I am a Tombstone Tourist: someone who loves to wander cemeteries. I find it akin to visiting a museum: an opportunity to enjoy rarely seen sculpture, intricate carvings, and amazing architecture, all in a tranquil outdoor setting. This blog is about cemetery culture, art, history, issues of death, and genealogy - subjects of current relevance. I usually find something that intrigues me and makes me want to dig deeper. Care to join me? Read on...
Friday, May 23, 2014
The 169th Anniversary of the First Woman Executed by Hanging
was 169 years ago today that Elizabeth Reed was taken from the Lawrence County
jail, riding on top of her coffin, to be hanged for the murder of her husband.
And her story remains one of questions, conflict, and mystery almost 170 years
(Betsey) Reed was a frontier wife from the tiny Illinois town of Heathsville.
She and her husband Leonard resided quietly in their home just outside of town.
Betsey was not well liked in the tiny village. Many of the local women found
her to be coldhearted, uncaring and too eccentric for their tastes.However, men appeared to be fascinated by
her, observing none of the traits that the women did.
opinion of Leonard wasn’t much better.Some viewed him as a calculated businessman who made ruthless decisions.
Others said he was a failure who was unwilling to try and fit into society.
in May 1844, Betsey Reed was accused of giving her husband Leonard, a cup of
arsenic-laced sassafras tea (or some said, squirrel soup). He died the next day and she was charged with
murder based on a relative’s accusation.
was arrested, taken to Palestine, Illinois and placed in the Crawford County
jail. The building was reportedly built from oak trees with walls that were
three feet thick. Then the unthinkable happened - a fire, reportedly started by
Betsey Reed, burned down the building.
said that Betsey had had nothing in her possession that could have been used to
start the blaze, but the story spread like wildfire across the prairie. Soon insinuations
were made that she was a witch and spread around the community, titillating
was moved to the Lawrence County jail in Lawrenceville, Illinois, about 25
miles away.The change of venue did
nothing to assist in her defense.The
story was so horrifying for the time that it was being covered by newspapers
from around the state, and around the country, some as far away as New York
well-known attorneys, Augustus French and Usher Linder, prepared Betsey’s
defense. The only witness to the supposed poisoning was a relative, 16-year-old
Evelyn Deal.Evelyn said that she saw
Betsey pour a white powder into Leonard’s tea and then serve it to him. No
other evidence was given.
trial lasted for three days. During that time, she was never allowed to take
the stand in her own defense.Illinois
State Supreme Court Justice William Wilson, after hearing the evidence, pronounced
her guilty of murder and sentenced her to be hanged.
Lawrence County Courhouse
the morning of May 23, 1845, thousands of people lined the streets of the small
town of Lawrenceville.Crowd estimates
ranged from 8,000 to 20,000 people, all on hand to witness the first woman to
ever be hanged.
was rumored that Betsey Reed ‘found God’ in the eleventh hour and had been
baptized in the Embarras River the night before.Newspaper 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.
minutes after the event began, Elizabeth (Betsey) Reed became the first woman
in the U.S. ever publicly executed, and the only woman executed
by hanging in the state of Illinois.
According to the New York
Daily Tribune, Betsey’s body was taken down and dissected.It was discovered that she had swallowed tiny
pieces of brick and pulverized glass in an attempt to kill herself and escape
the hangman’s noose.
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.After waiting what they considered “long
enough” for her exhumation, relatives stole into town at night and dug up her
remains, taking them by river through the "Dark Bend" and across the prairie back to Heathsville.
Betsey was re-interred in
the tiny local cemetery called Baker, just outside of Heathsville.Up a narrow country lane, surrounded by crops
and woods, the cemetery has a gloomy feel, even during the day.
Elizabeth is buried next
to Leonard, the husband she was found guilty of murdering, at the back of Baker
cemetery.A simple stone marked E.R. can
be found in the grass.Along side it is
a replacement gravestone 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 on Cemetery Road
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 including this EVP where a woman’s voice states, “I’m
It is now one hundred
sixty nine years later and 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 … a sad legacy, indeed.