Springfield’s 1908 race rioters beat the rap
August 11, 1978
After the outbreak of race violence in 1908 embarrassed the capital city, Springfield’s respectable citizens demanded that someone—anyone—be made to suffer for the city’s sins. The other Springfield—working class, mostly—had different ideas.
My analysis of the cause of the riots was ill-founded, as later scholarship made plain. The original reprinted, unexpurgated, an unidentified and anonymous poem, printed in the form of a postcard, which circulated in the city after the riots. We included it because it made vividly clear the mob mentality. It would not be printed today, and I opted not to reproduce it here.
The Illinois Times introduction: August 14 and 15 mark the seventieth anniversary of the Springfield race riots of 1908, an event one local historian calls "the most important event in the city's history." Those two days of racial violence led indirectly to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and so earned their place in the footnotes of America's troubled racial history. For all its importance, however, Springfield holds no memorials commemorating the events that shocked the nation, no bronze plaques telling curious tourists where it happened. The story of the riots has been told briefly, most recently in Summer of Rage by Illinois Times associate editor James Krohe, Jr., a pamphlet published in 1973 by the Sangamon County Historical Society. So far untold is the story of what happened immediately after the riots when the men and women arrested for their part in them were put—along with Springfield—on trial.
* * *
"Has the jury reached a verdict?"
The foreman nodded and handed the deputy clerk a slip of paper. Abe Raymer sat very still. He was pale and his hands trembled a little. The spectators, under the nervous eye of twenty special deputies, maintained a tense silence. Abraham Raymer clenched his fists as the clerk opened the note, cleared his throat, and announced "We, the jury, find the defendant not guilty."
Raymer's face melted into a broad smile. As reporters scrambled for the door, Raymer tried to stand up, but the warning hand of the sheriff on his shoulder restrained him. Raymer's sister, who had traveled all the way from Boston to be with her brother during the trial, showed traces of tears in her eyes. When the room had cleared a little . the judge allowed Raymer to speak to the jury. In halting English, he stammered: "I wish to thank you. gentlemen, for finding me not guilty of the charge of murder. I am not guilty of the charge of killing Donnegan. I speak from my heart. I tell you that I did not commit the acts charged against me. I want to thank you again."
Raymer's sister also rose to address the jury members, but her words were lost in the clamor of people still trying to make their way out of the crowded room. Attorney Frank Hatch, who had handled the case for the prosecution, stayed seated at his table, collecting his notes. He said nothing.
Thus was concluded the trial of Abraham Raymer for the murder of William Donnegan.
The first weeks of August. 1908, had been particularly hectic. A hotly-contested primary election would soon decide which of a field of Democrats would challenge the incumbent governor, Republican Charles Deneen. The people of Springfield, to whom politics was a more or less full-time avocation, followed with growing interest the editorial exchanges between the Republican Illinois State Journal and the Democratic Illinois State Register, as each paper fired verbal cannonades at the other's candidate more notable for their ferocity than their accuracy.
Save for the tumult of the primary campaigns, the summer had been a prosperous and relatively calm one in Springfield. If residents had any compaints, they had to do with the abysmally hot weather. Temperatures over ninety were becoming common, and most folks looked forward to celebrating the end of a hot summer with the annual state fair extravaganza, which officials were promising would be "the most stupendous show ever."
It had been a summer like most others, only better. But in the muggy August air. a storm was brewing.
On Friday. August 14. Springfield's breakfast calm was disturbed by a story appearing on the front pages of the morning papers. Mrs. Mabel Hallam, the wife of a Springfield street car conductor, had been the victim of a midnight assault by an unidentified black man "Dragged from Her Bed and Outraged by Negro," screamed one headline; "One of the greatest outrages that ever happened in Springfield," echoed another. Only six weeks before, Clergy Ballard, a prominent white mining engineer, was slashed with a razor as he struggled with a black intruder in his home. Ballard died from the wounds, and Joe James, the black man charged with the assault, was in jail awaiting trial. The Ballard murder had attracted more than usual interest. The Illinois State Journal, in an editorial comment on the case. said. "Concerning him (the Negro) and the questions which arise from his presence in the community, it is well to preserve silence at this time. The state of the public mind is such that comment can only add fuel to the feeling that has burst forth with general knowledge of the crime."
The "state of the public mind" in Springfield was decidedly, almost hysterically, anti-black. The city was more Southern in temperament than might be expected for the capital of a major Northern industrial state, and the antipathy felt toward blacks by its many transplanted border-staters had been further aggravated in recent years bv the spread of vice and political corruption that centered in the predominantly black "Levee" district near Springfield's heart. Brothels, gambling houses and saloons flourished in this three-block stretch of Washington Street just east of the courthouse square, where the reconstructed Old State Capitol stands. The brazen immorality of the place was enough to bring a blush of shame to the cheeks of even the most worldly Springfieldian. The Joliet "eekly News called the Levee district a "disgrace and stench to the civilized world," and few in Springfield could honestly call it anything else.
Moral outrage may have fed the resentment of blacks by the city's professional and mercantile classes, but there was a sizable group of Springfield residents whose race hatred had its roots in more tangible conflicts. The Capital City's laboring class was comprised in the main of migrant whites. They had been joined in recent years by newly-arrived immigrants from Europe, attracted to central Illinois by the prospect of work in the soft coal pits of Sangamon County.
This influx of ill-educated and largely unskilled whites w as matched by the steady migration of southern blacks to northern cities like Springfield. All three groups—native American whites. European immigrants, and displaced southern blacks—vied in direct and other bitter competition for precious jobs in the factories or coal fields. Thus, to smoldering cultural antagonisms was added the heat of economic competition. It was a volatile mix, and if the Ballard murder brought tempers to the kindling point, the assault on Mabel Hallam set them aflame.
An awful havoc
All through the afternoon of August 14, men milled around the dusty streets in front of the county jail at Seventh and Jefferson Streets. Inside, protected by a cadre of nervous sheriff's deputies, sat George Richardson, a black laborer charged (falsely, it was later revealed) with the assault on Mrs. Hallam. As sundown approached, the situation grew more tense. Leaders of the crowd, which by now numbered more than 400 men, demanded that the jailers hand over both Richardson and Joe James. Charles Werner. Sangamon County's fiercely-mustachioed sheriff, refused. At supper time, while the crowd was momentarily distracted by a passing fire engine, the prisoners were spirited out a back entrance to the jail into a car and driven to a train headed for Bloomington and safety.
When the crowd learned that the prisoners had eluded their grasp, the menace that had hung in the sultry air all afternoon erupted into violence. The crowd, by now a mob, walked to Harry Loper's Restaurant on Fifth Street a half-block south of the square. Loper's car had been the one used by the sheriff to accomplish the prisoners' escape, and the mob fell on it with the full force of their frustrated vengeance. The $5,000 machine was smashed and set afire, after which the mob turned its attention to the restaurant itself. The front windows were shattered by bricks and stones, the furniture broken to splinters, and the contents looted.
From Loper's, the mob headed east on Washington Street toward the Levee, their progress punctuated by shouts of "Curse the day Lincoln freed the niggers!" and "Niggers must depart from Springfield." The police were vastly outnumbered and offered no resistance. Pawn shops, taverns, barber shops and pool halls were ransacked by the mob. Growing drunk on looted liquor, emboldened by the lack of resistance, and armed with guns stolen from Levee shops, the mob turned north toward the "Badlands," the heavily-black residential district that stretched east and west along Madison Street. By now the crowds numbered in the thousands. Homes along the way belonging to blacks were put to the torch, and gunshots punctured the air. Dozens of people were injured by stray bullets, flying glass and bricks and beer bottles hurled by the mob.
At the corner of Ninth and Jefferson Streets, a black barber by the name of Scott Burton tried to resist the assault on his home by firing buckshot into the mob of approaching whites. Burton was attacked and brutally murdered by the mob which pumped some forty bullets into his body. His body was dragged through the streets, to be hanged to a tree in front of a tavern at the corner of Twelfth and Madison Streets.
By this time militiamen called into action by Governor Charles Deneen began to arrive on the scene, and the mob dispersed. Through the night, there were isolated attacks on black homes and individuals. Many black families gathered their valuables and took refuge in the state arsenal at Second and Monroe across the street from the statehouse or at Camp Lincoln north of town, where they were offered lodging and military protection.
By the dawn of Saturday, August 15, the streets were again quiet. Sporadic violence was still being reported, but civilian and military authorities announced that the situation was well in hand; four thousand militiamen patrolled the streets on the north and east sides of town. Then, at about 7 o'clock that evening, a crowd of whites gathered in the vicinity of Seventh and Washington Streets. They headed west on Monroe Street until they reached the state capitol. Cutting southwest across the capitol lawn through a militia encampment vacated by the patrolling soldiers, they arrived at the intersection of Spring and Edwards Streets. At that corner lived William Donnegan, a retired black cobbler of eightv. After taunts and threats from the crowd. Donnegan was dragged from his home, knocked unconscious and dragged across the street to a schoolyard. There his throat was slashed, a length of thin clothesline rope was wrapped around his bleeding neck, and, in the shadow of the statehouse, he was hanged to a tree. The old man died the next morning.
It was over. In two nights white mobs had slain two black men, injured more than 100 persons, burned at least forty black homes to the ground, wrecked fifteen places of business and indirectly caused the deaths of five white men. Within hours, Frank L. Hatch, Sangamon County's young state's attorney, set about the business of bringing the rioters to justice. The Chamber of Commerce, the Businessmen's Association, even the governor himself had issued resolutions urging the speedy punishment of the guilty. A special grand jury was called quickly to duty. "No one who is guilty," Mr. Hatch pledged, "will be spared."
On the night of August 15, shortly after the murder of William Donnegan, Springfield policeman Evan Jones spotted Abraham Raymer riding toward the courthouse square on a streetcar with several other men who had been at the Donnegan house just minutes before. Raymer, a twenty-year-old Jew from St. Louis, had been a conspicuous figure throughout the city during the bloody weekend. Raymer made a bare living working odd jobs around town, putting his talents to use as a carnival barker, street hawker and waiter. He was a gregarious young man with an easy facility for making friends and he was well-known in the city. He had been seen in the crowd sacking Loper's Restaurant the night before, and was noticed among the mob that later raged through the Badlands. Jones himself had seen Raymer twice on the night of the Donnegan killing—once at the corner of Second and Monroe Streets as the mob headed for Donnegan's place, and later, at the scene of the old man's murder itself. Officer Jones summoned fellow officers, and together they grabbed Raymer in front of Strong's Restaurant one block west of the square. Raymer was taken to the police station, where he was booked on several riot-related charges.
He also was beaten, struck repeatedly in the face until, as one witness put it, he "begged for mercy." Raymer emerged from the interrogation room with his face wet with blood, after having "confessed" to the murder of Donnegan.
Raymer later recanted his admission of guilt. While he sat out the week in the dank concrete confines of a county jail cell, nursing his wounds and protesting his innocence, the special grand jury called to hear evidence against the rioters began its work in earnest. The twenty-three men on the grand jury endured the enervating August heat and a seemingly interminable parade of witnesses as they returned indictments with what a Register reporter called "Gatling gun rapidity." In two weeks of feverish work, the grand jury returned a total of 107 indictments against more than sixty individuals on charges ranging from malicious mischief to murder.
As had been expected, Abe Raymer figured prominently in the jury's deliberations. By the time the jury adjourned on September 2, Raymer had been formally accused of inciting a crowd to riot, destroying property, larceny, refusing a police order to depart the scene of a riot and taking a part in the murders of both William Donnegan and (with two others) Scott Burton.
While lawyers for the state and the defense readied their cases for the opening of court, the townspeople began to relax. Not all was tranquil, however, Not two days after the burnt-out hulks along the Black Belt had cooled. State's Attorney Hatch received several complaints from local merchants who told of receiving threats by phone and letter warning them to discharge their black employees. If they did not get rid of their black help, they were cautioned, their businesses would be burned to the ground. Then, in the weeks between the end of the rioting and the start of the trials there appeared on the streets a number of printed leaflets denouncing the city's blacks. Printed on bright yellow paper, the notes read:
Do you want niggers to make white men s laws? If not, get busy.
Niggers are Johnny on the spot at all labor troubles. Observe it.
Are little white girls or ladies safe where niggers are?
Have the men who have made our laws for the past thirty years been elected by the intelligent white vote or by the majority of an ignorant, vicious negro vote?
Does one-thousandth part of the hellish deeds committed by the negro show up in the papers? No.'
The Black Hand
No official notice was taken of the threats, and preparations for the start of the riot trials proceeded smoothly. The man who was to hear the cases was James A. Creighton, judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit. Creighton was sixty-two years old. He'd been a partner in the prestigious firm of Orendorff &Creighton prior to his election to the bench in 1885, and was commonly thought to be both capable and honest. Creighton's court met in the room that used to be the hall of the House of Representatives when the Sangamon County courthouse served as the Illinois statehouse. It was in that room, in fact, that Abraham Lincoln accepted the Republicans' nomination for U.S. Senate almost exactly a half-century earlier, warning, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." It was an irony that did not escape out-of-town observers.
The selection of the jury for Raymer's trial began on September 18 in Judge Creighton's circuit court. The work went slowly. Man after man called to court for jury service was excused after claiming to have formed unalterable opinions about the guilt of the accused after reading the lengthy newspaper accounts of Raymer's arrest and "confession." Those who entertained no preconceived notions as to the innocence or guilt of the accused admitted under questioning from state lawyers that they bore a prejudice against the black race which would prevent them from rendering a fair verdict in a case of a white man charged with the murder of a black. The last juror was sworn in at noon on the 19th. Judge Creighton ordered a recess for lunch, after which the contending lawyers would make their opening statements to the jury. The trial was under way.
The state's case was being handled by Frank Hatch, Sangamon County's young lame duck state's attorney. Hatch was a clean-shaven man with sharp, chiseled features and a beak-like nose, upon which was perched a pair of brass-rimmed pince-nez. Assisting him was William St. John Wines. Wines was an earnest and capable lawyer whose fresh-scrubbed good looks made him appear much younger than his years. It would be Wines who would address the jury first when the afternoon session of court opened.
To some in the Jewish community, Raymer's arrest hinted at anti-Semitism. Springfield needed a scapegoat and had chosen a Jew—an outcast, so the city could have its conviction and thus appease its honor without incurring the wrath of the white. Christian majority by hanging one of their own. Funds for Raymer's defense had been solicited by fellow Jews in Springfield and Chicago in an attempt to insure that Raymer at least got a fair hearing in court. The $500 thus raised was used to purchase the competent services of local attorneys John Friedemeyer and S. E. Cummins, his assistant.
Just after 2 o'clock. Wines took the floor. While the jurymen sweated in the 90 degree heat. Wines opened a verbal barrage aimed at the tight-lipped defendant seated across the room. "Abe Raymer was the organizer of the mob that killed old man Donnegan," he argued, "old man Donnegan who never harmed a hair of his head or of any other human being." Wines continued:
Abe Raymer was the fellow that went up to Donnegan's house, stuck his face in the door, and when old man Donnegan came to the door he knocked him down and hollered to the crowd to come on. Witnesses will tell you that.
The people of this city don't sanction a mob rule. This was not a race riot, but an organized band of hoodlums of which Raymer was one. You owe a duty to Abe Raymer to give him a fair trial, but you owe just as strong a duty to the people of this county and the state to see that justice is done if the facts are as we represent them."
Wines made it clear that the state would not attempt to establish that Raymer actually wielded the knife used to cut Donnegan's throat, or that Raymer handled the rope used to hang him. It is enough. Wines argue , to prove that Raymer "was aiding, assisting, and abetting" in the murder of William Donnegan.
Wines finished and sat down. Next up was John Friedemeyer, the defense lawyer. "Mr. Wines' statements are like many a small squall," Friedemeyer remarked, "all wind and no rain." A ripple of laughter was cut short by a sharp rap from the gavel of Judge Creighton, who had risen to his feet at the disturbance. "You have a right to be here and hear this trial, but the law must be respected here in this courtroom even if it isn't on the streets. As long as I am on the bench here this courtroom will be one place where the dignity of the law will be upheld."
The coroner's inquest into the killing had failed to produce any evidence solid enough to positively identify Raymer as the man who held the murder weapon, and no new evidence had come to light since the inquest which could. The state did have a wealth of circumstantial evidence pointing to Raymer's guilt, but it was only circumstantial, and would certainly be closely questioned by lawyers for the defense. It would be much simpler to prove that Raymer was present in the crowd that night, and that he encouraged by either word or deed the mob violence that led directly to the death of Donnegan. That was the prosecution's intention, and it was with that object in mind that the state's lawyers mapped their trial strategy.
The prosecution had also decided to abandon the "confession" made by Raymer at the police station just after his arrest. Wines made the decision public in a statement to the press a few days prior to the trial, when he said. "I never sanctioned any violent treatment of any prisoner and regard a confession made under these circumstances as without anv value.The state will make no reliance upon this alleged confession, but will rely solely upon competent evidence of respectable citizens." Raymer's confession was forgotten for the moment, but it would soon again become an issue.
By 9 o'clock Monday morning, spectators were still filing into a courtroom already packed to capacity with lawyers, newsmen and a sizable contingent of special deputies requested by Judge Creighton as insurance against demonstrations in court. Raymer, clad in a simple black suit, sat next to Attorneys Cummins and Friedemeyer. He was joined there by his sister, Mrs. Max Albert, who had recently arrived from Boston vigorously protesting her brother's innocence to the press and pledging to remain with him through his trouble.
Judge Creighton gaveled the court to order and callpd for the first witnesses for the state. The state introduced several men—a street-hawker, a retired state lawmaker,a laborer—each of whom testified that they saw Raymer or a man who looked like Raymer in the mob at Donnegan's.
The last witness brought to the stand before the noon recess was Mrs. Sarah Donnegan, widow of the murder victim. Mrs. Donnegan was a fifty-two-year-old white woman who had married Donnegan in 1876 and who had borne his son, William Jr. She had appeared at the coroner's inquest into her husband's death in late August, where she had testified that she could not positively identify Abe Raymer as the man who killed Donnegan. She had been able to describe the man's clothing, physical build and accent, but had allowed that she would have to see the man again, dressed as he had been on the night of the murder, before she could swear to his identity.
This much was known by everyone in the courtroom, since Mrs. Donnegan's testimony before the coroner's jury had been reprinted in all four local newspapers. The audience was startled, therefore, to hear Sarah Donnegan swear under oath that "I am positive that Raymer was the man who wore the light-colored shirt and led the mob." A mob had congregated in front of her home, she said. Someone called from the street, demanding to know "whether there were white folks or niggers there." She replied that there were none but whites living in the house, when a man she said was Raymer spotted Donnegan inside the house. He broke down the front door, grabbed the old man and yelled. "Here he is. Take him out!"
According to the widow, it was then that someone struck Donnegan on the side of the head with a brick, knocking him unconscious. He was dragged across Edwards Street to the yard of the old Edwards School. His throat was slashed by someone—she couldn't see who—and he was hanged to a small tree by the neck. "I followed the mob for some time," said Mrs. Donnegan. "They told me to get back or they would get me too. I did not see them lynch Donnegan. Whenever I attempted to look, someone would push me into the crowd and make threats. Finally I cried out, 'You have got all that 1 have; for God's sake do not burn my house! The fire had been started on the porch, but someone put it out." Mrs. Donnegan concluded: "Donnegan was hanged to a tree, and I am positive that Raymer was the man who wore the light shirt and led the mob. He spoke English brokenly, and I remember him as the man who sold me vegetables early in the spring of 1908."
Friedemeyer rose to cross examine. "Why." he wanted to know, "did you not identify Abe Raymer as your husband's assailant at the coroner's inquest?" Mrs. Donnegan replied that she had not been asked. Friedemeyer, surprisingly, seemed satisfied with the answer, and sat down.
It was while Mrs. Donnegan was on the stand that the state introduced its only piece of physical evidence. It was a shirt, which Mrs. Donnegan identified as the one worn by Abe Raymer on the night of the murder. Wines stood before the jury, and in a dramatic gesture, pointed to the blood stains which covered its front. The blood, according to Wines, was from the body of Donnegan, put there when Abe Raymer mercilessly slashed the old man's throat while he lay helpless in the street. It is uncertain what effect the display had on the jury, but the gesture was to prove a costly one whose full price would not be known until the next day. For the moment, though. Wines pressed to put the rest of his w itnesses on the stand before the noon break.
The court reconvened after lunch, fed and temporarily refreshed. The day was again hot, and the temperature had already climbed into the 80's. Raymer again took his place behind his lawyers. Since the start of the testimony, Raymer had sat impassively at his table, taking little apparent interest in the witnesses or their statements. His sister, with whom he spoke frequently, was more attentive, and paid strict heed to every word coming from the stand.
Judge Creighton brought the court to order. The afternoon dragged on with more witnesses, more of the same. The sun had set by the time the last of them had left the box. and everyone in the courtroom was anxious to get home. Court was recessed until 9 o'clock the next morning. Frank Hatch told waiting reporters that he thought the rest of the state's witnesses should complete their testimony by noon Tuesday. The trial should be over by Thursday, he thought, barring any unforeseen developments. With that, the interview w as over. and everybody went home to supper.
The parade of witnesses for the state continued Tuesday morning, September 21. Evan Jones, the city policeman who had arrested Raymer for the Donnegan killing, testified that he had seen the defendant several times during the night of the murder, including once at the murder scene. Jones also told the court that, while he was passing through a crowd at the state arsenal at Second and Monroe Streets, he recognized Raymer's voice shouting. "Come on, boys, come on." He also recounted the details of Raymer's arrest.
Other witnesses were introduced whose testimony was intended to put Raymer at the head of the mob that killed Donnegan. All agreed that it was Raymer who had made a speech to the crowd urging them to hang together. The mob. according to the witnesses' accounts, reacted to the oration by crying. "That's the dope, follow the flag." at which time they all headed off.
It was then that the state's lawyers asked to be allowed to introduce as evidence Raymer's testimony before the military court of inquiry which had taken statements from the riot suspects after their arrest by civil authorities. Raymer's own account of his activities on the night of the murder included this.
I didn't lay my hands on Donnegan. I was there because I was sitting in front of Singer's (a tavern near the city jail) and I seen a whole bunch of fellows coming around the corner. Humphrey was there and there was a little Pole. He said: "Let's go down and get some niggers." There must have been twenty-five or thirty men along. They didn't say where to go. Then we went through the square . . . .
There was about five hundred, more or less, in the mob. I didn't know I was going to old man Donnegan's house. I don't know how long it took to get there.
When the bunch got there, a little boy said, "There is a nigger lives in this house." It was the same little boy who said, "Come on, let's get him." They all commenced to throw rocks at the house. I didn't throw and 1 was on the other side of the street.
I didn't go into the house I didn't go onto the porch. 1 was about fifteen feet away from the house.
It wasn't me who went into a store and asked for a rope. 1 wasn't in the store. I don't know of any store around there. I don't know the names of the fellows who had the rope.
They went into the house and got the fellow. When they got him the house was burning. I didn't set fire to the house. I was on the other side of the street. I could not say how many went into the house. I didn't say, "Hang him." 1 didn't call out a thing. 1 didn't help murder old man Donnegan. When they brought him out I just walked over across the street to take a look while he was hanging there. I did not touch my hand on Donnegan. I didn't help lift him up. I didn't throw a rope over a tree.
Four defense witnesses swore the man they saw at Donnegan's was bigger, older, heavier than Raymer, fifty years old perhaps. For every man the state produced who'd seen someone resembling Raymer at various riot scenes, the defense produced one who swore he hadn't. Friedemeyer thanked the witnesses and retired to his seat "delighted with the result," in the words of one reporter.
So far the defense had limited its witnesses to routine testimony offered in rebuttal to the state's assertion that Raymer had led the mob that killed Donnegan. After their dismissal, however, the defense moved to counterattack. On Monday, the state had introduced as evidence the shirt worn by Raymer on the night of the Donnegan murder. It was stained with blood, blood the state insisted belonged to the dead man. The introduction of the bloody shirt as evidence, along with the unproven assertion that the blood which stained it was Donnegan's, opened the way for the defense to introduce testimony concerning Raymer's treatment in jail, testimony the state had so diligently tried to keep out of court. For it was the defense's claim that the blood on Raymer's shirt was not Donnegan's, but was Raymer's own, put there not at the time of the murder, but later, during Raymer's interrogation at the police station.
To substantiate this claim. Friedemeyer called James Taulbee of Hillsboro to the stand. Taulbee was a member of the militia's hospital corps, and had been present at the police station when Raymer was brought in for questioning. Taulbee said under oath that Raymer had had no blood on his shirt when he entered the jail. Raymer was taken to the interrogation room (the "sweat box." Taulbee called it), and shortly after he heard the sound of blows being struck and cries from Raymer begging for mercy.Then , according to Taulbee, Officer Evan Jones entered and said, "You fellows don't know how to make him talk: it takes me to do that." Once again Raymer cried out for mercy. When he emerged from the room a short time later, he was wiping blood from his face, and fresh blood streaked the front of his shirt.
Strictly speaking, the defense testimony about Raymer's beating in jail was irrelevant. Judge Creighton had allowed its introduction only after the state had claimed that the blood on Raymer's shirt was proof that he had assaulted Donnegan. The emotional impact of the story, however, was of much more consequence. This jury was not anxious to hang Raymer or anyone else in Springfield for the murder of a black man. With their testimony of Tuesday afternoon, the defense had painted a compelling portrait of Raymer as an innocent victim of police brutalitv, a scapegoat, a target of authority anxiously searching for a villain—in other words, an innocent man. The story of his mistreatment at the hands of the city police made the dwindling chances for conviction even slimmer.
Having already earned the jury's sympathetic ear. the defense mounted an attack against the reliability of one of the state's key witnesses. Friedemeyer brought Frank Gilarde to the stand. Gilarde was a vegetable huckster who told the court that he had known Abe Raymer for some six months prior to the riots. It was a fact, he stated, that Raymer had not worked for him selling vegetables during the months when, according to Mrs. Sarah Donnegan, he had sold her vegetables. The widow's testimony was further discredited by the last witness for the defense. Charles Hawkins testified that he had met Mrs. Donnegan recently, and that she had asked him to come to the courtroom and point out Abe Raymer to her. According to Hawkins, the Donnegan woman asked him "what kind of a looking man Raymer was."
The net which the day before had seemed so firmly fastened around Raymer was getting looser by the minute. It was 4:30. and the judge decided to postpone the start of closing arguments until the following day. The court was ordered to reassemble at 9 o'clock the next day.
The state's lawyers could not have been happy with the day's events. Each of their key witnesses had been refuted on the stand. Their error in introducing Raymer's shirt as evidence had allowed the defense to introduce a line of testimony which, though of dubious legal importance, was bound to have a decisive effect on a jury looking for any plausible grounds for acquittal. The case which just twenty-four hours ago looked so strong for conviction was now up for grabs. Wednesday's closing arguments would have to be good ones.
The defense, on the other hand, had reason to feel pleased. The state, through an unexpected blunder, had handed Friedemeyer and Cummins the key to an acquittal. The story of Raymer's brutal treatment, coupled with the doubts cast on the veracity of some of the state's key witnesses, was enough, they felt, to bring in a verdict of not guilty. It would take the jury to decide, but the defense had more cause for confidence than at any other time since the opening day of the trial. No one expected closing arguments to take more than a few hours. With any luck, the case would go to the jury by late afternoon of the next day. One way or another, a quick verdict was anticipated.
Murder in his heart
Shortly after 9 o'clock on Wednesday morning, the crowded galleries fell silent as assistant state's attorney Wines rose and faced the jury. Wines spoke quickly and with feeling as he told them, “Here is a young man who started out with no other object in view than murder. He knew that the gang which he joined at Seventh and Washington Streets was out on a hunt for ‘niggers.’ Haven't we produced any amount of witnesses who swear that many members of the mob were shouting ‘Let's get the niggers!. . .’? Does not Raymer himself admit to shouting to people to ‘come on’? Will any reasonable man say that this defendant did not know what he was about? He went out to the residence of old man Donnegan on that night bent on murder. There was blood in his eye and murder in his heart . . . If ever a man deserved hanging in Sangamon County, that man is Abraham Raymer.”
Wines took his seat to be followed by Attorney Cummins. Cummins devoted his presentation to a bitter denunciation of Raymer's accusers. Referring to the military authorities responsible for restoring the shattered peace, Cummins said. "In this time we need men of the stripe of Andrew Jackson, and not an officer . . . that., simply told the mob to disperse." The policemen who struck Raymer during his interrogation were "brutes," according to Cummins. He went on to insist that, "The police department is standing between hundreds of guilty citizens and justice, and picked out this poor boy, who is as innocent as you or I."
Cummins turned sarcastic as he recounted the testimony given by the widowed Mrs. Donnegan. "What do you think of this woman." he asked the jury, "a white woman marrying a Negro forty years older than herself when she herself was in the bloom of youth? 1 tell you she started out but wrong then, and she has been erratic ever since." Cummins continued, "She claims that she positively saw Raymer on her porch that night. Why, if the may she saw had been as tall as the house she lived in, she would have sworn just the same—that he was Raymer and none other."
After the defense's summing up, the jury turned its attention to state's attorney Hatch. Hatch reviewed the testimony given in the trial, and pleaded for a conviction for murder. "If God gives me strength and the court gives me permission," Hatch said, "1 will do what I can to see that every man who took part in that mob of rats and curs that worked its depredations upon Springfield and brought the blush of shame to every law-abiding citizen in this county is punished." There was no element of manslaughter in this case, he insisted; the episode was one of willful murder. His last words to the jury were a warning. "God help the American people," he cautioned, "if the acts of that night are to be termed boyish deviltry."
The closing statements of the opposing lawyers having been completed, the court began to read its instructions to the jury. "Whoever was not present when Donnegan was killed," the instructions read, "but aids and abets or assists is termed a principal; if the mob entertains malice toward the Negro as a class, and killed Donnegan because he was a Negro, then the offense is murder; where an individual is killed as a result of a mob, all who took part in the mob is guilty of murder and manslaughter; if in any manner at any stage of the programme of the mob the defendant aided or assisted you will find him guilty of murder. If the defendant did anything to encourage the commission of the offense, then you must find him guilty." The court went on to explain, however, that "if the jury believe from the evidence that some other person took Donnegan from his house, and unless you believe that Raymer aided and assisted in such killing, then you should find him not guilty."
The reading of the instructions droned on through nearly twenty typed pages of text, and it was well after 5 o'clock by the time the reading was done. At that hour, with the instructions of the court fresh in their minds, the jury members were led to the jury room to decide Raymer's fate. Their deliberations took a little over three hours—at 8:45 P.M. they notified the bailiff that a verdict had been reached. After only one ballot, the jury had unanimously judged Abe Raymer not guilty.
Great regret is expressed
The innocent verdict sent local newspaper editors scrambling for their pencils. The press had been among the loudest voices calling for the swift punishment of the rioters, and news of the failure to convict the state's chief riot suspect was greeted with dismay. A "Journal" editorial published the day after the trial is typical of the newspaper comment concerning the outcome.
Assistant State's Attorney Wines, in discussing the action of the jury, declares that it was not in accordance with the law and the evidence and in direct conflict with the instructions given by Judge Creighton.
By what process of reasoning the jurors disregarded the instructions of the court is what the people cannot understand. In his instructions Judge Creighton ruled that it was not necessary to prove that the defendant actually used the knife or handled or adjusted the rope. "It is certainly sufficient," he said, "if you believe that Raymer was present and in any way aided, abetted, or assisted in such killing, and in such case it is not material who actually used the knife or handled or adjusted the rope."
Great regret is expressed, as a result of this, the first prosecution arising out of the riot, especially in view of the effect it may have in bringing further criticism upon Springfield and in diverting the course of justice in further prosecutions of persons held for complicity in the crimes committed during the riots.
It seems unlikely that many of the public at large—the coal-mining, shop- keeping, steel-rolling public—shared the Journal's"disappointment at the not guilty verdict. That many found room in the state's case for a reasonable doubt about Raymer's guilt is certain. But what the Journal doubtless believe (but did not say) was that even if the jury had known him to be guilty of the charges, they would have refused to apply the law in his case. Such an act would of course be tantamount to an endorsement by the jury of Raymer's deeds. 1908 only rarely saw the conviction of a white man for the murder of black. Although Springfield's city fathers were loathe to admit it, the racism that infected the residents of Mr. Lincoln's home town was no less blind to the law than that of their Southern neighbors. The salient point in the case was not whether Sarah Donnegan actually saw Abe Raymer drag her husband out of his house to his death, nor whether the blood on Raymer's shirt was his or Donnegan's, but that Abe Raymer was white and William Donnegan was black.
Abe Raymer was brought before Judge Creighton's court three more times to stand trial for riot-related charges. He was acquitted in the face of strong evidence against him on separate charges of destroying property belonging to Harry Loper and P. W. Harts, charges which resulted from Raymer's part in the sacking of Loper's Restaurant on August 14. Raymer was again brought to trial on December 19, this time to answer for the theft of a sword belonging to a local black militiaman whose home had been ransacked by the mobs. Raymer was convicted of the offense and sentenced to thirty days in the county jail.
Raymer's conviction on a charge of petty larceny was the only conviction resulting from the 107 riot indictments returned by the special grand jury. In addition to Raymer, five persons were tried for riot offenses—all were found innocent. Many of the people in custody for riot crimes were eventually freed when it became apparent that it was impossible to obtain not convictions from local juries. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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