The Gallows Tree
In earlier times, the execution of criminals for murder was carried out in the county in which the condemned man was sentenced. Here in Whiteside County, the sheriff planted the Gallows-tree only once; but the fruition of the dread tree was a macabre incident that should be recalled mainly as evidence of what one author called "Man's inhumanity to Man." On Christmas Day, 1883, Christian Riebling, age 32, shot a young man, Albert Lucia, age 19, in the village of Lyndon. He had been drinking-he claimed later to ease a recurring pain that he had in his head. The shooting followed two arguments. The youth was wounded in the thigh and died 12 days later from infection.
Christian Riebling was arrested and tried for murder before Judge Eustace. He was found guilty and sentenced to die by hanging on May 6, 1884. The judge refused a plea for a new trial. Some people considered the sentence a harsh one. The condemned man resigned himself and sought comfort in religion.
Early in May, Sheriff T. S. Beach started to prepare for the grim event. He obtained a trap or drop from Peoria. Just northeast of the county jail, he built an enclosure 35 feet square and 18 feet high. Within the tight-board fence, he planted a gallows-tree from which he suspended an one-half inch rope. Careful preparations included testing of the trap with a bag of sand. There was a larger rope hanging nearby in case the first one broke. Sheriff Beach performed his onerous duties with great but secret distress.
The sentenced man met his fate bravely but quietly. His conduct was certainly better than that of many of the spectators. Attired in a white gown or robe and with a black cap covering his face, he was dropped six feet to what he was sure was a "better life." About 150 spectators - newsmen, doctors, officials and prominent citizens - were crowded into the small enclosure. Outside a crowd of about 200 milled about and boys climbed nearby trees to see the execution.
After the doctor declared him dead, the body was placed in the coffin which was waiting under the platform; the sheriff's wife placed a posy of pansies, geraniums and daisies on the dead man's breast; and the sheriff opened the fence. The crowd, including many women, pushed in to see that the debt had been paid properly. The doomed man left his body to the clergymen who had ministered to him. They disowned it in haste and it was taken to the poor farm to lie in an unknown grave.
In May, 1873, Joseph O'Neil paid his debt to society for the murder the previous fall of Hiram Rexford on the island south of Fulton. The murder was a brutal one and a change of venue took the case to Mount Carroll where feeling was not so high. The death sentence was given and the murderer was hanged in the courtyard on a gallows tree which had been planted between two poplar trees.
The Carroll County History issued in 1878 reviewed the trial and discussed a strange happening subsequent to the hanging. The following spring, according to the book, though all the other trees in the courtyard leafed out properly, the poplars stood leafless and apparently dead-proof of the old belief that "naught will grow where the gallows grow." The author of the book believed that the trees were slow in foliating because of the cold weather but he also wrote that a learned man, a judge, claimed that the attending priests cursed them. The Carroll County sheriff, George P. Sutton, dug the gallowstree from the ground. It was stored in the top floor of the county building where it lay dormant, needing only to be re-planted to reach fruition again. It was there as late as 1960. In August, 1873, Carroll County presented a bill for the trial and execution of Joseph O'Neil and it totalled $501.55. Later it was reported that the complete cost for the capture, incarceration, trial and hanging of the murderer and the conviction of Thomas O'Neil as an accessory was $1,567.95. A county newspaper commented that it was a heavy bill but cheap when one considered the kind of man that was put out of the way. [From the History of Whiteside Co. by Wayne Bastian]
STERLING 1847 to 1897
50 YEARS AGO
by Theo. H. Mack
The Sterling Standard Dec 1897: A half century to him who has it before him seems a long time. To him who has lived it through it seems but a very little while. And so, although it may bring great changes to a country or a town, yet to him who has been a citizen thereof it seems but a very short time. So, to the writer, although the changes have been great from 1847 to 1897, in the condition of Sterling, yet it seems but a little while. The writer having arrived at the age of eleven years without the chance to go to school, in 1847 it was thought best to move into town so as to get such small school privileges as the new place ofless than fifty buildings all told, including barns, afforded. So his father moved into a small office building left vacant by the death of Dr. Bates, then standing on the corner opposite the southwest corner of the First Ward Park, which was then a dense hazel brush patch, where the writer set spring poles to catch rabbits. There we lived about a year, I believe, when we moved into part of a house father had put up on the lots forming the southeast corner of the Second Ward School block. The post-office was then in the house of Mrs. E.B. Worthington, and the whole mail of several towns was assorted in a little case of pigeon holes not more than three feet square, and the postage on a letter was twenty-five cents, payable by the received.
The first school the writer attended was in a school house standing on a lot next south of the house of Mrs. Worthington, now surrounded by a hedge. The teacher was Norton J. Nichols, then a young man, who a year or so later married one of his pupils, Miss Amelia Judd. The teacheer "boarded 'round" with the patrons of the schook, though just how he was provided with room to sleep in some of the small houses of that day, the writer cannot now say. Among those who attended that early school of half a century ago, the writer can recall the following: Alfred, Martha and Martin Bush; Amelia, Sarah, Henry and Fred Judd; Jane, Emma, Wesley and Joseph McCabe; Samuel adn Mary Myers; Phoebe Harvey; Caroline Claypole; John and Mary Newman; and possibly a few others we do not now recall. On Christmas the teacher was locked out of the house in the morning, and compelled to go down town and get candy enough to go round before he was let in.
Of the old buildings that remain in anything like their original shape there are still visible: The old house near the southeast corner of Seventh avenue adn Fifth street, which was one of the original houses built near the corner of Firs street and Fourth avenue; the Bush house, west of Lincoln park; the Worthington house, on broadway; the Stebbins house, south of the Rover home on Fourth avenue; the R.L. Wilson home, on Sixth avenue; the Mason residence, late home of Elias D. LeFevre; the McCabe store residence, west of Central park; the Cushman house, corner of Eighth avenue and Fourth street; the McLemore home, corner of Fourth street and Sixth avenue; the rear wooden part of the Boynton house; the brick Calt & Crawford store building, on Third street near the corner of Seventh avenue, together with the wooden warehouse on Seventh avenue, a little north of Third street; part of the old Presbyterian church, and parts of several other houses that have been so much built over as to leave nothing of the outlines of the old.
Of the people of those days very few remain. A few can be named from memory, such as: Mrs. Worthington and two daughters, Mrs. Norwood, Mrs. C.C. Johnson, George Brewer, Henry and Andrew J Bush, Asa Emmons and daughter, Mrs. T.H. Mack, Mrs. Joe Miller and son Joseph T., John LeFevre, Mrs. R.L. Wilson, MRs. S.M. Coe, L.S. Pennington, Theo. H. Mack. A few of these were not residents of the town in the early days, but were so in the country near by. There seems to be no reason why the close of the second half century of Sterling should not witness as great a growth and advancement as have the first fifty years of its life. So may it be!
P.S. - I came near forgetting to mention what was probably the first picnic ever held in Sterling, which was held during the summer of 1847, I believe. We went to Sugar Grove, carrying the children and older people as well in the lumber wagons, which were the most stylish conveyances of that day. There was a thunder shower during the day, of course, but we found time to eat our dinners under the big trees, had a good time, and got home in very good shape towards night. [The Sterling Standard Dec 1897]
BACK -- HOME
© Copyright Genealogy Trails