By Jared L. Olar
Local History Specialist
Over a year after Tazewell County was erected by the Illinois General Assembly in 1827, the county’s first jail was constructed at Mackinaw, the county seat, at a cost of $325.75. That first jail was a two-story building made of hewn timber, 16 feet square, and at the time was thought to be the strongest – and the costliest – jail built by the pioneers of Central Illinois.
That didn’t stop the jail’s first prisoner, a horse thief named William Cowhart, from escaping from it, though.
Later on in the county’s history, after the struggle between Pekin and Tremont over which town would get to be the county seat was finally settled in Pekin’s favor in 1849, a new county jail was constructed at Pekin in 1852 at a cost of $7,000. It was from a tree in front of the 1852 jail that the outlaw William Berry, leader of the Berry Gang, was lynched on July 31, 1869. The lynch mob had been enraged by Ike Berry’s killing of Tazewell County deputy sheriff Henry Pratt earlier the same month.
That jail building was replaced in 1892 with a new jail and sheriff’s residence, a limestone and red-brick edifice constructed at a cost of $20,000 on a site adjacent to the 1852 jail. This new jail structure was built while Johann Christian “Chris” Friederich was Tazewell County Sheriff. Friederich was sheriff from 1890 to 1894.
Because the job of county sheriff included the duty of overseeing the county jail and the prisoners held there, the old practice was for the sheriff and his family to live in the jail. As a rule, county sheriffs were married men for the practical reason that his wife would be hired by the county board to be the jail’s “matron.” Her main responsibility was cooking the meals for the jail inmates.
Sometimes there would be a county sheriff did not live in the jail – for example, Sheriff James J. Crosby (1930-1934) – in which case it would be the chief deputy and his family who will live in the jail and directly oversee jail operations. The last county sheriff to live in the jail seems to have been George Saal, who served two non-consecutive terms, 1950-1954 and 1958-1962.
These are the Tazewell County Sheriff’s who served during the years when the 1892 county jail was in use:
Johann Christian “Chris” Friederich (1838- ) 1890-1894
John Edmond Stout (1856- ) 1894-1898
John D. Mount (1860-1925) 1898-1902
Robert Ingersoll Clay (1869-1920) 1902-1906 1918-1920
James Alfonzo Norris (1855-1939) 1906-1910
Christian A. Fluegel (1863- ) 1910-1914
John Lee Wilson (1864- ) 1914-1918
Athol Sebree “Pat” Whitmore (1889-1960) 1920-1922
Emil Neuhaus (1861-1941) 1922-1926
Ernest Leroy Fleming (1873-1955) 1926-1930
James Jackson Crosby (1855-1939) 1930-1934
Ralph Croy Goar (1896-1976) 1934-1938
Guy Emmet Donahue (1892-1958) 1938-1942
William Grant (1881-1947) 1942-1946
Herbert Hirstein (1947-1988) 1946-1950
George Leroy Saal (1918-1996) 1950-1954 1958-1962
Ray Owen Crafton (1904-1981) 1954-1958
George H. Sweeter (1907-1964) 1962-1964
Arch E. Bartlemay (1919-1987) 1964-1970
Notable moments in the history of the 1892 Tazewell County jail and sheriff’s residence include:
- The Little Mine Riot (6 June 1894) near Wesley City. The mob leaders of the riot were arrested by Sheriff Friederich and held at the jail before they were convicted and sent to the state penitentiary in Joliet.
- Albert Wallace’s murder of his sister Belle (Wallace) Bowlby, for which he was sentenced to death and was hanged by Sheriff Stout on a gallows built outside the jail on 14 March 1896. This was the last legal hanging in Tazewell County.
- Inmates attempted to break out of the jail in Oct. 1899 by sawing through the bars.
- Samuel Moser murdered his wife and three children with extreme brutality and fled to Utah, where he was captured. Sheriff Mount was granted extradition and personally went to Utah to retrieve Moser, who was sentenced to 23 years at Joliet (where Moser later hanged himself).
- The Oct. 1902 attempted escape of James Hastings, a Galesburg shoe store thief. While Sheriff Mount walked Hastings to the jail, Hastings broke free and ran through the Block & Kuhl store, making it several blocks and hiding in a barrel, where the Sheriff found him and hauled him to a jail cell.
- The jail escape of William Eddie, alias William Young, who was caught in Springfield in May 1903 and brought back to the Tazewell County jail.
- The death of Sheriff Robert I. Clay on 4 Sept. 1920. Clay suffered a gunshot wound to the knee during a gun fight with bootleggers in Wesley City, and the wound became infected causing the sheriff’s death. Clay is the only Tazewell County sheriff to be killed in the line of duty.
- An attempted jail break of four prisoners, Mack Houchins, Frank Milton, Dan Cassey, and Thomas Erb, in March 1910. In an elaborate plan, the four fashioned their own jail cell keys, sawed bars, and picked at plaster around a jail window, with the intention of murdering Sheriff Norris and escaping. Norris became aware of their plans and allowed them to break into a jail corridor, where he and his deputies awaited them with revolvers drawn.
- The May 1913 arrest of Ruby Miller for “white slavery” human sex trafficking.
- Sheriff Wilson’s appointment of his daughter Frances as a deputy in 1916 – the first woman to serve as a Tazewell County sheriff’s deputy.
- The arrest of Nick Kepper for the murder of “bootlegger king” Tom Miller of East Peoria on 19 Sept. 1927. Kepper was sentenced to life in prison in the state penitentiary.
- The 1 Sept. 1932 death in his jail cell of Martin Virant, who was suspected as a material witness or accomplice in the murder of Lew Nelan at an East Peoria speakeasy. Virant had been severely beaten during interrogation by Sheriff Crosby’s deputies and had succumbed to his internal injuries. Two or more deputies then faked a hanging of Virant’s corpse. The incident sparked months of outrage and an attempted to impeach the sheriff and his entire force, but in the end no one was held accountable for Virant’s murder or the cover-up.
- The murder of Betty C. Crabb of Delavan in March 1938, a scandal that is the subject of Norman V. Kelly’s book “Shadow of a Nightmare.”
- The Aug. 1951 escape of two boys who had been arrested for breaking windows at a Delavan school. The boys ripped out some bars and got out the back door. Sheriff Saal apprehended the boys only four blocks away.
- The March 1956 escape of three teenage boys, who were being held at the jail for stealing a car in Anderson, Indiana. The boys used a broken broomstick and a wire coat hanger to jimmy the locks of the detention room and then stole a deputy’s car. The escapees were apprehended less than two hours later in Springfield.
- The Jan. 1957 murder of Mackinaw Night Marshall Charles H. Norris by three young men, who got hold of Norris’ own gun and used it to shoot him.
The above list of sheriffs and summary of notable events is drawn almost entirely from Susan Rynerson’s series on Tazewell County’s sheriffs that ran this year in the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society’s Monthly newsletter.
By 1960, the county was in need of a new and larger jail facility. Therefore, during George Saal’s second term as sheriff, the county began the construction of the McKenzie Building. The new facility was built at a cost of $1 million over a three-year period, from 1960 to 1963, to serve as the site of the new jail as well as certain county governmental offices. For many years after that the south half of the McKenzie Building housed the jail and the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department – but gone were the days of the sheriff and his family living in the same building as the jail. In 2003 the jail and sheriff’s department moved to the current $16.5 million Tazewell County Justice Center located at the corner of Capitol and Elizabeth streets.