Knox’s nude antics at Monmouth hotel sparked sensational 1907 trial
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Memorial Day 1907 was truly a day for remembrance in the longtime rivalry between Monmouth College and Knox College. A wet and wild Friday, May 30 would end with a splash — the entire Siwash baseball team under arrest for indecent exposure.
The excitement began with the final game of the season between the archrivals, a series that Knox led 3–0. Monmouth’s athletic park at 11th and Broadway was the site of what the Daily Atlas termed “a waterpolo exhibition of the national game.” Despite torrential rains, an estimated 150 fans from Galesburg “waded to the park.”
According to the Atlas reporter, the game was knotted at zero until the fifth inning, when Knox scored on “an error, two walks and a slippery field.” In the bottom of the inning, Monmouth tied the score on “an error, a hit, four balls and a slippery field.” Then, according to the reporter, “The Weather Man carried off the blue ribbons after both had scored, Umpire McMillan ending the bath by closing up the natatorium.”
The Monmouth players headed to their gymnasium to dry out, while the Siwash repaired to the elegant new Colonial Hotel on East Broadway, where they had secured a room for changing. In those days, hotel rooms typically shared a bathroom between two suites. When the mud-caked Knox players sought to access the bathtub, however, they found the door was locked.
In the adjoining suite, Joseph T. Sterling — a traveling salesman from Des Moines — and his wife, Margaret, were resting after having driven from Iowa to place flowers on his mother’s grave. A former Monmouth resident, Sterling made the trek every Memorial Day.
The Knox players pounded on the door, causing an angry Sterling to meet some of them in the hall, where he informed them that he had rented the bath as a private facility. Things quieted down, but after a few minutes, the locked door was forced open, and Knox players allegedly proceeded to undress for the tub — while a shocked Mr. and Mrs. Sterling watched through their wide-open bathroom door.
When the players ignored Sterling’s demands to desist, he phoned the authorities. Within minutes, police sergeant Sam Dunbar was on the scene, taking down the name of each Knox offender — 12 in all. Shortly thereafter, Sterling announced that he had secured the services of Monmouth city attorney Erle P. Field and would return to Monmouth the following week, where he would prosecute the Knox men to the fullest extent of the law.
The Siwashers were released on their own recognizance, with an order to appear in the police magistrate’s court. Meanwhile, the “Beauty at the Bath” incident took root in the press — the Monmouth paper expressing indignation over the affront to decency, while the Galesburg Mail wrote a long editorial calling for Knox to sever all athletic ties with Monmouth. The charges, it said, were trumped up, and the defendants — who included the son of President Thomas McClelland — were among the most honorable of the Knox student body.
On Wednesday, June 5, the Knox students, accompanied by President McClelland, assembled in the Monmouth courtroom with three attorneys, who threatened a countersuit for false imprisonment. Attorney Field immediately asked for a continuance, as Mr. Sterling and his wife could not be in Monmouth until the following Monday. Although indignant — particularly because the seniors would have to miss a preliminary graduation exercise — the Knox men agreed to return to court on Monday, not suspecting that before that day some of them would also be hauled into Knox County court on a charge that they had voted illegally in the recent Galesburg city election.
A crowd gathered in the Monmouth courtroom Monday morning, where it was determined that each of the defendants would be tried separately. A Knox attorney waived a jury trial and the case against the first defendant, team captain John Hilding, was heard by Magistrate Elisha G. Godfrey. Sterling, his wife, the police sergeant and the hotel manager were all questioned thoroughly by the defense and gave convincing testimony, but the trial dragged on through the evening hours, with Hilding also presenting a strong case for innocence.
At 8 p.m., the judge issued his decision — “Not guilty.” Field had failed to make his case.
The trial had not been without drama. In the middle of Sterling’s testimony, an audience member — Cameron resident Stirling Morris — declared, “You couldn’t believe that man on oath; he has already broken up four or five families.” Morris, who was married to Sterling’s first wife, was immediately grabbed by attorney Field and arrested for indecent language. After paying $50 bail, he told reporters that he and several relatives had been waiting years to publicly shame Sterling, and they believed this was finally their chance.
When the trials of the remaining players commenced the following morning, city attorney Field decided to drop all the charges, believing that a conviction at this point would be impossible. The Galesburg Mail celebrated the vindication and mercilessly raked Field, noting “It is rumored that a fund is being raised to construct a monument to his memory, said statuary to be constructed wholly of lemons. It would be a most touching tribute to his abilities.”
The paper was also not kind to the Sterlings: “It is rumored that Mr. and Mrs. Sterling have departed for their home in Des Moines, Ia., where it is hoped that bath tubs are frequent enough so that they won’t have to go to law to determine who shall use them.”
While the legal troubles of the Knox team were over, they had just begun for Stirling Morris, who was put on trial June 24 for using obscene language during the earlier trial. Testimony from 20 witnesses offered conflicting views on whether or not he had made the alleged remark. The judge eventually found him guilty and fined him $25 plus $12 costs, following which he announced he would appeal. The case dragged on until the following January, when his fine was reduced to $10 plus costs.
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.