The History of Joliet – Chapter 18

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

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“I don’t think I’m guilty.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

They thought his name was George CHASE. But they weren’t sure, and he wouldn’t tell them. They hanged him anyway in Joliet in the summer of 1866.

CHASE was the first execution in the city.

He was a convicted horse thief serving time in the prison on Collins Street. While the Civil War was still going on, CHASE attempted to escape in the spring of 1864.

He hit Deputy Warden Joseph CLARK in the head with a club during the escape. CLARK died a few weeks later, and CHASE was charged with murder.

That following January, he was sentenced to death on a gallows. But it took another 1 1/2 years before he faced a noose.

The date was July 27, 1866, a Friday. CHASE was taken from his jail cell at about 2:30 p.m. He was followed by three ministers reading from their Bibles — they had been his only visitors during his months in the county jail. They were with him through the final hours.

CHASE refused to talk about his family or where he was from. He declined to notify any loved ones about his fate.

Sheriff John REID and a deputy escorted the condemned man to a large hallway in the county jail, which was serving as the gallows.

The gallows was two posts on each side of the hallway with a beam over the top of them. A hangman’s noose dangled over the beam, with the other end of the rope extending through a hole into the basement. The end of the rope was tied to three heavy sandbags in the basement, which would serve as a spring.

Several official witnesses and newspaper reporters watched as CHASE was tied with ropes and REID read the death sentence. The Joliet Signal described CHASE as having a dead expression, but a “rather fine looking man.”

He was a stout, healthy man with blue eyes, sandy hair and whiskers, about 30 years old, the newspaper said.

“He has prominent development of the phrenological organ of combativeness, destructiveness and secretiveness,” the Signal reported.

CHASE was seated in a chair under the noose. Asked if he had any final words, he denied his guilt.

“I don’t think I’m guilty,” he said. “I don’t see any proof that I murdered that man. I think I’ve got as good an explanation of that as you have.”

When the sheriff started to drop a white hood over his head, CHASE said he wasn’t through talking.

“I’m not ready for that yet,” he said. “I’m as innocent a man as any of you. I am as innocent a man as any in the United States. I admit that hanging is justice. But hanging for a thing a man ain’t guilty of and can’t prove I am guilty of is another thing. It ain’t justice.”

CHASE complained that the ropes on his arms and legs were too tight.

Just before the white hood dropped, he uttered his final words, “Gentlemen, I am to be slaughtered.”

REID put the noose around CHASE‘s neck over the hood. The sheriff then signaled to a deputy in the basement, and the sandbags were dropped. CHASE shot straight up out of the chair.

“When the spring was touched, he was launched into eternity,” the Signal described.

“He was thrown up some five feet and hung with his feet about 3 1/2 feet off the floor,” the Joliet Republican reported. “He died with scarce a struggle.”

They left the body hanging there in the jail hallway for about 20 minutes. Both newspapers praised the sheriff for building the gallows design.

“The structure was simple, yet so perfect that it was a credit to the builder,” the Signal said.

But after the hanging, they weren’t yet ready to just bury George CHASE. After lowering the body, a phrenologist — one who studies the shape and protuberances of the skull — made a plaster cast of the head.

After the body was taken to a funeral home, CHASE‘s head was removed, and doctors looked at the brain attempting to find some clue about criminal behavior.

“The brain was sound, showing no signs of insanity,” the Signal said.

The head then was given to the phrenologist, who wanted to use it in his lectures. The headless corpse was buried in the prison cemetery known as Monkey Hill.

The Signal summed it all up with, “And thus ended the career of poor CHASE, whose sad fate, in all probability, will never be known to those dear to him.”

No one was ever sure just whom they launched into eternity that afternoon in Joliet during the summer of 1866. They just knew he was a horse thief who had become a killer.

Published July 28, 2001