MT. VERNON — Outlaws in the 1800s were more likely to be convicted for stealing a horse than shooting someone, especially if they were unknown in the area, according to the featured speaker at an event Wednesday at the Jefferson County Historical Village.
John Hallwas, an Illinois Rhodes Scholar and retired professor at Western Illinois University, presented the program "Desperadoes: Notorious Outlaws of Early Illinois" at the program sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council.
"The chance of a conviction for a horse thief was greater, or for someone living outside the county because there was a shortage of men, only men served on juries, and many of those who were arrested for shootings claimed self-defense," Hallwas said during his presentation.
Hallwas focused on the pre-and -post Civil War times, explaining counterfeiting was at its height and horses were very important to the era.
"Horses were very important at the time. They were used for racing, horse and buggies, and there were working horses on the tenant farms. In fact, nearly every county in that time era had a Horse Thief Detective Society," Hallwas said.
"There were outlaws in Illinois before we became a state. Illinois for a long time was part of the West; it didn't become a Midwest state until the 1890's. And it was pretty simple to be an outlaw because it was fairly easy to get away unless us had a witness or you were stealing someone's horse," Hallwas said. "Outlawing ran rampant along the Mississippi River before it became a domain in the West."
One of the first known outlaws from that time, Samuel Mason, was the "locust of the first outlaw gang in Southern Illinois," hiding in caves in Cave-In-Rock, now a state park. In the early 1800's there was a price on Mason's head and he was eventually shot by his own gang, according to Hallwas.