EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s another chance to read this old Local History Room column, first published on 18 May 2013 before the launch of this blog and then posted here on 16 Nov. 2016. We’re re-posting it here to help draw attention to our upcoming program on the riverboat Columbia disaster. At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 30, local author Ken Zurski, who published a book in 2012 entitled, “The Wreck of the Columbia,” will come to the Pekin Public Library to talk about the disaster which claimed the lives of 87 of the boat’s 500 passengers. Most of the victims were from Pekin. For Mr. Zurski’s program, the library will display articles and photographs of the disaster, along with the 48-star U.S. flag from the Columbia which was salvaged the day after the wreck by Columbia survivor Roscoe Maxey of Pekin. The flag was donated to the Pekin Public Library in 1986 by Roscoe’s son Justin Maxey.
Two generations of tragedy and loss
By Jared Olar
This weekend, the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society will conduct a cemetery walk remembering victims of the July 5, 1918, Columbia riverboat disaster. The cemetery walk will be from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, May 19 (with a rain date of Sunday, June 2), at Lakeside Cemetery in Pekin, where most of the 57 Pekin residents who died in the wreck of the Columbia are buried.
Local interest in the Columbia disaster was renewed last year  with the publication of Ken Zurski’s “The Wreck of the Columbia,” the first book-length treatment of this tragic event that brought grief to a great number of families in Pekin and the surrounding areas. Eighty-seven people drowned when the Columbia struck a sandbar and collapsed and sank near Wesley City (Creve Coeur).
In his book, Zurski tells the stories of several of the victims and survivors, and of some who avoided falling victim to the disaster through unforeseen circumstances that prevented them from going on the fatal cruise. Among the stories not told in Zurski’s book is that of a Columbia victim named Hazel Marie Bowlby, who was 21 when she died.
In January, Hazel’s relatives supplied the Pekin Daily Times with copies of old photographs of Hazel, along with a copy of a letter that Hazel wrote to her sister about a year before the disaster. Copies of the photographs and letter have been forwarded to the Pekin Public Library to be added to the library’s Local History Room collection.
Hazel, born in 1897, was a daughter of John C. and Susie Wertz Bowlby. She had an older sister named Lucille and a younger brother named Elmer. “She was my grandmother’s only sister,” said Gayla Erlenbusch, Lucille’s granddaughter.
From the copy of the letter that Hazel’s relatives have supplied, we know that in the summer of 1917 Hazel worked for the Pekin Daily Times – writing to her sister Lucille, Hazel typed the letter on stationery bearing the newspaper’s letterhead, and mailed it in a Pekin Daily Times printed envelope. In her letter, Hazel says she may need to borrow $5 from Lucille, and indicates dissatisfaction that the Times’ general manager and managing editor Charles Utter had not given her any raises in pay.
Erlenbusch said that her grandmother Lucille could have ended up as one of the Columbia’s victims along with her sister, if it weren’t for a sisterly spat.
“Hazel and her sister were both supposed to go, but they got into an argument. Apparently they both wanted to wear the same blouse. So my grandmother got mad and decided to stay home,” Erlenbusch said. Hazel went alone, the last time any of her family saw her alive.
Hazel was one of the many victims who had been on the boat’s dance floor. Her body was one of the last to be recovered, according to Erlenbusch. “My great-grandparents sent my grandmother to identify her,” she said. Hazel was buried in Green Valley Cemetery.
We can well imagine how painful Hazel’s death was to her loved ones, but it must have been especially hard on her father, John C. Bowlby, as it was the second time death had shockingly struck someone close to him.
As told in Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 “History of Tazewell County,” on Feb. 19, 1895, John’s first wife Belle Wallace Bowlby was shot to death by her own brother Albert Wallace, who was living with his sister and brother-in-law on the old Wallace homestead in Dillon Township. John and the Bowlbys’ hired man Lawrence Lyman also suffered very serious gunshot wounds in the incident.
What led up to the crime was the death of Belle’s and Albert’s father, Andrew Wallace, who was killed in 1890 by James Connell in self-defense. Andrew left his estate to Belle, which “led to bickering between Mr. and Mrs. Bowlby and Albert Wallace, who made frequent demands for money, and when refused, is said to have made threats against Mr. and Mrs. Bowlby,” Allensworth writes.
Finally, one night Albert took a shotgun and, aiming through a window, fired at John’s head. “Bowlby, whose hand was on his forehead, had several fingers blown off and a number of shot entered his head. Mrs. Bowlby sprang and opened the door, when she was shot in the stomach. Lyman was shot twice in the leg, and was badly burned in the face by the powder,” according to Allensworth. Belle died two days later, while Lyman lost an eye. John eventually recovered and remarried.
After the shooting, Albert borrowed a neighbor’s horse and rode to Pekin, where he surrendered to the sheriff. Asking why he was turning himself in, he said, “You will find out later.” He was convicted of murder on Oct. 28, 1895, and sentenced to death by hanging. He was executed on March 14, 1896 – the last legal hanging in Pekin.