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Rock Island's First Murder

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

You can't blame the judge, the fourteen lawyers, the prospective jury members, and the audience for all being just a bit nervous. After all, Joseph Gerrard was Rock Island's first murderer.

Rock Island was still known as Stephenson back in May of 1840 when Gerrard was charged with murdering Zacchaeus Mayhew, with a carpenter's chisel under the left arm. Murder was a definite step up for the small community whose previous crime sprees had been more along the lines of horse racing within the city limits or disturbing neighbors by hallooing and using obscene language.

The suspect himself was above average. The previous November, Gerrard and his wife had arrived in Stephenson to set up the town's first school—a school spacious enough to allow a few boarding students. The murder had closed the school only a few months after it opened.

The Gerrard trial opened on Saturday, October 2—and closed on Sunday, October 3. Apparently, none of the fourteen lawyers present in the courtroom had yet learned the benefits of a deliberate and protracted trial. In a single day, the lawyers for both sides went through 119 prospective jurors before finding a jury of twelve. That still left time for both the prosecution and the defense to present their arguments and rest their case.

The following day, the jury took even a shorter time to decide that there was not enough evidence to find Gerrard guilty of first-degree murder. They convicted him of manslaughter and sentenced him to one year in the state prison.

The haste of the trial won Gerrard an appeal. He eventually was fined a dollar and spent three years in prison.

Even the local newspaper, The Stephenson Banner, seemed not to have known what to do with this first murder. The small space devoted to the Gerrard trial was overwhelmed by an article headlined "Swindlers and Deadbeats," who turned out to be Lyster Wallis and three other men who had not paid their subscriptions to the newspaper.

Murder was so new in Stephenson that the Banner had not yet discovered how much it could increase those subscriptions by publishing juicy details.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.