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
Arsenic
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.

Joy