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Early Crime and Punishment in Illinois

Originally written by Robert S. Johnston
Published in ISGS Quarterly, Vol XVIII, No 1 Spring 1986

Transcribed by K. Torp, ©2007



The evolution of criminal laws and methods of punishment in early Illinois can be traced back to England. With centuries of trial and error, beginning in Anglo-Saxon times, the English developed a system of law and punishments distinct from their continental cousins. This mixture of laws and traditions were passed on to the thirteen colonies and by 1763 they were operating in the Illinois country. Such features as the right to trial by jury and the right of the accused to face his accusers in open court were just two of the unique features embodied in the English system of justice.

But early English law lacked compassion when it came to punishment of offenders. Corporal punishment was used to embarrass and degrade persons guilty of such acts as drunkenness, gossiping, brewing bad beer and wife beating. Through public whippings, confinement in the stocks and pillory, and the cold bath of the ducking stool, our English and colonial ancestors enforced a moral and social code of behavior to fit the needs of their time.

Public humiliation appeared lenient compared to the punishment imposed for more serious offenses. Religious dissenters, such as the Quakers, were sometimes branded on the forehead with a hot iron to mark the letter "H" for heresy. Moreover, punishment was not complete until the offender had spent some time in the stocks following a court-ordered whipping.

More than 200 crimes were subject to the death penalty in England long after the American Revolution had severed our ties with the crown. Seemingly petty offenses such as picking a pocket, stealing five shillings, robbing a rabbit warren or cutting down a tree were capital offenses along with more menacing crimes such as sedition, arson, murder and treason. The condemned criminal was executed with imagination. He might be put on the rack, burned at the stake or hung on the gallows.

Jails for the purpose we use them today did not exist. English jails and early American jails served as holding places until the sentence could be carried out. Imprisonment is a fairly modern practice. In colonial times, the English preferred exile. Thousands of paupers and petty thieves were given free passage aboard ships bound for the thirteen colonies in exchange for their (x) mark on a contract which made them indentured servants for as many as seven years in America. For all its evil portent, it meant a new life.

Though the American colonists turned their backs on mutilation and branding as methods of corporal punishment, they readily accepted such English degradations as the ducking stool, stocks, pillory and public whippings. The latter two would be effectively implanted in the Old Northwest, including the Illinois territory.

With the surrender of New France to the English in 1763, English common law and punishment replaced Roman law. From that time through the first half of the 19th century, the pillory and public whippings were a common sight in the courthouse squares of many Illinois county seats.

Some pioneer Illinois crimes required stiff fines in addition to some hours in the pillory and whippings "well laid." If the unfortunate transgressor and his family could not pay the court fine, he would be auctioned off as an indentured servant. For example, in St. Clair County, the oldest county in the state, a thief convicted of larceny had to repay four times the sum he stole or be bound into white slavery for as many as seven years.

A Chicago vagrant,
Richard Harper, was arrested and lodged temporarily in jail in 1833. Because he had no money, he fell victim to the Illinois vagrancy law and was offered for sale. Since the predominantly white crowd that attended the auction disliked seeing a white man sold, it first appeared that no one would buy him. Finally, George White, a Negro, bid 25 cents and was allowed to lead Harper away at the end of a chain.

In Illinois pioneer communities, episodes of profanity, gambling, drinking and quarreling were routine occurrences. If emotions surged out of control, men and even whole families might turn a harmless brawl into a bloody feud. Such a fight in 1821 terminated the life of
Field Bradshaw in Madison County. His fatal beating orphaned a large family which had to be placed under court guardianship. That same year the county court ruled on 39 cases of fighting. The usual punishment was a fine and a whipping by the sheriff.

Capital punishment on the Illinois frontier was carried out by hanging. Most early legal hangings made use of a large tree close to the courthouse square. The convicted man was usually brought chained and handcuffed, seated upon his coffin, aboard a wagon. In an almost carnival atmosphere, wagons and horses created traffic jams as the curious arrived early to get the best views of the execution. The occasion fit the saying, "The crowd was as big as at a hanging."

In 1840
John Stone became the first victim of the hangman in Chicago. Still claiming he was innocent of murder, he was brought, in the manner just described, escorted by 200 citizens on horseback to a lake shore gallows.

Women, too, sometimes received the death penalty. One Illinois pioneer wife,
Elizabeth Reed, poisoned her husband with arsenic. On her execution day in 1845, she was driven in an oxcart, seated atop her coffin, to a grove of sugar maples where a huge crowd had gathered to see that she made retribution for her crime.

Under the laws of Illinois and Indiana territories, the following acts were punishable crimes, as either capital or corporal offenses:

treason --- disobedience to parents --- gambling --- burglary
murder --- drunkenness --- forgery --- dueling
arson --- cockfighting --- larceny --- profanity
rape --- sabbath breaking --- perjury --- bribery

As time passed and Illinois became a state, a new criminal code added some crimes that were unique to the prairie period:

throwing dead animals into water --- refusing to join a posse
grave robbing --- obstructing a road or stream
killing song birds --- using false weights --- setting fire to a woods or prairie


For years before the Englishman Charles Darwin published his theories of evolution and "survival of the fittest" (1859), the Illinois prairie farmer had witnessed crop failures, droughts, floods, epidemics and Indian attacks. He had seen families give up and move on, after burying their dead. The belief that life was hard and that "only the strong survive" was ingrained in his blood.

This prairie was a melting pot of Germans, English, Irish, Welsh, Scots and French who had trouble tolerating many of their own kind much less the strange customs of others. These neighbors argued and fought, sometimes with fists or guns, about property lines, strays, poaching, water rights, rights of way, interest charges, drunkenness, moral behavior and religious practices. Yet, somehow, these strangers mixed and flourished.

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of "survival of the fittest" appeared in the isolated country areas. Cabins might be a mile or more apart. A person found protection with his family and his neighbors. Having many sons provided security as well as a labor supply. Notwithstanding the stray bands of renegade Kickapoo or Tamaroas, the early Illinois settler was plagued by reports of travelers who committed shocking acts of murder upon unsuspecting persons. More than one Illinois family offered its hospitality to a strange peddler and was murdered in its sleep for the good deed. Survival meant trusting primitive instincts and using your head before your heart.

Upon discovery of a heinous crime, neighbors from miles around would join a vigilante posse and pursue the culprit until either he was apprehended or his trail was lost. If the county seat had a jail, the vigilantes might turn the killer over to the sheriff and wait until the circuit judge made his rounds to hold court. Sometimes they might hold a quick trial on the spot and hang the villain from the nearest big tree.

Neighbors often acted as vigilantes and formed committees, or protection societies, to enforce the laws of their locale. One such example was the case of
Joe Duncan who lived near Collinsville before the Civil War. He operated a gambling and prostitution house frequented by strangers. The neighbors were offended by the rumors of what went on in his establishment. They ordered him to sell out and move on by a particular date. He refused. When that day came, a band of thirty-five mounted vigilantes made good their threat. Duncan was killed in a flurry of bullets. All thirty-five men were indicted for murder, but no jury would convict them.

These self-appointed law enforcement bands were even more important for their role against horse thieves. In America people set their horses to graze in the open countryside, making it easy for horse thieves to rustle them. To curb temptation, horse thievery was made a capital offense early in the state's history, whereas murder was treated only as a serious crime.

The sheriff was equipped neither with manpower nor money to handle the multitude of crimes, including the more serious horse and cattle cases, by himself. It is not surprising, therefore, that anti-horse thief associations, also known as protection societies or detective societies, spread throughout Illinois. Membership requirements and operational procedures were similar in associations across the state. A man had to be at least 18 years old, live in the area and be of good moral character. He paid a membership fee, and fines were levied against him if he failed to attend meetings or to do his duty as ordered. The executive committee of the association offered rewards and printed handbills to send to nearby towns' law enforcement officers. They also dispatched members to pursue the horse thieves and bring them back to face trial. Such protective groups even tracked horse thieves into nearby states since it was known that an underground interstate trade existed in the horse and cattle rustling business.

One such anti-horse thief society of 40 members in Marshall County rounded up the whole
Reeves family and drove them in a wagon to their trial in a grove of trees. They were not hung, as may have been intended, but their cabin was burned and the entire family was banished from the Illinois valley. The society even paid their steamboat passage to St. Louis.

In their enthusiasm, societies sometimes went overboard and terrorized law-abiding citizens. Eventually, another society would have to be organized to neutralize the first group. A confrontation such as this occurred when flatheads and regulators turned vigilante justice into a state of chaos from 1846-9 in Pope, Massac and Johnson counties.

In the years after the Civil War, some Southern Illinois counties were hotbeds of Klu Klux Klan activity. In Jackson County, the targeted victims were usually lone travelers. But in the area around Ava, even farmers were pulled from their homes at night and whipped and abused. Neighboring Williamson County reported 285 murders prior to 1876. Up to that time, no one was ever executed for murder in that county. The same situation existed in Washington County with 45 murders and no executions.

Because taxing for the support of a county jail was unpopular in most areas, it was financially unfeasible for poor counties to keep prisoners for very long. Thus, when the state built its first penitentiary at Alton in 1833, it was a bargain for counties with a prisoner surplus. The worst criminals could not be incarcerated in the new facility and the state assumed the cost.

Alton State penitentiary was an impressive rectangular structure. It stood four stories high with guard towers on its corners and three to five foot catwalks. Great iron bars sealed the front gate that faced the city and Mississippi River below. In the spring and fall, strong winds carried the river's water and sprayed the limestone walls with a fine mist. Eventually, mortar would wash holes in the walls enabling prisoners to talk to people on the outside.

The stones held the dampness in the summer and turned to ice in the winter. One prison doctor protested that prisoners' blankets and beds froze when the condensation turned to ice. Naturally, respiratory problems were common. Coughs, colds and fever struck the prisoners throughout the year. Many died of pneumonia. Arthritis and pleurisy struck even the young convicts. According to some prison reports, the worst fates awaited those inmates who broke the rules and were placed in solitary confinement. If a prisoner did survive his sentence, he almost always left the prison in worse condition than he came.

For most of the thirty-year history of the Alton prison, double bunking was a necessity. The earliest building contained twenty-four cells and each cell was three and a half by seven feet. This was barely enough room for one man. But when counties realized their cost savings, they responded by transferring greater numbers of convicts to Alton. As early as 1839, thirty convicts shared twenty-four cells. Overcrowding grew rapidly but cells were added slowly. Perturbed wardens and state inspectors complained repeatedly about the overcrowding over the years, but the General Assembly acknowledged the need for new cells either too slowly or too late. By 1855, 340 prisoners shared 152 cells. In 1857 the prison had 256 cells but was burdened with 475 inmates. Within just two years more, the inmate population jumped to a staggering 661.

These overcrowding conditions were relieved somewhat by bunking some inmates in the dining hall and passageways. The humanitarian Dorothea Dix, who visited the Alton prison in 1846, complained that inmates were chained to walls in the passageways. She also reported that all inmates were forced to eat standing up since neither tables nor chairs were available for them. She pointed out that medical attention was extremely limited and medical record keeping was poor to non-existent. Mental illness simply went untreated.

Prisoners, in fact, had openly complained about being thrown into cold showers to determine if they were feigning illness. Prisoners were fed fresh meats, often contaminated with botulism. Bread was corn meal mixed with bran. This diet tended to create some intestinal disorders and the absence of vegetables brought epidemics of scurvy, a disease whose cause was known and for which the warden had no excuse. Diseases spread easily in this close confinement. Helen Marshall, a biographer of Dix, wrote, "Everywhere poor food, dark cells, and solitary confinement spread a foul discontent that undermined all hope for regenerating the criminal."

To these nightmare conditions can be added the shaving of one side of the head for inmates who broke such rules as "total silence." The whippings on the bare back and the hours in the pillory, bad as they were, could not compare to the long ordeal in solitary confinement from which few ever really recovered.

Some did escape from the penitentiary. In fact, during the early 1830s, as many as one-third made an illegal departure. Executive pardons were granted provided that citizens from the convict's home county could petition the governor successfully. In the 1850s these pardons averaged from five to eight percent annually. Meanwhile, the specter of death from illness or abuse haunted those in poor health. An unceremonious burial within the unpaved prison yard awaited them.

Despite the presence of murderers, horse thieves, robbers, rapists, arsonists and other hardened criminals, two-thirds of the inmates were guilty of larceny (the theft of something valued over $10 but under $25) and the typical sentence was three years.

A few women were imprisoned at Alton and the warden often complained about pregnant women and their offspring creating a hardship on him. The laws made no provisions for the release of children born within prison walls. A mother's punishment was therefore transferred to her offspring. The youngest inmate serving a sentence in Alton was ten years old in spite of a law that excluded anyone under age 18. The oldest inmate was in his seventies.

The prison held two and a half times more Irishmen than any other foreign group in 1860. These were followed by Germans. Two-thirds of the prisoners came from the twelve northern counties, including Cook. This statistic became a source of friction with the citizens of Alton who opposed the leasing of convict labor to do work around Alton since local labor was available. Many Alton citizens resented being the dumping ground for prisoners whose presence lowered real estate values and hurt the free enterprise system.

Throughout its history the prison was leased by the state to individuals who profited by subleasing convict labor and setting up small factories within the prison walls. For example, there was a blacksmith shop, tailor shop, machine shop and carpenter's shop. The welfare and reformation of the convict necessarily took second place to making the lessee wealthy. Such a system left often a tremendous latitude for graft and corruption.

By 1859 the General Assembly committed itself to construction of a new prison at Joliet in the north central part of the state. The new prison was built largely by private contractors who leased Alton inmates to do the hard labor. The final transfer of inmates from Alton to Joliet came 24 July 1860.

The prison had not been closed long before the Civil War forced its reopening to hold Confederate prisoners. From descriptions already given, it should take little imagination to understand why Confederate prisoners died in great numbers. It is estimated that up to 6,000 Confederate inmates may have died during the war. Alton has been called by some writers the "Andersonville of the North." The towering monument to the Confederate dead in Alton is the farthest north of any such Confederate marker.

Record keeping and living conditions greatly improved with the removal of prisoners to Joliet. When the inmate population grew too large, the state opened up Menard prison at Chester in the southern part of the state in 1878.

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