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The Bellevue War

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If the Guinness Book of World Records had been around in 1840, the good citizens of Bellevue, Iowa would certainly have been listed there as the world’s largest lynch mob.

Bellevue was a brand-new community in the brand-new territory of Iowa in 1840, but they were already plagued by an efficient and organized gang of outlaws who had taken over the local hotel. Led by William Brown, the gang preyed on local residents and travelers alike—robbing coaches, stealing horses and oxen, and counterfeiting money. They were not above murder and rape.

On the night of January 8th, 1840, as Bellevue held a Jackson Day ball in honor of the General’s victory at New Orleans, word came that James Thompson, a member of Brown’s gang, had ransacked the home of James Mitchell. Mitchell left the ball, hunted Thompson down, and in a shoot out on Main Street, killed the outlaw. For the murder, Mitchell was imprisoned in his own home. A Brown plot to blow up Mitchell in his home was caught just in time.

What to do? A local judge advised Sheriff William Warren to arrest the Brown gang on charges of conspiracy to prevent their testifying against Mitchell. On April 1st, 1840, the Sheriff and most of the citizens of Bellevue surrounded the hotel. The Bellevue War was on.

Four members of the posse were killed, as were two outlaws, including Brown. Several gang members escaped, but thirteen of the worst offenders were captured. Now there was a problem. Many citizens were in favor of lynching all thirteen on the spot; others wanted them whipped and run out of town. Those were they only two practical choices—the Bellevue jail was far to small to keep them all for trial at the spring session of court.

Finally, everyone agreed to let the whole town vote by secret ballot. White beans for hanging, and red beans for whipping. When the vote was counted, there were three more red beans than white, and the outlaws were sent packing with sore backs. And, no doubt, with a firm belief that every vote counts.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, 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.