Nothing would bring out the crowds in 19th Century Burlington like a good old fashioned hanging. A boat sinking or a catastrophic train wreck might have some allure but seeing some unfortunate end his days at the end of a rope really drew in the public.
In 1845, Burlington had such an event when two Mormon brothers, Stephen and William Hodges, met their untimely end in the hollow near today’s Osborn and Lucas Streets.
The two men were accused and found guilty of raiding the Lee County farm of John Miller, a German Mennonite preacher, and killing Miller and his son-in-law, Henry Leisi. A posse, led by the controversial Edward Bonney, followed a trail to Montrose where they crossed the Mississippi and arrested the Hodges at their Nauvoo, Illinois home.
What followed was a combination of frontier justice and homespun theater. Crowds came from miles around to wait outside of Burlington’s Old Zion Church, where Judge Charles Mason presided over the colorful trial.
The state’s case came together with suspicious precision. There were eyewitness accounts, a murder weapon, a cap belonging to one of the accused recovered at the crime scene and the testimony of posse leader, Bonney, who claimed to be a freelance private detective.
The defense argued the two young men were being railroaded simply because they were members of the Mormon community at Nauvoo. In the end that defense proved fruitless and the Hodges were sentenced to death by an obviously distraught Judge Mason.
On the appointed day of the execution, wagons crammed with the curious rolled into town while steamboats carrying excursion parties from surrounding river communities arrived at the levee.
The crowd jostled for position around the gallows and picnic lunches were spread. Then came the sound of muffled drums and the wagon carrying the two prisoners, clad in white robes and sitting on their coffins, arrived.
Sheriff John McKinney surveyed the crowd and complained “I wish I had not to do it. I would rather give fifty dollars for someone else to do this job.”
But there were no takers for the onerous duties and the sheriff reluctantly placed the nooses around the condemned men’s necks.
Stephen Hodges cried out to the crowd, “You are putting two innocent men to an ignominious and shameful death. Help us. We are Mormons.” The trapdoor was sprung and because the hangman was inept, the two men strangled to death before the now silent crowd.
That should have been the end of the extremely gruesome event but as the years passed events surrounding the murder trial and execution became some what muddied. It is likely that the Hodges were in fact guilty but much less is known if there were others involved in the events.
Researchers have suggested that the Hodges were members of the Mormon militant group known as the Danites and their crime had been sanctioned by the leaders of the Nauvoo community.
The Danites were a secret society, bound by oath to protect the Mormon Church from outside hostility and to quell internal discord. They were the “Storm Troopers” of the fledgling church, willing to undertake those dirty tasks that insured the community’s survival,
The need for such a group to protect Nauvoo was understandable. The town’s “gentile” neighbors hard pressed the Mormons and bad feelings bounded. The preceding autumn, Mormon leader, Joseph Smith, and his brother were taken from a Carthage, Illinois jail and murdered by a mob.
But it is also possible that the Danite group also included a number of opportunists who used the protection of the Mormon community to further their life of crime. The line between protecting the church and pillaging non-Mormon neighbors was often crossed.
After the arrest of the Hodges, the Mormon Church moved quickly to distance itself from the brothers. The Nauvoo Neighbor, the town’s newspaper, declared,”Let it be known throughout the land these young Hodges are not Mormons, nor never were.”
Still, it is difficult to deny the links between the Hodges, the Danites and certain Mormon factions. A group of Mormons, including Joseph Smith’s brother-in-law, paid for the brother’s legal defense and the Hodge family was known to be friends of William Hickman and Porter Rockwell, two active members of the Danites.
In the weeks following the execution, murders and mysterious disappearances stalked the remaining members of the Hodge family and the true tale of the Hodge’s raid in to Lee County was forever lost. However, the death of William and Stephen before a large Burlington crowd remains one of the true certainties of the entire affair.