The History of Joliet – Chapter 30

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

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“The man who killed my wife must die, but I must be sure that I have the right man.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

They called her “the little mother at the big stir.” Odette Maizee Bordeaux ALLEN was also known as the angel of Joliet because of her beautiful singing voice.

The talented singer had been a star on the stage in New Orleans before she married Warden Edmund “Ned” ALLEN. As a widower with small children, he had met Odette while attending a conference on prisons.

Their romance was a whirlwind, and he brought Odette home to Joliet, where he headed the big prison on Collins Street. At the time, the warden, who was nationally recognized in corrections, was helping to plan a new state prison to be called Stateville.

But no one knew that the little mother at the big stir would end up being a prison casualty.

On Saturday, June 19, 1915, the warden went to Chicago. It was one more long meeting with politicians in the planning of the new prison. That afternoon, ALLEN bought his wife a $3,000 diamond ring. He was going to present it to her that evening at dinner.

But Odette called her husband with a change of plans. She couldn’t come to Chicago because the dressmaker hadn’t completed two new dresses she wanted to wear.

Odette decided to go to the movie theater that evening with her two step-children. They were driven back to the warden’s quarters inside the prison at 10:45 p.m. by a convict-chauffeured car. The living quarters was fully staffed by convict houseboys.

Houseboy Joe CAMPBELL, who was called “Chicken Joe,” went on duty at 5:30 a.m. Sunday. He was a 29-year-old killer from Chicago. But Odette had personally selected him for duty in her home.

At 6 a.m., Odette rang a little bell in her bedroom. Chicken Joe entered and filled a water container on the nightstand. She asked for coffee and the newspaper, which he delivered.

Odette told the houseboy he wouldn’t be needed until about 9 a.m., when she planned to shampoo her hair. Chicken Joe was told to take Mike, her terrier puppy, outside to play.

Shortly after 6:30 a.m., guards noticed smoke coming from the warden’s quarters. They rushed to the second floor and discovered the smoke coming from Odette’s bedroom, which was locked.

They broke down the door, and it took firefighters 10 minutes to extinguish the flames. When the smoke cleared, the fire had been mainly confined to Odette’s bed.

Her body was badly charred. But investigators were able to tell that her skull had been crushed by a blunt instrument. They suspected she had been sexually molested.

The fire had been started by a jug of wood alcohol, which was stored in the bedroom closet.

The main suspect immediately was Chicken Joe CAMPBELL, though two other houseboys were on duty. All three were locked into isolation cells.

On Monday, as the county coroner conducted an inquest, 200 convicts rioted in the dining room of the prison. They broke out into the yard area chanting, “Give us CAMPBELL.”

Warden ALLEN, who called the convicts “my boys,” was a popular and compassionate man. Signing a letter from “your boys,” the convicts sent him a message about establishing an honor system in the name of his beloved wife.

Odette was buried in the back of Oakwood Cemetery on Tuesday. Most of the city closed down for the funeral. Seven carloads of flowers were left on the grave.

As investigators looked into the murder, Chicken Joe maintained his innocence.

On June 25, 10 days after the murder, The Herald News reported, “He must prove himself innocent, and the state must prove him guilty. And neither can ever do either. The death is full of mystery, possibly one of the biggest mysteries that state authorities have ever faced.”

“The man who killed my wife must die, but I must be sure that I have the right man,” the warden said.

The investigation — by local police, prison officials and a private detective — produced no conclusive evidence against Chicken Joe. But the circumstantial evidence was enough to convict him that summer.

He was sentenced to die on the hangman’s gallows.

But Gov. E.F. DUNNE, realizing the impact of the rush to judgment against Chicken Joe in Joliet, commuted the sentence to life in prison. Chicken Joe finally died in the Joliet prison in 1950.

And the mystery of who really killed the little mother at the big stir was never solved.

Published October 20, 2001