Old Courthouse Museum
103 West Cherry Street
Watseka, IL 60970-1524
The famous Meara Case form one of the most dramatic series of events which ever took place in the history of Iroquois county. It was published complete in the Watseka Republican of October 29, 1930, under "Twice Told Tales," the first time all the gruesome details of the case ever appeared in one paper at the same time. This pamphlet contains an exact reprint of that story, complete in every detail.
The story related how a father whipped his 11-year-old boy to death, at the same time torturing him by forcing his naked body on top of a hot stove, while his wife lay sick in the house, with a baby just born the previous day. It tells how the father attempted to cover up his crime but was found out, and how he was subsequently lynched by a mob of citizens.
While the files of the Watseka Republican are not complete at the time of this tragedy, the information was secured largely from Beckwith's History of Iroquois County, now out of print.
Martin Meara, Jr., a boy eleven years old, was burned and whipped by his father till he was dead, June 13, 1871. The lad was knocked down twice and most unmercifully flogged until he could not stand. Two or three time the father said he would whip the life out of him, the boy pleading, "Father, don't whip me any more!"
The next day the boy's swollen face gave evidence of the ordeal through which he had passes; and feeling bad, he returned to his bed, saying his sister he did not know why his father whipped him so. After he had been in bed a short time Meara made him get up and feed the stock, and on his return to the house, whipped him again, and sent him to the field. Not long after this he brought him in, and commenced whipping him with the stock of a large, blacksnake whip about a yard long; then laid him on the hot stove (the daughter was baking biscuits at the time), the boy pleading all the while, "Father, don't burn me, don't burn me."
He screamed very loud. The skin from his feet and back stuck to the stove, making the room very offensive. Meara would not allow a door or window to be opened. He knocked they boy down with the butt end of the whip stock several times. He then took him to his mother's room and the children never saw him again. This is the testimony of Sarah Meara, fourteen years of age.
Maggie Meara, a bright Little girl, seven years old, said to the coroner's jury: "Father whipped brother with a whip; he put brother on the hot stove; he laid him down; he cried when he was put on the stove; there was a fire in the stove; he laid him on his back on the hot stove; brother tried to get away; his clothes were all off; father made him take them off himself; father hit brother on the head; he hit him lots of times; he then threw him in the shed; he then walked back and stood up by the side of the wall; he whipped him, and then took him into mother's room; I never saw him any more; father told me not to say anything about it or he would whip me, too; I loved my brother; father whipped me sometimes with a whip."
Afterward the boy was taken to his mother's room, where she lay sick with an infant just one day old. Meara, in her presence, used the whip on him for a number of minutes, the child dodging around the room to avoid the blows, pleading, "Don't whip me, father, please don't; I will work."
At last he stopped and told him to put on his shirt. The boy made an effort and failed, saying, "I can't see it, I can't see it; no, father, I can't see you," and fell to the floor, dying.
Meara said, "Have I killed him?"
The sick wife, the only human witness to the awful scene, replied, "Yes, you have; you have finished him."
Meara then bathed him with whiskey, tried to have him drink some, threw some over him and labored to revive him. Failing in this, he cried, "Have I killed him?" After rubbing him for a half hour the boy lifted his hand, moved his lips and was dead.
He then pushed the body under the mother's bed, where it remained till near midnight when Meara laid him on a sheet, with his clothes on , drew his cap over his face, pinned the sheet closely around him, and taking him in his arms, carried the remains of his murdered son to the previously prepared grave, about four rods south of the house, and buried him five and a half feet deep.
So completely had this been done that the soil was replaced in its natural position. This severity of the father to the son was because he said the boy would tell lies, and would not work. The other members of the family said he was a good boy, and only told falsehoods when his father made him own to things he had not done, to avoid greater punishment.
After Mrs. Meara was able to go out, she made an effort to find the grave of her son, but could not. She told her husband so, and he replied, "I don't think you could."
The day after the murder, Meara posted notices in Gilman, written by himself, stating his son had run away, and offering a reward for his return. The neighbors, suspecting something wrong at Meara's, June 29, so stated to George B. Winter and Isaac McCourtie of Onarga, who, the next day unearthed the atrocious affair.
A sufficient statement was obtained from the oldest daughter, who was interviewed at school, to satisfy them of the truth of the rumor. The girl was brought to town, the father at once arrested, and search made for the body. Meara was allowed to go home that night, being secretly watched by a number of men all night.
The next day a large number of citizens from Gilman and Onarga searched the premises. Many gave up and went home before noon, and others came, and the search went on. Meara was taken back to Onarga during the forenoon. At no time did he make any effort to escape; he feared being lynched and asked the officers to protect him. He went unmanacled about the village with the officers.
Mrs. Meara denied all knowledge of the affair until, she knew that he was in the custody of the law. She said, "I knew Martin was a passionate man and our lives were in danger."
A partial examination was had before Justice Amerman, hoping the daughter would tell the court the same she had Winter and McCourtie; but the moment she entered the courtroom and the eyes of her father were upon her, she was dumb; not a word could be gotten from her.
Late in the afternoon the men began to go home; nothing had been accomplished, either in the courtroom or on the farm. At last a small piece of clay, smoothly cut on one side, was picked up. This belonged several feet below the surface, and led to a thorough investigation at that place. By forcing sharp sticks into the ground till the grave was found, the body was soon exhumed.
When this news reached town the perpetrator of the foul deed was talking with some men about the suspicions that he had made away with his son. While thus engaged, McCourtie told him the body was found. He appealed to McCourtie to have mercy upon him. The reply came, "Why do you ask me for mercy, when you had none for your boy when you killed him?" Meara said, "I whipped him to death."
Irons were then put on him and he was put under close guard. While in charge of the officer he said, if he had it to do again, he would fix it so no one would find the grave.
There were strong indications that he would be lynched that night, but better counsel prevailed and the people dispersed, and under the cover of an approaching thunderstorm, he was removed, by special constable Thomas Robinson and his assistants, to a wagon a half mile away, and delivered to the sheriff at Watseka early the next day. The excitement increased from day to day until, on the fifth day, the death of Martin Meara occurred.
Martin Meara, an Irishman and a farmer, who resided between Onarga and Gilman, in this county, was charged with having, about June 15, 1871, whipped his son, a lad of about eleven years of age, to death. The body of the boy was found and Meara arrested, about the first of July, and upon an examination, he was committed to jail to await the action of the grand jury upon the matter. For a more particular account of these occurrences the reader is referred to the history of the town of Onarga. On Sunday morning, July 2, 1871, Meara was brought to jail, and at his request Roff & Doyle visited him as counsel. On the next day his wife came to see him. On Tuesday, the 4th, there was a celebration at Milford, which many citizens of Watseka attended. In the evening the writer, who had attended with others, returned and was informed by the sheriff that Luther T. Clark, of Onarga, had arrived that night to hang Meara. The writer advised him to summon a guard, which he did, of a few determined person.
The mob came, as it was afterwards learned, but being notified by Clark that they would meet with resistance, they left. For greater safety, however, the prisoner was taken to the woods by the sheriff, in the latter part of the night, and returned to jail in the morning.
It was presumed that this would be the end of the matter, and early in the morning the writer went to Chicago on important business, and did not return until the next day.
Circuit court was then in session, Judge Charles H. Wood presiding, but had adjourned from the Saturday before until the afternoon of the 5th.
During that day rumors were rife in Watseka that another mob was gathering about Onarga and would be over in the afternoon. At half past two Judge Wood arrived from Onarga on the train and with many persons from the west side of the county, supposed to be implicated in the mob.
When Judge Wood came through Gilman, Dr. Elias Wenger presented him with a petition signed by twenty-three of the best citizens of that place requesting him to call a grand jury to act upon the Meara case and put him to trial. This Judge Wood refused to do, which had the tendency to further excite the mob spirit. Soon after court opened.
Sheriff South, with W. S. Kay, Esq., consulted the judge as to the propriety of removing Meara for safety, and he advised them that the jail was the proper place for him, but gave no further specific advice or directions in the matter.
The mob gathered about two o'clock in the timber at the mouth of Sugar Creek, just west of Oldtown. They came on horseback and in wagons, with arms and bludgeons, sledges and crowbars. They organized by electing E. J. Barber, of Onarga, leader, who declined, and nominated Athiel Simms, who was elected. He remained quiet and said nothing. Dr. B. J. Daniels, a disreputable practitioner of Gilman, itching for notoriety, thereupon announced that he would act as leader, and got upon his horse and rode to Watseka.
Here he distributed a large number of printed accounts of the murder, for the purpose of exciting the sympathies of the people in favor of the mob.
In the evening, after borrowing an old hat and clothes in which to do his murderous work, he returned, but in the meantime the mob had been formed and was marching for Watseka. It was met half-way by Daniels, who harangued them.
They then made a dash upon the court house about 6 o'clock, and just after court had adjourned, and were met at the gate by Sheriff South, who commanded them to "Halt!"
The mob disregarded his command and wrested the arms from the hands of the guard. They then battered down the outside door, which had been barred, demanded the keys of the jail from the sheriff, who refused to give them up, and then with sledges battered down the door of the jail and also the cell containing Meara.
Meara, was both handcuffed and shackled, and utterly defenseless, and in this condition he was dragged out of the jail and courthouse, and thus to a wagon, over one hundred yards distant, into which he was thrown.
Daniels then mounted the wagon and again harangued the mob, in which he said that: "We are aware that he (Meara) could only be indicted for manslaughter, which would simply send him to the penitentiary for a few years."
Meara was then driven to the timber west of Sugar Creek, and under a leaning mulberry tree. It was then announced to him that he could have but a short time in which to prepare for death. He called for a Catholic priest and the response was that there was none present. He then asked if there were any Catholics present, and the answer being yes, he asked them to pray for him. Rev. C. H. Palmer of the Presbyterian church then made a lengthy prayer, after which Meara spent a few moments in giving directions as to the disposal of his property and accounts.
He then said that when he had joined the Masons he had made a great many enemies, and he made the grand hailing sign of distress in Masonry, and this eliciting no response, he renounced Masonry and said he wanted to die a Catholic.
In the meantime, a rope had been prepared with a hangman's knot upon it. Meara had been a very short time in an attitude of prayer, when he was told to stand up, which he did, and the rope was passed down to Daniels, who placed a noose about Meara's neck and tied a handkerchief over his face, and the wagon was then driven out and Meara launched into eternity.
After he had been hanging but a short time, Daniels shot two balls through his body, our of a pistol. The crowd then dispersed and the body was left hanging over night.
Most everything had its ludicrous side and this case was not an exception. A short time after the crowd had dispersed, which was after dark, a family of emigrants with a wagon came along and camped near the place. They had heard nothing of the affair, and the first they knew of it was in the morning, when they discovered the body of Meara, hanging upon the tree. They then supposed that the whole thing had occurred after their arrival and during the night. Fearing that they might be charged with the crime, or perhaps be the next victims, they incontinently fled without even preparing breakfast.
In the morning the body was taken down by citizens of Watseka and, the coroner being absent, an inquest was held by Justice L. Armstrong. After an examination of several witnesses the jury brought in the following verdict:
"State of Illinois
"Iroquois County, ss.
"In the matter of the inquisition on the body of Martin Meara, deceased, held at Watseka on the 6th day of July, A. D. 1871, we, the undersigned jurors, sworn to inquire of the death of Martin Meara, on oath do find that he came to his death, by being hanged by the neck and shot with a pistol, by the hands of B. J. Daniels, Alvin L. Bates, Samuel Higginson, Samuel Hannah, John Lowe, Otto Meyers, H. C. Mosher, and others whose names are at present unknown to the jurors; that the body of Martin Meara was shown to this jury, hanging to a tree, and with two wounds in the body, in Middleport township, Iroquois county, and State of Illinois, about one mile west of Watseka, near the bridge crossing Sugar Creek; that the said Martin Meara was killed on the 5th day of July, 1871."
A warrant was issued on this verdict, and some of the parties arrested, and some fled the country. Mosher, Meyers and Lowe were taken before Judge Wood, after arrest, on a writ of habeas corpus, and by him discharged. Daniels was taken before Judge S. D. Puterbaugh, of Peoria, and by him held to bail in the sum of $5,000.00, which was given. The grand jury at the following term of court failed to find indictment against the parties.
After the Meara case was reprinted in the Watseka republican the following letter was received, and it is added here to give the viewpoint of an eye-witness:
Port Angeles, Wash., Dec. 17, 1930
I am Joseph Sant, an old ditcher from Watseka. I followed ditching there for quite a time.
I read of the horrible murder in your paper in which the young boy of eleven years was killed by being whipped by a blacksnake and alternately placed on a red hot stove until he died while the mother was forced to witness this.
I had arrived in Watseka in 1871. I had gone from New York to Bristol, England, with a load of wheat as a sailor. From Bristol I came to New Orleans with a shipload of rails on the ship Non Quem Dermio. The captain of this ship was Captain Morrey. When I left this ship I became wheels-man on one of Morgan's boats. I soon quit and joined the U. S. Revenue Cutter "Delaware," cruising the Gulf of Mexico, under Captain Parker, First Lieutenant Shepherd, second Lieut. Smithe. From there I got a discharge and came to Chicago in the spring of 1871. I there got a job on the C. D. & V. railroad between St. Anne and Papineau. I first worked under roadmaster Sullivan and then Sullivan left the road and I worked under Lamison. I walked barefooted because I was used to going without shoes on ships. Lamison took me to a store run by Coney and bought me a pair of new shoes, a cap and some shirts. I was still wearing the ship uniform when I was working on the railroad. I then moved to Watseka and boarded with Mammy and daddy English. On the Fourth of July we were taking some passengers in the box cars and flat cars between Watseka and Milford to celebrate. The conductor let me collect the fares. A short time after work one night I saw a crowd in Watseka, and was curious to see what was going on, so I followed the crowd to the court house and some one with a battering ram broke the court house door open and I went in the cell and they asked me if I saw anyone in there, because it was dark in it, and I said yes, there was a man in the corner bound in irons. It was Meara. the crowd drug him out and put him in a wagon and when got near old Uncle Tom Sorren's place, they sent a man after 25 cents worth of rope. Then they gave him a trial and told him they were going to hang him until he was dead! dead! dead! Meara, the man that was to be hung, asked me if I would get him a drink of water. I went to Wilson Kay's well and got him my dinner pail full of water twice and gave it to him. when we got to where he was to be hung, he was asked if he had killed another boy, but he said, no, I only killed my own son. then he said, "You aren't hanging me for murder, you are hanging me for manslaughter." Then he asked what we were going to do with his body. Then we told him we were going to bury it. He said he would like to see a priest. They told him he didn't have time to see a priest but told him to pray for himself. When he got up from praying he said, :Let my body be here and let my wife come after it." They hung him and left his body there until about eight o'clock the next morning.
Some gypsies came and camped there and didn't see him till next morning. The gypsies finally saw him there the next morning and got excited and got out of there as fast as they could.
And so the band stopped playing, "Annie Laurie."
I would like to see my old friends again but most of them are gone. I used to ditch for William Coney, Joe Matzenbaugh, John Donovan and some for Shepherd and Vennums around Milford and Barnew and Johnny Jones. My first ditching contract was for Charley and Matt Dawson.
I would like to come to Watseka but I am getting along in years as I am 86 years old. I have property here and this country is a very nice and healthy climate and I have one fine lot in the center of the city and also 20 acres on a millsite. I would like to trade for a good 80 acres near Watseka and move there. If anyone would like to come here we never have any thunder or electrical storms and very little snow or cold weather.
God Bless all.
With best wishes for a merry Christmas and Happy New Year and all the good in the world.
The above article was taken from a booklet once owned by Eva Schuen and donated to ICGS by Elsie Mathewson.