April 2, 2018

The Hanging of Elizabeth Reed


My June 21, 1978, column in the Robinson Daily News ...

Time was when there wasn't much for convicted murderers to look forward to after completion of their sentences. Take old Elizabeth Reed from Purgatory Swamp south of Palestine, Illinois, for example.
      Reed was accused and convicted of slipping a little “sweetin’” in her husband’s coffee (or sassafras tea, according to the account you read) back in 1844. Her sentence? To hang by the neck until dead. And that didn’t take long. What happened to her after ...
      But let's take a look at the events leading up to the hanging before going on to what little I could find out about what happened to her after she completed her sentence. Existing accounts are sketchy and inconsistent, and this account is based on a composite of the articles about the event now on file at the Robinson, Ill., Township Library (the library where as a youngster From Here To Eternity author James Jones honed his interest in literature).
      Reed and her husband, William, lived in a log cabin in what one writer called Purgatory Swamp; another writer said this cabin was located eight miles south of Palestine or about a half a mile northwest of Heathsville.
      During the summer of 1844, William Reed became ill. A doctor was called to the cabin. After a brief examination, the doctor said the feeble old man couldn't live long. And he didn't.
      A neighbor girl, Eveline Deal, was called to the cabin to help care for him. After the doctor left, Elizabeth put some white powder in the old man's coffee. He was dead when the doctor returned.
At the time of the funeral, Elizabeth acted like the grieving widow. It wasn't until later that her behavior became suspect. Or, more likely, it wasn't until the Deal girl told someone that she had seen Elizabeth pour white powder in the coffee that she was suspected of murder.
      The paper that contained the powder was still in the cabin. Evidently Deal turned the paper and her suspicions over to the sheriff, and he conducted an investigation. It was established that Elizabeth had bought the powder (arsenic) from a Russellville druggist. The paper was the kind used only by that druggist who identified it as the one he had wrapped the arsenic in for Elizabeth.
      Witnesses testified that she had gone to the druggist in a disguise to buy the poison. What kind of disguise was never mentioned. In various instances, Reed was described as a strange woman, ("of a very peculiar and hardened disposition") who seemed to have a facial disfigurement of some kind. She always wore a white cap or band tied around her head and wore a veil over her face when she went out. Perhaps that was the disguise.
     At the time of her arrest in August of 1844, Reed was placed in the county jail at Palestine. She quickly burned the log jail (which was never rebuilt because the county seat was moved to Robinson) to the ground. Until a change of venue was granted, she was kept in the loft of the sheriff's cabin "with a chain fastened to one of her lower limbs, and thence to a part of the bed."
     In September of 1844, the Grand Jury indicted her for murder. The change of venue was later granted, and she was moved to Lawrence County. Her trial was held in April 1845, and she was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on May 23, 1845.
      One eyewitness said years later, "The (execution) day dawned bright and balmy." Some 20,000 people had come from all over Illinois and Indiana to watch the hanging. Many of them arrived before dawn.
      Elizabeth Reed supposedly gave a full confession, which was later printed in pamphlet form. She was visited regularly in Lawrenceville by the clergy and allegedly confessed to them or their wives. It is difficult to determine what actually happened, because one account of the incident indicates that the governor of Illinois offered to revoke the execution sentence if she would confess.
      Whether she ever confessed, she still rode to the site of the hanging on the morning of May 23, 1845, sitting on her coffin. The crowds surrounded her on all sides, singing songs like "On Greenland's Icy Mountains." Reed, who had been baptized after her conviction, was dressed in white and had shouted, prayed and sung as she rode along. She mounted the scaffold singing "psalms of praise."
      One writer said the "scaffold stood on the northeast corner of the green hill (in Lawrenceville) with the maple tree at the bottom which had its top badly broken by the great number of men and boys anxious to see the taking off of this poor woman." A later writer said the hanging took place near the 10th Street Bridge.
      Take your pick.
      Before the hanging, a minister preached Reed's funeral as she sat on the scaffold. At the conclusion of the long sermon, a black hood was placed over her head and she stepped to the trap and the sheriff, who had tried to resign rather than hang a woman but didn't because there was nobody else to do it, cut the rope which held the trap by a small pulley fastened to a post. Reed plunged through the trap, "revolved several times, but did not struggle much" and was lowered from sight. Her sentence was completed.
      No, they didn't put a convicted murderer in jail long in those days. Nor did they spend much money to bury one. Reed was buried in a shallow grave beneath the scaffold. Relatives dug her up that night and reburied her in an unmarked grave next to her husband in the southwest corner of Baker Cemetery near Heathsville. According to available reports, there is now a marker over her grave, and Elizabeth Reed has the distinction of being the first and only woman to be hanged in Illinois.

(Note: This is not the Elizabeth Reed that Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts wrote about in his song, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” He wrote that song about a girl but not the one in the title. Story is that Betts often wrote in the Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia, where Elizabeth Reed Napier, born Nov. 9, 1845, a few months after Elizabeth Reed was hanged, is buried. He is said to have used the name on her tombstone as the title because he didn’t want to identify whom the song was about: “a girl he had an affair with who was Boz Scaggs’ girlfriend.” Many references to Elizabeth Reed can be found on the internet, including a book about her hanging.)

March 26, 2018

When Emperor Nero ruled Rome, life got complicated

Roman emperor Nero, named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus at birth, ruled more than 2,000 years ago. He was born Dec. 15, 37 A.D., not long after Pontius Pilate had Jesus nailed to the cross between two thieves.
      I recall hearing that while Rome was burning, Nero was playing the fiddle. Fake news, maybe. So I sought the truth. According to the ancient biographer Suetonius, Nero was the son of the first Roman emperor’s only daughter, and his ancestors were not what you would call hospitable folks. His grandfather enjoyed “violent gladiator games,” and his father was “irascible and brutal.”    
      His father, Domitus, had apparently been involved in a political scandal of some kind and died in 40 when Nero was 3. Before that, Nero’s mother Agrippina had her own scandal and was a “suspect of adultery with her brother-in-law.” Quite a group running things back then, replete with banishments, power grabs, and plots to take control—even an assassination.
      Just the kind of environment for someone to seize control of the government. His great uncle Claudius took Nero’s mother for his fourth wife and added Claudius to his name “to mark the adoption.” And so he became Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus and entered public life as an adult at 14 years old.
      While there were differing accounts about how Claudius died in 54, most folks think Nero’s mother Agrippina helped to make sure her son would become the emperor. So with a little manipulation, Nero rose to power.
      All reports from ancient writers say Nero was quite extravagant in his construction projects and the way he spent the country’s funds and left the provinces ruined. But historians today take a different view, believing that Nero was really interested in making things better with public works projects and charity—which took lots of cash and seems likely for someone leading his country to make it great. Still, Nero’s policies were deemed “well-meant but incompetent notions.” Like a failed initiative to abolish taxes in an effort to help the people.
      At only 16 years old when he became emperor in 54, Nero had no experience in governing. His tutor, Seneca, is said to have written his first speech before the Senate, and his mother has been reportedly to have “meant to rule through her son.” While she was doing that, they say she got even with her political rivals and murdered three of them. How’s that for taking care of business?
      Nero followed in his mother’s footsteps by getting rid of people who didn’t share his beliefs. He was also said to be having an affair with a slave girl, and he poisoned his half-brother Britannicus because his mother sided with him when she saw Nero was following his own mind. That got her exiled from the palace.  
      Later, he had his mother killed, possibly because of her disapproval of his affair with Poppaea Sabina while she was still married. Regardless, Agrippina was no more. The modern scholar Miriam Griffiths suggests things go really went downhill after her death and says, “Nero lost all sense of right and wrong and listened to flattery with total credulity.”
      Prior to this, his relationship with the Roman Senate had been relatively good. But scholar Jurgen Malitz writes, “Nero abandoned the restraint he had previously shown because he believed a course supporting the Senate promised to be less and less profitable.”
      He divorced another of his wives, Octavia, on grounds of infertility, banished her, and when there were public protests, he accused her of adultery and executed her and married again in 64, the same year The Great Fire of Rome erupted. That was the night of July 18-19 when a large number of mansions, residences and temples were burned. The fire lasted a week, destroying three of 14 Roman districts and severely damaging seven more. 
      Differing accounts of the cause have described it as an accident, a plot of Nero’s or simply “unsure.” Some said the plot was because of Nero’s dislike of the ancient construction, and he wanted to build his own lush palace and a “30-meter-tall statue of himself, the colossus of Nero.” So he accused the Christians of starting the fire and had many arrested and brutally executed by “being thrown to the beasts, crucified and being burned alive.”
      More than 2,000 years later, scholars and historians continue to research and argue whether Nero started the fire, sang and played the fiddle while Rome burned. But Nero ruled his kingdom for several years and did pretty much what he wanted and nobody touched him.
      By 65, though, there was a conspiracy against Nero, with many wanting to “rescue the state” from him and restore the republic. But he got wind of it and executed its leaders. Even his old adviser, Seneca, was accused, but denied being involved. Nevertheless, he was ordered to commit suicide.
      Then some said Nero kicked his next wife, Poppaea, to death before she had her second child. Other historians suggest she may have had a miscarriage and died.
      Later, his tax policies caused a rebellion. The rebel leader lost the battle and committed suicide, while the followers of Nero’s commander wanted him to be emperor. He wouldn’t act against Nero, but others stepped up, and his army officers refused to obey him.
      He couldn’t leave Rome, the palace guard left and most friends abandoned him. At this point he wanted someone to kill him. But he couldn’t find anyone, and reportedly cried out, “Have I neither friend nor foe?” and ran to throw himself in the Tiber River but couldn’t do it.
      A friend offered a villa outside Rome, and some of Nero’s loyalists accompanied him in disguise. Once there, he ordered them to dig a grave for him. He knew the Senate had declared him a public enemy and planned to execute him by beating him to death. The Senate hoped to find a compromise, but Nero didn’t know that and prepared to commit suicide. He begged one of his companions to set an example by killing himself.
      When he heard horses approaching, and knew they were coming for him, he pressed his private secretary to kill him. But Nero finally got the job done, becoming the first emperor to do so. One of the horsemen tried to stop the bleeding, but was too late.
      His last words were reported to be, “Too late. This is fidelity.”
      That was June 9, 68 A.D., almost 1,950 years ago. What a time in which to have lived in such a place!

March 12, 2018

School shootings—a shocking and drastic change for safety consideration in education


At Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., two teens went on a shooting spree on April 20, 1999, killing 13 people and wounding more than 20 others before turning their guns on themselves and committing suicide. At the time, the massacre was the worst high school shooting in U.S. history and prompted a national debate on gun control and school safety, as well as a major investigation to determine what motivated the gunmen, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17. —History.com

Nearly 20 years later, the “national debate on gun control and school safety” is still ongoing, and there are always “major investigations to determine what motivated the gunmen.” Changes have been made by some retailers regarding who can buy what kind of gun after the shooting on Valentine’s Day that killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
      But our perspectives changed with the Columbine shooting.
      At the time of the Columbine High School shooting in an unincorporated area of Jefferson County, Colo., I was teaching English and journalism at Urbana High School. Not long after the story broke, the administration sent a notice to all teachers to read to their classes about what to do if someone was suspected of planning that type of incident or that someone was exhibiting a suspicious form of behavior.
      While I was reading the notice to my class, I saw one student about half way down the middle row in front of me writing and not seeming to pay attention. After I finished reading, I intended to have a discussion about the school shooting and what it meant for the school environment.
      But the student got up and brought his note to me.
      I don’t remember exactly what it said, except that it was something about a possible event of the Columbine type happening at the high school and identifying a student dressed in black as a possibility. Knowing the student in my class and his father, I didn’t think the student was serious in what he had written or that there was any danger from the kid dressed in black.
      Nonetheless, I walked over to the side of the room, punched the call button and asked for a dean to come to my classroom. When the dean arrived, I handed her the note and told the student to go with her. From that point, the student’s parent was immediately contacted, explained the situation and asked to come to the school and get the student. At the time, the father was involved with an extremely important situation at his job that I won’t try to explain.
      Suffice it to say, he was very upset at being interrupted and by what his son had done. And while I don’t know what happened at home, I do know that the father brought his son to school a couple of days later, had his son apologize and assured me that that behavior would never happen again.
      And it didn’t.  
      But the Columbine shooting marked a new time. Prior to that there had been school shootings going all the way back to the Enoch Brown school massacre on July 26, 1764, when a group of Delaware Indians entered a log schoolhouse in the Province of Pennsylvania and killed Brown, the schoolmaster, and nine students. Others followed through the years, but it wasn’t until Columbine that school shootings seemed to increase in their frequency and really got the country’s attention.
      Since Columbine, there have been 25 school shootings, 10 of which resulted in the deaths of four or more students or staff for a total of 122 fatalities, including the death or suicide of the shooter(s) who gunned down the innocent.
      Before Columbine, there were training sessions for tornado drills, and how to respond if hostages were taken—back in the early days of the atomic age, there was even something called a “duck-and-cover” air-raid drill where students were instructed to crawl under their desks and cover their heads to somehow protect against nuclear fallout.
      Holding training drills and sending a kid to the dean’s office who did a stupid thing because he thought it was cool (sounds like something I might have done as a kid, and my father would have done the same thing my student’s father did—maybe even taking off his belt and wrapping it around my rear end in the process) are what the school environment has come to, even more so today after all the school shootings and other threats to our security where the benefits of freedom are curtailed.
      There have been cable news talk show discussions 24/7 since the shooting in Florida, town hall meetings, politicians and the National Rifle Association members spinning their positions and everybody who has an opinion or a solution bickering, talking over each other, tweeting and jacking their jaws, still without any idea of how to really stop the senseless killings.
      But with the available security to get on an airplane, enter a courthouse and other public arenas, it would seem that it is equally important for security to be afforded to the staff, teachers and students going to school day in and day out.

February 21, 2018

Impasse and arrogance in Springfield


The recently published, slightly edited column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette was originally sent as a letter to Illinois Gov. Bruce V. Rauner and House of Representatives Speaker Michael J. Madigan on April 5, 2017. I received a perfunctory reply from a member of the governor’s staff merely thanking me for writing and nothing from Speaker Madigan.

I returned not long ago from a tour of Saipan, Tinian, Guam and Iwo Jima where I went with Military Historical Tours and the Iwo Jima Association of America to attend the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima and the annual Reunion of Honor where the United States and Japan, once bitter enemies in combat, come together as comrades in peace to commemorate the battle that took the lives of 6,821 Americans, another 19,000 casualties and the lives of 21,000 Japanese. That war preserved our freedom.
         Unfortunately, however, we citizens in Illinois don’t enjoy the freedom we should because of the puerile manifestations of partisan politics in Springfield reminiscent of schoolyard bullies for which Gov. Bruce Rauner and Speaker of the House Michael Madigan are the principal players in the resulting lack of budget, people and businesses leaving the state in droves, college students going to universities out of state, school systems throughout the state cutting programs and faculty, ad infinitum.
         There was a saying in the Marine Corps for people like them: “Lead, follow or get the hell (there was a stronger word when it was as critical a situation as it is now) out of the way.”
         The Iwo Jima veterans on Guam, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima, now in their late 80s and early 90s, were able to follow that directive at the ages of 17, 18, 19 and 20 and on up without acting as these two politicians both do in their esteemed positions of responsibility. Where would this country be had all those men and women fighting in World War II behaved in the deplorable manner both the governor and the speaker are now?      
         Another adopted Marine Corps mantra and directive that has been quite successful is to “improvise, adapt and overcome.” The Marine Corps and the other military services and the civilian working men and women who keep the country moving smoothly follow that concept. The part of society that rarely practices that concept and leaves people behind, as Marines and others in the military and all good citizens never do, is many politicians like Rauner and Madigan.
         Their arrogance amazes me. I first met Madigan briefly in 1986 on an elevator in the state Capitol when I was raising money and doing publicity for the Illinois Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That was just after a couple of us had gone to Rep. Zeke Giorgi, a World War II veteran, and got a $500,000 rider attached to the Veteran’s Bill so we could order the marble and get the memorial dedicated before year’s end.
         On the elevator, Madigan was surrounded by his minions and had the arrogant and pitiful look of superiority and desire for power that the state has come to know so well from him. He looked prime for a blanket party, even then—in Marine boot camp when one of the recruits failed to measure up to his responsibilities, the other recruits threw a blanket over his head after lights out and delivered a few punches for inspiration. Of course that is not PC now, but once was all it took to get the recruit squared away.
         Madigan’s personality and behavior remind me of the comment usually attributed to Sir John Dalberg-Action, the 8th Baronet, who was an English Catholic historian, politician and writer: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
         That is not to say that the governor is any different. He’s got the power corruption thing, too. He just smiles more and tries to dress more like the common man. And he’s filthy rich, much like our current president, and just as arrogant as either Madigan or Trump. I’ve met Rauner a couple of times. Once at the dedication of the Chez Family Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education at the University of Illinois and once at the celebration of designating Champaign County as the “Birthplace of the Tuskegee Airmen March 1941” and the signs to be posted on local highways. Rauner was jovial and were wearing his campaign and political face in both instances. Neither of the men is impressive in their actions and the condition in which they have the State of Illinois.
         ’Nough sed. While this is mainly cathartic, I hope they both can do the right thing and sit down with members of both parties and settle this impasse. They owe it to those who fought and died for our freedom and to those living here in Illinois and depending upon their leadership, not their power struggle.

December 7, 2017

Remembering the attack on Pearl Harbor that led to the U.S. entry into World War II


Dec. 7 marks the 76th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that killed more than 2,400 American servicemen and civilians, wounded more than 1,200 and propelled the United States into World War II that eventually took the lives of 405,000 Americans and some 60 million worldwide before it finally ended in 1945 when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
            Much has been made about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. But in reality it wasn’t that much of a surprise. The Japanese had been on the move throughout the Pacific and the Orient since 1904 when they defeated the Russians in Port Arthur, Manchuria. Then they took control of Korea and most of the German colonies in the Pacific, including the Carolines, Gilberts and Marianas, plus the German colony on the Chinese coast at Tsingtao.
            American writers Homer Lea and Jack London had written about the Japanese efforts to expand its empire prior to World War I. Gen. Billy Mitchell wrote about it in the mid-1920s. And in 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and followed in July 1937 with the “infamous Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which instigated the Second Sino-Japanese War,” and then followed with attacks on Shanghai and Nanking. Finally, there was the Japanese air attack on the American gunboat, USS Panay, in December of ’37 that happened to be filmed by cameramen on the Panay and on the riverbank. Both films clearly showed Japanese aircraft attacking the Panay with the American flag flying.
            This was all public information.
            And when George Patton was the intelligence officer of the Hawaiian Division, he issued a detailed report dated June 3, 1937, in which he concluded, “Japan was willing and possibly able to attack Hawaii.” In the last sentence of the report, he wrote, “It is the duty of military forces to prepare against the worst possible eventualities.”
            Gen. Patton always said, “To be a successful soldier, you must know history.”
            Either the leaders of this country didn’t know history or didn’t pay attention to it.
            As late as November 1941, admirals in Washington wrote a vague message warning the commanders in Hawaii of the possible danger of an attack, but never checked to see if any precautions were being taken. Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Twomey writes about this in his book, “Countdown to Pearl Harbor,” which I read last year prior to attending the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
            The commander of the Pacific Fleet’s intelligence unit had lost track of Japan’s biggest aircraft carriers. Twomey writes of false assumptions and racists ones, misunderstandings, infighting and ego clashes between intelligence officers and the Navy and Army commanders—all of which led to our being totally unprepared for the attack.
            So much warning was evident long before the “Day of Infamy.”
            At 7:02 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 7, two young Army privates, George Elliott Jr. and Joseph Lockard, at a mobile radar unit at Opana on the opposite side of Oahu, picked up “a blob of unknown, inbound airplanes that erupted on their oscilloscope,” and they reported it to authorities. Only the switchboard operator and one other man were at Fort Shafter’s information center as Elliott informed the operator that a “large” flight of planes, which turned out to be 360 Japanese war planes, were inbound.
            A few minutes later Lt. Kermit Tyler, a fighter pilot who had been given the morning shift for the second time in his life to be a “pursuit officer,” called the mobile radar unit at Opana. With no fighter planes standing by, he knew nothing about how things worked or what to do. When Lockard told him about the incoming aircraft, he said he thought about it for a moment and said, “Well, don’t worry about it.” 
            “I had a friend who was a bomber pilot,” he said later, “and he told me any time that they play this Hawaiian music all night long, it is a very good indication that our B-17s were coming over from the mainland because they use it for homing.”
            He had heard such music on his radio as he drove to the center in the early morning hours. And a flight of B-17s had, in fact, been flying all the way from California and arrived in the midst of World War II.
            At 7:55 a.m., Dick Lewis, a Marine sergeant from my hometown, was relieving the guard on Ford Island.  He was standing at the end of the runway with three other Marines, all of whom had just returned from a few months in the Central Pacific building airstrips with the forward echelon of the Marine Air Wing.
            “I looked over my shoulder and saw these planes flying right at us,” Lewis told me in an interview that was later published in Leatherneck magazine. “I thought they were Army planes at first and wondered why they were flying maneuvers on Sunday morning. Then I noticed them meatballs on the wings and wondered why they covered up the stars on the bottom of the wings. That’s how dumb I was at first.    
            “Then I saw something coming out of the planes and didn’t know what it was that was hitting the airstrip and making fire jump off the runway. They were still quite a ways away from us, and pretty soon something went ‘Yiinnnggg,’ and I went end over end. I got a ricocheted bullet in my right shoulder. And I knew it was for real then.”
            For a short time, Lewis thought he’d lost his whole shoulder. Bleeding badly, he yanked off his dungaree jacket to get down to his undershirt and tore it off, then took his fingers and pushed the shirt into the hole to stop the bleeding. But his arm was hanging straight down and wouldn’t move. 
            “We’re under attack, boys!” Lewis shouted as the planes flew over. “This is the real thing.”
            He said they were on the other side of Ford Island about three miles from Battleship Row; smoke was billowing up over the hangers, and planes were burning right in from of them. Smoke was also beginning to billow up over the harbor.
            “Dadgoneit,” Lewis told me in the interview, “we knew the war was coming just as well as you and I are sitting here and know that it did happen. They sent us on out to Guam to build an airstrip, and then we went on to another island—I may be getting these islands mixed up—but we went on to Midway and helped build an airstrip on Eastern Island and got on ship and came back to Barber’s Point on the fourth or fifth of December. We came into Pearl Harbor and unloaded all our planes and things.”
            And so, the war did come. It raged on for 43 more months in the Pacific and in Europe. The world endured tremendous loss and destruction amid that horror—and witnessed a lot of courage and sacrifice, as well. What Pearl Harbor signals today is that the security of our world can be a precarious thing, and sometimes we must fight to preserve our freedom. But it also has a great cost.