Samuel Mason at Cave-in-Rock
Along the Ohio River on the Illinois-Kentucky state border exists a cave that is twenty-five feet wide, fifteen feet high, and one hundred and fifty feet long. The opening of the cave overlooks the Ohio from a high bluff, and shrubbery and small trees cover part of it. The location of this cave offers a clear, long view of the river in both directions. The ceiling of the cave is horizontal while the floor inclines toward the rear. The area was home to many criminals during the early settlement of Illinois. This is the story of how Cave-in-Rock in Hardin County acquired a history that includes counterfeiting, murder, and river pirates.
Samuel Mason found Cave-in-Rock in 1797. Mason, who was a soldier in the Revolutionary War, ran into some trouble with the law in Virginia. He and his family sought refuge in the southern Illinois and western Kentucky area. The cave became the headquarters and trap for his large-scale river piracy. Mason put up a sign on the bank of the river near the cave that read "Liquor Vault and House of Entertainment." It was impossible for anyone traveling along the river to avoid noticing the signs, and many captains, crews, and passengers on boats were lured to it. Many unrespectable people were attracted to the tavern. From this group of men, Mason formed a band of criminals that terrorized that stretch of the Ohio for years.
River pirates had for years taken advantage of boats that hit reefs near islands. Mason took advantage of the fear that travelers had of being grounded. The earliest travelers used small, clumsy boats that were propelled by small paddles or oars, making travel difficult in rough stretches of the river. Boaters, even before Mason had arrived in the area, were advised by people who had traveled the river in the past to pay a man to pilot their vessel through a dangerous channel that ran from about two miles below the cave and extended six miles past it. Mason took advantage of this, and he had his pirates pass themselves off as trustworthy local pilots who could steer boats through this area. One pirate stationed himself around ten miles from Cave-in-Rock, and when employed, he would ground the boat at Cave-in-Rock. If he failed in get-
Cave-in-Rock, located on the Ohio River bluffs, was a hide-out for outlaws.
38 ILLINOIS HISTORY/ FEBRUARY 2001
Unsuspecting passengers traveling along the Ohio River were sometimes kidnapped by thieves who hid out at Cave-in-Rock.
ting the job done, another person at Cave-in-Rock tried to pilot the boat for the next stretch of river. If he was successful, he landed the boat at Hurricane Island. This was another station for the pirates along the Ohio. Boats with too much protection or an unprofitable cargo were allowed to pass through the channel. Another tactic Mason used was to have a young, attractive woman pretend to be stranded. She stationed herself at Diamond Island, below Cave-in-Rock and attempted to get picked up by passing vessels. She then had the boat drop her off at Cave-in-Rock where the boat and crew fell into Mason's trap.
Once Mason lured the boats, he would murder the crew and replace it with his own men.
They then took the cargo down to New Orleans where it was sold. The bodies of the murdered crews were disposed of by slitting them open, filling them with rocks, and sinking them in the Ohio River.
The trip to New Orleans caused many problems for Mason. Often, the entertainment and appeal was too much for his men to resist and they never returned. Frequently, the men robbed other outlaws who attempted to return. The return trip required traveling through the Natchez Trace, which ran through the Choctaws' and the Chickasaws' land, and this area was worked by white outlaws as well. It was here that Mason's men ran into trouble and were often robbed. It upset Mason that his stolen cargo was re-stolen. While at the cave, Mason also went by the name of "Wilson." It was common practice of criminals to go by more than one name.
Mason abandoned the Cave-in-Rock area in 1799 to move on to the Mississippi River and the Natchez Trace. One of the men who went with him was James May, a criminal who called himself John Setton. Setton was actually Little Harpe, one of the most notorious murderers of his time. The French caught Mason and Harpe in Missouri in 1802, where they were charged with murder and counterfeiting. He and Harpe escaped as they were being sent to New Orleans. However, Harpe killed and decapitated Mason to collect a $1,000 reward for him dead or alive. Harpe was recognized after collecting the award by a victim he and Mason had robbed. Harpe was taken into custody by the authorities, but he managed to escape.
Mason and the other criminals of his time took advantage of the difficulties of river travel. By offering entertainment in the tavern or guidance through difficult areas on the river, they lured people to Cave-in-Rock. The early years of travel in Illinois were very troublesome. It was a time when river piracy was easy and travel on the Ohio River was dangerous.—[From Lewis C. Beck, A Gazette of the States of Illinois and Missouri; M. Juliette Magee, Cavern of Crime; Otta A. Rothert, The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock; Paul Iselin Wellman, Spawn of Evil; John W. Allen, "Cave-in-Rock Always Interesting," It Happened in Southern Illinois, No. 582 (Oct. 29, 1964); "Visit Old Pirates' Haunt at Cave-in-Rock," East Moline Herald (Aug. 4, 1966); "Legendary Sam Mason did enjoy his tavern," Evansville Courier (Ap. 9, 1995); "Cave-in-Rock," The Living Museum, (July, 1955); "River Pirates of Cave-in-Rock Recalled in Sketch," Peoria Journal Transcript (Nov. 14, 1926).]
39 ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 2001