Part II - Worthy Sheriff Sutton is looking for a carpenter to do a job for him. Plans for the structure is by no means difficult. Two upright posts with a cross beam supported by braces; underneath a platform with a “trap” only comprise the outfit. Proposals solicited by day or job.”
Worthy Sheriff Sutton is looking for a carpenter to do a job for him. Plans for the structure is by no means difficult. Two upright posts with a cross beam supported by braces; underneath a platform with a “trap” only comprise the outfit. Proposals solicited by day or job,” a county newspaper rather flippantly printed on May 3rd, 1873. Issue about the execution to be held at the Carroll County Courthouse.
It was a gallows for the hanging for murderer, Joe O’Neal, back in September of 1872.
Even though it was “modern times,” the last quarter of the nineteenth century there were still problems to work out with this historical event. Namely, in this case, it was the brothels that dotted the shores of nearly every river town and in the boats tied up near them. They were harbors of crime of many sorts. In those days they were crudely called “lust boats.”
Hiram Rexford, the murder victim, was described as a pitiful ol’ wretch. He did odd jobs in the “neighborhood,” for drinking money mostly. He eked out a subsistence existence at Clinton or Fulton.
What there was about Hiram to draw the interest of a woman remains unknown. Indeed, however, he did. A woman and he were married then went to live in a hovel on one of the islands or near “O’Neal’s Ranche,” one of the prominent brothels. John O’Neal was the owner. We wonder if “ranche” meant that there was a theme!
Hiram had every good intention of being a suitable husband but there was too much temptation and he fell again into bad habits. Drink and debauchery. He’d take off for parts unknown for days at a time.
Left alone on the island where the lust boats dominated, Mrs. Rexford eventually became an “employee” of El Ranchero. To her credit she soon became id affected and disillusioned with the lifestyle. So, coincidentally she made the acquaintance of one Joe O’Neal, a very handsome devil of a guy who became attracted to her also. Joe plied her with promises of a better life and urged her to get rid of Hiram. It didn’t take long for her to agree. It’s not clear if she and Hiram divorced but she went with O’Neal. Maybe she had a wandering eye or Hiram had something we aren’t acquainted with because from time to time she’d visit her ex. Joe, the handsome beaut, became aware of that scheme and vowed to do something about it.
He asked Hiram to come out to the brother’s boat to do some painting. Hiram thought it a good idea for some extra money. Innocent of any hanky-panky, Hiram began in a hallway of the “Ranche.” Having been drinking for a couple days to prime himself for the terrible deed, Joe came behind Hiram and began beating him, mercilessly until he knocked him down, then began kicking and jumping on him.
The noise drew the attention of one of the “inhabitants” of the brothel; Adele Clark, who was noted as being very attractive but a “fallen star.”
She attempted to pull Joe from his beating of Hiram but was not strong enough. Only a brief pause interrupted the beating, so Adele called to O’Neal to quit.
He came into her room and sat on the bed, looking at his bloody hands. He rose; went to the bowl and pitcher to rinse them, when he heard a groan coming from the hall, Hiram. This enraged Joe even more than before so he ran to the hall and began to stab the prostrate man, twenty-five, thirty times in the chest, head, throat. That should do it, the culprit thought but Hiram jerked—a spasmodic tic, a muscle twitch? Joe believed he still lived. From somewhere he had a hatchet and bent to chop at the body trying to sever his head from his body. Hack. Hack! You’d have thought others would have heard the terrible commotion, but no, until a door opened. A gasp. It was Tommy or the “Dwarf” as he was more familiarly called.
Less than four feet tall and knowledgeable of his brother’s notorious temper he lightly nudged the body and then, with Adele began to pull the bloody sleeves from Joe’s shirt, telling him he must run away. Staying him momentarily, he dashed into a room to get clean trousers, jacket and shirt so as not to be noticeable. O’Neal left.
Word of the crime spread swiftly from patron and employees of the floating brothel who added their own interpretation to the already gruesome tale. As word passed from house to house in the nearby towns, doors and windows were locked makeshift defense were invented. On both sides of the Mississippi, people were fearful and anxious that there’d be a possible crime wave.
Because the lust boat was anchored on an island below Fulton the murder had occurred in Whiteside County. An informal posse formed here and there. The sheriff, E.A. Worrell, organized a plan.
First, the two brothers were taken into custody, John and Tommy, for complicity in the crime. John O’Neal however had been no where near the boat but Tommy, the dwarf had officials believed, been an accomplice although a late-comer.
To his credit, John O’Neal regularly visited Joe in jail later even though his sibling had told his jailers John had also committed a murder. Investigation proved it be false. Joe, report said, wanted to reek revenge on John because he wouldn’t supply him money to hire an attorney. The alleged criminals were appointed a public defender, Fred Dutcher, the state’s attorney from Ogle County, an experienced lawyer.
The capture of the fleeing murderer was one of those twists of fate that dogged O’Neal throughout. Coincidence, you say? There is no such thing according to TV’s “Mentalists.” What?
The night of the murder Sheriff Worrell was walking the dark streets of Fulton. (Remember there were no bright electric lights in 1872). It was late. Ten o’clock. As he trudged the plank walkway he saw a horse and buggy coming towards him. Some instinct urged him to step off the walk into the path of the carriage. The driver made every effort to avoid him but the Sheriff grabbed the horse’s bridal to control him, telling the driver to cease urging on the nervous beast.
Worrell called to a passerby. “Do you know the O’Neal family?” The person replied in the negative. Another passerby. Same question. They called, “Yes, I know them.” The Sheriff, still steadying the horse, struck a match to hold it to the driver’s face, wavering in the action.
“Yes, that’s Joe O’Neal,” the person called. Joe was put under arrest.
No one, it is believed, knew why the lawman decided to stop that horse and buggy. No sign indicated it had a suspicious driver. Joe’s troubles were just beginning.
This event occurred in September, 1872. The O’Neals were jailed and plans went forward with John being released. The furor and excitement caused by the brutality of the crime impassioned Whiteside residents for a prolonged length of time.
The practical, reliable Sheriff Worrell soon decided that despite O’Neal’s obvious guilt and the terrible way Rexford had been murdered, fairness was the key to justice out here in the Midwest. People would be too prejudiced to vote properly with the evidence extant. A change of venue would be the answer.
North, to neighboring Carroll County. It was just far enough away for easy travel and yet the residents might not have heard the grisly details and not be biased. (Remember, only the telegraph was mode of communication. That, and railroads which weren’t always direct.) Too, Worrell could rely on Sheriff George Sutton to do a reliable job of jailing the killer and carrying out the sentence. A law at the time said punishment was done by the county in which a criminal was sentenced. Arrangements were made.
The prisoners weren’t transferred to Carroll County in April of 1873. Curiosity, naturally, pervaded throughout. Newspaper reporters came from metropolitan centers. An interview was given to a Chicago reporter by Joe. Almost like today! It was a genuine reality show.
The gallows advertised to be built according to the advertisement at the beginning of this article was constructed by local carpenter, Mathias Karn who was paid $15.00 for the job. The material was purchased at the town lumberyard, W. Patterson & Co. $64.33 plus $4.25 for hauling to the courthouse yard. Two dollars were paid to tear down the gallows!
As eleven o’clock, May 16, the time/date of the execution approached, everyday business went on to the noise of hammering and the buzz of sawing. Once in awhile there was a melodic thrum of a banjo as Joe O’Neal attempted to learn a new song. When he wasn’t practicing the banjo, what was he doing?