The History of Joliet – Chapter 8

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

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

City ready to jump to conclusions over mysterious death

“David Richardson was arrested and charged with the murder. He was guarded in the county jail because there was lots of talk about hanging him without a trial. The people of this city wanted justice.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

In the spring of 1858, the people of Joliet were shocked by a brutal crime. A murder had happened in such a cruel manner that residents couldn’t believe it.

And they were ready to lynch the suspected killer.

A group of boys playing in a quarry near where Hickory Creek flowed into the Des Plaines River had found a woman’s body. Covered with dirt, garbage and rocks, the decomposing body’s hands and feet were cut off. The features of the corpse couldn’t be recognized.

The body was buried but then exhumed when a woman, Manie COOK, came forward saying it could be her missing 16-year-old daughter, Mary. The teenager, who had a loose reputation around town, had been missing for about a month.

The mother positively identified the body by her daughter’s crooked teeth. She said the girl had been keeping company with David RICHARDSON, a farmer who was building the Universalist Church. Mary had been last seen with him walking near some railroad tracks. A witness had heard a woman screaming that same night near the tracks.

RICHARDSON was arrested and charged with the murder. He was guarded in the county jail because there was lots of talk about hanging him without a trial. The people of this city wanted justice.

The Joliet Signal newspaper stated, “We will not prejudge the case. But a young and unprotected girl has been seduced and ruined by a demon in human shape, and murdered to hide her betrayer’s guilt. If there is any virtue in law, let it be applied now.”

Frederick BARTLESON, then just 23 years old but later a Civil War colonel, was the elected state’s attorney who prosecuted the case. Elisha C. “Lishe” FELLOWS agreed to be the defense attorney.

FELLOWS, one of the first lawyers to arrive in Joliet, was the most noted criminal defense lawyer in town. He was known as “a man of keen and penetrating mind,” who sometimes had a few legal tricks up his sleeve in a courtroom.

The defendant promised to give FELLOWS a farm that he owned as payment for his legal services.

The courtroom was filled when the trial started. A larger crowd stood outside. The mother testified to the facts surrounding her daughter’s disappearance. Yes, she was positive the decomposed body was Mary. A doctor testified to the brutal method of death.

But FELLOWS was quiet at the defense table. He was convinced his client was innocent. When his turn arrived, the lawyer questioned four doctors, who each said the body appeared to have been dissected for the purpose of science.

The testimony created a ripple of excitement in the courtroom. Many were convinced this was just a clever scheme by the defense lawyer to clear the villain.

But when the suspense was at its peak, Constable John ROBERTS walked into the courtroom with a veiled woman on his arm. She was dressed in black. Who was this secret witness?

When FELLOWS lifted the veil, the spectators could see her face. She was the supposed victim, Mary COOK. The teenager was alive.

RICHARDSON, who almost had been lynched, was turned free. But he lost his farm as the legal fee paid to FELLOWS, his lawyer.

The case, which became known as the Hickory Creek Mystery, turned out to be simply medical science attempting to learn more about human anatomy. One of the doctors who had testified for the defense knew the truth.

He said three Joliet doctors had hired a medical student for $25 to find them a body to dissect. The student had dug up the body of the lock tender’s wife, who just had been buried.

The body was brought to a medical office on Exchange Street and was dissected by the doctors. When they completed the project, the student was supposed to return the corpse to its grave.

But the medical student got frightened in returning to the graveyard. He lost his nerve because of the darkness and the chilly March night. He took the corpse to the quarry near Hickory Creek and covered it with rubbish and snow.

The boys found it there after smelling a foul odor. The body was about twice the size of Mary COOK.

Further investigation revealed that Mary’s mother had trumped up her story in an attempt to blackmail RICHARDSON.

George H. WOODRUFF, the local historian, summed up the story with these words: “The affair furnished one more warning against hasty judgments founded upon circumstances alone.”

There is one more footnote to this story. The HENDERSON Stock Co. was putting on a play in Joliet at the time of the trial. The actors wrote a new play titled The Great Hickory Creek Mystery and presented it on stage in Joliet.

Published May 19, 2001