MONMOUTH, Ill. — I first heard about the Cedar Creek Picnic Scandal when I was conducting research for a commemorative Monmouth sesquicentennial book in 1981. Review Atlas historian Ralph Eckley, who always relished a good story, provided some tantalizing details, but until recently I had not taken the time to conduct any actual research on the affair.
The basics of Eckley’s story were as follows:
On a moonlit summer evening in 1886, a group of Monmouth businessmen, accompanied by five women who were not their wives, had a “picnic” on the banks of Cedar Creek, near Olmstead’s mill, north of Monmouth. Beer was consumed, there was skinny-dipping, and one woman in a state of undress was tied to a horse, which some rumors said bolted and took her back to Monmouth.
The most prominent of the men was J. Howard Pattee, president of the Pattee Plow Company and one of Monmouth’s leading citizens. Eckley said that as a penalty for his indiscretions, Pattee’s wife, Mary, demanded he build her the finest house in Monmouth. He further noted that almost immediately upon Mary’s death family members who were resentful of her had the house torn down.
The story sounds scandalous enough today, so one can only imagine the impact it had on the conservative Midwest town of Monmouth. According to the Evening Gazette, “Like wild fire, the rumors flew hither and thither until the whole section among a certain class seemed burning with gossip if not scandal. The picnic — as it was called — was preached about, talked about, and written about. It became so that modest people didn’t dare mention the word ‘picnic.’”
Preaching did indeed occur, as excerpts from various local sermons appeared in the July 26 Gazette. The Rev. A.H. Dean of the Presbyterian Church chided not only the accused but also the citizens of Monmouth for their gossip: “When neighboring towns are pointing the finger of scorn at us, it becomes the duty of our citizens to wash their hands of such iniquity… .” The Rev. George Wilding of the Methodist Church spoke about the “poor women who disgraced their sex on Cedar” and charged that “their depraved paramours should be sternly compelled by outraged society to occupy the same level with them.”
The day after the sermon excerpts appeared, the Gazette published a letter from Mr. Pattee, demanding that the ministers be bold enough to publicly state the names of those they had warned the community about. Indignant over the growing rumors about his own participation in the affair, Pattee would soon thereafter file a $5,000 slander suit against an old nemesis named George J. Hull, accusing him of spreading false testimony about having seen Pattee bathing with the women.
The grand jury met in September and indictments were handed up for eight men and five women on four charges — indecency (undressing and bathing together in public), intoxication, vulgar language and disturbing the peace. Most of the defendants posted bond, except for four of the women, three of whom reportedly “enjoyed themselves” as they climbed the stairs to jail, singing to the tune of “Climbing Up the Golden Stairs” and “Peek-a-Boo” as they looked through the bars.
When the trial got underway in circuit court that October, Monmouth turned into a virtual Peyton Place. Just seating an acceptable jury for the “Monmouth Thirteen” required sifting through a pool of 80 citizens. As lurid testimony emerged, seats for the trial became at a premium.
Space does not permit a full recounting of the court proceedings, which lasted about a week. Pattee and a partner, H.D. Harding, testified that they had driven to Cedar Creek that evening in search of some lost steers, and had been drawn into the affair when a young woman was knocked unconscious and they came to her assistance. Most of the evidence showed that there had been drinking, with bottles of beer having been procured from Lorimer’s saloon. There was loud, obscene language by both men and women, and screaming by a woman in distress. No real evidence supported the claim of “bare back riding” by one of the women.
The jury deliberated for nine hours and came back with a decision of “not guilty” for all parties. While there was little doubt about questionable behavior having occurred, pinning blame on specific individuals proved too difficult for the jurors.
One of the witnesses, a 22-year-old named Bob Walters who had spent time in reform school, had a fertile imagination. It was his testimony about having personally seen a woman riding “bareback” that led the grand jury to issue its indictments. During the trial, lawyers for the defense caught Walters in blatant contradictions of his grand jury testimony, and he was charged with perjury. His case was continued until the following January, at which time he pled guilty and was sentenced to three years of hard labor in the penitentiary at Joliet.
With Pattee and the other suspects having been found not guilty, and with a key witness having admitted to perjury, it would appear that the entire case was based on trumped-up charges, and the affair was really not much of a scandal. But there was still one legal case pending.
The slander case that Pattee had filed against George Hull in August 1886 did not come to trial until October 1887. In the proceedings, Hull maintained that the story he had told to the grand jury and in circuit court about Pattee being one of the revelers was true. A boy who had been with him that night corroborated his story. The attorney for the defense made an eloquent plea that his client was being made the scapegoat for the sins of others, and the jury agreed. They acquitted Hull of perjury, causing speculation about what really went on at the “picnic” to reemerge.
And what about the story of the Pattee mansion having been built as retribution for Pattee’s indiscretions? Just seven months after the trial, Pattee’s older wooden house that stood at the southwest corner of Main and Second Avenue was moved to a different location on the block. A month after that, a new barn and the framework for a Romanesque brick and stone mansion had been constructed on that site. The following summer, the Pattees traveled to Chicago to purchase fine new furniture for the home. So it is conceivable that regardless of her husband’s guilt or innocence, Mary Pattee demanded that the home be built as compensation for the social humiliation she had suffered.
The charge that Mary’s heirs had the house torn down immediately after her death due to family indignation is impossible to prove. However, records show that shortly after her death on Jan. 26, 1930 at the age of 86, her son had the house razed. By July of that year, he had erected a service station on that corner and signed a 10-year lease with the Shell Oil Co.
Ralph Eckley had not yet been born when the alleged picnic occurred, and his father, a veterinarian, had not yet located to Monmouth. However, by the turn of the century, Dr. Eckley’s office was in the Blackburn & Turnbull livery stable next to the Pattee home, so he may have heard stories. Ralph Eckley had earlier worked under Review Atlas editor Hugh Robb Moffet, who had been a newspaperman at the time of the trial. He more than likely heard first-person accounts about the affair from Moffet.
Finally, Eckley was a reporter at the time the house was being razed, so he would have been privy to local discussion about the reason for its destruction, whether accurate or not.
To the social historian, what may or may not have happened on the banks of Cedar Creek 130 years ago is of little consequence. But how rumors and innuendo turned a small Midwestern town on its head is a source of continuing fascination.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has also been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.