Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
By Elizabeth McCammon
Thursday marks the 140 year anniversary of Effingham County’s only public hanging. Nathan Burgess, born May 6, 1847, was found guilty of murder and was hanged for the crime on June 18, 1875.
Burgess supposedly murdered a watchman by the name of Joseph Robbins on October 29, 1874. Robbins was employed as a watchman on the Vandalia Railroad Bridge. Burgess was indicted in Fayette County, but it was decided that Burgess would have a better chance of a fair trial in Effingham County.
In March of 1875, a guilty verdict was decided. The sentence for the crime of murder was public hanging. In today’s world it would take several years for a death sentence to be carried out, but in 1875 it was a different story. Seven months after the
crime, Burgess was hanged for the murder.
“At sixteen minutes before two o’clock, he swung into eternity,” a local historical description states in a document at the Effingham County Cultural Center and Museum. Twenty minutes later Burgess was pronounced dead and placed into his coffin. A picture in the exhibit at the courthouse shows the large crowd that gathered outside the courthouse on the day of the hanging.
Some people believe Burgess was guilty, while others believe he was innocent. Later, Burgess’s father confessed to the crime while on his deathbed.
“He didn’t think the courts would convict an innocent man,” said LoElla Baker, a volunteer at the Effingham County Cultural Center and Museum.
“I believe the father said it to clear his son’s name,” President of the Effingham County Cultural Center and Museum Association Delaine Donaldson said.
Burgess’s father also said that he believed his son deserved the job as watchman and killed Robbins so his son could have the job. His father said that he wore Burgess’s shoes, stole Robbins’ shotgun, and killed Robbins with the gun.
According to Donaldson, there was public pressure to stop hangings at the time this hanging took place.
“I think the hanging contributed to that public pressure,” Donaldson said. This public hanging helped end people getting sentenced to be hanged in Effingham County. There were other hangings that had been scheduled to take place before in Effingham County, but according to Donaldson, they never took place. These hangings didn’t happen because the people sentenced to die escaped the unsecure jail.
The hanging has had a lasting effect on Effingham County and will forever be remembered as the first and only hanging to take place in Effingham County.