The History of Joliet – Chapter 7

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

City’s first mayor nearly hanged by citizens

“The excitement was intense and the public opinion divided,” Woodruff wrote. “And in the excitement and division of sentiment, many were ready to hang Van Horne without judge or jury.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

Elected in 1852, Cornellius C. VAN HORNE was Joliet’s very first mayor. But he was lucky the residents didn’t hang him a few years before that election.

VAN HORNE was one of the city’s first settlers. Coming here in 1830, he quickly became an important man in the young community. As George H. WOODRUFF, the local historian, wrote of VAN HORNE:

“He was a man of liberal education, great shrewdness, abundant self-esteem and tenacity of purpose. … VAN HORNE is one of the most useful citizens in those days, transacting the business of early settlers, aiding them in obtaining their claims and land titles.”

VAN HORNE taught the first school classes during the winter of 1832. He was made the postmaster and the justice of the peace. But then in the summer of 1840, he almost got lynched.

They thought he was a killer.

As the story goes, told in two of WOODRUFF‘s history books, an old man named KRAMER passed through the city on his way home to Pennsylvania. The 6-foot man suffered from a nervous affliction that created fits. This may have been epilepsy.

The old man was found having a fit in a deserted blacksmith shop, and he was carried into the nearby MCLAUGHLIN home. When he was undressed, the old man was discovered to be carrying a large amount of money.

After recovering, the elderly man left on his journey but was later found along the trail having another fit. He mumbled something about being robbed before he died. His money was missing.

Local residents built the old man a coffin and buried him. They started questioning who had robbed this victim. VAN HORNE was very outspoken and accused MCLAUGHLIN‘s son. A formal charge was made, and the son posted bail. But the MCLAUGHLIN boy failed to show up in court for trial. He had simply disappeared on his way to court.

“The excitement ran high,” WOODRUFF wrote.

After the MCLAUGHLIN father had repeatedly searched for his son, aided by others, he accused VAN HORNE of killing his son and hiding the body. MCLAUGHLIN claimed that the boy had been killed in order for VAN HORNE to cover up his crime in robbing the old man.

Investigators found wagon tracks leading from VAN HORNE‘s home to a mill pond. From where the wagon had sat, they found the marks of a wheelbarrow, which was found in the water. There was human hair on the wheelbarrow.

After dragging the pond, the decomposed body of a man was found. Yes, that was his son, MCLAUGHLIN said. He pointed to certain missing teeth and made a positive identification. After a coroner’s inquest, MCLAUGHLIN swore out a warrant for VAN HORNE‘s arrest.

“The excitement was intense and the public opinion divided,” WOODRUFF wrote. “And in the excitement and division of sentiment, many were ready to hang VAN HORNE without judge or jury.”

But some of VAN HORNE‘s friends thought the body was too old and too tall to be the MCLAUGHLIN boy, who had been shorter with long black hair. They went to the grave of the old man who had been robbed and dug up the coffin.

It was empty.

At about the same time, the post office received a letter from Pennsylvania addressed to MCLAUGHLIN. When it was opened, the letter was from his son who apparently had run away rather than go to court.

“The tide of public opinion had changed when the discovery was made at the grave, and now those who had been so eager to hang VAN HORNE were still more eager to hang MCLAUGHLIN and his wife,” WOODRUFF wrote.

With more investigation, it was determined that MCLAUGHLIN and his wife had dug up the body, knocked out some teeth to match their son’s missing teeth and dumped it in the mill pond. They had used Van Horne’s wagon to make tracks to the pond to cast suspicion on him.

MCLAUGHLIN quickly heard about the letter from his son. He and his wife took off before they could be arrested.

As WOODRUFF concluded, “Some labor it must have required, and some nerve too, to have gone through with this during the short hours of a summer’s night. But there can be no doubt that they did it, and I presume they would have carried out their plan even to the hanging of VAN HORNE, without flinching.”

Fortunately, VAN HORNE was still around to become the city’s first mayor in 1852. He died two years later during a cholera epidemic.

One of the mayor’s sons, William, who was 12 when his father died, went on to become the railroad king who built a railroad line through Canada’s Rocky Mountains. The son was knighted by the Queen of England.

Published May 12, 2001