Appointing Sheriff Clay’s successor

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

A few weeks ago, this column recalled the death of Tazewell County Sheriff Robert Ingersoll Clay, who died Sept. 4, 1920, from complications of a gunshot wound to his knee that he suffered in a Sept. 2 gun fight with liquor bandits near Wesley City (Creve Coeur). Clay is notable in local history as one of three members of the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office to die from injuries received in the line of duty, and is the only Tazewell County Sheriff to die in office from such injuries.

Clay’s death was the occasion of a great outpouring of grief on the part of the community and sympathy for his family. It also raised the practical question of who would be chosen to serve out the remainder of Clay’s term. Somewhat remarkably for that time, community sentiment strongly was in favor of naming Clay’s widow, Mrs. Louie A. (Miller) Clay (1871-1954), to serve out the remaining months of his term.

Prior to naming Clay’s replacement, however, state law already provided for a “line of succession” to determine an interim sheriff – when a sheriff dies or becomes incapacitates, the county coroner automatically becomes interim sheriff. The Pekin Daily Times on Sept. 6, 1920, reported on the initial provisions for succession in the sheriff’s office as follows:

“With the death of Sheriff Robert Clay, Coroner L. R. Clary becomes the sheriff of Tazewell county and he has assumed charge of the duties of the office. The same deputies sreving (sic) under Sheriff Clay will continue in office, under the coroner and no change will be made in the conduct of affairs of the office until a successor has been appointed by the board of supervisors which convene September 14.

“The appointee of he (sic) board will serve until a successor to the sheriff has been elected, this election to take place this fall. The suggestion that Mrs. Claybe (sic) named to fill out the unexpired term of her deceased husband has met with universal favor.”

Though the proposal that Mrs. Clay be appointed sheriff was unusual, the people in the county felt strong sympathy for her as the widow of a well-loved sheriff, as can be seen in various articles and columns in the Pekin Daily Times that month. Along with letters of tribute and sympathy, the newspaper also reported on the establishment of a “testimonial fund” or memorial foundation to aid Mrs. Clay and her family.

Another thing working in favor of the proposal to name Mrs. Clay sheriff were some significant changes then under way in societal attitudes and laws regarding appropriate public roles for women. It was less than a month before Sheriff Clay’s death, on Aug. 18, 1920, that the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified. On Sept. 8, right next to a prominent report on the establishment of the “Bob Clay Testimonial Fund,” the Pekin Daily Times ran a story under the headline, “FIRST WOMEN JURORS IN THE COUNTY COURT,” telling of the first women’s names to be drawn from the Tazewell County rolls of registered voters.

“This morning in the county court, the first jury composed partly of women, to be called in this county, reported to Judge Schaefer. Those called to serve were Anna Hall, Ida Cooper, Belle Kunce, Emma Richmond, Ida Smith, Belle Smallwood, James Coggins, Frank Reise, W. H. Woost, Edward Conaghan, J. H. Shade and W. G. Fair.”

Those societal changes perhaps helped make the idea of a woman sheriff conceivable to many people in a county that had already seen women post masters in the 1800s and even – as this column recalled in March this year – a female sheriff’s deputy appointed in 1916. And after all, state law has never restricted the office of county sheriff to members of the male sex.

Indeed, one need not even have any law enforcement training or experience to hold the office of sheriff, though that is naturally to be preferred. And by the time the county board met on Sept. 14 to consider Clay’s successor, a few candidates with law enforcement experience had put their names forward in addition to Mrs. Clay, whose experience with the sheriff’s department stemmed from her job as matron of the Tazewell County Jail. With additional candidates to consider, the county board decided not to take immediate action on the question of the sheriff’s successor, as the Pekin Daily Times reported on Sept. 15, 1920:

“No action was taken by the board yesterday in the matter of filling the vacancy caused by the death of Sheriff Robert Clay. There are four applicants, Mrs. Clay, Harm H. Smith, J. L. Wilson and A. S. Whitmore. Herman Becker has been mentioned for the position and there may be others. No definite action will be taken though, until next week.”

Shown is a detail from the Sept. 15, 1920 issue of the Pekin Daily Times, reporting on procedures for naming a successor for Tazewell County Sheriff Robert Clay, who had succumbed to complications from a gunshot wound suffered during a gunfight with liquor bandits.

Shown is a detail from the Sept. 15, 1920 issue of the Pekin Daily Times, reporting on procedures for naming a successor for Tazewell County Sheriff Robert Clay, who had succumbed to complications from a gunshot wound suffered during a gunfight with liquor bandits.

Each of the four men worked in law enforcement, and in particular, Whitmore and Becker were two of Clay’s deputies. When the county board met again on Sept. 20, the majority of the board members decided against naming Mrs. Clay to complete her late husband’s term. One board member proposed at least granting her the salary her husband would have received, but that proposal was tabled and instead the board decided that Mrs. Clay would continue as jail matron. The Daily Times reported as follows on Sept. 21:

“The appointment by the board of A. S. Whitmore to fill out the unexpired term of the late Sheriff Robert Clay, met with general approval and it is the prevailing opinion that the supervisors acted wisely in their selection. Sheriff Whitmore will not asume (sic) the duties of his office until he has received his commission from the state and his bond had been approved by the supervisors.

“It is understood that there will be little change in the present efficient force of deputies connected with the sheriff’s office. Herman Becker will probably remain as office deputy and one deputy will be name to fill the vacancy made by the appointment of Whitmore. Under the arrangement as made by the board of supervisors, Mrs. Clay is to be retained as matron at the jail. She will have charge of feeding of prisoners and the use of the residence, with the exception of two rooms which are to be set aside for the use of a deputy who is to remain at the jail at nights. Mrs. Clay is to be allowed $100 per month and her living expenses by the board. . . .

“. . . but one ballot was taken on the appointment of sheriff. Whitmore received 14, E. O. Neef 5, and Herman Becker, Chas. R. Towne and H. L. Cales 1 each. A resolution which had been offered by Supervisor H. F. Johns of Pekin, to pay Mrs. Clay the salary which her husband, Robert Clay, would have earned had he survived the full term, was tabled on motion of Supervisor Wadsworth.”

#mrs-louie-a-miller-clay, #pekin-daily-times, #robert-clay, #tazewell-county-sheriff, #womens-rights

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.


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.

#pekin-daily-times, #police-officers-killed, #robert-clay, #tazewell-county-sheriff