The Tazewell County Jail of 1892

By Jared L. Olar

Local History Specialist

Shown here is the old Tazewell County Jail and Sheriff’s Residence that was built in 1891-1892 at the present site of the McKenzie Building next to the Tazewell County Courthouse. This jail was built while Johann Christian “Chris” Friederich was Tazewell County Sheriff, and it is possibly Sheriff Friederich standing in this photo.

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.

The old Tazewell County Courthouse Block is shown in this detail from an “Aerial View of Pekin,” a unique map that was printed in 1877. The old Courthouse, which stood from 1850 to 1914, is near the middle of this image. To its left are two buildings — at the corner of Fourth and Elizabeth was a building that held county offices for elected officials such as county clerk, recorder of deeds, etc. Just below that, at the corner of Fourth and Court, is the old Tazewell County Jail and Sheriff’s Residence (which was replaced in 1892 — today it’s the location of the McKenzie Building, which was built as a new jail in the 1960s). Since this map was drawn in 1877, it’s only eight years after Bill Berry’s lynching in 1869, which took place outside the jail at the corner of Court and Fourth. Note that there are four trees represented in front of the jail — there’s no telling which of them was Berry’s gallows tree.
This detail of the 1892 Sanborn fire insurance map of downtown Pekin shows the foundations of the 1892 jail next to the old 1852 jail.
This detail from the 1898 Sanborn fire insurance map of downtown Pekin shows the county jail six years after it was constructed. There is no more trace of the old 1852 jail.

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.

The 1892 Tazewell County Jail and Sheriff’s Residence, shown in a colorized photograph from an early 20th century postcard.
The 1892 Tazewell County Jail and Sheriff’s Residence as shown in a postcard that was mailed in 1914. (This is the same kind of postcard as the colorized one shown above — the image is identical.)

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.

The old Tazewell County Jail and Sheriff’s Residence, as shown in a 1949 photograph.

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.

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Tazewell’s first horse thief – and first jail break

This is an updated reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in June 2013, before the launch of this weblog.

Tazewell’s first horse thief – and first jail break

By Jared Olar
Library Assistant

The year 1829 was very eventful for the fledgling Tazewell County. Not even two years had elapsed since the county had been created by the Illinois legislature, but the need had already arisen for a jail.

Tazewell County’s first jail, according to Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 county history, “was a two-story structure, 16 feet square, made of solid hewn timber, and was one of the strongest and most costly jail buildings erected by the pioneers throughout Central Illinois.” It was erected at the county seat of Mackinaw at a cost of $325.75.

Appropriately, not long after the county got its first jail, it also got its first horse thief, William Cowhart – and its first jail break. Chapman recorded these memorable events on pages 236-241 of his county history. Most of Chapman’s account, however, was in fact a reprint of an 1853 newspaper article that had been printed in the Bloomington Pantagraph. The article’s author was none other than Tazewell County pioneer Nathan Dillon, traditionally but erroneously regarded as the county’s first permanent white settler (William Blanchard came a year before Dillon, and the French Catholic fur traders who lived at the future site of Wesley City/Creve Coeur arrived before Blanchard), and the namesake of Dillon Township.

Dillon recalled:

“James Willis and his brother were the first pioneers on Sandy, in the neighborhood of where the flourishing village of Magnolia, in Marshall county, now stands, they having located there as early as 1827 or ’28, their nearest neighbor at that time being William Holland, who had already settled at Washington, Tazewell county, where he still lives. One cold Friday in the winter James Willis, who had been boarding at William Hall’s, in Dillon settlement on the Mackinaw, started on a trip with a young man calling himself by the name of Cowhart, whom he had hired to go and work for him at his new location. The distance was fifty miles and Holland’s the only family on the road. Willis was mounted on a fine horse, well equipped. The day was very cold and when they got to Crow creek, eighteen miles north of Holland’s, Willis dismounted and let Cowhart have his horse, overcoat and equipage, and took the gun belonging to Cowhart, supposing it to be loaded.

“Cowhart mounted, but instantly took the other end of the road. Willis, thinking that a shot from the gun might bring the rogue to a sense of duty, brought it to bear upon him, but upon trial found that the touchhole had been plugged with a green stalk, and so the man, money and equipage disappeared without any hindrance.

“Willis was quite unwell eighteen miles from any house and it was snowing, but he beat his way back to Holland’s. It happened that Abraham Hiner, a neighbor of mine, was there, and Willis made out a description of the robber and sent it by Hiner to me, with the request that I should do what I could for him.

“We immediately called our neighbors together and it was agreed that Daniel Hodgson, my brothers Daniel, Walter and Joseph, and myself would give him a chase, though it still remained cold and it was thirty-six hours after the commission of the robbery, which occurred forty miles away,”

Over the course of several days, Dillon and his posse engaged in a prolonged pursuit of Cowhart that took them over the Illinois border into Indiana. Because it was winter and snow blanketed the ground, tracking Cowhart was not difficult. The posse captured him near Rockville, Ind.

On their return trip, the posse stopped briefly at a tavern in Newport, Ind., where they encountered some resistance from some of the locals, who attempted to help Cowhart escape from their custody. Dillon wrote:

“About the time we were ready to start the man at the writing-desk proved to be a lawyer, and presented a petition to our prisoner to sign, praying for a writ of habeas corpus. I snatched the petition from the prisoner’s hand, saw what it was, gave it to the lawyer and told him to keep it to himself or I would give him trouble; whereupon he grew saucy, but went back when I walked towards him until he reached the end of the room; told me, I believe, that I was ‘out of order’; not to touch him. I told him plainly that if I heard another word from him I certainly should slap his jaw, then left him pale as death and turned to the prisoner and took him by the collar. He attempting to get away, some of the men took hold of me to assist him, exclaiming that there should be no dragging out. I gave him a stout jerk, at the same time Hodson and my brothers Daniel, Joseph and Walter assisted him with a shove, and he went out in short order. We set him astride of one of our horses just as the landlord and another man approached, and said we had no business to come there in such a way. The prisoner begged for help. We told him that if he attempted to get off the horse, or if any man attempted to assist him, we would ‘blow him through.’ With that we left them and got into our own State the same night. Next day we started for home, which we reached with our prisoner, after being out nine days, some of which were as cold as I ever experienced.

“Willis recovered all that Cowhart had robbed him of except two dollars and fifty cents.

“It was the same winter that the jail at Mackinaw was being built; and the prisoner was guarded by old Jimmy Scott, Deputy Sheriff, until it was deemed sufficiently strong to keep him safely. Soon after he was put into it, however, somebody was friendly enough to let him out, and he escaped trial and the penitentiary.”

In the spring, a bounty of $20 was set “for the apprehension and delivery of William Cowhart who was let out of jail, and also the person who let him out.” But Cowhart had made a clean getaway, and no one ever collected the reward.

Chapman concludes his story with the observation, “Cowhart proved to be an expensive settler to the county, for, we find the Court gave James Scott $68 for keeping him. For guarding Cowhart, John Hodgson, William Davis, John Ford, A. Wright, William Sampson and F. Seward each received $2, Nathan Dillon $33.68; Daniel Hodgson $5, and Martin Porter $1, making a total of $119.68, within $5.32 as much as the court-house cost, and it would have paid the County Treasurer’s salary for three years.

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Early Tazewell County crime and punishment

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in March 2012 before the launch of this blog . . .

Early Tazewell County crime and punishment

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In his 1879 Tazewell County history, Charles C. Chapman observed – perhaps with his tongue implanted in his cheek – that, “as immaculate and good as the pioneer fathers undoubtedly were, even among them there were wicked and vicious characters.”

Crime called for punishment and incarceration of evildoers, so on June 28, 1828, the county contracted for the building of a jail at Mackinaw (then the county seat), at a cost of $325.75, which was three times what the county had paid for its Mackinaw courthouse. “It was,” Chapman says, “a two-story structure, 16 feet square, made of solid hewn timber, and was one of the strongest and most costly jail building erected by the pioneers throughout Central Illinois. Nevertheless, the very first prisoner incarcerated within its heavy walls took flight the same night. This individual, whose name was William Cowhart, is also noted for being the first horse-thief in Tazewell county.”

After the return of the county seat to Pekin in 1848-49, new county buildings were constructed. The new Tazewell County Jail, “calculated to hold from fifteen to twenty prisoners, was built by the Board of Supervisors of Tazewell County, in 1852, at a cost of $7,000,” says the 1870 Pekin City Directory.

Besides the county jail, the Pekin city police had their own lockup, quaintly known as “the calaboose.” The 1870 City Directory informs us, “The first calaboose was contracted for in November, 1849, John S. Boone being the contractor, and the cost of the building limited to forty-eight dollars. This building remained the city lockup until the summer of 1868, although it was long considered, especially by evil-doers, a noisesome, pestilential nuisance. In the latter years it was destroyed by fire, the incendiary work of some transgressors confined within its walls.”

Not every malefactor ended up in the city calaboose or county jail, of course. The usual penalty would be a fine. Chapman says it was in 1829 that the county received its first fine for a violation of the peace. That was a case in which Isaac Storms had assaulted James Brown. Chapman comments, “For many years the only cases before the justices of the peace were for assault and battery,” showing the “Wild West” character of Pekin and Tazewell County in those days.

Then as now, more serious crimes would lead to imprisonment, and murderers often would find their terms of imprisonment ended at the hangman’s gallows in Pekin’s courthouse square. The first murder indictment in Tazewell County, according to Ben C. Allensworth’s Tazewell County history, was handed down against John Wood, who was sent to prison for four years for killing his own child “by throwing it up against the ceiling.”

The first public execution in Pekin was March 1, 1861. On Oct. 12, 1860, John Ott decided to burglarize George W. Orendorff’s home about four miles southeast of Delavan. George was away on business that day, but finding the mother and her two daughters, Emma, 9, and Ada, 7, at home, Ott cold-heartedly murdered them with an axe. On the day of Ott’s hanging, a carnival atmosphere had formed as about 10,000 people crowded downtown to watch his execution, and three companies of soldiers were brought from Peoria to prevent a lynching.

The 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial says, “Ott, reports indicate, remained calm throughout the entire affair, and just before falling through the trap of the scaffold declared that he alone was guilty of the crime for which he was about to die (a man named Green” – that is, Ott’s cousin Enoch Green – “had been arrested also), that his doom was just, and that he hoped to be forgiven in Heaven, where he hoped to meet those who were there to witness his death. He muttered a prayer as the trap fell; his neck was broken by the fall; but he hung for 19 minutes before being cut down and placed in a coffin.”

Not all hangings resulted from due process of law, however. Perhaps better known than Ott’s execution is the 1869 lynching of William Berry, leader of the Berry Gang, as related in local historian Jim Conover’s book, “Lynch Law.”

The last legal hanging in Pekin was March 14, 1896. Albert Wallace of Delavan was put to death for murdering his sister and severely wounding his sister’s husband. Showing no remorse, Wallace reportedly said just before his hanging that someday “these people will be sorry for what they are doing.” It is not recorded whether they ever regretted his execution, however.

William H. Bates reproduced this photograph of the old Tazewell County Courthouse in Tremont for the 1916 "Historical Souvenir" that he published for the dedication of the new courthouse. For a time criminal and civil cases in Tazewell County were heard in this building, which was built in 1839.

William H. Bates reproduced this photograph of the old Tazewell County Courthouse in Tremont for the 1916 “Historical Souvenir” that he published for the dedication of the new courthouse. For a time criminal and civil cases in Tazewell County were heard in this building, which was built in 1839.

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