Old Courthouse Museum
103 West Cherry Street
Watseka, IL 60970-1524
The Fall, 2002 edition of the Iroquois County Historical Society Newsletter contained Dorrance Albright's fine retelling of the story of the lynching of Martin Meara, an Onarga Township resident who brutally murdered his son by beating him and then placing him on a hot stove to burn. Meara ws arrested and taken to the county jail in Watseka.. A mob of enraged citizens gathered at the jail and forced the sheriff to give Meara to them. He was taken to a site near Sugar Creek west of Watseka and hanged from a tree on July 5, 1871. That summary of the old story stops with the lynching and probably tells most of what was known publicly about the matter, leaving untold the story of what happened to Meara's family. A bit of research divulged the history that is reported here.
The sources of this information are (1) Encarta, the Microsoft encyclopedia; (2) the Internet website of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie-Mellon University; (3)The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers and Scientists by Brooks Bailey, Bob Adams, Inc. Publishers, 1994.
When Martin Meara was hanged he left his pregnant widow, Mary Brannick Meara, and at least one child, Mary Agnes, age two, born in 1869. Within a short atime after the murder and hanging, the widow moved with the children to Chicago. It is assumed that the widow sold the farm land in Onarga Township. The record of Martin's purchase of land from the Illinois Central Railroad is found in the Iroquois County Genealogical Society's holding, but those records do not disclose a subsequent sale. The apparent near-poverty of the family in Chicago suggests that there was no sale or that the proceeds of any sale were meager. Soon after the move, the family name was changed to Merrill . No record of the widow's remarriage was found in this research, but little Mary Agnes retained the Meara family name.
The record of Mary Agnes' life is found in Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia and is reprinted here.
Chase, Mary Agnes Meara (1869 - 1963), American botanist, widely regarded as an expert in agrostology, the study of grasses. Born in Iroquois County, Illinois (April 20, 1869), Mary Meara grew up in Chicago, where her family moved after her father's death in 1871.
In 1888 Meara married William J. Chase, a newspaper editor she met while working as a proofreader. When he died suddenly one year later, she wss forced to return to proofreading to pay off their debts. It was not until a trip to the plant exhibits at the Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, that she developed an interest in botany. In 1898, while collecting plant specimens, she met Ellsworth Jerome Hill, a botanist specializing in mosses and liverworts. He encouraged her new enthusiasm for botany, and eventually hired her to illustrate new species that he had discovered. She was also asked to illustrate two publications for the Field Museum of Natural History: Plantae Utowanae (1900) and Plantae Yucatanae (1904).
In 1903, at Hill's urging, she accepted full-time employment as a botanical artist a the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Bureau of Plant Industry in Washington, C.D. In this position , she formed a highly productive association with Albert Spear Hitchcock, a specialist in agrostology. Between 1905 and 1936 Chase held jobs of increasing responsibility, eventually replacing Hitchcock, upon his retirement, as senior botanist and principal scientist in charge of systematic agrostology.
During her long career, Chase made significant and extensive contributions to the collection of grasses at the National Herbarium of the USDA (An herbarium is a collection of mounted and labeled dried plants intended for scientific study.) The Herbarium became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1912. She travelled around the United States, as well as Europe and South America, gathering plant specimens for the Herbarium - over 12,000 by the end of her career. Many of these plans were previously unknown. After her retirement in 1939, Chase donated her personal agrostological library to the Smithsonian.
Another important part of her job with the USDA was to provide nutritional and agricultural scientists with specific information about cereal and other food crops. The scientists used this information to produce disease-resistant plants with greater nutritional value.
Chase authored over seventy publications, including First Book of Grasses (1922) and Index to Grass Species (1962). Her discoveries of new grasses and new ranges for existing grasses were incorporated into Hitchcock's 1935 Manual of the Grasses of The United States; Chase was responsible for the 1950 revision of this classic reference. She was made an honorary fellow of the Smithsonian Institution in 1958, and of the Linnaean Society in 1961.
This summary of Mary Agnes Meara's professional career makes no mention of the unspeakable horror that brought her to Chicago at the age of two, and it is possible that Mary Agnes never knew of the awful events, as her mother may have put all that behind her and never told Mary Agnes. The family's early life in Chicago was difficult and Mary Agnes' education ended at the Eighth Grade.. The tragedy of the early death of her husband marked her life forever and she never remarried. No published account of the life of the widow Mary Brannick Meara (Merrill) was found in the course of the research of the life of Mary Agnes.
Honors and achievements not reported in the Encarta article are (1) Certificate of Distinguished Achievement from the Botanical Society of America in 1956; (2) Honorary Doctorate, University of Illinois, 1958. She was a widely recognized fighter for the right of women to vote and was jailed for a time in Washington ,D.C. for demonstrating for that right.
Mary Agnes Meara Chase died on September 14, 1963 at a nursing home in Bethesda, Maryland. It is hoped that her native Iroquois County will remember her for achievements in science, and the honor she brought to her birthplace.
For a more detailed biography and some excellent photographs of Mary Agnes, see the website of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at the Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Go to the link for the Hitchcock-Chase Collection.