EDITED BY John C. Parish
Associate Editor of the State Historical Society of Iowa
Copyright 1920 by the State Historical Society of Iowa
(Transcribed by Gayle Harper)
WHITE BEANS FOR HANGING
The tale that follows is not a
placid one, for it has to do with the sharp, dramatic outlines of one of the
bloodiest struggles that ever took place between whites within the bounds of
Iowa. Therefore let those who wish a gentle narrative of the ways of a man with
a maid take warning and close the leaves of this record. The story is of men who
lived through troublous days and circumstances and who at times thought they
could attain peace only by looking along the sights of a gun barrel.
The facts are given
largely as they were related by Sheriff Warren. It is more
than three quarters of a century since the events occurred,
and Warren and the others who took part have long since left
this life. There have been those who tell in some respects a
different story, but it seems probable that the sheriff, whose
business led him through every turn of the events, knew best
what happened. And his long continuance in office and the
widespread respect and admiration that was his, even from
those who qualify his account, lead one to feel that he did
not greatly pervert the record.
Warren was a Kentuckian by
birth and a resident for some years at the lead mines of
Galena; but he crossed the Mississippi and located at
Bellevue, in Iowa Territory, when that town was a mere
settlement on the western fringe of population. Active and
courageous, this young man was appointed sheriff of the County
of Jackson and held the position for nearly a decade.
Soon after his
arrival there came to Bellevue a group of settlers from
Coldwater, Michigan. Among them was William W. Brown, a tall,
dark complexioned man, who bought a two-story house and opened
a hotel. Brown was a genial host, full of intelligence and
pleasing in his manners, and he won immediate popularity among
the people of the county. His wife, too, a little woman of
kindly ways and sturdy spirit, was a general favorite.
Brown also kept a
general store and became a partner in a meat market. In this
way he came in touch with a large number of the pioneers, and
the liberality with which he allowed credit and his generosity
to the poor endeared him to many. The hotel was a convenient
stopping place for men driving from the interior of the county
to Galena. They came to Bellevue to cross the Mississippi,
stopped off at Brown's, ate at his far famed table, drank of
his good liquor, and listened to his enlivening talk. And
usually they went away feeling that the friendly landlord was
a most valuable addition to the community.
When winter came he hired
a number of men and put them at work on the island near the
town cutting wood to supply fuel to the Mississippi
steamboats. At the approach of spring, and before the ice
broke up, the woodcutters became teamsters, and long lines of
teams might be seen hauling the cords of wood across the ice
to the Iowa side where they were piled up on the shore of the
Bellevue in 1837 was less
than five years old. On a plateau overlooking the Mississippi
a few houses had sprung up; then came stores and a hotel.
Along the river and off in the outlying districts other small
settlements began to appear. Roads and common interests united
them and they formed a typical group of pioneer communities.
Warren found the preservation of order in this new county
somewhat of a task. Conditions of life were primitive and so
also were the habits of the pioneers. Derelicts and outcasts
from older settlements found their way to the new. Petty
thieving was not uncommon, and travelers were often set upon
as they passed from town to town sometimes they
disappeared un- accountably from the face of the earth. Men
found themselves in possession of counterfeit money; horses
and cattle were stolen; and pioneer feuds or drunken brawls
now and then ended in a killing. Yet Jackson County was
without a jail.
For some years the whole
northwest had suffered from the operations of gangs of horse
thieves and counterfeiters, and it began to look to Warren and
others as if one of these gangs had particular associations
with Jackson County. Horses and cattle, stolen in the east,
turned up at Bellevue with curious frequency; bad money became
common and thieving grew more bold. Again and again
circumstantial evidence associated crimes with one or another
of the men who worked for Brown or made their head- quarters
at his hotel.
One of these men was
James Thompson, a son of well-to-do Pennsylvania parents and a
man of some education. Twice he was arrested for passing
counterfeit money and once for robbing stores in Galena, but
in each case he was cleared on technicalities or on the
testimony of his associates. Two other members of the
suspected group were William Fox, charged with a part in the
Galena robbery, and one Chichester who, together with
Thompson, was implicated in the robbing of an old French fur
trader named Rolette.
The people of the county
were particularly irritated by the fact that seldom was any
one punished for these crimes. The aggrieved parties often
found Brown appearing as counsel for his men when they were
brought to trial; and almost invariably alibis were proven. At
one time Thompson, arrested on the charge of passing
counterfeit money near Galena, was released on the testimony
of Fox and three others of his associates that at the time
mentioned he was attending the races with them in Davenport.
At another time a man was cleared by the statements of his
friends that they had played cards with him throughout the
night in question.
connection with the suspects and his assistance in case of
their trial caused his own reputation to suffer. Many people
came to believe that he was in reality the very shrewd and
clever leader of an organized gang of criminals. Others felt
that he was a man unjustly accused and wronged.
Among those of his early
friends who lost faith in him was Thomas Cox, a veteran of the
War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War and a man of magnetic
personality and dominant will. Over six feet tall and weighing
two hundred and fifty pounds, he was vigorous enough even when
well beyond the half- century mark to place his hands on the
withers of a horse and vault into the saddle without touching
the stirrups. In 1838 he had been chosen to represent his
county in the Territorial legislature and in 1839 he wished
greatly to succeed himself in the office. At the time of
nominations Cox was absent from home attending to his duties
at the capital, but he counted on his friend Brown to support
him. What was his surprise then to find that Brown had been
nominated in his place. He immediately announced himself as an
independent candidate and was elected. But from that time
forth he distrusted and opposed the hotel keeper.
Brown's charm of manner
and apparent sincerity, however, kept friends and adherents
for him among many of the best people of the county. A number
of the men of the vicinity, anxious to help matters, finally
decided to call a meeting, put the case squarely to Brown and
see if he would not do something to rid the neighborhood of
its reign of crime.
Brown appeared, but
with him came the notorious Thompson. James Mitchell, a fiery
opponent of the suspected gang, jumped to his feet at once,
characterized Thompson as a robber and counterfeiter and
demanded his withdrawal. Thompson, infuriated, drew his
pistol, but was seized by the bystanders and hustled out of
the room, breathing threats against the life of Mitchell.
Outside a group of his friends gathered. They broke the door
and stormed into the room, and only the efforts of Brown pre-
vented a bloody conflict.
As a result of the
meeting Brown agreed to do what he could and the next day most
of his boarders, shouldering their axes, crossed over to the
island where they set to work chopping wood. The relief,
however, was only partial. Robberies continued and raids upon
the island disclosed much plunder.
So things ran on till the
winter of 1839. Warren tells us that under the dominant
influence of Brown's men the holidays were marked by drinking
and dissipation rather than the usual dancing and feasting.
The better citizens determined to celebrate Jack- son's
victory at New Orleans by a ball on the evening of January 8.
Furthermore, upon the suggestion of Mitchell, who was one of
the managers, it was agreed that none of Brown's men should be
allowed to participate in the occasion.
After many preparations
the night came. The flower of Bellevue womankind, bewitching
with smiles and curls and gay attire, and the vigorous men of
that pioneer town gathered at a newly built hotel to enjoy the
music and bountiful refreshments and to engage in the delights
of the quadrille and the Virginia reel. Mitchell was there
with his wife and daughter and two sisters. Sheriff Warren,
because of sickness, was unable to attend; and Thompson and
the other men upon whom the company had learned to look with
such disfavor were nowhere to be seen.
Around and around on the
rude puncheon floor went the dancers, moving with slow and
graceful steps through the stately figures of the quadrille or
quickening their pace to a more lively measure of the tireless
musicians. Suddenly came a strange commotion by the door and
excited men and women gathered about a young woman who had
reached the ball room, half clad and almost spent with fright
and exhaustion. It was Miss Hadley, a young relative of
Mitchell's who, too sick to attend the ball, had been left
alone at his home. When she could speak the dancers learned
that Thompson and some of his friends had taken advantage of
Mitchell's absence to plunder his house, and the indignities
at the hands of Thompson from which Miss Hadley had with
difficulty escaped formed a climax that stirred the spirit of
murder in Mitchell's heart. Borrowing a pistol from Tom
Sublett, he left the ball room and went out into the night in
search of his enemy.
The night well served his
purpose. The moon clear and full hung high in the heavens,
opening up to his view long stretches of village street. The
frosty air rang with every sound. His quest was short. There
swung into sight down the otherwise empty street two men, and
the quiet of the night was shattered by drunken curses.
Mitchell strode on to meet them. One of the two called out to
him in warning. The other came on as steadily as did Mitchell.
In one hand was a pistol, in the other a bowie knife, and
influenced by drink, his purpose matched that of the man he
Scarcely three feet
separated the men, when Thompson attacked with pistol and
knife at once. His gun, however, at the critical instant
missed fire and a moment later a ball from his opponent's
pistol entered his heart. Mitchell seeing Thompson dead at his
feet, turned and retraced his steps to the ball room, where he
gave himself up to the deputy sheriff and asked for protection
against the mob he knew would soon appear.
The terrified guests of
the Jackson Day Ball scattered to the four corners of the
night. Women, un- mindful of wraps or dignity, sought the
safety of home, and the men, hurrying away to arm themselves,
did not all – it is safe to say – return.
Anson Harrington and
another man who had weapons remained with Mitchell and these
three with the devoted women of his family took refuge in the
upper story of the hotel. The air now became vocal with the
tumult of Thompson's friends approaching with wild cries of
revenge. The deputy sheriff tried in vain to stop them, then
dashed off to summon Sheriff Warren. Upstairs the little group
had taken the stove from its place and poised it near the head
of the stairway ready to roll it down upon the heads of the
In a turmoil of rage the
crowd of men swarmed into the house and, headed by Brown,
reached the foot of the stairway. But the muzzles of guns
looking down upon them, and their acquaintance with the grim
nature of the men above halted them. Baffled, they began
calling for the women to come down, threatening to burn the
house and punctuating their threats by firing bullets up
through the ceiling into the room above.
Soon Warren appeared upon
the scene. He promised to be responsible for Mitchell's
appearance in the morning and persuaded Brown to quiet his in-
flamed men. They dispersed reluctantly and the disturbed night
at length resumed its quiet. In the morning Mitchell was taken
from the hotel, arraigned before a court, and bound over for
trial. For want of a jail he was held under guard in his own
The friends of Thompson,
though making no open demonstration, were nursing their desire
for revenge. William Fox, Lyman Wells, Chichester, and a few
others – unknown to Brown -- laid a diabolical scheme to blow
up with gunpowder the house in which Mitchell was being held.
Mitchell had killed their comrade – only by his death could
they be appeased, and they bad little hope that the process of
law would exact from him the death penalty. So one night they
stole a large can of powder from one of the village stores and
repaired to Mitchell's house. At midnight everything was
quiet. A shed gave access by a stairway to the cellar and the
powder was soon placed by Fox, while Wells laid the train
which was to start the explosion. Un- observed the two men
returned to their comrades who had been drinking themselves
into a proper frame of mind. The question now arose as to who
should apply the match. And at this midnight council the
conspirators agreed to cast lots for the doubtful honor. It
fell upon Chichester and he stepped to the task without
hesitation. A few moments later there was a flash, but to the
men who had fixed their hopes on this instant of time there
came a great disappointment for the report was strangely
feeble. When the sun from across the river brought another day
to the distracted town the house was still standing and
Mitchell and his family and the guard were unhurt.
conspirators there was discussion and probably an uneasy
curiosity as to the next move of Mitchell's friends. But there
came no immediate sequel. Sheriff Warren took no action,
although he held the key to the situation. There had been a
deserter in the camp of the plotters. Lyman Wells, in laying
the train to the can of powder, had left a gap so that the
main deposit of explosive had not been reached. The next day
he told the whole story to the sheriff who took possession of
the powder but with- held from Mitchell the news of the
attempt upon his life.
The weeks that followed
saw no cessation of crime, and Warren, unable to control it,
realized that the situation had become intolerable. Men in
despair of proper protection from the law were trying to sell
their property and move to safer communities. At length Warren
and three others were appointed as a committee to go to
Dubuque and consult Judge Thomas Wilson as to some means of
checking outlawry in the county. The conference resulted in
the drawing up of an information charging Brown, Fox, Long,
and a score of their associates with confederating for the
purpose of passing counterfeit money, committing robbery and
other crimes and misdemeanors. The information was sworn to by
Anson Harrington, and a warrant for the arrest of the men
named was put into the hands of Sheriff Warren. Everyone knew
that with the serving of this warrant a crisis would come in
the history of Jackson County.
When Warren first went to
the hotel to read the warrant to Brown and his men he found
Brown inclined to be defiant – disputing the legality of such
a general instrument – and his associates were ready for the
most desperate measures. The sheriff as he read began to have
extreme doubts as to his safety and was perhaps only saved
from violence by the sudden anger which seized the crowd when
Harrington's name was read as the one who had sworn to the
information. On the instant they dashed off to wreak vengeance
upon him. Brown turned at once to Warren, urging him to go
while he could, for he knew that Harrington had already sought
safety on the Illinois shore before the warrant was served,
and that the mob would soon return disappointed and vengeful.
Just then Mrs. Brown hurried into the room. ''Run for your
life", she cried, "they are coming to kill you," and she led
him to the back of the house.
Warren departed in haste,
thoroughly convinced that the arrest of the infuriated gang
would be a desperate task and one requiring careful
preparation. He determined to organize an armed posse, and
turned to Thomas Cox for assistance, commissioning him to
visit certain parts of the county and bring in a force of
forty armed men. The task was no doubt a welcome one to Cox.
The old warrior spirit in him had been aroused by the defiant
attitude of the lawless coterie, and he believed that radical
measures alone could free the neighborhood from the plague of
Brown and his gang.
Warren and Cox set out in
different directions through the county to gather recruits.
Many of the settlers, feeling that Brown was an innocent and
much abused man, refused to move against him. But on the
morning of April first a considerable force was mobilized in
the town of Bellevue ready to help the sheriff in arresting
the men who had made life in the county almost unendurable.
At the hotel meanwhile
there was a similar spirit of battle. A desperate and reckless
defiance seemed to pervade the men. In front of the hotel a
red flag fluttered and on it the words “Victory or Death"
challenged the fiery men of the frontier who had gathered
there to help make their homes and property safe. Parading up
and down beside the flag were members of the gang, among them
an Irishman who at the top of his lungs advised the posse to
come on if they wanted Hell. The members of the posse – many
of them veterans of the Black Hawk War -- did not take kindly
to such words of defiance, and there was high feeling between
the two parties when the sheriff went alone to the hotel to
read the warrant and demand a surrender.
The men listened in
silence while the sheriff, alone among desperate men, read to
them the challenge of the law. Then Brown asked him what he
intended to do.
“Arrest them all",
replied Warren, “as I am commanded.”
"That is if you can", said Brown.
''There is no 'if’ about it", replied the sheriff. "I have a
sufficient force to take you all, if force is necessary; but
we prefer a surrender, without force.”
He talked privately with
Mr. and Mrs. Brown, and showed them letters from various men
in the county advising Brown to surrender and trust to the
courts. This the hotel keeper finally agreed to do providing
the sheriff and four other men (whom he named) would come and
pledge that he and his men should be unharmed. Warren left and
returned shortly with the men designated. But in the meantime
Brown seemed somewhat to have lost control of affairs. The
four men were ordered away and the sheriff alone was admitted
for another conference.
The men in the hotel were
now restive with drink and no longer inclined to submit to the
restraints of their leader. Warren was to be held as a
hostage, they told him, and if a shot were fired from outside
he would be killed at once. He was powerless to resist.
Minutes of increasing tension went by. Then came word from the
front of the house that Cox and his men were forming in the
street for an attack. In a last effort to avoid trouble, Brown
shoved the sheriff out of the house. “Go and stop them and
come back", he said. Warren needed no second bidding.
But the fight was now
inevitable. An attacking party of forty men was chosen. They
were addressed by Warren and Cox, told of the seriousness of
the occasion, and given a chance to withdraw, but not a man
wavered. It was now early afternoon. The noon hour had passed
with scarcely a thought of food. The town waited in breathless
In the neighborhood of the
hotel the houses were j deserted, and far from the scene of
action, women and frightened children gathered in groups
listening intently for the first sound of a gun. And to
Mitchell, confined in his own home, the acuteness of the
moment must have been almost unbearable. His wish to join the
posse had been overruled, but he had been given arms so that
he might not be helplessly murdered in case of the defeat of
the sheriff's force.
In the street the posse
was forming. With orders not to fire until fired upon, the men
started toward the hotel. Silently and steadily they moved
until they were within thirty paces of the house, then came an
order to charge and with a rush they made for the building.
The crack of a gun was heard from an upstairs window and one
of the forty, a black- smith, fell dead. Brown, with his gun
at his shoulder, was confronted by Warren and Cox.
''Surrender, Brown, and
you shan't be hurt", they called to him. Brown lowered his gun
evidently with the intention of complying but it was
accidentally discharged and the ball passed through Cox's
Then all restraint broke
loose. The guns of two of the posse barked and Brown fell dead
on the instant with two bullets in his head. From all points
now bullets drove into the frame building, and answering
volleys came from the windows of the hotel. There were more
than twenty men in the house and with them was Mrs. Brown who
with unswerving loyalty had stood by to load guns. The
struggle was desperate. Bursting into the lower floor,
engaging in hand to hand conflict, the sheriff's men drove the
defenders upstairs where with pitchforks and guns they still
No longer was sheriff, or
legislator, or any other man in the posse mindful of the law.
The primitive instincts had escaped bounds and the impulse to
kill possessed them all. One after another, men on both sides
crumpled up under fire and lay still. Warren, carried away by
the excitement and unable to force the upper floor, ordered
the house to be set on fire, and the torch was applied.
Then the cry arose that
the men were trying to escape by jumping from a shed at the
rear of the house. Pursuit was on at the instant but seven of
the outlaws escaped from the hands of the sheriff's men.
Thirteen others gave up and were taken prisoners, while three
of their number had paid the toll of their lives.
The fight was over but not
so the intensity of hatred. A number of the invading party had
been severely wounded and four of them lay dead. The sight of
their inanimate bodies, when the firing ceased, aroused the
desire of the posse for instant punishment of the captives.
Ropes were procured and
the awful, unthinking cry of revenge went up. But saner
councils prevailed and the prisoners were put under heavy
guard while it was decided what their fate should be. Warren's
desire to hold the men for trial by law was, however,
overruled on the ground that, the county being with- out a
jail, there was too much danger of the prisoners being rescued
by friends. The settlement of the case was finally left until
the morning with the understanding that a meeting of citizens
should impose sentence upon the prisoners.
It is doubtful if sleep
rested upon the eyelids of many in the town of Bellevue that
night. Thoughts of the toll of the day – the unburied dead –
and speculations upon the possible toll of the morrow, must
have made the morning sun long in coming. But the surface of
the Mississippi reflected its rays at last, and the excited
villagers tried to compose themselves for the events of the
At ten o'clock occurred
one of those episodes that rise now and then out of the grim
frontier. Men who had faced a fire that dropped their comrades
dead at their sides, who with the lust of animals to kill had
stormed the defenders of the hotel, now stood possessed of the
men whom they had faced along the level gun barrel but a few
hours before; and it was their task to consider what should be
done with them.
Thomas Cox presided at the
meeting and stated that the citizens had relieved the sheriff
of his duty and had taken the case into their own hands.
Chichester gained permission to speak on behalf of himself and
his comrades; and the man, now greatly cowed, made a pitiful
plea for mercy. Others spoke – among them Anson Harrington who
favored hanging every one of the prisoners. Fear alone made
them penitent to-day, he said. Revenge he saw depicted on all
their faces. Mercy would only jeopardize the lives of others.
But he closed by proposing that a ballot should be taken as to
whether the captives should be hanged or merely whipped and
exiled from the region.
Every man was required to
rise to his feet and pledge himself to abide by the decision.
Then two men, one with a box containing red and white beans,
the other with an empty box to receive the votes, passed about
among the company. The man with the beans, as he approached
each individual, called out ''White beans for hanging, colored
beans for whipping," and the voter selected his bean and
dropped it into the other box.
To the thirteen men whose
lives depended on the color of the beans, those anxious
moments while eighty men passed sentence upon them probably
seemed like an eternity.
''White beans for
hanging", and a bean rattled into the empty box. Those first
four words, so brutal and so oft repeated, must have crowded
the companion call out of their minds. Stripped clear away
from them was the glow and excitement of the life of the past.
The inspiriting liquor was not there to drown out the stark
image of a drooping body and a taut rope. The red flush of
battle had paled to the white cast of fear. No longer upon
their faces played the contemptuous smile or the leer of
defiance. No bold words came to their lips. Their eyes scanned
the set faces of their captors and into their ears dinned the
cry, over and over repeated like a knell: ''White beans for
The beans dropped
noiselessly now among their fellows, and unrelieved was the
hush of the men who tossed them in. How long it was since the
wild events of yesterday afternoon! How near now was the
Yet there was some comfort when they
listened to the other call. “Colored beans for whipping. “ How
welcome such an outcome would be! A week before they would
have drawn guns at a word of criticism; now they were ready to
give thanks for the grace of a lashing. But they had robbed
these men and given them bad money, had taunted them and had
killed their friends. Could there be any mercy now in these
grim avengers? Were the ''white beans for hanging" piling up
in the box like white pebbles on the shores of their lives?
The eightieth man dropped
in his bean. The tellers counted the votes and reported to
Thomas Cox. The stillness reached a climax. Holding in his
hand the result of the ballot, the chairman asked the
prisoners to rise and hear the verdict. Again he asked the men
who had voted if they would promise their support of the
decision. They gave their pledge by rising to their feet. Then
he read the decision. By a margin of three the colored beans
for whipping were in the majority.
The voice of Anson
Harrington rang out. Cox called him to order – the case was
not debatable. But Harrington replied: “I rise to make the
vote unanimous." Immediate applause showed the revulsion of
feeling. Chichester, who was near him, took his hand and
managed to blurt out his thanks.
The whipping followed –
lashes laid upon the bare back and varying in severity with
the individual. The thirteen men who had so narrowly escaped
the rope were placed in boats on the Mississippi, supplied
with three days rations, and made to promise never to return.
They left at sundown with expressions of gratitude for their
deliverance; and with their departure the town of Bellevue and
the County of Jackson took up again their more placid ways.
And the thirteen exiles?
It would be a happy task to record of them either reformation
can do neither. The trail of William Fox and two others of the
Bellevue gang came into view five years later when they were
implicated in the murder of Colonel George Davenport. But
thereby hangs another tale which we shall not here unfold save
to record that Fox again escaped custody, and fared forth once
more upon adventures of which there is no record upon the
JOHN C. PARISH