Search This Blog


Thursday, September 17, 2015

96th Illinois Captain Blodgett's Roster

Asiel Z. Blodgett of Waukegan understood the importance of being a good leader. During the Civil War, he served as the main recruiter and Captain of Company D, 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He prided himself on knowing each of the men in his command.
Asiel Z. Blodgett, print from a glass negative taken in Waukegan, circa 1875. (LCDM 2011.0.86)

While at Wartrace, Tennessee in the summer of 1863, he was given a challenge. An officer from another company asked, "Captain Blodgett, I am curious to know whether or not you have memorized your roster."

Blodgett replied, "I am of the opinion that I have memorized it."

The officer bet Blodgett that he could not "call it correctly."

That day, Captain Blodgett was sitting in front of his tent, using the drummer boy's drum as a writing surface to make out his reports. He had set the drum on top of a camp stool, and with the challenge made, brushed aside his reports.

He wrote directly on the drum head from left to right, carefully listing every man's name from memory. All 98 men of Company D, plus the eight men who had died in the company's first year of service. Blodgett won the bet.

At the request of Lake County Historian, Bess Bower Dunn, Blodgett's son sent a copy of the "drum head roster." (above)

Shortly after making the roster, the 96th Illinois fought in the Battle of Chickamauga, September 18 - 20, 1863. The battle was the most significant Union defeat in the Western Theater of the Civil War, and had the second highest number of casualties in the war following the Battle of Gettysburg two months earlier.

The 96th's Company D lost five men (killed) and 18 wounded. Among the injured was Blodgett, who was shot in the shoulder on September 18, and though the wound hurt him greatly, he remained with the command.

Hill Two from the Vittetoe Road. Chickamauga after the battle. (Signal Corps U. S. Army)

On Sunday afternoon, September 20th, Blodgett was "thrown to the ground by the fall of a heavy tree-top which, striking his head and back, rendered him unconscious." This happened in the midst of the battle, leaving Blodgett temporarily within Rebel lines. "When the Union lines advanced in a second charge" the men removed the tree and "he was released from his perilous position."

In the confusion of battle, the drum was lost, and eventually turned over to the Quartermaster.

Blodgett recovered partially from his injuries, but reluctantly had to resign his position in August 1864. Years later, he received an official package from the U.S. War Department, and opening it found the drum head on which he had written the names of his men.

In 1939, Lake County Historian, Bess Bower Dunn, contacted one of Blodgett's sons about the story. John H. Blodgett replied with a copy of the "drum head roster" and the full account.

Blodgett's son wrote: "It occurred to me that possibly some of the relatives of the men who were with Dad are still around and if so might be interested in looking it over. If Frank Justice [sic] cares to say anything about it in his paper I would like to have you send me a copy."

Indeed, Frank Just, the editor of the Waukegan Daily Sun was very interested and ran a long article on Blodgett and the 96th Illinois.
Excerpt of article written by Athlyn Deshais on Blodgett and the 96th Illinois, Waukegan Daily Sun, 1939.

As Ms. Deshais wrote for the Daily Sun: "They are gone now, those gallant soldiers who marched and fought beneath the banner on which was inscribed the magic figures, 96.... The day of the eye-witness reminiscences belongs to the past."

For more on the life of Asiel Z. Blodgett read my April 29, 2011 post, and the 96th Illinois at the Battle of Chickamauga read my September 19, 2013 post.

"History of the 96th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry," Charles A. Partridge, editor, 1887.
Letters of John H. Blodgett to Bess Bower Dunn, 1939. Bess Dunn Collection, LCDM.
"Capt. Blodgett Honored by His Brave Soldiers," by Athlyn Deshais, Waukegan Daily Sun, 1939.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Harness Horse Racing Craze

Harness racing at McKay's race track, Waukegan, Illinois, circa 1878.
(LCDM Glass Negatives Collection)

Horse racing, specifically harness racing, was a wildly popular past-time in Lake County from the 1850s to the 1910s. The "farmer's sport" of harness racing became popular nationally in the 1700s, and by the early 1800s the first harness racing tracks were established.

In Lake County, there were three harness racing tracks: McKay's in Waukegan, the Libertyville Trotting Association, and the Lake County Fair in Libertyville.

James McKay's racetrack was built about 1852 and located where the Karcher Hotel building still stands on Washington Street in Waukegan. It was used for "trotting matches" and as the site of the first Lake County Fair.

McKay's racetrack, Waukegan, circa 1878. Note the county courthouse in the distance at center.
(LCDM Glass Negative Collection)

Chicago Tribune column on 4th of July activities at Waukegan 
in 1860, including "trotting matches" at McKay's track.
Black Weasel, owned by Mr. Arnold, won $50 in the mile heat.

It was a given that county fairs needed a racetrack to draw crowds, and harness racing was a featured attraction. When the Lake County Fair moved to Libetyville the new fairgrounds included a racetrack.

From 1858 - 1881, the Lake County Fairgrounds were located at Milwaukee Avenue and Winchester Road (now Winchester House), and then at Appley Avenue (now Lake Minear) from 1882 - 1925.

Lake County Fairgrounds and racetrack on the site of today's Lake Minear, 
Libertyville, circa 1907 (LCDM M-86.1.655)

Another view of the Lake County Fairgrounds racetrack  with harness racers coming around the turn, 
about 1910. (LCDM M-86.1.646)

In 1904, a new racetrack opened called the Libertyville Trotting Association Track. It was located on 100 acres west of Garfield Avenue and south of Route 176. Locals often refer to this track as the "one-mile track," although all harness racetracks are required to be one-mile.

Libertyville Trotting Association Track in use from 1904 - 1918. This colorized postcard is from about 1914 and shows the track during its motorized race days. (LCDM M-86.1.658)

For the first several years, the Trotting Association Track featured harness racing, and then was used as a training track for harness races. By the 1910s, the popularity of automobile and motorcycle races monopolized the Libertyville track, and harness racing's popularity began to wane. In 1918, Samuel Insull purchased the property and closed the track.

One of the regionally known trotters was King Heyday (1891 - 1919), owned by Edward and Charlotte DeWolf of Waukegan. (pictured below)

Edward Dewolf with his prize trotter, King Heyday, circa 1910. 
King Heyday was foaled on August 18, 1891. (LCDM DeWolf Collection)

Edward DeWolf (1848 - 1927) was an influential businessman in Waukegan, a promoter of the Electric Railroad line, and a mayor of Waukegan (1895-97). He was a lover of history, historical preservation, nature, and a keen horseman. He and his wife, Charlotte, owned several trotting horses, but King Heyday was their favorite.

Edward P. DeWolf (1848 - 1927)

King Heyday, was bred at the J.W. Swanbrough Stock Farm on Sheridan Road in Waukegan Township. King Heyday's sire was Prairie King (pictured below) and dam Mabel H.

Prairie King (King Heyday's sire), photographed in 1890 
at the Swanbrough Stock Farm(LCDM DeWolf Collection)

The stock farm was owned and operated by John W. Swanbrough (1843 - 1924), who fought with the 96th Illinois in the Civil War. Swanbrough was a member of the Illinois Association of Horse Breeders, and served as Lake County Sheriff (1876-1886).

With the popularity of harness racing came the need to breed trotters or "standardbreds." The term appeared in 1879 based on the racing standard of a one-mile track and standard time of 2.5 minutes maximum. A horse bred to these standards was "standardbred."

Swanbrough Stock Farm catalogue, 1891
(Steenbock Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

King Heyday with Charles Heydecker, circa 1905.
Heydecker bred and owned King Heyday's dam, Mabel H. 
(LCDM DeWolf Collection)

Edward DeWolf called King Heyday: "the handsomest horse that I had ever seen" and "a horse with remarkable speed."

King Heyday took his record of 2.17 at the Milwaukee Mile. DeWolf boasted: "his mile really being in 2.13." The Milwaukee Mile was a private horse racing track established by 1876. In 1891, the property became the permanent home of the Wisconsin State Fair.

Charlotte DeWolf loved "driving" King Heyday, whom she nicknamed "Punch." She took him out every day, except Sundays, for a drive in a carriage or sleigh. (pictured below)

Charlotte DeWolf being pulled in a sleigh by her beloved King Heyday, nicknamed "Punch." 
The DeWolf's setter, Laddie, is barely visible at left. (LCDM DeWolf Collection)

According to DeWolf, King Heyday was "Charlotte's pet, and he seemed to understand and return the love she had for him."

Charlotte DeWolf with King Heyday and Laddie, circa 1915. (LCDM DeWolf Collection)

King Heyday died on December 10, 1919, and Charlotte DeWolf passed away eight days later.

~ ~ ~

Special thanks to museum collections volunteer, Cynthia Kolanko, for her dedication to processing the Edward DeWolf Collection, and bringing King Heyday's story to light.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

John Hobart Jansen - First Waukegan Fireman to Die in Line of Duty

John Hobart Jansen (1861 - 1908) was the first member of the Waukegan Fire Department to die in the line of duty.

The son of Prussian immigrants, John was born near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and worked on his family's farm. When he was about 23 years old, he left the farm to work as a lineman for the Milwaukee phone company, and two years later became a fireman with the Milwaukee Fire Department as a "truckman" on hook and ladder #2.

In 1892, John married Jenny Van Arnam. About 1902, John and Jenny and their four children moved to Waukegan. John took a job as the manager of the the Chicago Telephone Company's Waukegan branch. While working for the phone company, he also volunteered as a fireman for the Waukegan Fire Department.

Waukegan Fire Department Time Log Book, with last
listing for "Jansen" on April 19, 1908, LCDM.
At 11 p.m. on April 22, 1908, while heading from his job at the phone company, Jansen heard the alarm for a fire at the North Shore Electric Company. Instead of continuing home, Jansen turned around to assist his fellow firemen.

When the firemen arrived at the plant on Spring Street they found that "the belt on the big fly wheel was burning, that the interior of the plant had caught fire, and that the fly wheel was running wild."

Jansen was "aiding in bringing more hose to the firemen fighting the flames" when the drive wheel burst. "Jansen was picked up bodily by a huge fragment and carried through both walls of the Waukegan Ice Company building where his body was picked up bleeding and terribly mangled." He was rushed toward the Jane McAlister Hospital on North Avenue, but died en route.

Damaged buildings on Spring Street in Waukegan after fire in which
Fireman John Hobart Jansen was struck down about 11:30 p.m., April 22, 1908.
Image courtesy private collection.
Also killed was merchant policeman, Joseph Paddock (1879 - 1908). Paddock had been "standing with his back up against the wall of the Phil Sheridan saloon when one of the monstrous spokes of the giant wheel came crashing through both walls of the Waukegan Ice Company plant and felled him."

According to the papers, scores of locals gathered to watch the fire even though they were warned of the danger. "Fragments of the flying iron and steel filled the air and littered the ground."

On Saturday, April 25, the funeral service for Jansen was held at his residence on North Avenue. The house was packed with mourners, including family, friends, members of the Waukegan Fire Department and other area fire departments, mayor and city councilmen, and Odd Fellows. The city had never seen such a large procession, despite the downpour of rain.

Fireman John H. Jansen, circa 1889.
In 1908, efforts were made to raise funds to create a monument to Jansen, but it would take nearly 100 years before a memorial was made. On a sunny day in May 2005, the Waukegan Fire Department honored John Hobart Jansen with a memorial plaque.

Jansen memorial plaque dedication, May 2005
Fireman's Park on Dover Street, Waukegan.
Photo courtesy of Thomas Jansen.

Special thanks to Thomas and Kenneth Jansen for generously sharing the family's history and research. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Bruce Jenner Physical Fitness Trail

The running and fitness craze of the 1970s, and the popularity of Olympic champion Bruce Jenner, led to the creation of the "Bruce Jenner Physical Fitness Trail" at Lakewood Forest Preserve in Wauconda.

Named in honor of Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner, the trail was dedicated on Wednesday, October 5, 1977. Jenner was on hand to cut the ribbon.
Bruce Jenner with his gold medal for
winning the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics
US Magazine photo.
The trail was designed by the Lake County Forest Preserves' landscape architect, Janie Brown, and built in part by the Youth Conservation Corps and CETA. It consisted of 20 exercise stations along a one-mile wooded, jogging trail off Shelter E road at Lakewood Forest Preserve.

Trail map, 1977. 

The Forest Preserve District was following a growing trend across the country for "proper physical conditioning." It was felt that the Preserves' land and the "great beauty of the Illinois landscape" was ideally suited for "low-keyed, individualistic forms of recreation."

The "running boom" of the 1970s is credited to the excitement of the 1972 gold medal win of American marathon runner, Frank Shorter. At the time, marathons weren't as well known or understood by the public, but Shorter's dramatic finish sparked a sensation for marathons and fitness that has continued to grow.

The Forest Preserves' jogging and exercise trail was developed to be adaptable to various ages and physical conditions, and provided both "physical conditioning and enjoyment of the out-of-doors."

Although "The Herald" newspaper reported that the appearance of the exercise stations "looks a little like a medieval torture chamber, with its chains, ropes and strange-looking apparatus," the fitness trail proved to be quite popular with folks from around the county.

Photo by Scott Sanders, The Herald, June 7, 1978
A wood-chip path winding through a hilly wooded area led joggers to stations that in some cases resembled a playground or obstacle course. Included in the activities: a tire run, rope ladder, climbing wall, and balance beam.

Bruce Jenner was scheduled to speak at the College of Lake County about his Olympic training regimen and the 1976 Olympic competition. Following his gold medal win, Jenner began a new career covering sports for ABC with appearances on "Good Morning America."

Poster promoting Jenner's appearance as the
"Grand Opening Speaker" for the physical fitness trail.

Jenner, who was much admired as an all-around athlete and extremely well-liked, became a sought after motivational speaker. He was also very accommodating to the many requests he received for personal appearances. Since he would be in the area to speak at CLC, the trail opening was arranged for the same day, and Jenner graciously agreed to be on hand.

In 1978, the Forest Preserves received a special award from the Illinois Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects for the design of the trail.

In recent years, the fitness trail apparatus have been removed.


Press releases, memos, brochure from the Lake County Forest Preserves' "Bruce Jenner Physical Fitness Trail" reference file.
"Decathlon Champion to Speak at CLC," News-Sun, September 13, 1977.
"Olympic Champion to Dedicate Forest Preserve Jogging Trail," News-Sun, September 21, 1977.
"Jenner to Open Fitness Trail," Barrington Courier, September 29, 1977.
"Bruce Jnner Opens Fitness Trail," Lake County Papers, September 29, 1977.
"Shaping Up in the Woods," The Herald, June 7, 1978.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Portrait of Levi H. Mead, 65th Illinois

This handsome portrait of Levi H. Mead, from the collections of the Lake County Discovery Museum, prompted me to research his life in Newport Township, Lake County, Illinois and his service with the 65th Illinois during the Civil War. 

Levi H. Mead (1839 - 1864), circa 1862
(LCDM Collections)

Levi's roots in Lake County began about 1840 when he was just a baby. His family came to Lake County from Ohio. They first settled in Benton Township and then in Newport Township on the west side of Greenbay Road just south of today's 21st Street.

In 1850, the Mead family consisted of patriarch Edward Mead, who had served in the War of 1812, wife Ellen, and children: Sarah, Martha, Amanda, John, Edward, Margaret, Levi, and George. All the children (except for the youngest) were born in Ohio where the family had spent many years.

In the summer of 1862, with the Civil War still raging, President Lincoln called for 600,000 more troops. In Lake County, James S. Putnam (1829 - 1869) of Waukegan was elected a captain in the 65th Illinois "Scotch Regiment" and set about recruiting men for Company F.

The 6' 1" farmer, Levi Mead, was one of the first to add his name to the company's rolls, joining on February 28, 1862. Levi's older brother John, joined on April 1st, and together they mustered in at Camp Douglas in Chicago on April 26.

The regiment was ordered to Martinsburg, Virginia and was among 14,000 troops under the command of Colonel Dixon S. Miles to hold Harpers Ferry. Unfortunately, General Robert E. Lee's forces were too much for them and on September 15, the Federals surrendered, the 65th Illinois among the prisoners.

The following day, the 65th Illinois was paroled and sent to Chicago.

During this "furlough," Levi married his sweetheart Amelia J. Wells. Amelia was the daughter of English immigrant John Wells. The Wells family had settled in Newport Township in 1843.

The Mead and Wells children were school mates at the Biddlecome School (later known as Lone Oak School), on 21st Street east of Kilbourn Road. It was a log school until 1857, when a new wood frame schoolhouse was built and the old school was moved onto the Shea farm where it was used as a barn. (Source: Biddlecome School History, LCDM)

On the afternoon of December 24, 1862, Levi and Amelia went to Pleasant Prairie, Kenosha, Wisconsin and were married in a "common" ceremony by Samuel H. Thompson, a minister of the Gospel.

It's unknown how long Levi was able to remain at home with his new bride, but in April 1863, the 65th was sent back the front.

By May, the regiment was serving in campaigns in East Tennessee, taking part in the battles around Chattanooga and in the defense of Knoxville. After a severe winter campaign over 1863 - 1864, the regiment reenlisted as a veteran organization.

On April 7, 1864, Mead mustered in as a veteran at Louisville, Kentucky. Afterwards, he and 400 comrades were given veterans furloughs and went home for an extended period.

When the 65th Illinois returned to the field, it joined General Sherman's Atlanta Campaign as part of the XXIII Corps.

"Map of the environs of Pine Mountain, Lost Mountain, Kenesaw Mountain, 
and Little Kenesaw Mountain"  by G.H. Blakeslee 1864. 
(Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington D.C.)

On June 15, after over a week of steady rain, the regiment was brought into a fierce engagement with the Confederates between Kennesaw and Lost Mountains near Marietta, Georgia. 

The Rebels fell back and on June 16, the 65th Illinois occupied their works. Over the course of the next few days from June 17 - 19, the regiment engaged the enemy in lively skirmishing.

While on the skirmish line on Friday, June 17, Levi Mead was struck by a musket ball in the throat and killed at Lost Mountain.

U.S. Register of Deaths of Volunteers, 1861-1865.
Levi H. Mead's record is highlighted in red.
On the 20th, the advance was checked by a deep and almost impassable creek - the enemy defending the bridge with artillery and infantry. Volunteers being called for, about 50 men of the 65th Illinois stepped forward and charged across the bridge, driving back the enemy, and holding the position until the remainder of the Regiment crossed.

Description of locality where Levi H. Mead was first buried 
"around Kennesaw" Mountain "under a Chestnut tree." 
More than likely, Levi's brother John helped to bury him. 
(From US Burial Registers, Military Posts and National Cemeteries records, 1862-1960,

On June 30, Orson V. Young of the 96th Illinois wrote home to his parents in Newport Township: "I saw Levi and John a few days before Levi was killed. I suppose his folks have heard all about it by this time." (LCDM 92.33.70)

Just twenty-three years old, Amelia Wells Mead was now a grieving widow with no children and no income. She set about making a widow's pension claim to the U.S. Government. This process included getting a certified copy of the public record of her marriage; testimony of her "widowhood" and good character from witnesses Azro D. Hutchins and Elijah Eddy; power of attorney given to Francis E. Clarke (brother of the late Lt. Col. Isaac Clarke of the 96th Illinois); and service and death record of her husband Levi H. Mead.

She further had to declare that she never "engaged in or aided and abetted the existing Rebellion."

In 1866, a program began to re-bury over 10,000 Union dead (including Levi Mead) from Sherman's Atlanta Campaign at the new Marietta National Cemetery.

Entrance to the Marietta National Cemetery. 
"Here rest the remains of 10,312 Officers and Soldiers 
who died in defense of the Union, 1861 - 1865."

Record of Levi Mead's interment at the National Cemetery.

Levi H. Mead's grave marker,
Marietta National Cemetery.
Image credit:

Levi H. Mead's grave marker, Marietta National Cemetery. Image:

Levi's brother John, also with the 65th Illinois, mustered out as a sergeant in Chicago on April 25, 1865. Three years later, John married his brother's widow.

John and Amelia had one child, Earnest E. Mead, born in November 1877. The family lived in Shelby County, Iowa; Kenosha, Wisconsin; and finally in Avon Township, Lake County, Illinois.

Reunion of the 65th Illinois, circa 1885, location unknown. John Mead is second from left.
Image credit:
Amelia Wells Mead died in 1920, and John Mead in 1924. They are buried at Avon Centre Cemetery in Grayslake, Illinois.
Image credit:
~ ~ ~

Grateful appreciation to Patricia Harold  for providing confirmation of Amelia J. Wells' marriage to Levi H. Mead, and sharing copies of documents found on Her connection to these events is through her stepmother, Marge Wells Copley, a g-g-grand niece of Amelia Wells Mead.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Gwinn-Loring Christmas Romance

Among the oldest items in the museum's archival collections is a diary kept by Hannah Gwinn Loring (1791 - 1847) written between 1804 - 1807. Hannah kept the diary when she was living in her hometown of Salem, Massachusetts with her parents, Thaddeus and Mercy Gwinn.

Although the fragile pages of the diary have not been transcribed, we know that it was first required as a school exercise when Hannah was twelve years old, and later she continued to write in it voluntarily. The diary covers every day matters, especially focusing on community gatherings and church meetings.

One of the first entries in Hannah Gwinn's 1804 diary:
"I am again assembled with my young mates
and hope to pass my time agreeably."
LCDM 93.45.349
In September 1807, Hannah wrote: "I left school with regret. My parents think it is time for me to commence assisting in domestic affairs for they think it very essential for a female to be well skilled in all the active comings of life."

Within two years, Hannah found a suitor in Samuel Loring, a ship's captain in Salem's profitable commercial shipping trade. As it turned out, Samuel was a bit of a romantic.
Samuel Loring (1785 - 1843). This carte-de-visite
photo was made from a painting of Loring.
LCDM 93.45.349.5
On Christmas Day, December 25, 1809 Samuel wrote a poem to Hannah while "on Board the Jennifer at sea near Bermuda" over 700 miles away.

Good night good night and is it so
and must I from my Hannah go
Oh Hannah say good night once more
And I'll repeat it o'er & o'er
Till the first glance of Dawning light
Shall find us still saying good night
And still good night my Hannah say
But whisper still a minutes stay
and I will stay & every minute
Shall have an age of Rapture in it
xxx talk & speak in quick Delight
And murmur while we kiss good night
Good night you murmur with a sigh
And tell me it is time to fly
And I will now to kiss no more
Yet kiss you closer than before
And then Dear Girl once more good night

Samuel Loring's poem to his sweetheart Hannah Gwinn.
Composed December 25, 1809.  (LCDM 93.45.349.4)

Hannah and Samuel married two years later on Christmas Day, 1811. At the time, Christmas was not celebrated as it is today, and the families that did make note of it simply went to church or shared a special meal together. Hannah's marriage to Samuel made this a Christmas to remember.

The Lorings had six children: Samuel, Jr., Spencer, Mercy, Frank, Thaddeus and William.

In 1819, Samuel Loring took Hannah's diary with him to sea. He used the blank pages at the back of the diary for his ship master's log from December 28, 1819 - August 30, 1820. The log's entries detail his travels from his home port of Salem, Massachusetts to Baltimore, Superior, the West Indies, Curocoa (island in Carribean), and St. Lucia.

I like to believe that Samuel didn't take Hannah's diary just for the use of its blank pages, but wanted a sweet reminder of his wife while they were separated for weeks at a time.

Tragically, in 1843, Samuel Loring died at sea. The loss meant that Hannah would never see her beloved Samuel again, since his body was buried at sea.

Hannah and Samuel's only daughter, Mercy, invited her widowed mother to come live with her. Mercy Loring had married George E. Smith a pianoforte maker (from a long line of mariners and cabinet makers in Salem). The young couple had settled in Millburn, Lake County, Illinois with their two-year old daughter Susannah. ("Susie" married David J. Minto in 1869).

Hannah Loring made the long trek to Illinois to live with her daughter's family, bringing her childhood diary/Samuel's ship's log, and poems.

On September 18, 1847, Hannah passed away with her daughter and grandchildren around her. She is buried at Home Oaks Cemetery on Deep Lake Road in Lake Villa.
Grave marker for George Smith's and Mercy Loring Smith's
mothers who lived with them:
Hannah Gwinn Loring and Mary Ford Smith. 
The few mementos that Hannah brought with her from Salem were treasured by her descendants, who spent long hours re-reading Hannah's diary and Samuel's ship's log.

In 1993, Hannah's great-great granddaughters, Lura Johaningsmeir and Katherine Minto, donated these items, along with other Smith and Minto family heirlooms to the Lake County Discovery Museum.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Gurnee and the Salem Witch Trials

Local lore in the Gurnee area claims that witches were burned at the stake in the early days of its settlement. Although this is one of the most far flung stories I've ever heard, it intrigued me enough to do some digging.

As it turns out, the untrue tale of a witch hunt in Warren Township hints at a very real connection to the mass hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

During the winter of 1691-1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, Elizabeth "Betty" Parris (aged 9), Abigail Williams (aged 11), Ann Putnam, Jr. (aged 12), Elizabeth Hubbard (aged 17) and Mercy Lewis (aged 17) became afflicted with fits "beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect."

The Samuel Parris house, Salem Mass. (now Danvers,
Mass.) known as the "House where witchcraft started."
Two of the main accusers, Betty Parris and her
cousin Abigail Williams lived here.  
At the time, the cause of their symptoms was very clear: witches in league with the devil.

Today, some believe the symptoms were a result of psychological hysteria due to Indian attacks on the colonists. Others have pointed to the possibility of rye bread made from grain infected by a fungus. Historians, however, believe that jealousy and revenge over land disputes motivated the accusations and that the girls were play acting (and enjoying the attention).

Whatever the cause, it resulted in twenty townspeople (14 women and 6 men) being accused of witchcraft and executed by hanging (one man was pressed to death). Among the accused were the three Towne family sisters: Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Cloyce and Mary Easty (Esty), who were targeted by the powerful Putnam family.

Statue of the three Towne sisters accused
during the mass hysteria of the
Salem Witch Trials, 1692
The 71-year old Rebecca Towne Nurse was accused in March 23, 1692, and hanged on July 19. The Nurse family had been in bitter land disputes with the Putnam family, who were her accusers.

Mary Easty's main accusers were also connected to the Putnams: Daughter, Ann Putnam, Jr. and their house servant, Mercy Lewis. At Mary Easty's examination on April 22, 1692, the girls feigned fits. When Easty clasped her hands together, Mercy Lewis imitated the gesture and claimed to be unable to release her hands until Easty released her own.

Depiction of the Salem Witch Trials, 1692.

Easty's convincing manner in court and good standing in the community got her released from jail, but only for a couple of days. While most of Mary's accusers had backed down from their claims, Mercy Lewis fell into violent fits upon Easty's release, claiming that Easty was tormenting her.

A second warrant was issued for Mary Easty and she was again brought before the court. This time with more witnesses against her. She was thrown in jail with her younger sister Sarah Cloyce, and together the two women composed a petition to the magistrates asking for a fair trial. Despite the eloquent petition, Mary was tried and convicted on September 9, 1692. (Sarah Cloyce remained in jail for eight months, but was given a reprieve and escaped execution).

The day of her execution on September 22, Mary made a final statement: "The Lord above knows my innocency... if it be possible, that no more innocent blood be shed..."

She was hung with seven others on Gallows Hill and together they were called the "eight firebrands of Hell."

Bench marker for Mary Easty at the Witch Trials Memorial,
Salem, Massachusetts.
Families of the dead reclaimed their bodies after dark
and buried them in unmarked graves on family property. 
In 1706, Ann Putnam, Jr. publicly apologized for her role in the witch trials. "I desire to be humbled before God... I, then being in my childhood... made an instrument of the accusing of several people for grievous crimes... now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons."

In 1711, the Easty family was given 20 pounds in compensation for Mary's wrongful execution.

Fast forward to over a century later, when in 1836 - 1837, Mary Easty's great-great-great grandsons, Avery Esty and Moses Esty left Massachusetts to settle in Warren Township, Lake County, Illinois.

1861 Warren Township plat showing the
Moses Esty property (west of Hunt Club Road and
north of Grand Avenue); and Proctor Putnam property
(Washington Street and Milwaukee Ave).

In 1842, just a few years after the Esty's settled here, Proctor Putnam migrated to Warren Township. He was the g-g-g-grand nephew of Mary Easty's accuser, Ann Putnam, Jr.

Once again, the Towne/Esty and Putnam families lived within a few miles of each other. This time much more peaceably.

Though a thousand miles from their ancestors' painful pasts, it seems the families roles in the Salem Witch Trials came to light. Over the decades, the truth of those distant events morphed into witches run amuck in Gurnee.

Perhaps we can blame it on a bit of tainted rye bread.