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)
Comment by the Editor
In the July number thirteen
border criminals came within a few beans of hanging. Instead
they were merely whipped and exiled, with the result that one
of them at least returned to take a prominent part in the
murder of Colonel George Davenport. In the present number a
man is actually hanged. The affair was a noteworthy one, but
it occurred at so early a date that there are few records of
it. Fortunately Eliphalet Price was there as an eyewitness. He
had come to the lead mining regions by way of New Orleans
about the time of the Black Hawk War. In fact one writer
credits him with having had a part in that war, capturing
twelve redskinned prisoners.
may be, Price was in Dubuque in 1834, and was a prominent
figure in northeastern Iowa for nearly forty years thereafter.
He held various offices and was influential in State politics,
partly by reason of his unusual ability as a speaker and a
writer. In the sixties he was a member of the Board of
Curators of the State Historical Society of Iowa and wrote
many graphic articles for the Annals of Iowa which the Society
was then publishing.
When Patrick O'Connor killed his
partner, George O'Keaf, in 1834, the country that is now Iowa
was without a local constitutional status. It was a part of no
State or organized Territory. Missouri, of which it had been a
part, became a State in 1821 and the land north of it to the
Canadian boundary and west to the upper waters of the Missouri
River was left without organized government. No legal courts
sat within its borders; no sheriff or constable protected its
inhabitants. For a long time these inhabitants consisted only
of Indians and fur traders. Settlement was prohibited by act
In 1830 a group of lead miners
crossed to what is now Dubuque and began to work the mines.
They met beside a cottonwood log on the shore and drew up a
set of rules for their own government. But Zachary Taylor, in
command of United States troops at Fort Crawford, sent a
detachment of soldiers under lieutenant Jefferson Davis to
drive them out. After the Black Hawk War miners and settlers
crossed the river in numbers and, although still technically
trespassers, developed a pioneer community into which O'Connor
and O'Keaf came and settled.
The murder, according to Price's
account, took place on May 19, and the hanging on June 20,
1834. Eight days later an act of Congress was approved which
placed the tract of land including modern Iowa under the
jurisdiction of the Territory of Michigan.
The hanging was extra-legal, but
under the conditions it was essentially an act of authority.
Justice is not always dependent upon the citation of statutes
and the functioning of commissioned officials; in fact justice
is sometimes accomplished more truly where it is not
trammelled by legal technicalities. O'Connor's punishment was
the deliberate, carefully-weighed act of a people who
exercised the judicial function because they had no legal
machinery to serve them. He was tried before a jury of his
peers; he was given the benefit of a counsel to plead his
cause; and a month's time elapsed between his sentence and his
execution. Looking upon it in an- other light, his hanging was
the logical answer of the people of a community to a man who
said: ''I'll not deny that I shot him, but ye have no laws in
the country, and cannot try me. ' '
J. C. P.