Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Simeon De Witt Drown

Part Two

In my last post I introduced you to Mr. Simeon De Witt Drown, who really began a recorded history of our town which evolved into our City Directories. I thought I would start up where I left off and see if we can pick up some interesting tidbits about those folks way back then.

Winter 1845: On the criminal docket there was an interesting case that the local folks were eager to be part of: People vs. Nomaque described as a “half-breed” was charged with the murder of a Frenchman named
Pierre Landre. Nomaque entered a plea of ‘Not Guilty’ and his trial was set shortly after the plea. A jury found him guilty of killing the Frenchman and sentenced to hang. His lawyer appealed the case and while awaiting that decision Nomaque escaped and ran into the vast Prairie. It might interest you to know that the only residing attorney in Peoria at this time was John L. Bogardus.

December 6, 1845: There was a ‘war’ going on between Mormon and Anti-Mormons in Hancock County and as a result the sheriff of that county, J.H. Backenstoss was arrested for murdering Franklin Worrell, a Mormon. He was tried here in Peoria, Illinois and the jury took all of fifteen minutes to find him ‘Not Guilty.’ That little war was serious business and during the conflict almost 100 homes were burned to the ground and several men on both sides were killed.

November 20, 1850: A jury of Judge Kellogg’s Court found Thomas Brown and George Williams guilty of robbing and murdering Mr. Hewitt, a cattle buyer from Peoria. The beating and robbery took place on Spring Street here in Peoria and the men were hanged out in the Prairie. Today that would be Second and Sanford down in the South-end. Our population was a little over 6,000 and well over 15,000 people jammed together around the dual gallows that were built out there. The hangings took place on January 15, 1850. Imagine that throng of people on that bitterly cold, snowy day. Can you imagine that spectacle? I described that scene in my book Until You Are dead. Our local library still has a couple copies. Actually Brown and Williams were the first killers to face execution here in Peoria, Illinois. Six more would follow and two other men were executed by electric chair.
September 7, 1853: School Master Seary was acquitted this day when a jury found him not guilty in the whipping of a ‘scholar.’ On that day Mr. Erford’s jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict in his trial for ‘Maliciously shooting a Mule.’

April 4, 1857: At noon on that exciting day the first train passed over the first rail road bridge built across the Illinois River at Peoria, Illinois. That span connected the Peoria and the Oquawka tracks heading towards the Tazewell banks. The massive bridge was 600 feet long and a draw span of 203 feet. It was a marvel to local folks and truly an important day for the future of Peoria, Illinois. Spectators cheered the wood-burning locomotive “George C. Bestor.” Throngs of spectators screamed and yelled their welcome then the young boys ran after the locomotive as it passed over the bridge.

May 18, 1857: Peoria was excited today as most of the town’s 12,000 citizens seemed to be flocked around the huge building on a downtown street as the ceremonies got under way for the opening of Rouse Hall.
The theatre and office complex covered the entire city block of Main and Jefferson Streets and would remain the leading show house in Peoria for almost a half century. The building was built by one of Peoria’s leading citizens, Dr. Rudolphus Rouse and leased to a showman named John Huntley who always put on great shows like the “Merry Monarch” and popular singers from throughout the United States. The theatre drew thousands of People from all over to Peoria, Illinois

May 23, 1851: I had to bring you this piece since as a child the arrival of a circus or a carnival in Peoria drove all of us kids into a frenzy. We had a lot of out door activities on the river and the arrival of attractions like carnivals and circuses was always the high light of the summer. Just look at how Peorians reacted in 1851. Nixon and Kemp’s Eastern Circus, certainly one of the largest traveling circus in America, arrived in Peoria today and the entire town rejoiced. All of the circus members paraded through town followed by the largest Calliope ever built and certainly the first one to arrive in Peoria. The massive contraption was pulled by 40 horses and sent the folks into a wild frenzy. Clowns, acrobats, jugglers and get this…‘necromancers’ furnished most of the entertainment.
Editor’s Note: Norm is a local Historian and true crime writer and welcomes your questions and comments. norman.kelly@sbcglobal.net

Thursday, December 11, 2014




Part One

Peoria,IL - 1839
For those of you that read my story last month about Rudolphus Rouse, you are well aware of how quickly Peoria became a sophisticated city. Through out our history we had a plethora of men and women that stepped up to give us a boost, and I spent over three decades trying to praise them. I thought I would bring you some early history in a form of a diary that was devotedly kept and guarded by our keeper of the records, the folks at the Peoria Public Library. Even before we became a city in 1845, there were newspapers located here, followed quickly by a library and record keepers, court files, and police reports. That record was scrupulously kept. The only time it was distorted was during the time our pet gangster Bernie Shelton lived here. Then our uncles and grandfathers took over with gangster stories that they loved to perpetuate upon gullible listeners. A lot of so-called historians did the same thing. Me? Why I stuck to the record, but it is always more fun to read fiction than it is musty old historical records. I did it because that is where you will find the truth about Peoria, Illinois, its people and its history.

We are not a city yet, and there is a lot of activity way out in the county by January 1843. By then Philander Chase, founder of Jubilee College, let it be known that “No baptismal rite performed on a Mormon by a
Mormon had any saving value in the eyes of Heaven.” Strong language and of course there were repercussions to Philander’s statement.

On February 1, 1843 somebody must have had the authority and control of the town’s purse strings to issue this rule. Anyway the Peoria Waterworks Company was authorized by legislature to improve any spring water within two miles of Peoria.

On the evening of February 13, 1843 an Abolitionist meeting being held by The Anti-Slavery Society to pick officers was broken up by slavery sympathizers, led by Mr. Underwood. Now this was a private meeting being held at the Main Street Presbyterian Church. Didn’t we name a street after Underwood? Remember way back then, because of our Constitution and Bill Of Rights folks had the same inalienable rights as we do today. Apparently Underwood and his gang did not believe that to be true.
Main Street Presbyterian Church
During the very early spring folks still tried to cross the river to East Peoria on horse and buggy even though the local authorities warned people of the dangerous conditions. Two children riding with the Rodecker and Parker families drowned when their buggy broke through the ice on the Illinois River. That was February 28, 1843 at the foot of Main Street.

Newspapers were established in Peoria even before we became a Town in 1835. By 1845 when we became a City and for decades the newspapers competed with each other not only politically but for the almighty dollar as well. Many local politicians, business men and women and police officers felt their wrath. A sample was this zinger:
“The thing called a ‘jail’ in this county is not worthy the name.”
Peoria: January 1844.

Printed on 2-7-1844, The Democratic Press went against the local newspapers in trying to squelch the rumor that folks in the Town of Peoria, Illinois were suffering and dying from a mysterious disease known only as ‘The Black Lung.’ The editor pointed out that the last death among the 1,600 inhabits was recorded way back on December 8, 1843. Some folks laughed at this statement and the rumors persisted.
James K. Polk

November 4, 1844 certain newspapers gleefully reported that

The County of Peoria registered their usual Democratic majority
by casting 1,169 votes for James Polk, Democrat and 846 for Henry Clay, Whig… for President of the United States. By the way Lincoln never won here either. Polk won the election.

On December 10, 1844, Charles Owen died. Owen had declared that he was 110 years old and came to Peoria from Virginia in 1822. The article went on to state that Mr. Owens came to Peoria carrying a load of whiskey, which he sold to one of the local Indian tribes. No not the Peoria Indian who had been driven out of this area by 1720.

A man that took it upon himself to be Peoria’s first census taker and local historian, S.D.W. Drown let the folks know on January 16, 1844
that Peoria’s population was 1,619. Mr. Drown also published a ‘Town Directory’ which evolved into ‘The City Directory.’ There would be very little recorded history of early Peoria without the dedication of Mr. Drown.

By March of 1844 steamboats were a vital link to the outside world and along with our whiskey moved Peoria along head and shoulders above all the other villages and towns that sprung up along the Illinois River. However, none grew so substantially as Peoria, Illinois, ‘The Gem along the Illinois.’
Next month let’s take another peek into the ‘Peoria Diary’ and see just how our forefathers prospered in Peoria, Illinois, ‘The Pearl on the Illinois.’

Editor’s note: Norm is a true crime writer, Peoria historian and author. He welcomes your comments. norman.kelly@sbcglobal.net