Notes from the White County Historical Society

By Charlene Shields

Notes from the White County Historical Society as they appear in "The Carmi Times."

Copyright ©2000 by "The Carmi Times" Permission to reprint granted to Cindy Birk Conley and the ILGenWeb by Tammy Knox, editor, "The Carmi Times."

The hanging that wasn't

This is the conclusion of the story of White County's first mur­der trial in which Frederick Cotner was found guilty of the murder of William McKee and on Sept. 3, 1824 was sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was to be carried out on Sept. 21, 1824.

Signatures were obtained on a petition for leniency, and a man was dispatched by horseback to find the state governor and secure a pardon for Cotner. The county history says when the messenger got to the governor's home in Vandalia, the governor had gone to Albion. So the frantic rider made his way to Albion and got the reprieve signed.

In the meantime, a great crowd had gathered, and Cotner was brought to the scaffold. With only one minute between the accused and eternity, the rider came thundering in on his foam-covered horse, wav­ing the reprieve. And Cotner was spared.

However, Will Hay, in his remi­niscences of early history which he wrote for the White County Demo­crat in 1916, says that's not quite the way it happened. Hay says, al­though the rider did indeed do some very hard riding, he returned to White County and delivered the re­prieve to Sheriff Daniel Hay on the night before the execution was to take place.

In Will Hay's words: "But the town was full of curious people that gathered in from the surrounding country to see the hanging, and, as many had come long distances, some having to camp two or three nights on the road, something had to be done to satisfy them, so the great play of having the messenger gallop in on his jaded, foam-covered horse just in time was arranged and successfully carried out. Cotner was in on the play and did his part well. No such crowd had ever before been seen in Southern Illinois, most of the people coming in wagons bringing all the family and the dog. Many arrived two or three days be­fore the day set for the execution and camped as near the scaffold as they could.

"Very few of the crowd ever learned that a good one had been put over on them. Most of them would have felt insulted had they known the truth."

The 1883 White County history says Cotner remained in this region for a few years and then left for other parts. As far as I can deter­mine, the Shipleys' part in this trial was never defined, and they were not sentenced.


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