Legend had it that following the public hanging at the Carroll County Courthouse on May 16, 1873 the two Poplar trees between which the gallows crossbean was fixed did not leaf out and died.
There were various explanations for such, one of which was that the “Papist priest” who gave Joe O’Neal Last Rites had cursed the trees but there was no reason for that action. The statement was one of ignorance and prejudice even though it was a county judge who uttered it.
Another idea for the demise of the trees was that it had been a very cold winter and late spring. Snow had fallen heavily as late as April 24. The hanging was May 16.
So it could have been the weather that caused the trees to die although none of the other trees around the courthouse square showed any sign of decline. Only those two.
Put forth was a third reason that alot of people bought into because, after all, how did an old saying become an old saying unless it had been proven so over the years? ...”Naught will grow where the gallows tree grows.”
The gallows tree, a familiar name then, was the apparatus from which the knotted rope, the noose, hung. After the execution the sheriff, George Sutton removed the simple instrument of death and stored it in the attic of the courthouse where it was seen as late as the 1970’s but then mysteriously disappeared. There were many odd occurrences from the very beginning of this chapter in our history ... Coincidences, shall we say, and events that would cause one to say, “Oh, but for the grace of God.”
Once upon a time punishment for a crime took place in the county in which a criminal was sentenced so that’s how it came to be that Carroll County, sadly, was the site for its only public hanging although the crime had occurred in Whiteside. We stress public hanging because in frontier days punishment sometimes occurred on the spot, then and there, without judge or jury. But that’s for telling another time.
One Joe O’Neal had murdered Hiram Rexford in the autumn of 1872 and was captured the same day. The murder had taken place on an island in the Mississippi south of Fulton and in Whiteside County. Passion ran so high against O’Neal because of the brutality of the deed, that despite several months having passed, it was believed best to have a change of venue and where else than close by, to the “next door neighbor,” Carroll County!
The Northwest was very fortunate at the time to have had two very steady, reliable, honest lawmen who carried out the onerous duty efficiently and yet humanely.
The trial and sentencing took place at the county seat, Mt. Carroll. The execution would be within two weeks of the sentencing. A detailed account of the events was told here, PDQ Me, in 1991. We refresh memoirs now but in summary. The story is retold to remind us that we have a foundation of good judgment and suitable punishment guiding us although crimes and times may have changed.
By the 1870’s-’80’s public hangings weren’t that common in the middle west although one took place in Whiteside also in 1884. It too was punishment for the crime of murder. It had occurred in Lyndon Christmas Day, 1883. An argument between two young men, Charles Riebling and Albert Lucia. The former said he’d had recurring headaches and taken to drinking alcohol to relieve the pain. Thus, unstable because of drink, he shot Lucia who was merely wounded in the thigh. Due to the primitive state of medicine then, however, infection set in and he died twelve days later.
Riebling was arrested and by that time sobered up. Extremely remorseful he “took up” religion and received the ministrations of preachers who would visit him throughout his imprisonment.
A trial was held and Judge Eusatce sentenced him to hanging by reason of murder ... May 6, 1884.
Preparations in Whiteside for a public hanging were as strict as they’d been in Carroll County ten years before. Only a certain number of appointed people could be eyewitness to the execution. Thus a “stockade” was built for the gallows tree to be planted, the platform built and space for about one hundred fifty officials, doctors, newspaper reporters, prominent citizens and so forth. They crowded into the stockade which was thirty-five feet square and eight feet high, board to board, to keep out prying eyes. Some two hundred spectators (including some women) milled around the area surrounding the county jail where the hanging was to take place. Little boys climbed trees to see what they could see.
Wanting no mishap, Sheriff T.S. Beach had obtained a trap door, bolt and lever from Peoria and had fixed it into place on the platform; tried and tried it again and again with a bag of sand to make certain all went smoothly, remembering perhaps the hitch in proceedings he’d heard concerning the Carroll County hanging.
A half inch rope was chosen for the noose; a larger, thicker one was ready and waiting in case something went wrong. Reference said that the sheriff performed his duties “with great but secret distress.”
Leading Riebling up the steep steps to the platform, Sheriff Beach had clothed the man in a loose, long white robe-like coat. He pulled the usual black hood over the man’s head and readied the noose. The trap door was sprung. Gasps likely came from the witnesses in the stockade. Outside the crowds heard the thud of the trap door and believed they heard a groan!
Riebling, who apparently had no one else, wished that those who had ministered to him during jail-time would take care of his body. They declined.
After they had cut away the noose, deputies laid him in a simple wooden coffin pushed beneath the platform. Mrs. Sheriff Beach stepped forward to lay a pretty posie of pansies, geranium and daisies on the young man’s chest, a humane gesture in the cold light of justice. Because no one had stepped up to claim his body, he was taken to the county Poor Farm and buried in an unmarked grave. Reference said, “He’d gone to a better life.”
Little excitement accompanied the hanging. Only the sound of the rope pulling taut had come from the stockade. The rough wooden coffin was all spectators had seen as the deputies moved out and away. Newspaper reports made sermons of punishments for crimes.
Many and varied are the events and people of our past. Everyday history is made, the television channel says. Even here in the rural Midwest. Carroll County’s public hanging will be summarized next week. The story of Joe O’Neal, his brother, “the Dwarf,” the prostitute, Adele, tunneling out of the jail, the trap door that didn’t open. A few dramatic occurrences that complicated the road to justice including the poplar trees that died.