MONMOUTH, Ill. — Feb. 2, 2018, marked the 100th anniversary of the end of a sensational Monmouth trial that may have sent an innocent man to prison for a brutal triple murder nearly seven years earlier.
John Wesley Knight, a 35-year-old black man, was sentenced to 19 years in Joliet penitentiary for the Sept. 30, 1911, slaying of William E. Dawson; his wife, Charity; and their daughter, 13-year-old Georgia, as they slept in their beds at 1008 South First St.
The Dawson family was initially believed murdered by an ax-wielding intruder, and the crime was soon linked to a series of similar ax murders near railroad tracks that extended through Iowa, Kansas and Colorado. Many leads and theories were pursued, and one of the nation’s pioneers in forensic investigations, Matthew W. McClaughry — son of former Monmouth resident and Leavenworth warden R. W. McClaughry — in 1913 announced he had solved the case, but no suspect was charged in the Monmouth murder.
Details of the Monmouth murder are too complex to relate here, but here is a brief synopsis:
William Dawson was a former horse thief who had spent time in prison but had since reformed and was the trusted custodian of First United Presbyterian Church. When he did not show up on Sunday morning to unlock the church, members of the congregation went to investigate the three Dawsons were discovered in bed with their heads mutilated.
Hundreds of curious citizens soon surrounded the house, which compromised the investigation, as bloodhounds had no clear scent to follow, especially following recent heavy rains. The dogs led police toward what is today Citizens Lake, but the trail quickly went cold.
Robbery was determined not to have been a motive, as cash and jewelry were found near the bodies. An ax was found in the barn behind the house, but it was ruled out as a weapon, as it had chicken feathers on it. When a chicken-wire fence was removed from the back yard two weeks later, an 18-inch piece of gas pipe with blood and hair on it was discovered. Also discovered was a pocket flashlight, which would play a role in an eventual trial.
An early suspect was a horse thief named Stoelwegen, recently released from prison, whom Dawson had implicated and who had vowed revenge, but he was located the next day, 200 miles from Monmouth. A suspect in an ax murder in Ellsworth, Kansas — Charles Marzyck — had ties to Monmouth, having worked in a local cigar factory. Captured in Canada, he was brought to trial in Kansas, but cleared after demonstrating he had an alibi. Henry Lee Moore, a drifter whom McClaughry suspected of the string of ax murders, was convicted in Missouri in 1913 for the ax murder of his mother and grandmother and sentenced to life in prison, but he was never tried for any other murder.
Essentially, the Monmouth murder investigation had gone cold.
About 1915, Monmouth attorney (and future Monmouth mayor) John H. Hanley decided to privately investigate the case, with the assistance of fellow Monmouth attorneys E.P. Field and W.F. Graham. According to a story in the Monmouth Atlas, John Knight — then serving a 20-year sentence for burglary at Joliet — had repeatedly written to his wife to secure his release from prison and threatened that he might tell something of the Dawson murder in revenge, if more successful efforts weren’t employed. Meanwhile, another black man named Loving Mitchell, who had worked with Knight in the M. & St. L. roundhouse in Monmouth, was implicated in the murder. A key piece of evidence was the flashlight that had been recovered in the Dawson yard, which bore the inscription “Lovey,” along with “Colo. Springs, Sept. 4, ’11” — also the location of an ax murder a few weeks before. Mitchell was described as a giant, stoop-shouldered man.
Mitchell was arrested by St. Louis police, but so was Knight’s wife, Anna Marie — charged as co-conspirators with Knight in the murder. Interviewed later by a reporter from the Daily Atlas, Anna Marie Knight described her ordeal. She had been quite ill and was pulled out of bed, then driven to Peoria, barely able to sit up due to chills and weakness. Over the next 11 days, she was repeatedly questioned and taunted by fellow prisoners, but she maintained her innocence and said she was not afraid to face the grand jury. She maintained that she had been at a church service until 9 o’clock on the night of the murder and didn’t learn of it until the following morning.
Still, newspapers widely reported that Mrs. Knight had confessed being in the yard when her husband and Mitchell murdered the Dawsons. It was reported that she told Monmouth police chief Webb Morrison that the trio had scattered red pepper across their path as they fled the murder house to throw bloodhounds off the scent. It was also reported that she had been taken to Peoria to protect her against mob violence in Monmouth, a charge denied by the police chief.
Mrs. Knight was described by the Peoria newspaper as “a slender, neat-looking colored woman with a brown skin and singularly large expressive eyes. Her voice is soft and musical and she uses the speech of an educated person. She says she worked for the Dawsons and was much at their house (located just one block south). She has been twice divorced from Knight, who is a burglar by profession, remarrying him each time.”
Although a detective had secured testimony from Knight in prison that was expected convict Mitchell, the citizens of Monmouth were surprised when the grand jury decided there was insufficient evidence to take him to trial and he was released. When asked where he would go, Mitchell replied, “Back to St. Louis where they got me and back to work on the construction gang where I was employed when arrested. I got 18 months work there and if they want me again they will know where to look for me.”
But the Monmouth authorities were persistent. In September 1917, Mitchell was again arrested in St. Louis and charged with the Dawson murder. They obtained permission from state officials to transfer John Knight back to Monmouth, where he reportedly implicated Mitchell before the grand jury.
For nearly a year, Mitchell was held in the Warren County jail while witnesses were sought to testify against him. He was arraigned in January along with Knight and another black man named Tom Lewis — all charged with murder. The case went to trial in early February and Lewis was released due to insufficient evidence, but testimony against Mitchell and especially Knight was damaging. Knight was found guilty and sentenced to 19 years in the state penitentiary. Mitchell’s case was continued until September, but he was released when the state’s attorney was unable to secure the necessary witnesses.
Knight was eventually released from prison — perhaps for health reasons. He had developed a severe lung ailment and asthma and in October 1931 entered the Warren County Home, as his wife was apparently unable to care for him. He died March 21, 1932, just short of his 50th birthday. Anna Marie Knight lived until 1962.
Leo Ryan, editor of the Daily Atlas, who covered the trials, long contended that he believed Knight to be innocent of the murders.
In 2017, crime writer Bill James published The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery (Simon & Schuster), co-authored with his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James. Extensively researched, the book contends that the Dawson murder was the work of a German serial killer named Paul Mueller, whose first crime occurred in Massachusetts in 1898, and who traveled the country by rail killing perhaps as many as 100 Americans before returning to Europe, where he may have continued his spree. For those killings, the authors contend that four innocent people were executed, seven were killed by lynch mobs and four — including John Knight — served prison sentences.
Paul Mueller was never caught.
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.