Editor’s note: The following story tells of a crime committed in Bureau County more than 100 years ago.
The year is 1908, and the place is a farm just west of Tiskilwa. The property is owned by Herbert Whiting and was being rented by the James McMahon family. Living with the McMahon family is a servant, Mary Hetrick. Whiting also lives in a closed off section of the house. Mary’s age was thought to be 16.
Around 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 5, McMahon and his 6-year-old son, Mark, went to do the morning chores. “What a good little girl we have,” stated McMahon as Mary was already preparing breakfast. “You’d better hurry along and get your chores done,” replied Mary. Ellen McMahon was in the other room dressing her 3-year-old son Herbert. He was throwing a fuss, so Ellen asked Mary for the whip. With that Herbert promised he would cooperate. Mary kissed his head and promised to save him, if he behaved.
Around 7 a.m., there was a loud noise in the kitchen, and Mary cried out, “Oh my God! Help me!” Ellen found Mary on the floor.
“My head is dizzy,” said Mary.
Ellen went to Whiting’s room and told him Mary was sick and then informed McMahon.
“What shall we do if little Mary dies?” asked McMahon. Tiskilwa’s Dr. Landis was phoned, and Mary was placed on the bed. Shortly thereafter she died.
Landis arrived and examined the body and felt Mary’s death was caused by strychnine poisoning. A post mortem examination revealed Mary was eight months pregnant. A coroner’s inquest was held, and the jury ruled suicide due to her condition. With Whiting’s urging and the McMahons’ testimony about Mary’s frame of mind before her death, the coroner’s jury was finally convinced otherwise.
Mary’s body was exhumed on Dec. 17, 1908. and in St. Mary’s Cemetery in an open casket, her internal organs were extracted and sealed in glass jars for shipment to Chicago for examination.
James Currens, a one-time farm hand for McMahon, gave testimony at the inquest he knew not of Mary’s condition. Currens said, “He (McMahon) told me one time when we were on the upper barn floor (what he would like to do to), the girl but she would squeal on him.”
Macie Hamrick testified she stayed with Mary on two occasions when Ellen McMahon was away. Mary requested she stay because she was afraid to stay the night alone with McMahon. On one of these occasions, McMahon offered the girls whiskey, but they refused. The two girls were both sleeping in the same bed, but when Macie awoke early the next morning, Mary was gone. Macie found Mary in another bed,where she had been put by McMahon.
Florence Blessing, Mary’s mother, testified she had been sick in June and requested that Mary come home. Later she met McMahon and asked why Mary had not returned home. McMahon replied that Mary had not wanted to. On Thanksgiving Day 1908, Mary returned home and said the McMahons had told her if she went home not to come back.
On Dec. 31, 1908, a report was filed that there was enough strychnine found in Mary’s stomach to “kill several people.” On Jan. 2, 1909, the coroner’s jury’s finding was that Mary had died of strychnine poisoning, and the McMahons were responsible.
On Jan. 8, 1909, a grand jury handed down two indictments against James McMahon for rape and murder of Mary Hetrick. Ellen McMahon had confessed to the grand jury that she was aware that Mary was pregnant. Mary told her McMahon was the father. Henrietta Anthony also testified Mary had told her McMahon caused her condition.
Ellen McMahon was not indicted, but her testimony could not be used against her husband. Chapter 51, Section 5 of the Evidence and Depositions reads: “No husband or wife shall be rendered competent to testify for or against each other as to any transaction or conversation occurring during the marriage ...”
By Jan. 14, 1909, James McMahon was arrested and taken to Bureau County Jail.
C.J. Searl was hired as the attorney for the defense. It was reported the trial would be continued until the April term. In the meantime, Ellen McMahon and the two children had moved in with her mother in Tiskilwa. On Jan. 23, 1909, a sale was held at the Whiting Farm and all the McMahons’ implements and livestock were sold. John McMahon, James’ father, was to use the $3,700 taken in for the defense fund. Notice was served on Jan. 26 that Ellen could not sell any of the furniture because it was evidence and that John McMahon intended on selling these items for the defense fund.
McMahon’s bail was set at $21,500. He would never be released. Every time his father went to get the bond signed, the bondsmen were not available. By Feb. 25, any hopes of getting released on bail were abandoned.
Ellen McMahon soon hired States Attorney L.M. Eckert and through him was able to procure $1,300 of the farm sales. Hobart Young of Chicago was hired by the state, while Frank Quinn and Ira Gibbons were added to the defense team.
On April 29, 1909, McMahon was arraigned and pleaded “not guilty to the charge of murder. It was revealed that Ellen McMahon had filed for divorce. The trial was to begin May 26, 1909.
Along with Ellen McMahon’s grand jury testimony, Henrietta Anthony’s grand jury testimony could not be repeated because of a law stating that what Mary Hetrick had confessed to Mrs. Anthony was only admissable in court if it were a dying statement.
Some of those to testify were Paul VanDervort, Florence Blessing and Herbert Whiting. Whiting gave the accounts of Dec. 5, 1908, and was not aware of Mary’s pregnant condition.
L.O. May, Tiskilwa’s undertaker, testified McMahon had requested the county pay for Mary’s funeral. In the end, costs were split between Whiting, John and James McMahon. Embalming fluid was not used, and Herbert Whiting dug the grave. The unborn baby was buried next to her.
Alice Okey gave testimony that Mary had been running late for school one day because the children’s dog had followed her and Macie Hamrick as they walked. The time was around 8 a.m. Miss Okey saw Mary again at 11 a.m. that day heading toward school and said Mary looked as if she had been crying. This was after the night that Macie had stayed with Mary because of her fear of McMahon. Ellen McMahon was away with the children.
Dr. Landis; C.L Wilkens, the Tiskilwa druggist; Grace Rogers, the stenographer at the inquest;and many other’s gave testimony for both sides. On June 20, 1909, at 1:45 p.m., the jury retired to deliberate. By 4:45 p.m. a unanimous verdict was reached.
James McMahon was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. John McMahon, father of the defendant, collapsed in the courtroom and was taken outside.
While McMahon was serving time at Joliet, the defense team continued to work. Finally on Feb. 16, 1910, the verdict of the trial was reversed by the Illinois Supreme Court. Criminal Law 956 states the prejudice of a juror is grounds for a new trial. Wilson Stroud and Leonard Jontz had filed affidavits stating juror Leroy Plumley had made statements that he felt McMahon was guilty. These statements were made before he was selected as a juror. Another error was made by State’s Attorney Eckert during the inquest. He asked the stenographer Grace Rogers to leave out some of the testimony given by James Currens. This testimony was questioned when brought up during the trial. Eckert admitting to telling Rogers to disregard some of Curren’s statements as they could be viewed by the public.
By March 10, 1910 James McMahon was back in the Bureau County Jail waiting to be bailed out and a new trial. He would get both.
Ellen McMahon filed for divorce on April 30, 1909. Grounds for the divorce included intoxication, obscene and profane language toward Ellen and the children and McMahon’s affair with Mary Hetrick. The divorce was granted on June 4, 1910.
Bail for McMahon’s release was set at $12,500. John McMahon and his cousin, Ellen O’Halloran, provided the money, and McMahon was handed over to the custody of his father. When McMahon was asked how it felt to be free, he replied, “ I have always felt confident that I would get out.” McMahon went to live with his parents on their farm south of Tiskilwa.
The second trial started on Saturday, Oct. 14, 1911. Many of the same witnesses testified again as in the first trial.
Miss Alice Okey added to her previous testimony an incident when Mary had come from school not feeling well. McMahon had asked what the problem was, and Ellen McMahon blamed him for Mary’s sickness. James Currens testified that McMahon had stated that if Herbert Whiting did not leave things alone, he was going to poison him like he (McMahon) did the girl.
James McMahon took the stand in his own defense. He spoke well of Whiting and Currens and admitted to the incident where he offered Macie Hamrick and Mary Hetrick the whiskey. James denied ever mistreating Mary.
On Oct. 28, 1911, the jury again found James McMahon guilty of murder and given 15 years in the state penitentiary, Joliet. It had leaked out that the jury felt McMahon hurt his case by testifying.
It was reported on Nov. 30, 1911, the defense filed a charge of prejudice against juror Everett Sapp of Wyanet. By Dec. 11, 1911, McMahon was back in prison.
April 18, 1912, the Illinois Supreme Court handed down a ruling, and the verdict was again reversed. This time the reasons given were that the testimony of Hamrick and Okey were of no importance. A conversation described by James Currens was out of the ordinary and unlikely to have happened. This meant if there were a retrial that the testimony given by all three witnesses could not be repeated, according to the rules of evidence. State’s Attorney Eckert promised he was not through. McMahon’s father posted his $15,000 bail, and again, McMahon was a free man.
On Feb. 14, 1913, the Board of Supervisors instructed the state’s attorney to drop the case against James McMahon. A resolution was presented for the state’s attorney to strike from the docket both cases. According to M.A. Striver, a supervisor from Walnut Township, the cost to the county had already exceeded $10,000, and it was a “useless waste” to pursue the case any further. Herbert Whiting, a member of the board, was not present but sent a letter and ended it by stating, “Gentlemen, I ask you to enforce the law in this case regardless of expense. Should money be of greater importance in our estimation than the young womanhood of our country?”
On March 1, 1913, James McMahon’s struggles were over. He was set free and all charges wiped from the dockets of the court. McMahon had lost everything but his freedom. But the question should and always will remain, if James McMahon didn’t commit the murder, who did?
James and Ellen McMahon were remarried on 18th of December 1915 in Tiskilwa. In August of 1926, James abandoned Ellen. She was granted a divorce again on July 22, 1929. James died at the home of his parents on Feb. 24, 1941. The death was reported by his brother, Raymond. McMahon is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery south of Tiskilwa. Ellen McMahon died on Jan. 27, 1960. She and her son, Mark, are buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery, not far from McMahon. Herbert Whiting died Sept. 26, 1939, in Tiskilwa. He is buried in Mount Bloom Cemetery. The house on the Whiting Homestead burned after being sold to Dan Russell. The residence was replaced with the pebble dash home that currently sits on the property.
BCR: Jan. 6, 12, 1910; May 12, 1910; Oct. 5, 19, 26, 1911; Jan. 12, 1911; Oct. 26, 1911; Nov. 2, 9, 30, 1911; April 25, 1912; May 2, 1912; Feb. 13, 1913; March 6, 1913.
Divorce Decree Jan. 4, 1910 McMahon vs. McMahon.
Bill for Divorce Filed April 30, 1909.
Reports Of Cases At Law and Determined in The Supreme Court Of Illinois Volume 254 (Google Books).
Marriage License Filed Dec. 18, 1915.
Death Record Filed Feb. 24, 1941.
Tiskilwa Chief Sept. 28, 1939.
“When Tiskilwa Was Young ... “By Mary Steimle published 1985.
BCR; Jan. 21, 1909; Feb 4, 11, 25, 1909; March 4, 1909; April 15, 22, 29, 1909; May 6, 27 1909; June 3, 10, 17, 1909.
Northeastern Reporter Volume 91 (Google Books).
Ottawa Free Trader March 10, 1910.
Bureau County Court Records for People Vs. McMahon 1909 and 1911.
The Voters and Tax-Payers of Bureau County Illinois 1877, Page 251.
History Of Bureau County Illinois 1885, Page 693.
BCR Jan. 16, 1902; Dec. 10, 1908; Dec. 17, 1908; Dec. 24, 1908; Dec. 31, 1908; June 3, 1909; June 24, 1909.
Bureau County Tribune Jan. 8, 1909; Jan. 15, 1909.
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