In 1845, twenty thousand people gathered to witness the hanging of Elizabeth “Betsey” Reed.  A resident of the Palestine area, she was convicted of murdering her husband by serving him a cup of sassafras tea laced with arsenic.  She became the first and only woman ever to be hanged in the State of Illinois.  Despised by the mob and considered a witch by many, she rode to the gallows sitting atop her coffin, singing hymns of praise.  Was she a murderess or a victim of her own reputation?      Based on actual events, The Hanging of Betsey Reed is a tale of treachery and deceit on the Illinois frontier.

Rick Kelsheimer, an amateur historian, is a native of southern Illinois.  After many years as a behavioral therapist and substance abuse counselor in Colorado and Texas, he returned to his hometown of Robinson.  He now promotes rock concerts and owns a book store, along with the local bowling alley, where he can usually be found watching life go by, ten frames at a time.  He is currently working on two historical novels that also take place in the Wabash Valley.


The Hanging of Betsey Reed
A Wabash River Tragedy on the Illinois Frontier

by Rick Kelsheimer

- Excerpt -

     Say what you want about public hangings, but one thing is for sure…the outcome is permanent for the one dangling at the wrong end of the rope. That was the unfortunate position in which Elizabeth “Betsey” Reed found herself on the morning of May 23, 1845, when she became the first and only woman ever to be hung in the great State of Illinois.
     Over the years many folks have given their version of Betsey’s infamous demise, but as a first-hand eyewitness, I’ve found most of these accounts to be lacking and incorrect. Now that I’ve reached my golden years and seem to have an abundance of free time on my hands, I’ve decided to take pen in hand and write an accurate history of the incident. I personally witnessed most of the events firsthand, but reconstructed some of the story after interviewing the principals involved, and also from their journals and letters, which I have in my possession. I suppose that I could cite a high moral purpose as the reason for recording these events, but I won’t. It’s because the true story of how Elizabeth “Betsey” Reed found her way to the gallows beside the Embarrass River is just a darn good, yet tragic story.
     My name is Nathan Crockett. With the exception of a brief stint in the U.S. Army and a two-year stint at Saint Gabriel College in Vincennes, I have spent most of my life wandering the rolling hills and hardwood forests along the Wabash River. I’ve seen the land go from a frontier wilderness, inhabited by hostile Indians, to a peaceful farming community where all the folks for the most part seem to get along just fine.
     A wilderness doesn’t tame itself. It takes a rugged individual with a pioneer spirit, a sturdy disposition, and an explorer’s heart, to bring civilization to the hinterland. Some folks look for fame and fortune. Some look for God in the new country. Others just want to see what’s on the other side of the river. The one thing that they all have in common is that they want a better life and are willing to fight to get it. They’ll fight the land, disease, wild animals, and even sometimes each other, but rest assured, they aim to reach their goal. With all of these kindred spirits moving into the new land, there was bound to be people that crossed paths with different agendas. Ruckuses were bound to break out.
And breakout they did.
     Just like in the Bible, people were all fighting for their piece of the New Jerusalem. Except in this case, the New Jerusalem was Crawford County, Illinois. In the last hundred years, Crawford County has been claimed by the Piankeshaw, Miami, Delaware, and Kickapoo Indian tribes. Throw in the French, the British, and finally the new Americans and you have a recipe for bloodshed.
     In the wilderness, only the strong are able to survive. So in the long run, the American settlers were too numerous and claimed the new land for good. The Indians moved west and the pioneers came in droves. Hunters, farmers, and merchants all made their way to Crawford County to start a new life. You would think that there was plenty of room for everyone. But with human nature being what it is, there was bound to be trouble.
Sometimes you don’t even have to go outside the family to find treachery. Cain didn’t have far to go to find his victim. If I remember right, King Henry VIII removed his wife’s head on more than one occasion, when the grass looked greener on the other side of the fence. So it was with Leonard and Betsey Reed.
     For richer or poorer… in sickness and in health… and death do us part are all part of the marriage covenant, but I don’t think that the Good Lord intended for us to speed up the process, especially, the part about death parting us. A jury of her peers decided that Betsey Reed wanted to become a widow. They also decided that her husband Leonard wasn’t ready to be dead.



Images & Content Property of Rick Kelsheimer, All Rights Reserved (c)2010