The death of Sheriff Robert Clay

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

As was reported last month in the Pekin Daily Times, the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department is considering the creation of a memorial for the three Tazewell County law enforcement officers who have been killed in the line of duty.

The proposed memorial would include the names of Deputy Craig Whisenand, who died in a single-vehicle crash on Aug. 11; Deputy Henry Pratt, who was shot to death in July 1869 while leading a posse against the Berry gang; and Tazewell County Sheriff Robert Clay, who died from complications resulting from a shotgun wound to his leg that he suffered in early September 1920 during a shootout with liquor thieves near Creve Coeur. Besides the proposed memorial in Pekin, according to last month’s report by Daily Times staff writer Michael Smothers, the names of Whisenand and Clay will be added to the National Law Enforcement Organization Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Even though Clay’s death is unique in the annals of Tazewell County history as the only county sheriff to die from violence suffered in the line of duty, Tazewell County Sheriff Robert Huston told the Daily Times that Clay’s death had been “lost track of” at the Sheriff’s Department. That his death was forgotten may be remarkable, but it does not seem as remarkable when we consider that Clay’s death is overlooked by all of the standard works on Pekin history – neither the 1949 Pekin Centenary, nor the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial, nor even the 2003 “Pekin: A Pictorial History,” have anything to say about his death.

Surprisingly, until late last month, even the Pekin Public Library’s online obituary index lacked an entry for Sheriff Clay – an oversight that has been corrected. Apart from occasional items in the monthly newsletter of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society, hardly anything has been published about his death.

As it happens, this column unwittingly included a brief reference to Clay’s death earlier this year. The “From the Local History Room” column published in the May 23, 2015 Pekin Daily Times, presented a compilation of “odd news of days gone by, which included the Dec. 28, 1921 obituary of Henry Clay, “once noted attorney of Pekin, Illinois, and an outstanding figure in Illinois politics,” who had died “after a life in which tragedy followed tragedy.” Among the astonishing series of tragic events which the obituary mentioned was the death of Henry Clay’s brother: “A year ago last, September, Sheriff Bob Clay of Tazewell, Ia., was shot and killed in a battle with bandits.” The reference to “Tazewell, Ia.,” of course, was an error for “Tazewell County, Ill.”

The library’s microfilmed copies of the Pekin Daily Times do not have a Sept. 2, 1920 edition of the newspaper, which is the day the newspaper would have reported on the gun battle that happened in the early morning hours of Sept. 2 between the Sheriff’s Department and the thieves who had stolen several barrels of alcohol from a freight train. It’s not clear if the microfilms lack a Sept. 2 edition because a copy was unavailable to those who made the microfilms, or rather that the Daily Times did not put out a paper that day.

The Sept. 3, 1920 Daily Times, however, ran a story headlined, “RECOVERY OF SHERIFF CLAY NOW POSSIBLE,” telling of Clay’s gunshot wound to his left knee, which was “considered extremely critical.” The Daily Times article said Clay was being treated at Proctor Hospital in Peoria for “a dangerous wound in the knee and while everything possible is being done in the case, it will be considered almost a miracle if the sheriff’s leg can be saved. Dr. J. H. Bacon, of Peoria, stated early this morning that it would be necessary to amputate the limb.”

“Yesterday morning and until late in the afternoon the attending physicians held out but faint hope that the brave officer would survive,” the Daily Times further reported. “The operation for transfusion of blood was performed in the afternoon and shortly afterwards the sheriff appeared to revive a little, and there was an evident improvement in his condition.

“When it became known yesterday that transfusion of blood would be necessary to save Sheriff Clay’s life there were over one hundred residents of Pekin and Peoria who volunteered to submit themselves to the ordeal.”

The Daily Times report says the blood donor was A. G. Gossard of 615 Fifth Ave., Peoria, “the man from whom the truck, which had been stolen from his home by the hijackers and used in their booze stealing raid.”

Then in the Saturday, Sept. 4, 1920 edition, the Daily Times published a story with the headline, “SHERIFF CLAY MAKES A BRAVE FIGHT FOR LIFE,” reporting, “There is a possibility of pneumonia, the physicians declare, but if the fearless Pekin officer can keep up his fight for another twenty-four hours he will have a little more than a fighting chance for his life.”

It was not to be, however – Clay died that same day, and the next edition of the Daily Times, on Labor Day, Sept. 6, 1920, displayed headlines such as “LAST RITES FOR SHERIFF ROBERT CLAY,” “CORONER L. R. CLARY IS NOW IN CHARGE,” and “LABOR PARADE PAYS TRIBUTE TO BOB CLAY.” Businesses in the city closed for his funeral rites, and great numbers of mourners filed past the sheriff’s body as it lay in state for several hours in the rotunda of the Tazewell County Courthouse on Tuesday, Sept. 7, after which it was interred at Lakeside Cemetery.

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Shown is a detail from the Sept. 6, 1920 edition of the Pekin Daily Times showing articles reporting on the death and funeral arrangements for Tazewell County Sheriff Robert Clay, who had died from a wound suffered in a gun battle with liquor thieves.

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