Rockford rightly prizes its prosperous heritage, earned by manufacturing concerns like the Rockford Watch Factory and the Manny Reaper Company. But the town once named Midway also harbors a history of crime and calamity.
Gunfire broke out in the streets when networks of Prohibition informants slid sideways. In 1893, John Hart forced his own sisters to drink poison. Three years later, James French shot down his wife in the street. Over the years, a courthouse collapsed, a factory exploded and trains collided. Join local historian Kathi Kresol as she explores the mayhem milling about in Rockford's past.
About the Author
Kathi Kresol has been researching Rockford's history for the past ten years. She shares the fascinating stories she uncovers through her website at www.hauntedrockford.com, her "Voices from the Grave" column in the Rock River Times weekly newspaper and through her Haunted Rockford tours. Kathi is a member of Rockford Historical Society and has worked at the Rockford Public Library for years and loves sharing her enthusiasm for history and reading in any way possible.
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THE MURDER OF SHERIFF TAYLOR
Rockford was a pretty wild place in 1856. The city was making advances in what would become the foundation for the manufacturing boom that was to put Rockford on the map. But in the early days, crime was very common; robbery and cattle rustling were especially prevalent.
John F. Taylor was the sheriff in those days. He was, from all accounts, a very fair man. Sheriff Taylor was nearing the end of his term, and Samuel Church had already been chosen as his replacement. Taylor expected the rest of his term to be quiet. Unfortunately, he was wrong. When he left for work on November 11, 1856, he kissed his wife and one-and-a-half-year-old son goodbye as usual; neither could know it would be for the last time.
Sheriff Taylor was alerted to possible cattle thieves in the town when two brothers, Alfred and John Countryman, rode into town with a deal that seemed too good to be true. They were trying to sell a herd of cattle for a sum much lower than market value. The prospective buyers grew suspicious and alerted the sheriff. At around nine o'clock that morning, Sheriff Taylor arrested the brothers for the suspicion of theft. He carried through the usual routine of searching the suspects and found pistol balls in Alfred's pockets, but when he questioned the suspect, Alfred denied having a gun. The sheriff and one of the deputies started to walk toward the jail. Just as they reached the steps, Alfred broke away from the sheriff, leaped over a fence on Elm Street and ran down the street toward Main Street with Sheriff Taylor in pursuit.
The sheriff had almost caught up with Countryman at the livery stable of Hall and Reynolds and was about to grab him when Alfred pulled a gun and fired at the sheriff. Taylor, hit in the chest, staggered a few steps and gasped out, "I'm shot, catch him." He then fell, mortally wounded.
Alfred Countryman continued to run and made it all the way to Kent Creek before he was brought down by one of the many citizens who took up the chase when Taylor fell. Witnesses would claim the pursuers numbered over one hundred men. There were some on horseback and some on foot, some armed with shotguns and some with rifles. Alfred was caught and put into a police wagon. When they arrived back at the jail, a very large crowd had gathered. They brought a rope with them and threatened to lynch Alfred right there. City officials rushed to the jail, and sheriff-elect Samuel Church arrived. He was able to calm the crowd with promises that justice would swiftly prevail.
The autopsy would show that the pistol ball entered the sheriff 's chest and passed through his lung, hitting the aorta. Four quarts of blood had pumped into his chest.
Sheriff Taylor, who was thirty-one when he died, was respected in Rockford, and his funeral definitely reflected that. It was held on the public square under the charge of the Masonic fraternity, of which Taylor was a member. The story of his murder went national.
Alfred Countryman's trial was held in February 1857. The jury found him guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to hang. His execution took place on March 27, 1857, at the farm of the new sheriff Samuel Church "about two miles outside of the city." People crowded into Rockford from all over the country. Two special trains brought riders from Iowa and "intermediate places" to witness this execution.
Countryman was the first man to be publicly executed (officially) in Winnebago County. It was later estimated that eight thousand people came to witness the event. Ironically, extra precautions were taken to make sure that Countryman arrived safely to the execution. After Countryman said goodbye to his wife and mother, he began his trip to the place of execution. There was a procession from the jail — including two fire companies, armed with sabers and rifles — to surround the carriage in which Countryman rode. The procession was described in great detail in the newspaper, with the crowd lined up the whole way from the jail to the execution location. Alfred Countryman rode in the carriage with Sheriff Church; the windows were covered with curtains to deny the crowd a view of him, "not wanting to gratify their morbid curiosity."
Countryman's father, brother, a cousin and sister were there to witness the hanging. Alfred addressed the crowd to beg their forgiveness. His last words were, "Farewell friends, once more I hope to meet you in a Heavenly land where sorrows be no more! Glory be to God! I am going home!"
Countryman's arms were tied to his side, a black bag placed over his head, "the noose placed around his neck and at seventeen past two the drop fell, and Alfred Countryman was no more." As his body fell through the trap, witnesses remarked that even though the crowd was huge, the only sound that could be heard was the sobbing of Countryman's family.
Sheriff Church addressed the crowd before the body was taken down. "These painful proceedings being now concluded, and the sword of justice about to be returned to its sheath, I hope never again to be drawn with so much severity. I would thank you all for the good order you have maintained, your conduct does credit to the city, and I hope you will observe the same decorum in retiring."
Many might wonder why so many people came, some from far away, to witness this event. The newspapers from that day speculated: "Curiosity, was no doubt, the prime motive which induced their attendance; and those that contend that examples of this kind have effect to deter men from incurring a similar penalty, would be sadly puzzled to determine the effect of the conflicting emotions which stirred the breasts of that vast crowd of spectators who had congregated for the single purpose of seeing a fellow creature die."
Alfred Countryman's body was turned over to his family and taken home to Ogle County to the "Pennsylvania Settlement" and buried there. Unfortunately, Sheriff Church's wish didn't come true, and the need for the sword of justice would arise several more times in the Forest City.CHAPTER 2
Bridget Hart held her extensive family of two girls and six boys together after the death of her beloved husband, John. That tragedy had taken place in 1891. The family lived on a farm outside Winnebago on Wolf Grove Road, about six miles away from Rockford.
On September 5, 1893, around three o'clock in the afternoon, Bridget left her home to walk to the field to pick some potatoes for dinner. When she left the house, her daughters, Nellie and Mary, were sitting in the front of house, one of them on a swing and the other in a chair. Her eldest child, John, who was about thirty-five years old, was in the barn. When Bridget returned a short time later, she came back to a very different scene than the peaceful one she had so recently left.
Bridget found her beloved daughter Mary lying facedown on the steps of her house. She turned her over and noticed that Mary had blood running from her mouth and nose. Bridget screamed and started to look for her youngest daughter, Nellie.
She was shocked as she walked through the lower floor of the house. Bloody fingerprints on the doorways, blood smears on the walls and bloodstains on the carpet told a horrific tale. Bridget was becoming more frantic as she wandered from room to room with no sign of her youngest daughter. She rushed from the house to the barn, screaming Nellie's name.
When she reached the basement in the barn, she beheld another horrendous sight. Nellie was staggering around the room, blood coming from her swollen nose and mouth. Bridget also noticed a green stain down the front of Nellie's dress.
But Nellie was alive and conscious and able to tell her rescuer the unbelievable story. It was her own brother John who had forced her to drink Paris green from a cup. This chemical was found on most farms and was used as a pesticide during this period. It was deadly to humans if consumed because it contained arsenic. According to Nellie's statement, John Hart had asked her to go out to the barn with him to assist with some task. When they reached the barn, John grabbed Nellie, forced her to drink green liquid from a cup and then shoved a gag into her mouth. She heard him leave the barn and then heard several gunshots; it was during this time that police surmised the killing of Mary took place. He shot Mary and then forced her to drink the Paris green. The blood stains found in the house indicate that Mary had gone inside and wandered through the rooms, perhaps looking for some help. Finding no one, she returned outside and fell by the front steps of her home. It was obvious from her disheveled clothing and the blood found that Mary struggled with her attacker.
After John finished with Mary, he returned to the barn only to discover that Nellie was not yet dead. He then shot her once in the chest. One would not even want to imagine Nellie's fear when she heard John's footsteps as he returned to the barn.
Dr. W. Helm was called to do what he could for poor Nellie. While the doctor was caring for Nellie, her sister, Mary, was lifted onto a board and finally brought into the house. Three hours had passed since the attack. Mary was left in the front yard covered with a sheet under a lilac bush while word spread, and her neighbors came to stare.
It was only after they lifted her that the story turned more brutal. While they were shifting the board to make it through the doorway, something rolled off the board and hit the floor. It was a cartridge from a .32-caliber gun. Mary's body was examined, and a gunshot wound was found in her neck. The gun was held so close to her that the flesh was burnt, and there was a hole burned in her dress. It was determined through autopsy that Mary had been forced to drink the Paris green and then shot four times at close range.
It was not until several hours later, when her brother William was helping Nellie change from her dress into her nightgown, that it was discovered that Nellie had also been shot.
By midnight, the doctor broke the news to Bridget that her youngest child would not recover. The Paris green she had been forced to drink had caused extensive damage to Nellie's mouth and throat.
John Hart's doctor was summoned and questioned by the police. Dr. Miller stated that he had treated Hart for physical problems but not for any mental problems.
The police also questioned the other family members. A brother, William, gave testimony to the relationship between the girls and John. He stated they quarreled "an awful lot." He explained that these arguments were because John wanted the family to buy out his portion of the farm. His family refused. They wanted John to stay and help them make the farm a success. It would take all of their combined effort to make the farm work. William went on to say that John had an ugly, irritable disposition and seemed to especially hate the eldest sister, Mary.
Coroner Agesen was called to begin the inquest into Mary's death. Her uncle, P. Hart, identified the twenty-six-year-old girl's body. The uncle also told the coroner that John, Mary's brother, had been ill lately and acted insane.
The search for John Hart began. A posse was formed, and people began to search all of the towns in the area. Hart was seen riding off with one of the horses from the barn. The search spread to Rockford. Around 9:00 p.m., Hart was spotted going into Henry Sparring's Barber Shop on Kishwaukee Street in town. As the police approached him, John remained calm and slowly took a bottle from his pocket. He raised the bottle to his lips and took a long drink. Later, the contents of the bottle were found to be laudanum.
Nellie fought for her life, spending hours in agony, but she passed away around two o'clock in the afternoon the day after the shooting. She was only twenty-three years old.
The family's troubles had started years earlier. John was considered the black sheep of the family. He had left twelve years before, and the scandal was that he ran off to Chicago with a married black woman. George Lewis and his wife lived in Pecatonica, and it was Mrs. Lewis whom John ran away with, causing the breakup of that family's home. John and Mrs. Lewis allegedly lived together in Chicago before he deserted her and left for California. John roamed around the South and West while working a variety of jobs. He worked on the railroad in Colorado and Arkansas and traveled back and forth to Chicago several times.
The father of the family, John Hart, died two years before the shooting. He committed suicide by the drinking the same poison that killed his daughters, Paris green. It took a while for the family to find young John to notify him of his father's death. He returned to the family farm about fourteen months before the murders. It was upon his return that he started to quarrel with the family about buying him out for his share of the estate worth around $50,000.
After being arrested for the attack on his sisters, John Hart was put into the jail in Rockford. A doctor treated him for the laudanum he drank. The opiate did not really threaten Hart's life since he had ingested such a small amount. There was some chaos outside the jail on the first night of Hart's incarceration. There was a band of men determined to string Hart up without a trial. But cooler heads prevailed, and the men decided to let justice run its course.
The Hart family was both well known and well respected. The girls were described as lovely and tall. They were always well dressed when they attended church services at St. Mary's Catholic Church.
The newspaper also described how surreal the experience felt to the family. The sun continued to shine, the cows were in the field and all of nature continued on as if this terrible tragedy had never taken place. But the brothers left behind were in a daze, and their mother's sobs were never ending.
Mary and Nellie's funerals were held together at St. Mary's Church on Rockford's west side. The crowd was huge; some estimates put it as high as two thousand people attending. The local newspapers stated, "The bright sunlight was eclipsed by the dark shadows of grief that spread over our city as the long funeral cortege, consisting of two somber-robed hearses and nearly one hundred carriages containing sympathetic mourners wended their melancholy way through Rockford's streets on route to the Catholic Cemetery." People lined the streets all the way to the cemetery, not from curiosity but to show their support for the family going through this unbelievable tragedy.
When the crowd was passing the jail, some looked up and saw John Hart staring down at them. This enraged them, and a portion of the crowd went running to the jail in an attempt to bring Hart outside to lynch him. The police took the threat seriously and fell out in full force. They were able to quiet the crowd and convince them to continue on to the cemetery.
It was only a few days after the murders that John Hart started to talk to the press. He seemed almost compelled to try to convince reporters and others of his innocence. The story John first told to the reporters claimed that he was innocent and that it was the other five Hart brothers who killed the sisters and tried to poison him as well. Their motive was greed spurred on by the vast estate that their father left to the family.
Shortly after his arrest, Hart made his first appearance in court. People who witnessed him during the proceedings describe him as cold, calculating and showing no signs of remorse for this "heinous crime." He again placed all the blame for his family's woes squarely on to his brothers. "Hart seems to possess a bitter hatred against the living and dead members of Hart family except for his father and mother and the energy used in cursing them was intense."
In mid-December, John continued his insane behavior, which included frothing at the mouth and growling while refusing to eat. Hart was put in shackles and moved to a smaller, and thought to be safer, cell. On December 16, while he was awaiting trial, John Hart tried to commit suicide by slashing his own throat with a piece of glass from the window. The newspapers said the only shame was that he not successful. That act, had it been successful, would save the county the cost of a trial.
The trial began on Monday, January 22, 1894, and lasted fourteen days. The verdict of guilty was issued on Monday, February 5. The trial was quite a spectacle. When the doors were opened on the first day, so many people surged forward that they ripped the wooden doors off their hinges. Estimates in the newspapers said that the crowd numbered eight hundred souls inside and out.
Attorneys Fisher and Garver were the defense attorneys, and they did all in their power to save John Hart from the gallows. State's Attorney Frost was the prosecutor, and he was assisted by his partner, Robert G. McEvoy. There were eighty witnesses called, with fifty-nine by the state and nineteen by the defense.
Hart's defense strategy was that he was ill, suffering from malaria and some sort of mental anguish. Just for good measure, he also testified that his sisters conspired against him and he suspected they had also tried to poison him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder & Mayhem in Rockford Illinois"
Copyright © 2015 Kathi Kresol.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART I. MURDER,
1. The Murder of Sheriff Taylor,
3. Crimes of a Monster,
4. Wings of Madness,
5. Inhuman Monster,
6. The Fury of a Demon,
7. Frozen Heart,
9. Loss of Innocence,
PART II. MAYHEM,
10. Collapse of the Winnebago County Courthouse,
11. Train Wreck of 1901,
12. Camp Grant Accident of 1925,
13. Sutton Top Shop Fire,
14. Tornado of 1928,
15. Prohibition: The Early Years, 1920-1923,
16. Prohibition: Snoopers and Spotters, 1923-1928,
17. Prohibition: Death on the Streets, 1928-1933,
About the Author,