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The First Murder Trial in White County

Jessica Lynne South
Booth Elementary School, Enfield

On August 31, 1824, four suspects, Frederick Cotner, Robert Shipley Sr., Robert Shipley Jr., and Hugh Shipley were indicted for the murder of William McKee. All four men pleaded innocent, but Frederick Cotner was found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged in White County, Illinois.

The trial began on Monday, August 30, 1824, in the north room of the Robinson Stewart house, which served as White County's first courthouse. William Wilson was the judge for the trial. He served as circuit judge from 1820 to 1849. John M. Robinson served as the prosecuting attorney at the trial. He served as White County's prosecuting attorney from 1818 to 1831.

The trial was held before Judge William Wilson, a foreman, and eighteen jurors. These people were empanelled, charged, and sworn to inquire for White County.

All four of the suspects and William McKee lived in Prairie township. In the 1820 census returns it is recorded that McKee had six living in his household, seven lived in Robert Shipley, Sr.'s household, and four resided in Frederick Cotner's home. Robert Shipley Sr., was a blacksmith, and Frederick Cotner, Hugh Shipley, and Robert Shipley Jr., were all laborers.

William McKee was shot on August 5, 1824, but did not die until two days later. Court records did not reveal why McKee was shot. William McKee was shot in the forehead right above his right eye with a lead bullet from a rifle valued at about ten dollars. The depth of the wound was about four inches.

In September 1824, four witnesses testified. They were Adam Dosher Sr., Adam Dosher Jr., Henry Sumter, and William Hargate. After they testified, they were put on a bond of one hundred dollars each and were free.

Judge Wilson ordered that Frederick Cotner be brought into the courtroom on September 3, 1824. Cotner was then ordered to tell the court of anything that was of any importance before they issued their judgment or verdict. It was decided by the court that Frederick Cotner should be taken from the jail of the county to some convenient place within one mile of the town of Carmi between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. to suffer death by hanging, and the sheriff was to execute the sentence on September 21, 1824.

Frederick Cotner was the first man to be tried and sentenced in the north room of the Robinson Stewart house. On September 21, 1824, Cotner was taken to the chosen place of execution on a hill northwest of the courthouse. He was then escorted to the scaffold, and a rope was placed around his neck. Within seconds before being dropped through the narrow trap door, a messenger came from the Governor with a reprieve. The Governor was satisfied that some of the witnesses had given

The four suspects charged with the murder of William McKee were tried in the Robinson Stewart House, which served as White County's first courthouse.

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25 ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 2001


false testimonies, which should have been rejected by the court. Frederick Cotner remained in this region for a few years, and then he left for another place unknown.

The first murder trial of White County was held in Carmi at the first courthouse, the Robinson Stewart house. The house was then owned by John Craw. The Robinson Stewart house served as White County's Courthouse from 1817 to 1820 and from 1824 to 1828. Unites States Senator John M. Robinson occupied this log house which had two rooms, a loft, and a breezeway in 1835. Robinson then had the logs covered in clapboards and added wings. After the death of Robinson and his wife, their daughter, Mrs. Margaret Stewart, occupied the house. After Margaret's death the house was the home of a granddaughter, Miss Mary J. Stewart, and her friend, Mrs. Fannie Hay Maffit.

Mary J. Stewart died in 1966 at the age of 93, She left the Robinson Stewart house, all of its furnishings, and five thousand dollars to the White County Historical Society. The house was to be used as a museum. She did this because in 1960 the White County Historical Society saved her great-grandfather's inn, the Ratcliff Inn, from destruction. The inn was also converted into a museum. [From N. W. Draper, ed, Journal of the Southern Illinois Historical Society, (1950); Illinois Census Returns of 1820; Interstate Publishing Company, History of Whiteside County; Court Records of White County, Book A; National Register of Historic Places, brochure, "The Robinson Stewart House."]

26 ILLINOIS HISTORY/ FEBRUARY 2001


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