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1880 History
Accidents and Crime, The Keokuk County Vigilance Committee, The Jail

During the winter of 1841-2 there appeared at Iowa City a stranger who gave his name as Col. Wm. Johnson, and who was accompanied by a young woman whom he represented as his daughter, and whom he called Catharine, or, usually, Kit. Both were of more than ordinary strength of character, and well educated. Johnson claimed to have been the hero of the Canadian revolt, which took place in 1838, and was the occasion of considerable diplomatic correspondence, and came so near causing war between Great Britain and the United States. The girl, he stated, was the "queen of a thousand isles," and authentic history so far corroborates his story as to mention the fact that on the St. Lawrence there was a certain young woman who gave aid and assistance to the patriots in this border trouble. Johnson succeeded in cutting quite a figure in Iowa City during the session of the legislature. He was honored by a seat on the floor of the house, and was toasted and banqueted by some of the law-makers of the then State capital. In 1842 Johnson located at the geographical centre of Buchanan county, where he proposed laying out a town, and where he expected by his fame and prowess to draw around him a band of followers, and secure the county-seat. This excited the jealousy of the first settler of that region, Wm. Bennet, a notorious character, who had laid out a village where Quasqueton now stands, and where he hoped to enrich himself by securing the county-seat of the new county. Bennet gathered a few congenial spirits about him, went over to Johnson's, loaded up his effects for him, then tied him to a tree and flogged him, though with what severity is unknown, as accounts differ. Johnson went to Marion, where he lodged complaints against his persecutors, and the sheriff of Linn county rode up to Quasqueton to arrest Bennet. The latter awaited him at his cabin door, armed with his rifle and a pair of pistols. The sheriff modestly retired and went back for a posse. Bennet and his companions became convinced that they had better leave Quasqueton for a while. On their way to a place of escape they suffered terribly from intense cold. Some of the parties perished, and others were frozen so as to be mutilated for life. This, of course, aggravated Bennet still more, and he and Johnson became deadly foes.

Soon after Johnson, loving his popularity, left Buchanan county, got in with a gang of horse-thieves, and fled to Mahaska county to escape the law, bringing with him the girl Kit, and another man and woman. Johnson seemed to have this girl entirely under his control, and in his fits of passion, it is said, threatened to kill her, in consequence of which she was in mortal fear of him. Johnson located on Middle Creek, about eight miles northeast of Oskaloosa, in a grove now owned by James K. Woods. He there built a shanty. In the spring of '43, a family by the name of Peck came to a point on Skunk river, about four miles from Oskaloosa, where Russel Peck, with his son-in-law, Geo. N. Duncan, built a grist-mill. Johnson and his daughter, so-called, lived for some time with the Duncans and Pecks. Several times, it is related, during the time he staid with them, strangers from the north came there and asked to stay over night. They were kindly treated, lodged, and nothing charged them. This made Johnson very angry, the reason for which being, as was afterward learned, that these were of Johnson's enemies in Buchanan county, who, for some reason, did not get an opportunity to accomplish their purposes, i. e., revenge on Johnson. During this time an attachment sprang up between Kit and Job Peck, son of Russel Peck, a young man of about twenty-one years. Johnson was greatly enraged on discovering this, and removed to his own cabin above mentioned, taking the girl with him. Wm. D. Neely was engaged to Peck's sister, Sarah. An elopement was planned. While Johnson was away one evening, about dusk, Kit was stolen away, and the two couples started in an easterly direction. The following day they reached the house of a relative of Peck's, about four miles from Fairfield, where they were married and lodged for the night. Upon his return home, Johnson set out in search for them, came to the house where the fugitives were near one o'clock at night, entered the house, and, with drawn revolver, dragged Kit from the bed, compelled her to dress herself, and mount behind him and ride thus to his home.

The following evening, about seven o'clock, Johnson was shot dead through a crevice in his cabin, while standing in front of the fire. Job Peck was arrested on charge of the murder, taken to Washington county and lodged in jail. His lawyers were J. C. Hall, of Mt. Pleasant, and Colonel Thompson. These gentlemen, learning that a warrant was out from the northern part of the State for the arrest of Kit, as being an accomplice of Johnson, it was arranged that the girl should be secreted until she could be provided for. This was done, and a young law-student of Hall's, named Wamsley, was sent with a buggy to Mahaska county, to the girl's hiding-place. This Wamsley, while fording the Skunk river, a short distance from Oskaloosa, met a man on horseback in the midst of the stream. The stranger stated to Wamsley that he was in search of a girl, giving her description, being the same one that Wamsley was after. The latter, to throw the officer off of the track, told him he had seen such a girl in a certain house in the direction in which he had come. The officer started in pursuit, and Wamsley proceeded about three miles and a-half to Kit's hiding-place. She was taken to Burlington, put on a steamboat, and sent by Hall to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Job Peck was acquitted, having proved an alibi. Some time after the murder, and during Peck's imprisonment, a stranger stopped at Duncan's and informed them that his name was Bennet; that he was one of the men who had stopped with them, and whom they had so kindly treated; that he and Johnson had been deadly foes. He told the Duncan's that they need not be alarmed in regard to Job's acquittal, as he (Bennet) knew Peck was not guilty, and gave the Duncan's to understand that he knew who was.

If we are correctly informed, and we have good authority, the most romantic part of this story is yet to come. During the time that he was imprisoned Peck knew nothing of his wife's whereabouts, nor was he informed by his lawyer until some months after his release. Finally her address was given him and he set out for Pittsburgh. There he found her living with people of the highest respectability, in most elegant style. Peck himself stated to our informant that the house was furnished with a grandeur that he had not dreamed of; that his wife was a fine musician; that she had played for him on a piano in that house, and that he had these evidences of her accomplishments, which he had not before conjectured. She was ready to come away with him, did come, and for several years lived near Oskaloosa with him. Parties now living remember her well; say that she was a woman of fine education, of refinement and unblemished character, wrote a beautiful letter, and gave every evidence of a good "bringing up." No one believes‚€”she herself denies‚€”that Johnson was her father; but who she was, or who Johnson was, possibly her husband, certainly her husband's family never knew. She lived happily with Peck in California, until the latter's death. She has a noble family, and is again married to a devoted husband. Her portrait of late years has nothing of the romantic in it, but every lineament marks her intelligence and happiness. To-day this "Queen of a Thousand Isles" is queen of a happy household in a far western home
Since writing the above we have been cited to an article in "Scribner's Monthly" for April, 1878, entitled "Among the Thousand Islands." From this article we make the following extracts:

"Of late years perhaps no event caused such a stir of excitement in this region as the so-called patriot war in 1838, a revolt of certain Canadians dissatisfied with the government of Sir Francis Bond Head then Governor-General of Canada, which was joined by a number of American agitators, ever ripe for any disturbance.

"It was a wild, insane affair altogether, and after some time consumed in petty threats of attack, finally reached a climax in the burning of the Canadian steamer, 'Sir Robert Peel,' one of the finest vessels upon the St. Lawrence. The most prominent actor in this affair was Bill Johnson‚€”a name familiar to every one around this region‚€”whose career forms a series of romantic adventures, deeds and escapes, followed by his final capture, which would fill a novel. Indeed, we understand that a novel has been written by a Canadian Frenchman on this theme, though we have not had the good fortune to find any one who has read it.

"Johnson was originally a British subject, but turned renegade, serving as a spy in the war of 1812, in which capacity he is said to have robbed the mails to gain intelligence. He hated his native country with all the bitterness which a renegade alone is capable of feeling. He was one of the earliest agitators upon the American side of the border, and was the one who instigated the destruction of the 'Peel.' A reward was offered by the governments of each country for his apprehension, so he was compelled to take to the islands for safety. Here he continued for several months, though with numbers of hair-breadth escapes, in which he was assisted by his daughter, who seems to have been a noble girl. Many stories are told of remarkable acts performed by him, of his choking up the inlet of the Lake of the Isle with rocks, so as to prevent vessels of any size entering that sheet of water; of his having a skiff in which he could outspeed any ordinary sailing craft, and which he carried bodily across necks of land when his enemies were in pursuit of him, and of his hiding in all manner of out-of-the-way spots, once especially in the Devil's Oven, previously described, to which his daughter, who alone was in his confidence, disguised as a boy, carried provisions. He was finally captured and sent to Albany, where after suffering a slight penalty for his offense, he was subsequently released, although he was always very careful to keep out of the clutch of the indignant Canadians."

Transcribed by Pat Wahl.

The Keokuk County Vigilance Committee 

This was a body of men banded together for the purpose of bringing to justice certain outlaws, who, in former times, infested that region of country, bordering on South Skunk river, and more particularly that locality commonly known as "Brushy Bend."  The association was composed of the best men of that part of the county, and its object was to assist the officers of the civil law in the discharge of their duty, and failing in this, to take the execution of the law into their own hands, and punishing the offenders.

In 1857, that part of the county before referred to had a bad name, on account of a systemized plan of stealing which was carried on.  In some cases oxen and cattle were slaughtered on the premises of the owner, and the meat and hides taken to the adjoining counties and sold.  In other instances horses, saddles, bridles, corn and potatoes were stolen.  The people were very well convinced who the aiders and abettors of these thefts were, and in some cases the proof was sufficient to secure the arrest and trial of certain persons, but in every case the ends of justice were thwarted by the false testimony of the confederates in crime.  In order to protect their property, and free their country from the bad name which fastened itself upon them, certain citizens or Richland and Jackson townships formed a secret organization, and thus met organized theft with organized force.  The organization in Jackson township was separate from the Richland organization, but not independent of it, as both organizations acted in concert, and with the full understanding of the other.

In 1858 a horse was stolen from David Myers, who lived near the Jefferson county line, about half way between Richland and Ioka.  The two organizations before named took the matter in hand, recovered the horse and captured the thief. The latter, however, by the evidence of his confederates, evaded the law, and was released.

There lived in the region of "Brushy Bend," four brothers by the name of Byers, who were implicated in certain thefts, and these four persons, now, were closely watched by the vigilants.

It was not long till a man by the name of Stalker had a saddle and a bridle stolen.  Ike Bowers, who, about that time had departed to Marion county, for the purpose of attending a camp-meeting, was suspected, and the vigilants sent emissaries after him to watch his movements, and, if possible, trace out the stolen property.  When these arrived on the campground, they found Byers in the very midst of the worshipers, taking a very active part in the conduct of the meeting. They said nothing to him concerning the real object of their visit, and led him by their conduct to suppose that they had simply come for religious consolation. However, while they sat near him in meeting, united their voices with his in singing the songs of Zion, and possibly may have lead in prayer, they at the same time kept a close lookout for the missing saddle and bridle.  In the course of time they found the missing property in the possession of a man from an adjoining county, who, upon being questioned, stated that he had bought them of Byers. Byers was thereupon arrested, and together with the man in whose possession the property was found, brought back to Richland, where he was tried before a justice of the peace.  The evidence this time being conclusive, and his brothers being unable even by their false testimony to establish an alibi, Byers was sentenced to a term in the county jail, whither he was conducted by the proper officers.  Keokuk county in those days had a jail, but it was not remarkable for its imposing appearance or its security.  Upon being locked up, and the officer from Richland offering to shake the parting hand, Byers refused, saying: "It ain't worth while, for I'll be back at Brushy Bend to-morrow."  And sure enough he was, for the following night he broke jail, and was back home nearly as soon as the officer.  The vigilants, seeing that the civil authorities were powerless to deal with such an outlaw, got together the following night, proceeded to the home of Byers, took him out of bed, and placing a rope around his neck led him to the timber.  Just before entering the timber they informed him of their intention to hang him; he asked permission to pray; they granted him thirty minutes, which was occupied in the most fervent supplication.  One of the vigilants who was present at the time, and who had seen him at the Marion county camp-meeting, says, that although Byers prayed most fervently and eloquently at the camp-meeting, the effort on this particular night was peculiarly eloquent and fervent; possibly the pressure of the rope against his vocal organs gave to his voice a particularly pathetic and sympathetic tone.  When the thirty minutes were up the vigilants started with Byers into the timber looking for a suitable limb, the latter all the while looking up, as if anxious to find a suitable place and have the work over with.  At length a limb was found, and the victim was swung free from the ground, but not into eternity, as the vigilants did not all contemplate such extreme measures.  After he had been suspended for a moment they let him down, and informed him if he would confess his crimes and reveal his confederates, they would release him.  This Byers refused to do, and they repeated the operation several times.  At length being persuaded that Byers would die rather than make a confession, they thereupon stripped him, brought forth some whips, with which they had previously been provided, and after giving him a severe castigation, gave him his clothes and told him to leave the country, and not again to return on penalty of being hung in earnest.  Byers left, and was never again seen in that locality.

There were a good many peaceably inclined Quakers living in and about Richland who objected to the measures resorted to by the vigilants, and in order to avail himself of their moral support another one of the Byers removed to Richland where he hoped to continue operations without taking the chances of being whipped.  After he had stolen a number of things the quiet town was nearly scared out of existence, and corportion [sic] lines could scarcely retain its people, when late one night some three hundred vigilants appeared on the street and, after parading through the town with Byers tied to a horse, departed for the timber.  This Byers, likewise, was never more seen in those parts.  He had been served like Ike, and, like Ike, he thought it best to follow the parting injunction of the regulators.

The other two Byers brothers, in due course of time, were detected in the commission of thefts, together with a boy by the name of Wyant and two or three other associates of theirs, all of whom were taken out of their beds at night, a sound whipping administered and ordered to leave the county.  The last one to go was "Lige Byers," who, awhile afterward returned, and upon his earnest protestation and promises of good behavior, was allowed to remain.  He soon fell from grace, however, was waited upon by the ever attentive committee and vanished in the night-time, never again to tread the romantic vales of "Brushy Bend."

While the vigilants were carrying on their operations south of Skunk river an attempt was at one time made to have them indicted.   They were, however, duly informed of the contemplated legal proceedings and were furnished with the name of the prosecuting witness on the day when the grand jury assembled at Sigourney. Certain members of the committee were at the latter place as soon as the swiftest horses could carry them there.  It would not do, however, to commit violence at the seat of justice, so they resorted to strategy.  While the judge was giving his charge to the jury they were entertaining the prospective prosecuting witness at a neighboring saloon, who, by the time he was called, was too drunk to make a coherent statement.  The grand jury thought it beneath their dignity to listen to the maudlin gibberish of a drunk man, so they dismissed him to sober off.  The following night said prosecuting witness was on his way to the Skunk river timber in charge of a body of vigilants and during the remainder of that term of court he could not be found though the grand jury sought him faithfully with deputies and bailiffs.  The vigilants had a most thorough organization and proceeded against offenders in a cool and systematic manner.  When a person was suspected they held a secret meeting and a jury was selected to pass upon the case, the evidence was all given in and the jury retired for consultation; if they acquitted the accused that ended the matter, but if they brought in a verdict of guilty the case was promptly disposed of the following night.  There was a regular annual or monthly assessment made on each member of the organization and thereby a fund accumulated to pay all necessary expenses.

The organization is still in existence and it has not been long since a man who was in the habit of stealing honey left a certain neighborhood very suddenly. He was out late one night and chanced to see a hundred or so of the vigilant's horses hitched at a school house; he went home in a hurry, silently folded his tent and departed.

Transcribed by Steven McBride.

The Jail

The county jail was built in 1875.  Prior to that time the prisoners were kept at Washington and Muscatine.  When the county-seat was at Lancaster there was a jail erected at that place, but it was never noted for elegance or safety.  The present jail is one of the best in the State and Keokuk county now returns the compliment by keeping the prisoners for the county which formerly kept hers.

The first action in reference to the building of a jail was at the September term, 1874, as follows.

"On motion it is resolved that the board of supervisors submit to the voters of Keokuk county, Iowa, a proposition to build a jail in said county, to be voted on at the October elections 1874."

The election was held according to order, with the following result: for jail, 1,631; against jail, 314.

In the following January the board resolved that they collectively be appointed a committee to visit Chicago and intermediate towns for the purpose of examining city prisons, county jails, etc., with a view to the erection of a jail in Keokuk county.  It was also ordered that three warrants of thirty-five dollars each be issued by the auditor to defray the expenses of the trip.  This action of the board was the occasion of some very severe criticism on the part of certain tax-payers of the county.  Among other manifestations of dissatisfaction was a poster, printed at South English, which was extensively distributed throughout the county, of which the following is a copy:

"Indignation meeting! Tax-payers of Keokuk county, you are hereby requested to meet at South English on Saturday, July 17, 1875, at 2 o'clock P. M. to consider what action shall be taken in regard to the wholesale plunder of the treasury by the board of supervisors.


The board, however, went on this tour of inspection and probably did the best thing for the county which could have been done.  For on this trip they learned something relative to prisons and jail building, and whether it may be directly attributed to what they learned on this trip or not, one thing is certain, viz: The jail was erected, and when finished, proved to be the best building of the kind in this part of the State.  On their trip to Chicago, the board of supervisors arranged for the cells and cell doors which formerly were used in the city prison of Chicago. They also contracted with W. L. Carrol, of Chicago, to draw plans and specifications for the jail building.

At the April session the board ordered that bonds should be issued, negotiated and sold, to the amount of ten thousand dollars for the erection of the jail.

This order for the issue of bonds called forth another outburst of indignation in the north part of the county, and at a public meeting held at South English the following resolutions were adopted:

"WHEREAS, We, the tax payers of Keokuk county, have reason to believe that our county supervisors have been recreant to their trust in so much that they have voted to themselves for services since the 1st of January, 1875, an amount equal to $65 a month each for the entire six months; that they have treated with disrespect a petition of tax-payers; that they have clearly shown their incompetency to fill the important positions they occupy, in issuing the county jail bonds without legal authority, and by being unable, or unwilling, to transact the business of the county within the time specified by law, to-wit: thirty days; (see See. 3791, Code 1873); therefore, be it

"Resolved. 1st—That a committee be appointed to investigate the propriety of enjoining the board from making further appropriations for services, and the auditor and treasurer from drawing and paying the same.

"2d.—That the issuing by the board of supervisors of the county bonds, known as the jail bonds, without the proposition for a tax having been adopted by the people, and the sale of said bonds absolutely void in law, under the representation that they were valid, meets our unqualified censure.

"3d.—That the present board be requested to resign, and allow the people to fill their places by members who can transact the business of the county within the time specified by law."

The supervisors, however, did not resign, but went on with the plans for the erection of the building.

The jail was completed in the latter part of the year 1875, and, as before remarked, is one of the most substantial buildings of the kind in the State.  The following description of the building, published in the "News," of the issue January 5, 1876, will give a good idea of the building:

"For a proper understanding of the buildings described, it is necessary to state that although described as two buildings, they are connected and separated only by a partition wall.

"Ground plan of dwelling, 38 feet 8 inches by 28 feet 8 inches, divided into four rooms, viz: pantry, vegetable, furnace and fuel rooms. These divisions are made by brick walls. The outer walls, forming the foundation of the structure, are of stone, four feet thick at the base, and by offsets reduced to one foot eight inches at a height of eight feet, receiving a water-table as a base for the brick work.

"The main walls are of brick, fifteen inches thick, with air chambers of two inches, stone sills and caps for the openings. First story, nine feet eight inches, second story, nine feet two inches, in height, divided as follows: First floor, hall, parlor, dining-room, office, kitchen and pantry; all of which are provided with the necessary cupboards, drawers, shelving, chests and outfit pertaining to first-class rooms.  The second story is divided into four rooms, two of which are provided with wardrobes, neatly fitted and furnished with shelving, hooks, etc.  In the attic are two nice, large, well-ventilated chamber rooms.

"The building is neatly plastered, hard finished and painted throughout with three coats of paint, and blinds to all the windows. The roofing is of black slate, with water gutters and spouting leading to the cistern, to be described hereafter.

"The ground plan of the jail building proper is thirty-one feet two inches by twenty-one feet four inches; footings, five feet thick, of heavy limestone, laid in cement. The foundation walls are ten feet in height, extending six feet into the ground and four feet above, being three feet thick where they receive the water-table and floor. The main or outside walls are of sandstone, three of which are twenty-two inches, and the other twenty-six inches, thick, each stone reaching through the wall, laid in cement, weighing from one to four thousand pounds each, and doweled with a two-inch round cast-iron ball to prevent them being slipped out.  The style of the work is rock face, cut beads and drave margins.

"These walls are eighteen feet high, mounted with neat cornice and cap-pings, with four windows two by six feet. Each window is guarded with two sets of mixed steel bars, one and one-half inches in diameter, set six inches into the rock, with five stays crosswise with the bars passing through them, and with ordinary sash and ground glass.

"Inside of the walls described, commencing at the same depth, are three other walls, the main wall making the fourth, surrounding a space ten by seventeen feet which forms the privy vaults.  On these walls sit the cells, which are nine in number, and located so as to leave a corridor on three sides seven feet wide, which is flagged with stone eight inches thick, and long enough to reach and be built into the main walls on one side, and under and form a part of the foundation for the cells on the other.  Under the corridor, and surrounding the foundation wall of the vault, is a cistern of four hundred to five hundred barrels capacity, for general use of the building:  The cells are five by seven feet, floor surface, and seven feet high, formed from six stones eight inches thick, and of proper size for one each to form bottom, top, sides and end, and weighing from one to three-tons.  Each cell is provided with two iron cots, solidly fastened to the wall, and a sail-stool bolted to the floor.  Four of these nine cells are located so as to form a square.  On top of these cells are situated four other cells, which are reached by an iron stairway which lands on an iron platform in front of the doors.  On top of the eight cells under the roof is the ninth cell, or female department, thirteen by eighteen feet, formed by rubble walls planked inside with two-inch plank, and lined with iron.

"The cells are located on one side of the building, so as to connect with one of the outside walls, and between the cell stone and the wall is two inches of solid iron to prevent cutting through the wall.  The cell rock floor, and sitting of the entire jail is of limestone from the Joliet quarries.  The window-frames and sash are all the wood there is inside the jail.  Each cell is provided with two iron doors, one grated, and the other a solid slab covering the grates, each of which has a strong separate fastening.

"The entrance to the jail is from the sheriff's office in the dwelling through five iron doors, all of which have separate fastenings.  Inside the jail, surrounding the entrance, is a cage of iron lattice-work, into which the sheriff will pass, locking two doors behind him, and passing the key to an attendant in the office before opening the door of the cage admitting him to the prisoners.

"The prison is ventilated by an air duct leading from the vault under the corridor floor into a ventilating flue built between the two main chimneys, and arranged so that if there is fire either in the furnace or cook-stove it will rarefy the air in the ventilating fines, causing draft and a flow of air down through the sail-pipes into the air duct and out the top of the chimney. From experiments that have been made it is believed that the jail will be free from the offensive and unhealthy smell that is present in most: places where prisoners are confined.  Both jail and dwelling are warmed throughout from a furnace located in the basement of the dwelling.  It required about five hundred perch of rock to construct the building."

Hon. B. A. Haycock, of Richland, and J. H. Terrel were the contractors.  The contract was originally let for $9,600.  This, together with the cost of the real estate, supervision and architect's fee, amounted to the sum of $14,222.31.

The board of supervisors at the time consisted of Messrs. Merryfield, Bower and Morgan.

Transcribed by Steven McBride.

Source: The History of Keokuk County, Iowa, A History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., Illustrated, 1880