The History of Joliet – Chapter 11

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

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“The bullet hit Pickles in the head, between the left eye and ear. His sons watched him die.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

With the beginning of the Civil War, crime came to Joliet. Like that night in the blacksmith shop on Eastern Avenue.

These were some wild times in Joliet. Although there was a strong patriotic spirit in the city, the war had created problems with all the people passing through Joliet.

William STEVENS, a local historian, wrote that the city was full of draft dodgers, bounty hunters, desperadoes and assorted villains that Dec. 6, 1861, night when Benjamin PICKLES was murdered.

It happened on a Friday. PICKLES and his two sons, ages 14 and 16, were working late in the blacksmith shop to finish some iron railings that were needed for a new building. They were trying to complete the work before going home to eat supper.

Suddenly, a bullet was fired through a window in the blacksmith shop. The bullet hit PICKLES in the head, between the left eye and ear. His sons watched him die.

City Marshal Anthony MCNERNY and Constable Thomas O’BRIEN investigated the crime. Outside the window, they found distinctive footprints in the mud. The officers immediately suspected PICKLES‘ brother-in-law, William ZAPH, who had threatened the victim because of a family feud.

They arrested ZAPH, locked him in the jail, and took his shoes. The shoes perfectly matched the muddy footprints. ZAPH, a shoe COBBLER, had placed half-soles on his shoes in order to save leather and pegs. The prints matched those special halfsoles.

When county Coroner Charles DEMMOND examined the body, he found a small piece of newspaper in the victim’s ear. The newspaper piece, which was written in German, had been used as wadding in the gun. The paper had remained solid when the gun was fired.

The city marshal and constable searched ZAPH‘s home and found a German newspaper on the buttery shelf. They discovered a torn edge on one page, and the ripped marks matched to the piece found in PICKLES‘ ear. The piece was an advertisement for the sale of a brickyard.

The officers knew they had their killer. But they had one more idea to prove the case. When ZAPH‘s wife asked to see her husband in jail, the meeting was arranged in a room with a large couch. Constable O’BRIEN was hiding under that couch listening to the husband and wife, who thought they were alone.

ZAPH confessed to his wife about the murder. The constable was able to testify about what he had heard.

In ZAPH‘s first trial, he was defended by Albert H. CONVIS, described by STEVENS, the historian, as a lawyer who was “sly as a coyote, cunning as a fox and slippery as an eel.”

“It may be said in passing that CONVIS‘ wife was found drowned in the Illinois & Michigan Canal, coroner’s verdict, practically weary of life,” STEVENS wrote.

ZAPH‘s trial, with CONVIS defending him, was first delayed when a jury member came down with the measles. The evidence was overwhelming, and the jury came back with a guilty verdict. But the judge found some technical irregularities and granted a motion for a new trial.

The second trial started in January 1863, more than a year after the murder. This time, the killer was defended by Elisha “Lishe” FELLOWS, one of the first attorneys to arrive in Joliet.

During this trial, FELLOWS talked like a preacher and quoted lots of Scripture. But it wasn’t enough to stop the jury from returning a guilty verdict once again.

But there were more irregularities, and a third trial was granted. Lawyer Thomas BRECKENRIDGE represented the killer this time.

“BRECKENRIDGE was at the zenith of his native Scotch eloquence and forensic power, and he pleaded for his client in apt Scotch accented words and thrilling tones,” STEVENS wrote. “The beaded sweat stood out on his brow, collar and neck tie were cast off, white foam gathered in the corners of his mouth, and he awoke the echoes in the courtroom with all the vigor and zeal of his Scotch nature.”

But for the third time, the jury found ZAPH guilty of murder.

By this time, it was the summer of 1863. ZAPH was locked in the new county jail, which had just been opened, without being sentenced. Several other desperadoes — including another killer, a highway robber, a counterfeiter and two thieves — were locked in the same cellhouse with him.

On the night of July 24, 1863, the six bad guys managed to dig a hole in the south wall of the second-floor cell and escape by climbing down on dangling bed ticking.

Although $100 rewards were offered for each man, the men were never seen again. They apparently headed west and disappeared.

STEVENS summed up the story with, “The hemp has never grown to make a hangman’s noose for the murderer of Benjamin PICKLES.”

Published June 9, 2001