The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.
In the nineteenth century, “lynch law” reigned. The most infamous incident in Coles County occurred in the early morning hours of Friday, February 16, 1856 when convicted murderer Adolphus Monroe was lynched by a mob of angry citizens.
In October 1855, Adolphus got into a drunken altercation with his father-in-law, Nathan Ellington (who was the first county clerk), and gunned him down. Ellington and his wife, Fannie, strongly disapproved of their daughter Nancy’s marriage to Adolphus, who had a reputation for drinking.
Ellington confronted Adolphus about mistreating Nancy, and according to local historian Nancy Easter-Shick, Ellington struck Adolphus with his cane. Adolphus drew a small smoothbore pistol, shot him twice, and the two antagonists continued their mortal struggle on the floor. Adolphus was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged on February 15, 1856.
Thousands turned out to witness the execution, but Illinois Governor Joel Aldrich Matteson granted Adolphus a 90-day stay of execution. Sheriff John R. Jeffries printed 400 copies of the governor’s order and distributed them among the crowd. This inflamed passions, a mob formed, and enraged Coles County citizens surrounded the brick jail in Charleston, which was then located on the west side of 6th Street between Madison and Jefferson streets (where the old post office building is today).
The sheriff tried to calm them, but stood aside when it became clear his efforts were in vein. Inside the jail, Adolphus wrote: “I also leave my deep and bitter curse upon all who have either directly or indirectly anything in part to do with the mob who have basely murdered me… I summon them to meet me up there before that awful and final judge.”
The mob broke through a wall on the north side of the jail, dragged the prisoner out, and strung him up from a large white oak tree 200 feet north of what is today the Jackson Avenue bridge over Town Branch. He was hoisted onto a wagon, reeling from the morphine smuggled to him by a friend, before the noose was slipped around his neck.
Before he died, he reportedly told a man in the crowd: “I die, and if I go to hell, you will go to the same place, for you it was that sold me the whisky that has brought me to this terrible fate.” Since 1962, the pistol Adolphus Monroe used to murder Nathan Ellington has been on display in the Coles County Circuit Clerk’s office.
- Easter-Shick, Nancy. ‘Round the square: Life in downtown Charleston, Illinois, 1830-1998. Charleston: Easter-Chick Publishing, 1999.
- Lupton, John A. “‘In View of the Uncertainty of Life’: A Coles County Lynching.” Illinois Historical Journal 89 (Autumn 1996).
- Wilson, Charles Edward. Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Coles County. Chicago: Munsell Publishing Company, 1906.
- “Shocking Tragedy—Man Shot by his Son in Law.” Mount Carmel Register (Mount Carmel, IL) 31 October 1855.
- “First Coles County Clerk Murdered; Killer Lynched.” Daily Journal Gazette (Mattoon) 1 September 1955.
- “Coles County Gets Weapon: Convicted Slayer Denounced Lynching Mob in his Will.” Herald and Review (Decatur) 11 March 1962.
- “Family feud leads to mob lynching.” Herald and Review (Decatur) 2 June 1985.
- “Murder, lynching a ‘blot on Charleston’s character’.” Journal Gazette (Mattoon) 29 June 2010.
- “19th-century mob rule in Charleston.” Herald and Review (Decatur) 15 August 2011.