By Norman V. Kelly
Let me take you back to Peoria, Illinois in 1850 when the city was all of five years old. We began at the edge of the Illinois River, just a small trading village, named after the local Peoria Indian. We grew… my how we grew and Peoria attracted every kind of folk imaginable. Not all of them worth having, I might add. Among those undesirables were George Williams, Thomas Brown and Tom ‘Tit’ Jordan. On that cool November first, 1850, they were down at the stockyards hunting for someone to rob. Once they zeroed in on their victim they stalked him most of the day.
The victim was Harvey Hewett and he was in town selling off a large herd of cattle. After a successful day of moneymaking he headed out of town alone in his horse drawn buggy. Near what we call Adams and Spring Streets he was waylaid, beaten senseless, robbed and left for dead. He died nine days later, but during his lucid moments he gave a very good description of the three men that had attacked him. A huge posse was formed and off they went heading south to apprehend the three killers, known personally by local tavern denizens. In those days thieves and killers were usually run down and hanged at the nearest tree. Folks in Peoria expected the same fate to meet these three killers as well.
News that the posse had captured rather than hanged the culprits was indeed surprising news. However, Thomas Jordan had escaped to New Orleans and the Peoria Sheriff had personally contacted the Governor of Louisiana for help in getting Jordan back to Peoria. Here in Peoria, the newly appointed Judge William Kellogg held the murder trial of Williams and Brown on November 20, 1850.
The prosecutor got into evidence the signed statements of the victim, Harvey Hewitt and it took but a very short time to find the killers guilty. They of course blamed the missing killer, Thomas Jordan for the actual killing.
On November 27, 1850 Judge Kellogg sentenced the two men to die by hanging, setting the date of December 29, 1850 as the execution date.
A Dangerous Mob
A rumor started in town that the hanging would be postponed sparked a mob to storm the small courthouse demanding that the two killers be hanged or turned over to the enraged mob for justice. The out gunned Sheriff was forced to step out of the way. Brown and Williams armed only with a brick and a knife fought off the rioters, injuring two and actually killing one man. Once they had the killers out of the jail they were helpless. Surprisingly the two beaten men were returned to the jail. Local reporters at the time stated that the leaders had forgotten to obtain a rope prior to the attack. So, Williams and Brown survived the mob, but still faced the hangman. As it turned out the postponement had been warranted because the judge was waiting for Jordan to return to Peoria. The court wanted the two condemned men to testify against Jordan but that never happened. Jordan was later tried but escaped the death sentence. Judge Kellogg set the hangings for January.
An Outdoor Hanging
January 15, 1851 dawned, blustery and frigid as folks began to gather at the
gallows constructed out in the prairie, which we now know as Sanford and Second Streets. Our population at the time was just over six thousand but by the time the hanging got underway over fifteen thousand folks were in attendance. The crowd roared as the wagon containing the two condemned men pulled up inside the fenced in area. Deputies cleared the way as they brought the terrified men out of the wagon and up the gallows steps. The crowd surged forward once again and soon the fence was flat on the ground.
Once up on the platform the two men turned to face the sea of angry faces. The noise began to lessen and soon the crowd stood silently looking up at the condemned men. The hangman guided black hoods over each killer’s head as the padre mumbled prayers. As the executioner led the two men to the trapdoor, he deftly slipped ropes about their necks. The snap of the opening trapdoor rang out in the cold morning air hurtling the men to their deaths. A mighty roar went up and then silenced as the bodies began to twist slowly at the end of the ropes. The two attending physicians pronounced Brown, then Williams dead. The bodies were cut down and put into pine coffins. Two horse drawn hearses carried them off to a pauper’s grave. For a moment or so the folks stood silently, then one by one they turned and walked away. The event marked the first public hanging in the City of Peoria’s history.
Six other hangings would take place in or on the courthouse property here in town. Two other convicted killers would die in the electric chair in Joliet.
Editor’s Note: Norm is a local historian and author. His book, UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD, detailing all of Peoria’s executions is available in the Peoria Public Library firstname.lastname@example.org