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Illinois And The 19th Century Wild West

Mon, 01 Jul 2013 11:02:25 CDT
By: Haley BeMiller

Illinois And The 19th Century Wild West
During the 19th century, Illinois was fraught with crime and debauchery. There is no doubt that it was part of the Wild West. WGLT's Haley BeMiller talks with historian John Hallwas about famous outlaws, law enforcement and the rest of Illinois' not-so-innocent history.


(Photo courtesy of www.johnhallwas.jimdo.com)

HALEY BEMILLER: Dr. John Hallwas is a Professor Emeritus at Western Illinois University and an expert on Illinois crime in the 19th century. He says the state used to be a place consumed by constant theft and sometimes even murder. These outlaws didn't commit crime just for fun, either. They did it to make a living. Hallwas says Ed and Lon Maxwell were the two biggest names in 19th century crime. They are also the focus of his book, Dime Novel Desperadoes. Hallwas says the brothers' notoriety pushed them into the spotlight, but there might've been more to them than it seemed.

HALLWAS: The Maxwell brothers gained a lot of national attention, especially because of a gunfight that took place at Duran, Wisconsin in 1881. They were on the run for theft, they were being sought, and in western Wisconsin in the town of Duran, a couple of law enforcement officials ran across them and raised their guns and started to say "You are under arrest" and the two Maxwell brothers, Ed and Lon, shot them down in the street.

HB: Why did they act so rashly against the law enforcement officials? That doesn't seem like the best idea in the world.

HALLWAS: I doubt that the Maxwells even knew for sure that they were law enforcement officials. They certainly didn't know who they were in particular. They were just somebody in the street who raised guns on them. They knew they were being sought, and sometimes in the 19th century especially, you also had bounty hunters after people who would simply shoot first. But in any case, killing two law enforcement officials in a single gunfight in the street made them national figures.

HB: Now, how was the relationship between law enforcement and outlaws back then different from today?

HALLWAS: It was much more of a challenge to apprehend lawbreakers in the 19th century. Again, back at a time when you didn't have photographs to speak of (photographs do become more popular late in the century), but you didn't have fingerprints, and you had that kind of situation where there were a lot of, let's say, not well-known people in an area. That makes it difficult for law enforcement at the time.

HB: What about the officials themselves? How skilled was the law enforcement back then?

HALLWAS: Law enforcement officials in the 19th century were often inexperienced. They usually didn't have any professional training in law enforcement. In many counties or communities, people deliberately shifted the role of sheriff around from person to person. And so, you had a lot what you might call amateurism in law enforcement in the 19th century, and that was difficult too.

HB: What can we learn today by looking at outlaws and crime in the 19th century?

HALLWAS: What it is that predisposes people toward criminality. Ed and Lon Maxwell being the sons of a renter, a struggling sharecropper who moved one area after another to rent and to try to make a living, try to get enough money so that he could buy some land and have his own farm, but failing time after time in hard times, that's a very difficult life for anyone to cope with. Also, the public tended to look down on these figures who did not own land, that is the land-owning public looked down on them. And so, you had to face that prejudice, that negativity.

HB: John Hallwas is the author of Dime Novel Desperadoes. He says outlaws like Ed and Lon Maxwell didn't just commit crimes to gain material things. The biggest reason, he says, was to cope with an identity struggle caused by an unfair society. I'm Haley BeMiller, WGLT News.

You can hear more about the Maxwell Brothers and crime in 19th century Illinois Wednesday at 1 p.m. at the McLean County Museum of History. Hallwas will present his program Desperados: Notorious Outlaws of Illinois.


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