By Norman V. Kelly
Chillicothe, Illinois was incorporated as a village on February 22, 1861 and as a nice little city along the Illinois River on February 11, 1873. Henry McNulty was a son of a shoemaker and came into that trade naturally. He dabbled in leather as well, repairing harnesses and making a living in and around Chillicothe. Henry was a decent citizen, but like a lot of us, he had a major flaw in his character. For Henry, it was slipping off to Peoria, Illinois to get drunk.
Trouble for Henry and his wife Elisa began in 1871, culminating in her having her husband arrested in 1872 for battery upon her person. Actually before the year was out the charges would include assault, public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Sadly, the final charge against Henry McNulty was for the murder of his wife, Elisa.
Around three in the morning on September 23, 1872, Henry McNulty banged on his neighbor’s door screaming that something terrible had happened to his wife. It was not until five that morning that a physician told the investigating deputy, “When I found her in her bed she was cold and stiff.” Truth is, a friend of Elisa McNulty told reporters, “I’m surprised she lasted this long.”
Henry McNulty ended up in the Peoria County jail trying to understand the situation he was in. He was not a reluctant witness, answering every question put to him by the sheriff and his detectives. He told police he had had a few drinks but he certainly was not drunk. He stated that he woke up in the morning and found his wife dead on the floor. That was all he knew about the matter and was surprised that they had arrested him for murder.
Police were inclined to believe him at first but a careful study of Henry’s arrest record convinced them to turn the matter over to the state’s attorney.
The matter was voted on by the grand jury and Henry found himself indicted for murder, a capital offense, which made him eligible for the death penalty.
The small Peoria County Courthouse was jammed full that December 10, 1872 when the judge Peterbaugh called his court to order. In short order the jury was picked and prosecutor Kellogg told the jury that they were there to try a man that was guilty of killing his wife. Henry had a court appointed lawyer who told the jury that his client was an innocent man.
All of the witnesses were from Chillicothe and one by one they related the episodes of violence they were familiar with between Henry and his wife Elisa. The defense fought hard to keep some of the testimony from the jury, but the evidence was overwhelming. Finally, the prosecution put on the medical examiner to tell the jury how Mrs. McNulty had died.
“Mrs. McNulty died a painful death due to a violent
blow to her left side. The force of the blow or blows
fractured two ribs and ruptured her spleen.”
On December 13, 1872, seven hours after they had received the case the jury indicated that they had reached a verdict. The foreman told the judge that they had found the defendant guilty of a capital crime and recommended death by hanging.
Bond was never even discussed, Henry had no money, so he just languished in jail awaiting whatever appeals he was allowed.
On December 31, 1872 Henry was told that all of his appeals, including an appeal to the governor were denied. Henry McNulty would die for the murder of his wife. However, the very next day readers of the local newspapers were stunned to hear that the convicted wife killer had gotten a thirty-five day reprieve. Along with the reprieve Henry was told that his execution date was now February 7, 1873.
The condemned man sat in his holding cell in the Peoria County Jail listening to the carpenters building the gallows just for him. Just after one that afternoon of February 7, 1873 the sheriff’s deputies led Henry McNulty out of his cell. As Henry approached the gallows, he was escorted up the steps by the hangman. On the platform a padre stood waiting, holding a rosary and a bible.
At 1:22, when the sheriff pulled on the trap door rope, nothing happened. An alert deputy quickly bent over and yanked on the two bolts that were holding the trapdoor shut. The spectators jumped back as the loud crack of the freed trapdoor echoed in the high ceilings of the old jail. Henry McNulty’s body hurtled downward causing an audible snap in the man’s neck. As the crowd stood staring at the body, three physicians checked for a heartbeat. Finally, they nodded to the sheriff that Henry was dead. The sheriff cut the rope and McNulty’s body was put into a wooden coffin and carried off.
Was Henry McNulty guilty of a capital crime, a crime that made him eligible for the death penalty? A neighbor and friend of Mrs. McNulty later told reporters she had seen Elisa the very day before she died complaining of pains in her side from falling off a ladder. Did those injuries cause her death or did her husband kick her to death in a drunken rage? I guess it’s a wee bit late to be asking that questions, you think?
Editor’s Note: Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org