Just after lunch on Thursday, Dec. 11, 1856, Monmouth College sophomore Matthew Jamison was walking on East Broadway toward the Square, when he met an agitated Mrs. William Grant in front of her house, on the southwest corner of North Second Street. She was running toward the Baldwin House hotel, which stood directly across the street, on the current site of Security Savings Bank.
Following her to the hotel entrance, Jamison encountered an elderly farmer named William Fleming at the foot of the stairs, his face covered with blood. Fleming was shouting, “They killed my sons!”
On the floor of the hotel barroom, Jamison saw the body of 25-year-old Henry Fleming, his glassy eyes staring at the ceiling. Upstairs on a bed, Henry’s older brother John also lay dead. William Crozier, a 25-year-old carpenter, had just surrendered to authorities for committing the deed.
Jamison would vividly recall the scene 55 years later in a memoir written from his retirement home in South Dakota. His angry account of the double homicide, however, was in stark contrast to a report published shortly after the tragedy in the Aurora Beacon.
The correspondent for the Beacon painted Crozier as an innocent victim, who had acted in self-defense.
“William Crozier, a very respectable young man of Monmouth, of good character,” the reporter wrote, “became attached to a daughter of Mr. William Fleming of that place, which attachment was fully and warmly reciprocated. The young man, though otherwise an unexceptional person, was poor, and that circumstance operated to create a fierce hostility towards the match, on the part of Fleming and his two sons.”
To protect his 17-year-old daughter, Alice, from Crozier’s advances, Fleming had another of his sons take her by train to stay with relatives in Pennsylvania. After hearing rumors that Crozier might try to follow her to Pennsylvania, Fleming asked his attorney, Robert Holloway, to assist him in retrieving Alice’s letters to Crozier and also had Holloway draw up a paper for Crozier to sign, stating he would no longer pursue Alice.
On the morning of Dec. 11, Henry Fleming approached Crozier on the Public Square and requested an interview with him in his room at the Baldwin House. Crozier accompanied Henry, William and Holloway to his room, where he asked them to be seated and began building a fire. The Flemings said they were there on business and wanted to see the letters, to determine if Alice truly returned his affection.
Holloway presented the paper he had drawn up to Crozier, who refused to sign it. After Holloway crossed out some contentious lines, Crozier was still hesitant to sign, whereby Holloway advised him to consult with friends. When Crozier replied that he didn’t have many friends, Holloway went out into the hall to confer with Henry and his father and encountered John Fleming standing by the door. While the elder Fleming told his sons he was satisfied with the contents of the letters, he also stated that he thought Crozier should be whipped.
Holloway cautioned his client that he considered Crozier to be under his protection and that if they intended to do anything of the kind, to wait until they were out in the street.
Crozier then requested a conversation with Holloway about the paper, but Henry Fleming came into the room excitedly and said the time was up. John Fleming then entered the room and both brothers drew pistols. Holloway told them to put the guns back in their pockets and went downstairs to summon the proprietor, Hiram Baldwin, hoping his presence would restrain the brothers.
Coming back up the stairs, Holloway encountered Crozier’s younger brother James, who inquired about the situation and followed him to the room. Holloway and Baldwin came in the room and Henry locked the door. Then John Fleming entered and approached Crozier, who complained it was three against one. Henry Fleming told Crozier he would get him a pistol and they would settle it between them. Crozier stepped back and refused to fight.
Just then John Fleming drew out a whip, striking Crozier several times around the shoulders. Baldwin grabbed John Fleming’s wrist to stop him. At that point, Henry Fleming drew his pistol and a struggle commenced. James Crozier, standing in the hall, kicked down the door and entered the room, followed by the Flemings’ father and another boarder, Albert Lanphere.
William Crozier pulled out a 5-inch knife and stabbed John Fleming in the chest. Lanphere caught his arm. Two pistols were raised, pointed at William and Lanphere. John Fleming discharged his pistol and was grabbed by Holloway. Everyone went into the hall, where another pistol was fired and the bullet hit the ceiling. Holloway saw William Crozier stab Henry Fleming with the knife.
James Crozier struck the Flemings’ father in the head and grabbed Henry Fleming by the hair, as Holloway pushed the Crozier brothers back into the room and told them to stay there. The wounded Henry Fleming made his way down the stairs, while John Fleming, having lost considerable blood, sank into a corner. Holloway and Lanphere carried him to an adjoining room and called a physician.
The Beacon correspondent wrote: “Thus, in attempting by force to compel young Crozier to accede to their tyrannical dictation, two brothers were slain by the person they assailed, and the third person was roughly handled.”
In his memoir, Matthew Jamison, whose sympathies lay with the Flemings, wrote, “The Fleming family suffered great loss, and Warren County stands conspicuous with the name of Crozier written in blood upon her annals ; a name not to be pronounced in the home which shelters the sacred honor of a Christian household. He betrayed the innocent one, and in defense of that crime committed a double murder for which there was no extenuation, and he should have forfeited his life on a limb of the first tree at hand! I do not believe there is another instance in the history of our country where a family and the majesty of the law suffered such an enormity at the hands of one man, and the crime-laden scoundrel anointed with an acquittal and given his liberty!”
Jamison complained that members of Crozier’s church came to his defense and gave him comfort — bringing him fine meals in the county jail and keeping him company overnight. Jamison also was incensed that a Monmouth photographer had displayed in his gallery a picture of the Fleming brothers’ corpses, which “became the subject of curious inquiry on the part of the groundlings who repaired thither in numbers to gratify a morbid curiosity”
On the day following the killings, a hearing was held in Warren County court with the Hon. J.C. Morgan presiding. Called to the stand were Hiram Baldwin, Robert Holloway, Albert Lanphere, James Crozier and Dr. Young, who had examined the bodies. Their testimony all supported the premise that Crozier had acted in self-defense.
After being released from custody, according to Jamison’s memoirs, Crozier left town and headed for Texas. While that may have been true, the 1860 census shows him back in Illinois, working on a farm in Iroquois County, south of Kankakee. On Aug. 22, 1861, he married 21-year-old Louisa Hedge. A daughter was born to the couple the following June. On their first wedding anniversary, Crozier enlisted as a private in Company A of the 76th Regiment, Illinois Infantry. Tragically, less than two months later he died of dysentery in a hospital in Columbus, Kentucky.
Crozier’s first love, Alice Fleming, also suffered a sad fate. She never married and worked as a milliner and dressmaker in Monmouth the rest of her life. In 1879, at the age of 41, she died of pulmonary consumption (likely tuberculosis).
The Fleming brothers each left a widow and Henry left two sons, ages 11 and 12. It is not known where Henry was buried, but John was one of the first to be laid to rest in the new Monmouth Cemetery, which opened in the fall of 1856.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.