Research and Presentation of the Trial and Execution of Elizabeth Reed
A jury of twelve men convicted Elizabeth Reed in 1845 of murdering her husband by poisoning him. She was ordered to be hanged by the neck until dead, giving Lawrence County, the dubious title of hanging the first woman in Illinois. The story has become a part of Lawrence County’s history and even inspired a historical novel, but what were the facts?
By researching the actual documents and the laws at that time, a different story emerged. Possible motives were examined and eliminated. New evidence was found that might have changed the outcome of the trial, or at least, provided Elizabeth with a defense.
The Lawrence County Historical Society felt that the State’s bicentennial was the appropriate time to present this chapter in forgotten Illinois history. From the research, a play was written by Dann M Norton, directed by John Clark, and produced in partnership with the Lawrence County Arts Council in the fall of 2018.
The play opened the first weekend with a large crowd that kept increasing at each of the next five performances. Extra chairs had to be brought into the high school auditorium. The ticket sales surpassed any performance to date for the Arts Council. As people left the theater one could hear them debating whether Elizabeth Reed was guilty or innocent. The jury in 1845 said she was, but in 2018, a fair number of people thought she was not.
Copies of the original court documents for both Crawford and Lawrence County as well as Leonard Reed’s estate file and Elizabeth’s will signed by her own hand, are included in a new book titled: A Documentary Record of the first Woman Hanged in Illinois. Also included are biographies of the twelve jurors, the attorneys and the judge, and newspaper articles written at the time. The 113-page soft cover book is available for sale at the Research Library, the History Center, or by mail.