Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Second Murder

Monmouth, Ill – On September 30, 1911, Assistant District Attorney for Colorado Springs, M. W. Purcell, abruptly and surprisingly adjourned the Coroner’s Inquest in the matter of the Burnham – Wayne murders. He had called just four witnesses. Three politicians, Sherriff Birdsall, Coroner Jackson and ADA Purcell, all tried to push blame away from themselves. The Sherriff decided to turn the case over to the Pinkertons, the Pinkertons didn’t want it because they saw little hope of getting paid and the superintendent of detectives for the Denver office declared the “fears of repetition of the slaughter were groundless.” If only that were so…

As the Not-Me game was being played in Colorado Springs, William and Charity Dawson and their not quite thirteen years-old daughter Georgia were sleeping soundly at their home in the little college town of Monmouth, Illinois. William was the janitor for the 1st Presbyterian Church and had to get up Sunday, October 1st in order to open the church up for the day’s services. William and Charity were from Indiana and married June 6, 1875. In all they had eleven children (four were not living at the time) three of which were living at home in their small, five-room cottage in the “colored district” of town. On this night, two of the daughters were staying with friends and family in other towns. William had moved his family to Monmouth eight years before after serving a stint in prison for horse stealing. By all accounts he was a reformed man and well liked by the town and the church he worked for. He had proven himself to be an honest, hard working man and that’s why the minister, Rev. C. J. Greene, was so puzzled on Sunday morning when the church was still locked. When Dawson still hadn’t shown by the start of eleven o’clock services, Rev. Greene became worried that Dawson might be seriously ill. Two parishioners went to his house after a phone call went unanswered. The front door was locked and repeated knocks received no response. On man went to the back of the house and knocked on the kitchen door with the same result. He tried the knob and the door swung open.

The house was dark. All the windows had been closed and the curtains pulled. The men made their way through the kitchen and the living room to the front (south) bedroom where they found the bloody body of Georgia Dawson. The police were notified and a crowd soon gathered around the house. William and Charity were found dead in their bedroom on the north side of the house. A white family had been slaughtered in an area of town known as the “colored district” and care had to be taken to control rumors in order to prevent a riot or lynching but this didn’t stop the rumors from flying.

The details surrounding this crime are hard to come by. Official documents relating to it seem to have vanished, including the summery of the Coroner’s jury, which is normally the only thing you can find from an inquest. Of all the crimes in the series, Monmouth to me is the most intriguing. The racial aspects of the case are just one facet. The seeming ingenuity of the killer is another and there are some tantalizing and somewhat confusing aspects to sift through. One of the first hypothesizes explored, indeed it was discussed on day two, was the idea a group of blacks had slaughtered the family because William Dawson paid too much attention to their female relatives. The police had given up on the case by 1913 but two years later, three lawyers “cracked it” and – surprise – the culprit was a black man and the motive was affections shown towards his female relatives. I’m going to spend some time on this one in the coming weeks so hunker down…

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