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 1880, the cold-blooded murder of an elderly German-American farmer and shopkeeper named John Mason shocked Coles County residents. Though two suspects were arrested, they were acquitted at trial. To this day, the person or persons responsible for Mason’s death remain a mystery.
John Mason was born in 1807 in Württemberg, Germany and came to the United States sometime prior to 1840. He married Christena Fogle (1815–1870) and the couple had four children. They lived in Ohio before coming to Coles County sometime in the late 1850s. There his son Henry married Theressa Louisa Raser (spelled Theresa Reasser in the marriage record), daughter of Frederick and Johanna Henryette C. (Henrietta) Raser, recent immigrants from Saxony, Germany, on January 18, 1870.
John’s wife, Christena, died at the age of 54 on February 26, 1870. Three months later, John and 45-year-old Henrietta were wed.
For the next ten years, the couple were prosperous farmers in Seven Hickory Township and owned a grocery store eight miles north of Charleston along the plank road. His property stretched outward from the northwest corner of the intersection of what is today State Highway 130 and County Road 1600N to County Road 1700N.
John Mason’s thrift and distrust of banks was widely known, and he lent money to his neighbors. The Chicago Inter Ocean reported he was worth $30,000, which would be over $800,000 today. This considerable stash was thought to be the motive for what transpired late one spring evening in 1880.
According to local newspaper accounts, John and Henrietta closed their store and retired to bed around 9:30 p.m. on Monday, April 19th. A knock at the door shortly followed, and a man’s voice inquired about tobacco. John Mason, age 72, rose and walked into the store, which was adjacent to their bedroom. “You are late tonight,” Henrietta heard him say. “What kind of tobacco was wanted?” Then came the report of a pistol and the sound of someone running.
When Henrietta rushed into the room, she saw her husband lying on the floor across his loaded shotgun, bleeding from a .32 caliber gunshot wound to the right eye. He was clinging to life but unable to speak. Henrietta ran outside to seek help. Jesse O’Hair, a neighbor, brought a doctor to the scene, but John was dead by the time they arrived.
Strangely, Henrietta had not heard any argument prior to the gunshot, and no cash was missing. Tracks were found leading to and from a nearby pond. The marshal arrested Noah Scott and Joel Towles (Joseph Toles/James Tales), “two hard characters”, on suspicion three days later after they were found wandering Charleston with mud on their clothes, but evidently, they were let go.
In November 1880, a grand jury indicted two other men, Erastus McKee and Benjamin Kelly, for the crime. The trial began on November 27th and lasted only two days before a jury returned a verdict of not guilty due to conflicting testimony. The prosecution’s witnesses were, reportedly, of low character, while the defense called several “respectable citizens” who saw McKee and Kelly in Charleston the night of the murder.
John Mason was interred near his first wife in Union Cemetery north of Rardin. Henrietta moved to Arcola in Douglas County and married a third time, to a man named Jacob Kramer. She died on March 8, 1918 at the age of 90. No one was ever convicted of John Mason’s murder, and the perpetrator, or perpetrators, took their secret to the grave.
- “Murder in Cold Blood! John Mason Shot and Killed.” The Mattoon Commercial (Mattoon) 22 April 1880.
- The Inter Ocean (Chicago) 22 April 1880.
- Charleston Plain Dealer (Charleston) 22 April 1880.
- Mattoon Gazette (Mattoon) 23 April 1880.
- The Pantagraph (Bloomington) 16 November 1880.
- The Rock Island Argus (Rock Island) 18 November 1880.
- The Inter Ocean (Chicago) 29 November 1880.
- “Acquitted.” The Decatur Daily Review (Decatur) 30 November 1880.
- “Mother of Mrs. R. L. Harvey Passes Away.” The Journal-Gazette (Mattoon) 8 March 1918.
- The Journal-Gazette (Mattoon) 9 March 1918.