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The Devil in the Garden

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If history is any witness, it doesn't seem possible to have a garden without a serpent lurking about. That was the case back in Genesis, you may remember, and it happened over and over again in the many Edens that sprang up on the Illinois prairie in the middle of the 19th century.

That's what happened along the Edwards River in Henry County where the Swedish prophet, Eric Jansson, and his followers founded the Utopian colony they called Bishop Hill in 1846.

Impelled by hard work and Jansson's belief that humans could become perfect in this life—if they followed his visions—the colony thrived. Within three years, they had 5,000 acres under cultivation, had built solid brick dwellings, and were making a profit on their surplus.

Now, enter the devil, disguised as John Root, an itinerant young Swede who enticed Jansson's cousin Charlotta into love, and then marriage, much to the prophet's displeasure. Jansson permitted the marriage, but with the stipulation that if Root ever left Bishop Hill, Charlotta could remain behind with her friends.

Root did not take well to the hard work of colony life, and soon left for Chicago with his wife and, now, a child. There, as per the marriage agreement, several colonists abducted Charlotta and her child and returned them to the safety of Bishop Hill.

When Root returned to claim his family, the conflict between him and Eric Jansson grew until one day, at point blank range, the young husband drew two pistols and assassinated the prophet. For this Eden on the Illinois prairie, it was the beginning of the end, but not for John Root. Back in Genesis, the poor serpent was immediately condemned to crawl on his belly, but Root had an advantage: public sentiment and sharp Illinois lawyers who were able to spring even the devil himself.

John Root was eventually sentenced to two years in prison for the murder, but a group of women visiting the prison were so moved by the young man's tears that they convinced the governor of Illinois to grant Root a full pardon.

John Root returned to Chicago, to a neighborhood where the crime rate suddenly took an inexplicable turn upward for the remaining years of his life. In America, Chicago is as good a place to cause trouble as Eden.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

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.