MONMOUTH, Ill. — Illinois is sometimes lampooned for the injudicious actions of its legislature or governor, but a man who was sentenced to die in Monmouth in 1847 would owe his life to the unconventional decisions of both.
On May 5 of that year, John Baxter stood at the bar of the Warren County Circuit Court as Judge Norman H. Purple pronounced sentence:
“To that Beneficent Power and Mercy, with the deepest emotions of pity and compassion, I commend you and your eternal destiny. The sentence of the law and the sentence of the court is, that you should be taken from this place to the jail of the County of Warren, and from thence to the place of execution; and that on Wednesday, the 9th day of December, next, between the hours of 1 and 4 o’clock p.m. of said day, you be hanged by the neck until you be dead, and may God Almighty have mercy on your soul.”
Baxter did not hang on Dec. 9, nor did he even spend the rest of his life behind bars for the brutal 1845 slaying of Col. George Davenport, the highly esteemed Indian agent and beloved founder of Davenport, Iowa. In fact, just moments after the judge pronounced the death sentence, he gave Baxter the remarkable option of choosing to be executed or be imprisoned for life. Not surprisingly, Baxter chose the latter.
Sent to the penitentiary at Alton, Baxter, who possessed either extreme luck or friends in high places, served only 10 years of his life sentence. Almost immediately after assuming office in 1857, Gov. William H. Bissell issued Baxter a pardon, provided that he would leave the state and never return.
Baxter headed west to the Washington Territory, where he would live a long life and die of old age. Three of his fellow conspirators were not so fortunate, having been hanged together in October 1845 in a spectacular public execution in the Rock Island courthouse square. One of the convicts was actually hanged twice, after the first rope broke, despite pleas from the audience of 5,000 to let him go free.
Before explaining the extraordinary legal gymnastics that made Baxter a free man, some background on the crime and the victim is in order.
George Davenport, who was 62 at the time of the murder, had led a remarkable life. Born in England in 1783, he went to sea on a merchant ship at an early age, visiting ports in the Baltic, France, Spain and Portugal. While in Russia, the ship was seized by the czar in response to Napoleon’s embargo on British vessels and the crew was imprisoned.
Eventually freed, the ship eventually set sail for New York, where Davenport suffered a leg injury rescuing a fellow sailor, and was forced to stay in the United States. After recovering, Davenport joined the army and participated in the War of 1812. He then fought in the Indian wars and escorted the Pottawatomie peace delegation to St. Louis.
Discharged from the army in 1816, Davenport made an expedition to Fort Armstrong on Rock Island, where he became a successful merchant trading with local tribes, and later became a fur trader. During the Black Hawk War, he was commissioned a colonel, serving as a quartermaster.
Davenport built his home on Arsenal Island, and with friends purchased a large tract of land opposite the island, which became the city of Davenport.
During the early 1840s, a series of atrocious crimes occurred in river towns along the Mississippi. Criminals known as the Banditti of the Prairie murdered, passed counterfeit bills and held up stagecoaches.
On the Fourth of July 1845, Col. Davenport’s family left the island to attend celebrations in town. The colonel, who was not feeling well, decided to stay home.
That afternoon, three of the bandits, who had been tipped off that Davenport had thousands of dollars in his safe, forced their way into the house, shot Davenport in the leg and tied him up, then tortured him to reveal where the loot was hidden. The bandits fled with only about $600, along with some personal effects. Picnickers on the island heard Davenport’s cries for help and rescued him, but he died later that evening.
Unable to solve the crime on their own, local authorities enlisted Edward Bonney, a bounty hunter and private detective from Montrose, Iowa, familiar with criminal gangs. He went undercover as a “Cincinnati counterfeiter,” and infiltrated the gang, which had first gone to Nauvoo after the murder then dispersed throughout the Midwest. Bonney soon learned that the killing had been done by John and Aaron Long, along with William Fox, and Robert Birch as lookout. He also learned that John Baxter, a former servant for the Davenport family, had dreamed up the crime, alerting the gang that the Davenports would be away on the Fourth of July. Worried about being recognized, Baxter did not participate in the crime, nor did he anticipate it would end in murder.
Bonney eventually captured these men and others, and all stood trial, except Birch, who escaped from the Knox County jail after receiving a change of venue and was never found.
After the trial and hanging of the Longs and Fox, John Baxter moved for a change of venue and was granted a trial in Carroll County. Because his trial should have been moved to the nearer Warren County, Carroll authorities sent him back to Rock Island, where he was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. He appealed to the Supreme Court based on the Carroll County venue error, and won a new trial in Warren County, where he was again found guilty and sentenced to die.
Baxter then sent another appeal to the Supreme Court, arguing that one of the Monmouth jurors had been ill and was allowed to lie on a cot during the trial. While the court found that the sick juror did not influence the verdict, it did find fault with the timing of the verdict, which was pronounced in the early hours of a Sunday morning — the Sabbath. A third trial was ordered, but in the meantime, the Illinois legislature passed an unprecedented act specifically on Baxter’s behalf, giving him the option of choosing life in prison or death.
Baxter’s decision to choose life allowed Monmouth to remain one of a handful of early county seats never to have hosted an execution.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.