Crawford County, Illinois
Genealogy and History

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The Hanging of the First Woman in Illinois

People of the State of Illinois
Elizabeth Reed

(of Crawford County)

Crime committed in Crawford County in vicinity of Palestine, August 15, 1844.
Trial held at Lawrenceville, Lawrence County, April 26, 27, 28, 1845.
Execution date May 23rd., 1845 at Lawrenceville, Illinois.
Rev. John Seed, Methodist minister, delivered the sermon prior to the execution.
[Lawrence County Circuit Court Records.]

The first woman sentenced to death in Illinois or perhaps in the Northwest Territory, received her doom like a stoic, never changing a muscle of her countenance. She was guarded by the court house after the court adjourned, and one women in particular-labored hard for her soul's salvation. At last the condemned said she was saved, and from that time to the moment of her death displayed a very emotional religious life. She was baptised in the Embarrass River by Rev. John Seed, a pioneer Methodist minister. Public sentiment, however, was entirely against her. As the day of execution approached, the birds saw the whole population within the radius of a hundred miles moving towards Lawrenceville. In Wagon, on horse back, afoot, the nebulous population gradually concentrated into one mass. The women came and brought the children to be held upon the shoulders of the men. Men, now gray haired, affirm that this is not an exaggeration to say that, that 23rd. day of may not a soul in Lawrence county was at home. Such a crowd has never been seen in this part of the State. The scaffold was built of rough timber and was a simple affair. A braced beam, projection from a single post, had the noose dangling from it's end. The trap was held up by a smaller rope which ran over a pulley in the braces and was fastened to the floor behind, where the Sheriff cut it with an axe. The most "convenient place" for the execution was at the foot of the hill which runs parallel with the river here, as elsewhere throughout the Wabash system. Mrs. Reed rode from the jail to this place on her own coffin, and by her side sat a woman, still living (1885), who had devoted much time to her religious training since her sentence. The murderess was dressed in a long white robe, not unlike the ascension robes of the Millerites, with not a bit color to relieve the purity. In the face of the populace which filled the natural amphitheatre she mounted the scaffold singing hymns and crying out that she trusted in the Lord. With nothing but sickening crime in her past, she died as though she had the strengthening sense of a mission fulfilled which upheld Joan of Arc and Charlotte Corday. While the Methodist minister preached a long funeral discourse she acted like she was in the Amen Corner of a log church and endorsed all the preacher said. Her fervid responses along disturbed the perfect quietude of the scene; the multitude remained perfectly silent. When the long ceremonies were finished she firmly stepped upon the trap, a black cap drawn over her head, intentsifying the whiteness of her robes. The noose was adjusted, and a few minutes before 12 o'clock Sheriff Thorn with one blow cut the small rope that suspended her above the newly-dug grave below the trap. She whirled rapidly around a few times, but did not struggle, and in a few minutes she was pronounced dead.
(Contributed by June Kessinger who adds that Mrs. Reed killed her husband with arsenic)

Mrs. Elizabeth Reed was hung on the 23d inst. at Lawrenceville for taking the life of her husband by poison: had killed herself by eating glass, was incorrect.  Mrs. Reed was, on the 23d Inst. hung by the neck until dead, in the presence of thousands of spectators who had  assembled to witness the execution. More than a thousand delicate females left their homes and repaired to the place of execution, near Lawrenceville,  to feast upon the sight of one their own sex suspended between the heavens and the earth, and to witness the last convulsive agonies of a poor erring female, about to be launched into eternity, "with all her imperfections on her head."
The body of Mrs. Reed was committed to the physicians of Lawrenceville for dissection, and a quantity of gravel, sand, &c. was found in her stomach, which she had taken for the purpose of destroying her life. [Charleston Rep.; Thursday, June 12, 1845; Illinois Weekly State Journal (Springfield, Illinois) - Submitted by B.Z.]

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


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