The commotion coming from inside a dilapidated cabin in the heart of the forest near Lawrenceville, Illinois, on the Embarras River in late December 1824 was loud enough to keep all manner of wildlife at bay. A clay pitcher shattered through a dirty window, and the sound of two people arguing echoed over the ancient mass of pine and fir trees surrounding the crude dwelling.
Elizabeth Fail, a painfully thin, fifteen-year-old girl, flung the door of the cabin open and tried to exit. Her face was swollen and bruised, and her lip was bleeding. She was halfway outside when she was jerked back into the cabin by an unshaven brute of a man with eyes inflamed by whisky. He knocked Elizabeth onto the floor and kicked her hard in the side. She struck a table filled with dishes, food, and a kerosene lamp, and they fell onto the floor as she struggled to crawl to a corner of the shabby, one-room structure. The plates, cups, and lamp broke into pieces when they hit the hard ground and the kerosene spilled out of the busted glass dome. The enraged man picked up a Barlow style knife protruding out of a hunk of cooked deer meat lying on the floor and advanced toward Elizabeth. Her eyes were wide with terror. She screamed as he carved the left side of her face with the knife. Blood gushed everywhere. In between stabbings Elizabeth managed to punch him in the throat with all the strength she had. The out of control thug grabbed his throat and dropped the knife. His knees buckled and he gasped for air. Elizabeth quickly made her way to the stone fireplace and snatched up a long, iron rod, the end of which had been lying in the fire and was flaming red hot. She held the piece of metal out in front of her, ready to strike the man should he get on his feet again and come after her. Elizabeth was a fountain of blood as she raced to the door. The injured man caught her leg before she could leave, and she hit him over the head with the iron rod. He let go of her and slowly sank into the floor. Elizabeth anxiously waited for him to come to, but he was unconscious and motionless. She threw the iron rod down next to the table and the spilled kerosene. The heated end ignited the liquid and set the table on fire. Panicked, Elizabeth turned and hurried out the cabin. Leaves from low hanging tree limbs smacked Elizabeth’s arms and bleeding face as she ran away from the violent scene. A flash of light and the sound of roaring flames prompted her to stop and look back. The cabin was engulfed by fire. The man Elizabeth left behind staggered out the door of the cabin, brutally burned. She watched in horror as he collapsed, still burning, and died. Elizabeth “Betsey” Fail was born in Purgatory Swamp, Illinois, in the fall of 1807. She was the youngest among seven children her parents Abraham and Sarah had, and history records her life as difficult from the moment she entered the world. The Fails were poor farmers. The fertile land near the Wabash River where they lived was stubborn and could only be subdued with vigorous cultivation. Crops were often washed away by flood waters or overtaken by insects. Abraham struggled to keep his family clothed and fed. By the time Elizabeth turned nine her parents decided that anyone in the home unable to strenuously work the fields as needed would have to go. A peddler traveling through Lawrence County in 1815 offered to take Elizabeth with him if the Fails were willing. Sarah agreed but demanded a cast-iron skillet and five pounds of lard in exchange for her daughter. The green-eyed, auburn-haired girl scarcely understood what the peddler expected of her when she was traded again to another man at a make-shift camp near the Embarras River. Elizabeth’s new guardian was a gambler who mistreated her. After several years of being abused, she fought back. The physical altercation resulted in the gambler’s death. Elizabeth fled the burning cabin where he lay and hid herself in the woods at various points along the river’s bank. In time the deep cuts on her face healed; a long scar that extended from her left cheekbone to the center of her chin bore witness to the struggles she had endured. Elizabeth found employment at a boarding house in Logansport, Indiana, some one hundred and eighty miles from the place she was born. The establishment was a frequent stop for immigrants traveling up and down the Wabash and Eel Rivers that converged near the town. Historians speculate this is where she met her first husband John Stone. The couple was married for ten years. Stone had a series of odd jobs. Elizabeth educated herself in the practice of midwifery and learned how to cure a variety of ailments using herbs and other natural remedies. Quiet and aloof, she kept her pale and scarred face covered with a bonnet and handkerchief style veil. Her conspicuous manner of dress and reserved demeanor made her a mysterious figure to those she came in contact.It is not known how old Elizabeth was when Stone left her, only that she returned to Lawrence County after he departed. She then met and married Leonard Reed a native of Barren County, Kentucky, who owned a small farm south of Palestine, Illinois. According to the August 18, 1932, edition of the Lawrence County News, Reed was a “thin, frail man with salt and pepper hair, an oversized nose and a perpetual smile.” Born in 1795, Reed was twelve years older than Elizabeth. In addition to raising wheat and corn he was also a trapper. The pair lived in a rustic cabin and apart from Leonard’s niece, sixteen year old Eveline Deal; few knew much of anything about the Reed’s personal life. It wasn’t until the summer of 1844 that the pair became the focus of attention. * Elizabeth was peculiar to most in the community. Because she concocted treatments for various sicknesses using items such as bark from trees and bits of the internal parts of animals, and because she kept her face mostly hidden, some believed she was a witch. When Reed was not seen for a long period of time working his land or tending to his traps, it was rumored that Elizabeth had put a hex on him to make him violently ill. Reed was sick, but Eveline told curious neighbors that dark magic was not to blame. She did suspect her aunt was responsible. She claimed that Elizabeth and her uncle had quarreled and that Elizabeth had poisoned him. After Reed languished for three days, a Lawrence County doctor named James Logan was called to the home to examine him. The doctor determined the man was close to death but could not find a reason for his declining health. He prescribed some medicine for Reed and asked his wife and niece to make sure he took it. Doctor Logan promised to call on his patient again in a few days to monitor his condition. Eveline sat beside her uncle on the bed and dabbed beads of sweat off his tortured face with a damp cloth. Elizabeth prepared a pot of sassafras tea and helped her husband drink a cup of the brew. His situation did not improve. He died on August 19, 1844. According to the June 6, 1968, edition of the Mt. Vernon, Illinois, newspaper the Mt. VernonRegister News, Reed’s funeral was well attended. Neighbors expressed their sympathy to his widow. Elizabeth nodded politely but said very little about her husband and his passing. After the ceremony she returned to the cabin alone. She barely had a time to adjust to life without Reed when Eveline made a public accusation that her aunt poisoned her uncle and that she had witnessed the crime. The teenager told law enforcement officials that Elizabeth slipped some white powder into Reed’s tea. Eveline suspected the powder to be arsenic, and she gave police a small piece of butcher paper she said contained the deadly powder. When tested by authorities the paper proved to have contained arsenic. Elizabeth looked on in silence as Eveline escorted the sheriff and his deputies into the cabin and walked them through what occurred the night she believed her uncle was given the dose of poison that took his life. She said her aunt kept paper filled with arsenic in the cupboard. After depositing the fatal dose into Reed’s tea, Eveline noticed Elizabeth toss the paper out of the cabin. Eveline’s suspicions were greatly aroused, and she snuck outside after dark and retrieved the paper. The authorities searched the crude home thoroughly and found a similar piece of paper with a small amount of arsenic left inside. According to court records, authorities decided to arrest Elizabeth after two county physicians had Reed’s body exhumed, examined, and then determined he had died as a result of chronic arsenic poisoning. In order for physicians to establish that he had been poisoned, they had to convert body tissue and fluids into arsenic gas. It was estimated that Reed was poisoned over the course of a week and died in great agony. The doctor’s report combined with the witness’ statement was enough to take Elizabeth into custody. Further investigation led to the discovery of the location where Elizabeth purchased the arsenic. The druggist at a mercantile in Russellville, a village in Lawrence County, Illinois, remembered selling Elizabeth the poison. He claimed she was in disguise when she came into the store, but authorities believe he mistook her natural state of dress, the low hanging bonnet and kerchief style veil over her face, as a disguise. Court records show that all evidence compiled by authorities was presented to a grand jury, and they found that Elizabeth was responsible for Reed’s death. According to their report, “Elizabeth Reed, not having the fear of God before her eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil” had murdered her husband with a mixture of white arsenic and sassafras tea.” The motivation for the crime was not clear, and Elizabeth did nothing to help the case that was against her. She offered no defense and refused to speak to anyone who asked her questions about her late husband. Public sentiment was not in her favor either. Many of the people in the area saw her as cold-blooded and unfeeling. They didn’t doubt she murdered Reed. Elizabeth was held at a jail in Palestine, Illinois. Those who believed the dark, brooding woman was guilty of the crime of murder stood outside the building and demanded that the authorities release Elizabeth to them so they could lynch her. She watched the angry crowd from her cell window, never voicing an objection. Although she did not display any emotion to the public over her desperate circumstances, she was anxious to escape the ordeal. The proof of that came when she attempted to break out of jail by setting fire to it. The blaze was subdued before it got out of control and Elizabeth could get away. Deputies who had searched the prisoner before placing her in the cell claimed to not know how she started the fire. Supposedly she had nothing in her possession that could set off even a spark. When news that she apparently started a fire from nothing reached Palestine, residents were all the more convinced Elizabeth was a witch. Court records note residents believed Elizabeth was “practicing in the art of the occult and had summoned flames from the pit of hell.” People were afraid of Elizabeth, and her attorneys, August French and Usher Linder, did not believe any impartial individuals could be found in Palestine to serve on a jury. They petitioned the court for a change of venue. Before it was granted authorities kept Elizabeth chained to a bed in the sheriff’s cabin. Since the jail had been burned down there was no other place to keep prisoners. After more than a nine month wait, Elizabeth was transferred to Lawrenceville. The prosecution and defense teams estimated the hearing would take three days to complete. According to the June 6, 1968 edition of the Mt. Vernon, Illinois, newspaper the Mt. Vernon Register News, Judge William Wilson oversaw the case, and the prosecuting attorney was Aaron Shaw. The October 1918 edition of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society noted that Wilson was a farmer as well as judge from Carmi, Illinois. He was a well-respected chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court and the father of ten children. News of Elizabeth’s trial spread throughout Illinois and even reached papers in the New York area. Readers of the article were shocked by the tale of such calculated murder and followed the case closely as it progressed. According to the court records witnesses testifying against Elizabeth were James Logan, the attending physician, Eveline Deal, and the two physicians who examined Reed after his death. Logan was the first to take the stand when the trial started in late April 1845. He told the jury that Reed died of “inflammation of the stomach, induced by some poisonous drug.” He reported that when he examined Reed the day he passed away that his stomach was in a state of “incipient mortification.” Although he had no personal knowledge that Elizabeth purchased arsenic from the store in Russellville, he felt certain she did acquire poison from the location.Eveline Deal’s statement about Elizabeth’s actions leading up to her uncle’s alleged murder proved to be most damning. “I saw Mrs. Reed take a small paper of white powder and she put it in a cup of sassafras tea and she gave it to Mr. L. Reed,” she testified. “That seemed to make him very sick and caused him to vomit immediately…she emptied the powder from the paper. I believe she intended to throw it out of the door but it fell on the doorstep. I took up the paper and looked between two glass tea plates that sat in the cupboard and the same place that I saw her take the powder from and there I found another paper…the same kind of paper…along with pieces of an old book leaf that was considerably smoked. The first opportunity I gave them [the pieces of paper] to authorities.”Once Eveline left the stand the two physicians that examined Reed after his demise were called to tell what they knew. Both testified that Reed’s death was caused by the internal use of arsenic. Court records do not show that anyone was called to champion Elizabeth. She was not allowed to take the stand because her lawyer felt she might incriminate herself, but she vehemently declared her innocence from the defendant’s table where she sat during the trial. No amount of protesting could sway the opinion of the judge and the all-male jury. On April 29, 1845, Elizabeth was found to be guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Confined to the small jail cell until the date of her hanging on May 23, 1845, Elizabeth decided the wait to be intolerable. In an effort to expedite her death she began eating rocks and pieces of mortar from the cell walls. The desperate actions did not bring about her death; it only caused her to become sick.Just after daybreak on May 23, 1845, Elizabeth was led to the gallows located a mile from the courthouse where her trial was held. According to eye witnesses at the scene Elizabeth was transported to the spot she was to be hanged on the back of a wagon. She was dressed in a long, white robe given to her by the local minister and his wife. The garment was reported to have once belonged to one of the members of a religion known as the Millerites. The Millerites, who lived and worshipped in the Lawrenceville area, believed the second coming of Christ was to occur in 1843. They each made white robes for their journey. When the event did not come about on that exact date the group disbanded. The minister who attended to Elizabeth’s spiritual needs during her incarceration felt it was fitting she wear one of the robes to meet her Maker. It was his contention that Elizabeth had “confessed her crimes to him, sought and was granted forgiveness from the creator.”The June 6, 1968, edition of the Mt. Vernon Register News reported that more than twenty thousand people were on hand to witness the execution. They watched Elizabeth ride to the scene seated on the very coffin in which she was to be buried. It was a bright and balmy morning, and Elizabeth was singing hymns of praise as she was led to the gallows. John Seed, a well-known Methodist preacher, delivered a ninety minute sermon to the crowd of on-lookers about the need for their salvation. At the conclusion of the message a noose was placed around Elizabeth’s neck and a black hood was draped over her head. When the executioner activated the lever attached to the trap door, the accused fell through to her death. The Mt. Vernon RegisterNews noted that she “revolved several times, but did not struggle much.” After Elizabeth’s passing the community debated over a motive for why she killed her husband. According to the Mt. Vernon Register News dated June 6, 1968, some insisted she was involved with another man and wanted Leonard out of the way so she could live a new life. Some stated that Leonard found out Elizabeth was an outlaw who had murdered a man and burned his remains, and still others maintained it was Leonard that was involved with another, and Elizabeth had caught him in the act. Leonard and Elizabeth were buried in the same unmarked plot outside the Lawrenceville cemetery. Elizabeth Reed was the first woman in the United States to be publicly executed and the only woman executed by hanging in Illinois. *Some newspaper accounts of the incident state that Eveline Deal was not related to the Reeds but that she was simply a neighbor and friend helping to care for Leonard.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.