Slavery and the Land of Lincoln

Today, Illinois is considered the “Land of Lincoln”, but prior to the Civil War, it straddled the line between slave state and free.

That Illinois would help elect the “Great Emancipator” was not a foregone conclusion. For much of its early history, Illinois had a close relationship with slavery and was openly hostile to abolitionism. Yet, by 1860, enough voters embraced the Republican Party to elect Abraham Lincoln president, a change that was hugely consequential for African American freedom, and the nation as a whole.

Populated by immigrants from Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, Illinois entered the Union in 1818 with strict black codes on the books. The Illinois Constitution prohibited the introduction of slavery, but permitted residents already holding slaves to keep their property. As historian Suzanne Guasco explained, Illinois was “the only state created out of the Old Northwest Territory that failed to abolish slavery outright during its constitutional convention.”[1]

Missouri, bordering Illinois to the west, came into the Union as a slave state in 1821. Kentucky, Illinois’ neighbor to the south, was also a slave state. The Mississippi River connected Illinois economically with other slave holding states to the south, and the bottom third of Illinois lay below the cultural Mason-Dixon Line. It’s a little-known fact that slave labor was used in at least one southern Illinois industry.

Though Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in Illinois, as did the Illinois Constitution of 1818, an exception was made for the Gallatin County salt mines. By 1819, the Gallatin County salines produced nearly 300,000 bushels of salt. Approximately 1,000 black slaves worked the mines and processed the salt.

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EIU Memories: Jimmy John’s

In 1983, 19-year-old Jimmy John Liautaud opened a sandwich shop in a small college town with a loan from his dad. He’s now worth $1.7 billion. That sandwich shop was Jimmy John’s, now a national sandwich chain, and that college was Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. Jimmy made his business profitable by offering fast delivery to the EIU dorms, and that’s how I encountered the sandwich chain 17 years later.

I first ate Jimmy John’s my freshman year of college, back in the fall of 2000. I didn’t have a car down at school, and when I got tired of dorm food, I would order Jimmy John’s and have it delivered to Carman Hall. A sandwich only cost $3.25, plus tip, and it came in a brown paper bag. Later, they came out with plastic cups with a different design on them every year. I have a collection somewhere.

When I was younger, I loved Subway, but there was something simple about Jimmy John’s sandwiches, and their menu hasn’t changed much over the years. Just pick a number and you’re set. On nice days, I always enjoyed sitting on the picnic bench outside the shop in the alley behind Positively Fourth Street Records.

Jimmy John’s logo from a delivery bag, c. 2001
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Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois

Counted among the Windy City’s premier burial grounds, Rosehill Cemetery, at 5800 N. Ravenswood Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, sprawls over 350 acres and is the final resting place for over 55,000 of the city’s former residents, including several mayors. At least four Congressional Medal of Honor winners are buried here: George Kretsinger, Peter O’Brien, William George Stephens, and James Curtis Watson.

Eternity House

Rosehill’s neoclassical mausoleum, the largest in Chicago, was designed by Sidney Lovell and opened in 1914. Four marble Doric columns distinguish its main entrance, and its floors are made from Italian marble. Department store tycoons Aaron Montgomery Ward and Richard Warren Sears are interred inside, as well as Illinois Governor Richard B. Ogilvie.

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“Traitors and Secessionists”

How Republican reaction to wartime dissent stoked tensions and almost led to violent revolution in Illinois.

During the American Civil War, intense disagreement over the conduct of the war erupted in Illinois. Republicans, members of the party that elected President Abraham Lincoln, supported the war, while members of the Democratic Party split between pro-war and pro-peace factions. In 1862, two issues inflamed the peace faction: the military draft and emancipation of slaves. Republicans conflated opposition to these issues with disloyalty and sympathy for the Southern Confederacy.

Though Illinois was a free state, many Illinoisans opposed political equality for African Americans and didn’t want freed black slaves moving north. After President Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, Illinoisans let their opposition known when they returned a Democratic dominated legislature in the midterm elections that November.

Republicans in Illinois did not lie prostrate as the Democratic-controlled legislature attempted to pass resolutions calling for an armistice, legislation that hindered use of the state militia, and obstructed the draft. On the last day the legislature sat in session before its spring recess, in February 1863, a Senator and farmer from McLean County in central Illinois, Isaac Funk, delivered a widely published speech condemning the Democrats for their obstructionism.

“I say that there are traitors and secessionists at heart in this Senate!” he shouted. “Their actions prove it. Their speeches prove it… I can sit here no longer and not tell these traitors what I think of them… I am willing to pay my whole fortune, and then give my life, to save my country from these traitors that are seeking to destroy it.”

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“There Goes the Old Witch”

Decatur, Illinois’ 1885 witch scare shows how immigrants brought belief in witchcraft to urban areas.

Founded in 1823, Decatur is an industrial city straddling the Sangamon River in central Illinois. It was an important juncture of the Wabash, Illinois Central, and Baltimore & Ohio railroads. In 1885, its population had grown to roughly 13,000. Recent Eastern European immigrants, particularly from Poland, crowded into Decatur’s Fifth Ward, located on the city’s far northeast side along the Illinois Central Railroad. That year, a controversy erupted over a 50-year-old woman who neighbors suspected of being a witch.

In October 1885, the woman, who lived at the east end of Condit Street, appeared at an attorney’s office downtown and inquired about bringing a lawsuit against her neighbors, who were harassing her and accusing her of witchcraft. Soon after moving to Decatur, she alleged, a neighborhood boy named Starbati died, followed by the son of a man named Nalefski (or Nowleski).

Another child recently became sick, and neighbors accused her of giving the child a bewitched drink. Rumors quickly spread through the tight-knit Polish settlement. According to The Decatur Herald, neighbors ostracized the woman, and when she passed by, pointed their fingers at her and said, “Da geht die alte Hexe,” a German phrase meaning, “There goes the old witch.”

When a reporter visited the neighborhood, its residents were eager to share their stories of encounters with “the witch,” whose identity remained anonymous. “I went to a neighbor’s well and got water,” one woman said. “The old witch was there and talked to me. She bewitched me and I went into the house and fell down in a faint.” According to another, “She shuffles cards and decides who of us are to die, who are to be sick, and who are to be afflicted with sores. She decides also by coffee grounds.”[1]

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Ghosts of Chicago Raised the Bar for Books of Chicago Ghostlore

Books about Illinois ghostlore have become a “copy and paste” industry, and literally dozens of paperbacks devoid of original content line the shelves. That cannot be said for The Ghosts of Chicago: The Windy City’s Most Famous Haunts by Adam Selzer. Published by Llewellyn Publications in 2013, The Ghosts of Chicago is a necessary addition to any collection of books on Chicago ghostlore. It retails for $18.50 and is 340 pages in length.

“Professional ghost hunter and historian Adam Selzer pieces together the truth behind Chicago’s ghosts, and brings to light dozens of never-before-told firsthand accounts,” the cover promises. Selzer delivers on this promise, not necessarily by adding new locations to our catalog of tales, but by greatly expanding our understanding of well-known stories. That is what makes The Ghosts of Chicago so great—it takes on a simple task and does it better than it has been done for nearly a decade.

Two examples of this are the chapters on Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery and Resurrection Mary. Both are obligatory inclusions in any book about Chicago ghostlore, and you would think not much more could be written about them. Selzer pushes the stories beyond their usual retelling, however.

In the chapter on Bachelor’s Grove, for example, he goes into detail about the famous “ghost photo” of the lady dressed in white sitting on a broken headstone. Unlike most other accounts, he explains the who, when, and how of the photograph—giving credit to the photographer and telling her story.

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