Friday, October 21, 2011

Elizabeth Reed -First Woman Executed by Hanging- Heathsville, Illinois

In honor of October being the month of Halloween - and other things spooky - all of my blogs this month will deal with a haunted location and the cemetery that ties into the story.

Tis the season……..Enjoy!

Illinois in 1840
Her story is one of questions, conflict, and mystery over 160 years later.  Elizabeth (Betsey) Reed was a frontier wife, in a tiny Illinois town, in the mid-1840’s when she was suddenly charged with the unthinkable – murder!

According to the news and court reports during May 1844, Betsey Reed was accused of giving her husband Leonard, a cup of arsenic-laced sassafras tea.  He died the next day.  The charge of murder levied against Elizabeth Reed was based on only one report - made by a relative.

Heathsville & Palestine
Unfortunately for Betsey, she was not well liked in the tiny village of Heathsville, Illinois.  Many of the women found her to be coldhearted, uncaring and eccentric.  However, the men appeared to be fascinated by her, observing none of the traits the local women did.

Public opinion of her husband Leonard wasn’t much better.  Some viewed him as a calculated businessman, others as a failure who was unwilling to fit in to society. Either way, neither garnered public sympathy or support.

1840's Log Jail
Reed was arrested, taken to Palestine, Illinois and charged with murdering her husband.  She was placed in the Palestine jail where she started a fire that burned down the building.  Officials said that she had nothing in her possession that could have been used to start a fire.  The insinuation of being a witch had been made and the town’s 13-hundred residents were titillated by the story.

Lawrence County Courthouse
Reed was then moved to the Lawrence County jail in Lawrenceville, Illinois, about 25 miles away.  The change of venue did nothing to assist in Reed’s defense.  The story was so horrifying for the time that it was being covered, by newspapers from around the state, and around the country, from as far away as New York.

Augustus French
William Wilson
Elizabeth Reed was defended by two well-known attorneys, Augustus French and Usher Linder. The only witness to the supposed event was a relative, 16-year-old Evelyn Deal.  Evelyn said that she saw Betsey pour a white powder into Leonard’s tea and serve it to him.  No other evidence was given.  Reed’s trial lasted for three days and she was never allowed to comment in her own defense.  Illinois State Supreme Court Justice William Wilson pronounced her guilty of murder and sentenced her to be hanged.

On the morning of May 23, 1845, thousands lined the streets of the small town of Lawrenceville.  Crowd estimates ranged from 8,000 to 20,000 people on hand for the execution.  It was rumored that Betsey Reed ‘found God’ in the eleventh hour and had been baptized in the Embarras River the night before.  Reports said that she went to the gallows, riding on top of her coffin, singing hymns and chanting religious verses.  The minister who presided, Reverend John Seed, preached a long sermon to the crowd while Betsey continued to sing and chant.  Ninety minutes later, Elizabeth (Betsey) Reed became the first woman in the U.S. ever publicly executed and the only woman executed by hanging in Illinois.

According to the New York Daily Tribune, Betsey’s body was taken down and dissected.  It was found that she had swallowed tiny pieces of brick and pulverized in glass in an attempt to kill herself and escape the hangman’s noose.

Baker Cemetery
Betsey Reed was buried outside of the local town cemetery, in an unmarked grave.  But family members, who did not believe she was guilt, demanded she be given a proper burial.  Betsey was re-interred at a tiny country cemetery called Baker, just outside of Heathsville. 

Lane to cemetery
Up a narrow country lane, surrounded by crops and woods, the cemetery has a gloomy feel, even during the day.  

E.R. Marker
The Reed's Gravestone
Elizabeth is buried next to Leonard, the husband she was found guilty of killing, at the back of the cemetery.  A simple stone marked E.R. can be found in the grass.  Along side it is a replacement stone that simply lists their names, dates, and how they died.  Under Leonard’s name it says “Death by Murder.”  Under Betsey’s name it reads “Death by Hanging.”

Two orbs near graves
(Crawford Co Ghost Hunters)
But, according to the Crawford County Illinois Ghost Hunters, it appears that Betsey Reed did not go ‘quietly into that good night.’  After exploring this cemetery they have reported paranormal activity around her and Leonard’s graves.

An afternoon in Baker Cemetery
One hundred sixty five years later, questions still exist as to her guilt or innocence.  Regardless, Elizabeth Reed has gone down in the annals of U.S. history as the first women to be hanged in the state and the country.



  1. What an interesting tale, Joy. Marvellous

  2. Thanks for your great posts. We really enjoy reading them. 'Love that grave marker, it needed this story. JLK/NK56

  3. Thank you Laurie and JLK/NK56!! It's always exciting to walk into a new cemetery because you don't know what story you'll come across...... ; )

  4. cool this the best sight i have found on her!

  5. Thanks MommaSickles! I LOVE doing the research and writing about what I find. : )

  6. According to the court records in IRAD Charleston, IL Betsey confessed. I grew up on the farm were Betsey and Leonard Reed lived and the murder took place. I heard the story from the elders of the area around Heathsville. I did a lot of the research for the fictional novel, The Hanging of Betsey Reed by Rick Kelsheimer. However, it is fiction. Rick steered clear of many facts of the murder and trial to make th book a better read.

  7. Let me clear up a few more things. The Reeds did not live in Palestine but 8 miles south on what is now Illinois Route 33 on the Phyllis Nash farm. The cabin was 2 stories and sat on the right side if your headed toward Vincennes. It burned years later when another family lived there. Betsey was odd. She was known to wear a little white bonnet at all times and a large black bonnet over it when she left the house. She was related to a notorious family from the Dark Bend. Leonard was well liked. He was not a business man but a farmer all his life and had lost a farm near the river a few years ealier. He was not perfect but was liked. Palestine was only about 500 people in 1844. There is no proof Evelyn Deal was a relative in fact I believe I read she was a hired girl. There were more than one witness against Betsey. One was the man that sold her the arsenic from his store in Russellville. He even identified the blue and white striped paper he had wrapped it in. Harrison Reed was another witness. I believe he was Leonards son from his first marriage. There were even more witnesses. I've never read anything that accused her of being a witch. Attnys French and Linder's job was to keep Betsey from being hanged. Until the last second before the rope went taunt around her neck a pardon from the Gov. of Illinois was expected. She was the only woman hanged in the state of Illinois but by far not the first woman in the U.S. executed. There were the Salem witch trials, a woman from Boston and a few others who received the death penalty before her. I have been going to the Baker Cemetery since the 1970s. Leonard was buried there in 1844. The orginal stone has been gone for years. The stone with Leonard and Betsey's names on it was put there in the 1990s by a local woman interested in the story. The flat piece of sandstone with E.R. carved in it was placed there in the last 2 or 3 years by some prankster. Betsey is not buried next to Leonard. She was buried outside the fence of the old cemetery in Lawrenceville in an unmarked grave. She was not allowed to be buried inside because she was a murderess. This is often the case with outlaws of the old west. I know there is a story about her family digging her up and burying her next to her husband but I have proof that is untrue. There are many other things I could tell you. I hope to write a short booklet about the real story of the Reeds maybe this winter. Who knows sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

    1. Good let me know when it come out i sent you my add ok

  8. Thanks for the information Teri! I didn't know about purchasing the arsenic from Russellville - I live nearby and had never heard that. Do yo have pictures of the old homestead? Best of luck on the book!

  9. Lavinia Fisher was publicly hanged in Charleston, SC in 1820. Look it up.

  10. I did. Technically, Lavinia jumped to her death, therefore committing suicide. She is credited with being the first female mass murderer though.

  11. My family are paranormal investigators and I do some investigations as well and I have reason to believe betsy lives in my apartment complex. Iv'e recorded dates coordinating with her, the name of her lawyer french, words such as escape,river bed, tiny plastic and more. If anyone is interested in this case of activity or other relations contact Jon at 618-694-8769. This is serious to me so please be respectful of my oppinions

  12. Hello Joy! This was very interesting. I love learning about stories such as this and the local history where i grew up. I am your husbands cousin. My fathers name us Ron Neighbors. Uncle Kennys brother.

  13. There is always a reason why a woman kills her husband.

  14. A few years back, when I was participating in 1812 - era reenactments, I attended the first (and only) Betsy Reed Festival in Palestine. I find history fascinating, but that was, by far, the most bizarre event I have ever attended. I enjoyed Rick Kelsheimer book, but I sin every hope that Betsy did accept Christ as her Saviour. May she rest in peace until the Resurrection.

  15. This was very interesting I read all the comments and I wasnt even searching for this story but once I started reading my friends moms name is Elizabeth Reed ... I just sent him the link ... This is so cool ... Have you or anyone done any research on Bachelor's Grove Cemetery in Illinois

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I know about Bachlor's Grove but have not been there. It's on my cemetery bucket list.

  16. I live in Lawrence county il and I'm interested in finding the location here in lawrenceville where the hanging took place.

    1. From what I've been told, it was near the old high school.