Q: I thought your recent column on the Macoupin County executions was superb. It reminded me that I thought I once heard that the state’s first execution was in Belleville. Is that true? Also, you mentioned that the arm and head later was cut off the corpse of the second man executed in Macoupin. Why?
B.M., of O’Fallon
A: Here’s something even eerier: Trivia scholars love to trip up their less knowledgeable friends by asking how many witches were burned during the infamous trials in Salem, Mass.
The answer, of course, is none. Nineteen were hanged, and one, Giles Corey, had heavy stones piled on him to try to force a plea. After two days, he died — a week after his 81st birthday.
In fact, it is often alleged that nobody has ever been burned at the stake for being a witch in the United States. But that’s demonstrably not true. At least one man was — and it happened right in our backyard in Kaskaskia, Illinois.
Col. John Todd was the first civil governor of what was then Illinois County. According to his record book, a black slave named Manuel, “who made a honorable fine at the door of the church,” was arrested for practicing voodoo. He was sentenced June 13, 1779, by Todd to be chained to a post and burned alive with his ashes scattered. Two days later, Sheriff Richard Winston carried out the ghastly execution.
But, yes, it is true that once Illinois became a state in 1818, Belleville is believed to have carried out its first execution of a non-Native American three years later, the terrible outcome of an otherwise petty neighborly dispute.
According to Alvin Nebelsick’s “The History of Belleville,” Timothy Bennett owned a horse that often strayed into the neighboring field of Alphonso Stewart’s. When one of Stewart’s farmhands once peppered the wayward horse with beans, Bennett heard of the incident and was angered.
Some say Bennett and Stewart later engaged in a drunken argument while others say Bennett asked friends Jacob Short and Nathan Fike for advice. Whatever the true preliminaries, Bennett and Stewart challenged each other to a duel.
Feb. 8, 1819, turned into “High Noon” in Belleville. With Fike and Short acting as seconds, the two squared off just south of what would become Turners Hall on North 1st Street.
The sad thing was that it was supposed to be a sham duel. Everyone thought they had worked it so the two men would face off with guns loaded only with powder. But as Rachael Tannehill would later testify, Bennett, just before making his way to the site of the duel, stepped into an alley and rammed a ball down his rifle.
When all was ready, the two combatants were placed 30 yards apart and told to await the signal to fire. Again, Bennett refused to follow the rules. Before the signal could be given, Bennett unloaded his round, killing Stewart.
On March 8, a grand jury indicted Bennett, Short and Fike for murder. Just three months later, both Short and Fike were acquitted, but by that time, Bennett had escaped from the St. Clair County Jail, going on the lam for more than two years. Finally, in early July 1821, he was recaptured.
Justice was swift. On July 26, another special grand jury re-indicted him. A day later, Bennett went on trial and a day after that a jury convicted him. Judge John Edwards sentenced him to be hanged.
“Neither Bennett nor his friends believed that this awful sentence would ever be executed,” an old history of St. Clair County says. “The latter made strenuous efforts to have him pardoned. Failing in this, they tried to have the sentence commuted. But the governor (Shadrach Bond) remained firm against all entreaty.”
So, for want of proper fencing for his horse, Bennett was led to the gallows on Sept. 3, 1821.
“Bennett was hanged near West Belleville, near the site of the Henry Raab School,” the county history account says. (Nebelsick put it in a large field near 1200 W. Main St.) “The execution was witnessed by a multitude of men, women and children.”
It would be the first of 250 hangings in the state, including one woman, Elizabeth Reed in 1845 at Lawrenceville. In this area, St. Clair County topped the list with 11, followed by Madison (6), Randolph and Washington (3 each) and Bond and Monroe (1 each), according to the list at www.genealogytrails.com. On July 1, 1927, hanging was replaced by three electric chairs at Joliet, Chester and Chicago, which were used 97 times until 1990, when Charles Walker became the first of 12 people executed by lethal injection. On March 9, 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law abolishing the death penalty in Illinois.
As to why the executed prisoner’s body was later mutilated, no reason was given, so I did not speculate. However, since you asked, I can only hypothesize that it may have been a final act of revenge by the victim’s family or simply an easy act of tasteless hooliganism, since the body had been buried apart from others.
Which hurricane lasted the longest?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: On Dec. 12, 1958, National Airlines became the first to fly passengers by jet domestically on its route from Miami to New York. On Oct. 26, Pan American had become the first to use a jet, on its New York to Paris route.