The Hanging

Dec 30, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Circuses and other entertainments seldom live up to their billing, but the five thousand spectators who streamed into the City of Rock Island on October 29th, 1845, to enjoy its first public hanging were more than satisfied, despite jangled nerves created by traffic jams of wagons on every road into town.

Three men were to be hung: John Long, his brother Aaron, and Granville Young—three of the four bandits who had tortured and killed Colonel George Davenport, Rock Island’s founder, the previous July 4th. They had been tried and found guilty in the Rock Island County courthouse just half a block from the natural amphitheater in which the gallows had been erected.

John Long was the leader of a group of outlaws known as "the Banditti of the Prairie" who had terrorized states throughout the Midwest. The crowd's excitement was enhanced by rumors that the Banditti would ride into town and rescue the men at the last minute.

Despite the rumors, Rock Island planned a full day of festivities. At ten in the morning, the sheriff paraded the streets with music and guards. At 12:30, Rock Island's band, The Green Mountain Boys, played a solemn dirge composed for the event. Then the band, the guards, and the prisoners, along with doctors and ministers, marched to the gallows.

Reverend F. A. Haney of the Methodist church preached a funeral sermon from Luke 12, verse 39: "If the good man of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched."

Just before the hanging at 3:30, a rumor that rescue was at hand turned the crowd into a panic, scattering spectators and guards alike in all directions. But the panic was quieted, and the hanging proceeded, John and Aaron Long still protesting their innocence. As Aaron Long was hung, the rope broke, and he had to be hung again. In-between hangings he confessed his guilt.

A Rock Island newspaper, The Upper Mississippian, worried at the great number of women present in the audience, but, the paper was happy to report, nearly all of them cried.

Midwesterners, after all, were not animals.

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