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Cambridge, Illinois

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Andy Warhol, the pop artist who painted those Campbell’s soup cans, once claimed that everyone on earth has fifteen minutes of fame. Next door, in Henry County, Illinois, the farm community of Cambridge got two years of fame, far more than its share—and far, far more than it wanted.

Of course, in the beginning, like most new settlements, the founders of Cambridge sought new fame. The town was laid out in 1843 as a county seat, but instead of the usual courthouse square, Cambridge had two squares—one for public buildings and the other for educational institutions. The town name was no accident. Cambridge hoped to become a great center of learning in the west.

At first, fame eluded the small settlement. All the way until 1905. That August, the local veterinarian chased his wife through town with two revolvers, blowing off her little finger before turning the gun on himself. The next month the local lawyer was found shot to death in his office, but the gun in his hand was not the gun that killed him. The same week, a beloved schoolteacher dropped dead of a heart attack in her classroom, a local woman killed her husband, and the body of a baby was found floating in the Edwards River. The following week, a mother killed her seven children by hitting them on the head with an axe, then setting the house on fire and cutting her own throat.

Other murders and suicides followed in such regular order that by December, fame could no longer be delayed. The Chicago Record Herald spelled it out in bold headlines: "Where Crime Holds Sway." Cambridge was on the map. "Henry County, Illinois," the paper went on to report, "suffers from an epidemic of murder and suicide unequalled in any rural community in the country."

Then the reporter really wound up, and talked about "Cambridge, a law-abiding Swedish town is now a carnival of crime."

The epidemic subsided within a few months, and Cambridge dropped from the headlines. One taste of fame was enough—especially for the Swedes, who, as we know, are reluctant to be a carnival of any sort.

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.