The Regulators and the Prairie Bandits:
Incongruous though it may seem, from about 1835 to the early 1840s, the Rock River Valley, today an epitome of middle America, was the setting for a "settlers-versus-bad guys" struggle straight out of an old-time Hollywood Western.
Lawlessness on the frontier was a frequent accompaniment to the nation's westward expansion and the stream of new residents who flowed into northern Illinois after the conclusion of the Black Hawk War of 1832 included more than a few attracted by the feeble state of law enforcement of what then was the outer edge of settlement. Ex-Governor Thomas Ford, in his classic History of Illinois, described the prevailing state of affairs as follows :
"... the northern part of the State was not destitute of its organized bands of rogues engaged in murders, robberies, horsestealing, and in making and passing counterfeit money. These rogues were scattered all over the north: but the most of them were located in the counties of Ogle, Winnebago, Lee and DeKalb. In the county of Ogle they were so numerous, strong, and organized that they could not be convicted for their crimes."
Ford had reason to know for he was an important player in the events that finally ended the bandits' domination of the area. On Sunday, March 21, 1841, some half dozen gang members had been apprehended on charges which included counterfeiting and possession of counterfeiting tools and were being held in the tiny Ogle County jail in Oregon. Around midnight fire broke out in the nearby newly-completed courthouse and the building quickly burned to the ground. The fire had apparently been set in the expectation that it would destroy records needed to prosecute the prisoners, perhaps spread to the jail itself and, in any event, create a diversion that would permit an escape.
It didn't work. The court clerk had taken the records home, the fire never reached the jail and, whatever confusion may have existed, no escape was made. Ford, sitting as Circuit Judge, presided over a temporarily relocated Ogle County Circuit Court before which three of the prisoners were tried, the others having secured a change of venue. When it developed, not for the first time in Ogle, that one of the jurors was a gang member or sympathizer who declined to convict, the other jurors resorted to a somewhat unorthodox means of persuasion. They told him that they would lynch him right there in the jury room unless he came to see that the majority view of the evidence was the correct one. He was persuaded and the three were convicted. Elation over this victory for the forces of law and order was somewhat dampened when all of the prisoners subsequently escaped.
Ford, just a year-and-a-half away from election as Governor of Illinois, was, as Usher F. Linder in his entertaining if somewhat unreliable Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar of Illinois noted, "a terror to horse thieves and murderers." It seems clear that, at the time, he regarded vigilante activity as a regrettable but necessary way to deal with the prairie bandits. He is reported to have warned from the bench during the trial of one gang member that if there was any attempt to retaliate against him by harming his family he would assemble his friends and neighbors and those responsible would find that "the first tree shall be their gallows."
The concept of citizens banding together to protect what they perceived to be their vital interests had already gained a foothold in the valley with the establishment of what were known as claim associations. Most of the early residents had settled there before the land was legally opened for sale to the public and their claims were of dubious legal value. Claims associations, such as the Oregon Claim Society formed in 1836, were organized to oppose claim jumpers and land speculators and to protect the land claims of their members until legal title could be obtained.
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So a kind of precedent, albeit a mild one, already existed when, in an outraged reaction to the burning of the courthouse and, possibly, in response to direct counsel from Ford, some fifteen citizens met in April at the log school house in White Rock township in the eastern part of the county and formed themselves into an association committed, not to protecting land claims, but to driving the outlaws from the area. The tactic agreed upon was a warning to move out or be horsewhipped, although it sometimes developed that the horse-whipping was administered as an accompaniment rather than a sequel to the warning. In any case, the new association's numbers grew quickly; membership was soon up in the hundreds, and parallel organizations appeared all over the valley. They were most often known as "Regulators," sometimes as "lynching clubs," and one group formed at the Lee County community of Inlet gave itself the imposing name of "Associations for the Furtherance of the Cause of Justice."
The Ogle group sprang into action by warning and whipping two horse thieves. One miscreant subsequently declared his innocence and joined the Regulators, the other disappeared from the valley as ordered. The banditti, however, were not disposed to accept this turn of events meekly.
Their leader was a tall, sturdy, old migrant from Ohio named John Driscoll who had come to Ogle in 1835 and settled on Killbuck Creek in the northeastern part of the county. He had four grown sons: William, David, Pierce, and Taylor. Both John and Taylor had been convicted of arson in Ohio, and the other three sons were equally dubious citizens. William, who was about forty-five years old and who lived at South Grove in DeKalb County, was regarded as the worst of a thoroughly bad lot.
Shortly after the Regulators carried out their first two whippings, a grist mill owned by W.S. Wellington, the first Captain of the Regulators, was destroyed by fire. Wellington's horse, too, was killed in a particularly cruel manner: its front legs were broken and the creature was left to perish in agony.
Fearing for himself and his family, Wellington resigned and John Campbell, like the elder Driscoll a resident of White Rock Township, was elected to replace him.
William Driscoll greeted Campbell's accession to office with a letter offering to kill him.
In response, Campbell assembled a band of nearly 200 Regulators and marched on William's place where a much smaller band of outlaws had gathered. Seeing they were seriously outnumbered, the outlaws fled only to return several hours later with the Sheriff of DeKalb County and several other local figures of consequence in tow—presumably to protest the extra-legal nature of the vigilante band. But when the Sheriff and his companions heard a detailed account of the misdeeds of the Driscolls and their associates, they agreed that the Regulators' demands were entirely justified. The Driscolls promised that they would be gone in twenty days.
They didn't mean it. Instead, meeting at the farm of William Bridge in Washington Grove, the gang members concluded that Campbell and Phineas Chaney, another prominent Regulator, had to go. On June 25th, there was a failed attempt on Chaney's life. Two days later, on Sunday, June 27, at about sundown, David and Taylor Driscoll ambushed Campbell at his farm and David killed him with a single shot. While Campbell's wife ran to her dying husband, their thirteen-year-old son, Martin, fired at the Driscolls with a double-barreled shotgun but the weapon failed to go off.
The news of Campbell's murder spread rapidly and by the following morning outraged Regulators were on the move. It was known from Mrs.
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Campbell's account that David and Taylor Driscoll had been the gunmen on the scene but hoofprints leading away from the Campbell farm indicated that there had been as many as five riders. The Regulators, accompanied by Ogle County Sheriff William T. Ward, followed the trail to David Driscoll's home. There, John, the only suspect present, acknowledged that he had been at South Grove the previous day. He also admitted that he had recently ridden a horse found in David's stable, which had a broken shoe matching one of the hoofprints the Regulators had trailed from the Campbell farm. Sheriff Ward promptly arrested him "on suspicion of being accessory to the murder of John Campbell." That same afternoon William and Pierce Driscoll were taken in custody by a group of Regulators from Rockford. David, the known gunman, and Taylor, his accomplice at the Campbell slaving, had successfully flown the coop.
William and Pierce were taken to the Campbell home where it was decided to take the three Driscolls to Washington Grove and there try them for Campbell's murder. The next morning, Tuesday the 29th, three of the Regulators appeared in Oregon and, over the protest of Judge Ford and Sheriff Ward, removed the senior Driscoll from jail and took him to the appointed spot, just off of present-day Prairie Road, where the Rockford Regulators had already brought William and Pierce.
A crowd estimated to number as many as 500 had gathered under the Washington Grove oaks and, after another unsuccesful attempt by Ward to have John Driscoll returned to his custody, the "trial" proceeded. E.S. Leland, later a judge at Ottawa, presided. He directed those who were members of the Regulators to form themselves in a circle. Some 120 men responded initially but 9 were dismissed as not being bonafide Regulators leaving 111 men to pass judgment on the 3 Driscolls.
Chairs for the accused, witnesses, prosecutors, and volunteer defense lawyers were placed inside the circle. William Driscoll, examined first, initially denied the prosecutor's accusation that he had instructed his brother, David, to shoot Campbell. But when confronted with the testimony of Henry Hill, who swore he had overheard William do so, said "I remember it now; I did use the language, but only did it in jest"—an explanation that very likely was received with considerable scepticism. His father, while admitting he had stolen so many horses he had lost count, could not be moved from his denial that he had had anything to do with the Campbell killing.
No evidence was found linking Pierce Driscoll to the murders and he was released from custody. There were closing arguments and Acting Judge Leiand then put the case to the one jury. The guilty verdict that followed was described as "almost unanimous," as was the jury's sentencing decision; father and son were to be hanged on the spot.
True to their roles, the Driscolls requested they be shot instead of "hanged like dogs." This was agreed to and a delay of several hours was granted to permit the condemned men to repent, confer with their lawyers, and otherwise prepare for eternity. William prayed and confessed to six murders, while his hard-as-nails father declined any such show of weakness. During this interval some in the crowd had second thoughts about the proceedings, but there was no dissuading the determined majority. What is very likely the largest firing squad in history was then assembled. The Regulators were formed into two roughly equal lines, fifty-six in one, fifty-five in the other, each group assigned to the execution of one of the Driscolls. At least one unloaded weapon was issued to each contingent so that those with misgivings could cling to the hope that they had not been part of the fatal fusillade.
First John, impassive to the end, was led before the fifty-six Regulator line, blindfolded, and made to kneel. Fifty-six rifles cracked and he fell dead. A trembling William was next put through the same procedure before the second group of Regulators. Afterwards, Pierce Driscoll, was offered assistance in transporting the bodies of his father and brother home but he declined to have anything to do with the business. A shallow grave was dug, both bodies placed in it, and the Regulators, singly or in small groups,
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mounted up and rode off.
While there is no doubt that the vigilante justice administered by the Regulators turned the tide against the bandits in the valley, there were those who questioned whether such conduct can be justified in a society that purports to be governed by law. In early July, Philander Knappen, editor of the Rockford Star protested:
"... If two or three hundred citizens are to assume the administration of lynch law ... we shall soon have a fearful state of things, and where, we ask, will it end...? ...[I]t will be argued ... that we have in this new country no means or proper places for securing offenders ... to which we answer, then build them."
A few nights after this editorial appeared, the Star's offices were sacked and the type broken up and scattered on the floor. Knappen decided that it would be best to exit the newspaper business in Rockford.
Concerned that some future prosecutor might take a view of their activities like that expressed by Knappen, the Regulators and their allies staged a rigged trial. On September 24th, more than 100 men (reports of the exact number vary from 104 to 112) were tried in separate, back-to-back cases for the murders of John and William Driscoll. Ford again presided and the same jury heard both cases. No witnesses to the June 29th events at Washington Grove were produced, the prosecution's case consisted primarily of inadmissible rumors and as John Dean Caton, one of the defense attorneys, later wrote: the prosecutor, Seth Farwell "utterly failed to prove that any person had been killed much less that any of the prisoners had taken any part in killing anybody." The jury, which included at least one Regulator among its members, announced its verdicts of not guilty without bothering to leave the jury box.
There is a case to be made both for the many ordinarily law-abiding citizens who did what seemed to them to be necessary to end the outlaw reign in the valley, and for those who argued that such conduct struck deeply against the principles on which our society is based. Although very likely unnoticed at the time by the future Regulators of 1841, the case against vigilante justice had been made more than three years earlier by a young lawyer-politician who had served in the Rock River country during the Black Hawk War. On January 27,1838, addressing the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Abraham Lincoln took note of the then current outbreak of mob violence "from New England to Louisiana," including lynchings in Misissippi of gamblers and of blacks charged with conspiring to raise an insurrection, and in St. Louis of a mulatto man accused of murder. Then he warned his audience:
"When men take it in their heads today, to hang gamblers or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang someone who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of tomorrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake... There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law."
Longtime ISHS member Herbert S. Channick of Rockford is an arbitrator and mediator for the American Arbitration Association, the New York Stock Exchange, and other alternate dispute resolution forums. He is a frequent lecturer on government regulation of urban planning and development, and has publicized widely on that and related topics.
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