By Jared Olar
Three years ago in this column space, in a column entitled “Two generations of tragedy and loss” (Pekin Daily Times, May 18, 2013), we recalled the cold-blooded murder of Mrs. Belle Wallace Bowlby by her brother Albert Wallace, a horrifying crime for which Albert was sentenced to death by hanging.
Wallace’s crime and his execution are notable events in the history of Pekin because his was the last legal hanging in Pekin. As told in Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 “History of Tazewell County,” on Feb. 19, 1895, Belle Wallace Bowlby was shot to death by her brother Albert, who was living with his sister Belle and brother-in-law John Bowlby 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. According to Allensworth, when asked why he was turning himself in, Albert said, “You will find out later.” Allensworth reports that Wallace 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. Afterwards, the laws on capital punishment were modified: public executions were outlawed, and executions would take place in state penitentiaries only.
The story of Wallace’s crime and hanging recently has been featured in the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society’s Monthly, in the Nov. 2016 issue, on pages 1760-64, and the Dec. 2016 issue, on pages 1786-89. These issues are devoted to a reprint of most of the news coverage of Wallace’s hanging in the March 14, 1896 edition of the Pekin Daily Times – an edition that is not available in microfilm form at the Pekin Public Library, for the library’s microfilms of the Daily Times only commence in Oct. 1914.
Unfortunately, the Society’s copy of that newspaper is missing page five, so the conclusion of the Daily Times’ news report is lost. Nevertheless, the extant portion of the newspaper’s report is still extensive, and the reporting is quite detailed not only in its account of Wallace’s hanging but also in its recapitulation of the events leading up to his execution.
This story took up a very large part, if not most, of that day’s paper. In keeping with the usual newspaper style of those days, the editors gave the report not only a large, bold headline – “WALLACE HUNG” – but also a series of six subheadlines:
“His Neck Was Broken With a Sickening Thud,” “THE TRAP SPRUNG AT 11:08 A. M.,” “Paid the Penalty on the Gallows For His Sister’s Murder,” “EXECUTION PASSED OFF VERY QUIETLY,” “Grewsome (sic) Spectacle Witnessed by over Two Hundred People,” and “Much Excitement Caused Last Night by His Sudden Illness.”
Below are excerpts from the Pekin Daily Times’ account that expound upon the background of and motive for Wallace’s cruel and hateful acts. Further excerpts telling of the murder, the trial, Wallace’s appeals of his verdict and sentence, and his hanging will be featured in subsequent columns.
“Governor Altgeld was positive in his decision not to interfere in Wallace’s case. . . He said it was a peculiarly distressing case, owing to the many tragedies that had brought the Wallace family into public notice, fate seeming to pursue it with a relentless fury and remarkably fatality. First a son was instantly killed by the accidental discharge of a gun, while he was hunting, then Andy Wallace, the father, was shot and killed by Connelly, then came the tragic death of Mrs. Belle Bowlby, and last Albert Wallace, expiating a crime on the gallows. Nevertheless the governor said that he could do nothing. . . .”
“[Wallace] had never been satisfied with the action of his father, Andrew Wallace, in willing his fine farm and other property to his sister [Belle]. This was a decision that the old man arrived at a long time before his death, and about the time he quarreled with Albert and bade him leave home forever.
“The chasm separating father and son became wider as Wallace became more and more dissolute in his habits. The other children could not put up with old Wallace’s awful temper, and all but Belle, the murdered woman, left the family roof. She was a very amiable little girl, and when a woman, patiently and without ever a word of complaint, . . . .”
At this point the Daily Times report jumps to page five, but page five is lost.
Next week: Wallace’s crime