McDonough County, Illinois
Murder of John Wilson

Previous to November, 1834, there was no event in the history of McDonough county calculated to arouse any particular excitement among her citizens, save the incident of the lost child, an account of which we publish in a previous chapter. The settlers of that day pursued the even tenor of their way, endeavoring to make for themselves and families a home in this unbroken wildness. Their little troubles were settled by a fair fight, and a friendly drink afterward, and no hard feelings were entertained.

A year or two previous to the time of which we write, Elias McFadden, his son, David, and son-in-law, Wylie McFadden, with their families, came to this county and settled on the farm now owned and occupied by William Hunter, about one mile south of Macomb. If reports are correct, all were of an over-bearing and quarrelsome nature, and from the first trouble ensued between them and their neighbors.

John Wilson, the murdered man, came to the county about the same time, and settled on what is known as the “Ruthy” Wilson farm, adjoining the McFadden’s, now Hunter’s place. Wilson was generally respected by all; a good-natured, yet bold and fearless man.

The McFaddens and Wilson had not long been neighbors before there was trouble between them in reference to some timber land lying near. Threats were made by the former against the latter, and at the time of the murder, as it afterwards was shown, Wylie McFadden was in Rushville consulting Judge Minshall as to whether they had the right to kill Wilson should he appear on their place.

In the early part of the month of November, 1834, an execution was placed in the hands of Nelson Montgomery, Constable and Deputy Sheriff of the county, against Wylie McFadden, directing him to levy on the property of said Wylie McFadden to satisfy a judgment against him in favor of Henton & Robinson, merchants in Macomb. Mr. Montgomery took the execution and called upon Wilson to accompany him, and take his team, that he might haul away a certain amount of corn he proposed to seize to satisfy the claim. Apprehending no danger, Mr. Wilson agreed to accompany him. Arriving at the place, they were met by Elias McFadden, who engaged them in conversation, decoying them around to the north side of the house, and when in proper range, through the window, David McFadden committed the foul deed, shooting Wilson down, without at word of warning. Mr. Montgomery caught him as he fell, and dragged him within a woodshed and hurried off to town and gave the alarm. A crowd of excited people at once proceeded out to the scene of the murder, and found Elias McFadden coolly repairing a fence, while near by lay Wilson in a supposed dying position. McFadden was at once arrested, and search was made for the then unknown murderer. Searching the house, a rifle was found in the corner near the north window unloaded; a pane of glass was found broken out of the window; a book laying upon the sill, and the sash and book both powder-marked. The question now arose who committed the deed. Wylie McFadden was supposed to be away, and David was not known to be near. Searching, footsteps were found leading from the house in the direction of the residence of David McFadden, who lived just across the hollow on the west side. Following the tracks, they were led to the door of David McFadden’s house; and going in they found him at work on a shoemaker’s bench, as entirely unconcerned as his father, and acting as innocently as though no cold-blooded murder had taken place. He was at once arrested, and, in company with his father, brought to town and placed under guard, to await the result of the wound inflicted upon Mr. Wilson. Wylie McFadden, coming home the same evening, was likewise arrested.

Mr. Wilson lived some days. On his death, a preliminary examination was had before James Clarke, Esq., Justice of the Peace, the evidence being as already narrated, and the three men, Elias, David and Wylie McFadden were committed to the county jail, without bail, to await the meeting of the Circuit Court.

On the fifteenth day of November, 1834, the grand jury found a true ill of indictment against the three, and a fewdays afterward they were brought before the court; a change of venue was asked and granted, and two of the party, Elias and David, were taken the following spring (1835) to Rushville, Schuyler county, for trial. Wylie McFadden was discharged by the Judge, there being no evidence against him.

George Wison, Alfred Evans, Nelson Montgomery, Joseph Updegraff, J. W. Brattle, Moses Henton, William J. Frazier, William Bowen, Daniel Bowen, Perry Keys, and James Anderson were each placed under bonds of $300 to appear as witnesses in the case.

In May, 1835, the case was called in the Circuit Court at Rushville, and Elias and David McFadden, father and son, were placed upon trial for their lives. Judge Young presided, and Cyrus Walker appeared for the people as Prosecuting Attorney, while Judge Minshall assumed the hopeless task of defending the murderers.

The trial lasted for several days, Mr. Walker, well known as the best criminal lawyer in the West, exerted all his powers to weave around the murderers a chain of unimpeachable testimony. Judge Minshall defended in a most admirable manner, doing all for his clients that it was possible for man to do, but without avail. In his speech, he charged the Judge, the attorney for the people, and the jury also, of not prosecuting, but persecuting his clients.

As was expected, the jury brought in a verdict of murder in the first degree, and upon Judge Young devolved the duty of pronouncing the sentence of death. This was done, and in due time, upon a scaffold, erected in a hollow near the city of Rushville, Elias and David McFadden paid the penalty for the crime committed. Thomas Hayden, as Sheriff of the count, erected the scaffold, and his son, acting as Deputy Sheriff, pulled the drop that launched the souls of the guilty men into eternity. His bill of $1 50 for hanging the guilty wretches is now on file in the County Clerk’s office at Macomb.

Such, in brief, is the record of the second murder that ever occurred in McDonough county. For the facts in the case we are indebted to James Clarke, David Clarke, John O. C. Wilson, J. M. Campbell, and others. We believe the story is as exact as it is possible to get it at this late day, and only in minor details can exceptions be taken.

 History of McDonough County, Illinois Volume 1, Chapter V. – page 46 - 48
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