and that he was of course bound to do whatever he told him to do." Whorahjinka's execution date was delayed to August 14, and Calhoun queried William Clark about the impact on the Winnebago of a full presidential pardon. In late June, the enfeebled Chewachera died in prison.

Presidential reprieve proved a false hope, for Leavenworth, who served as a prosecutor in the trial, was convinced that Whorahjinka's guilt was indisputable. While admitting that the Indians had been mistreated in captivity, Leavenworth felt positive that the tribes would "harbor motives of revenge" if Whorahjinka were released. On the expiration of the reprieve, Whorahjinka was hanged at Kaskaskia.

Agent Forsyth confirmed the predicted hostile mood of the Winnebago when he requested that his quarters be located adjacent to Fort Armstrong, as the Winnebago were "by no means well intended, on account (as they say) of the treatment their two men experienced previous to their trial." Fearful of Winnebago's revenge, American policymakers followed the old Anglo-Saxon custom (closely paralleling Indian practice) of making a wergild, or payment, in order to appease the victims' relatives and defuse any desire for retaliation. Because the bands were living near Thomas Forsyth's agency (although not within his jurisdiction), the War Department instructed him to make moderate compensation to the relatives of the two dead Indians "to relieve [them] from the distress which . . . they have suffered."

The Fort Armstrong murders and the resulting trial of the Winnebago prisoners illustrate the extent to which Indians of Illinois complied outwardly with the white man's system of justice. Yet their submission to Anglo-American legal concepts was structured whenever possible with an eye to conformity with their own traditionalism. 

Through the 1820s, continuing American penetration of the Winnebago domain provoked a variety of sporadic responses by Winnebago individuals and bands. Although initially, no tribal-wide policy underlay such responses, Americans insisted that a well-coordinated tribal policy existed. It thus became increasingly difficult for the Indians to practice traditional customs involving justice and land tenure, especially when confronted by the invasions of lead miners. 
The 1825 council at Prairie du Chien at which William Clark and Lewis Cass presented the treaty establishing intertribal boundaries for eleven Michigan Territory tribes. Artist James Otto Lewis, who attended the council, painted this scene.

In 1825 the United States imposed the first regional intertribal boundary treaty. In 1827, the so-called "Winnebago War" was declared by whites in reaction to a raid similar to the Fort Armstrong affair. The treaty ending that conflict gave the government the opportunity to impose the first actual cession of Winnebago lands in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1980.
Edited by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.