The First Murder Trial in Newton County Indiana

Although the celebrated criminal trial to which I would call attention, was held at Bunkum, across the state line, it deserves mention as a part of local history. Several of the persons actually participating in the trial afterward became citizens of Newton county. Furthermore, county and state lines did not form arbitrary divisions as they do at present. Bunkum was the center of a community of which Newton county was only a part.

Strange as it may seem, the first person arrested for murder in Cook county, Illinois (the county in which Chicago is situated), was brought to Bunkum under a change of venue. In the month of May, 1836, a man was found dead near the roadside a few miles west of Chicago. A knife wound in the body showed that the man had been murdered. A few days after the discovery of the body, a man calling himself Joseph L. Morris was arrested and indicted by the grand jury. The feeling in Cook county was so strong against him that his counsel took a change of venue to Iroquois county. The trial came up at the May term, 1836, of the Iroquois circuit court, and was held at the house of Richard Montgomery. Those present were: Stephen S. Logan, judge; James Grant, state’s attorney; Hugh Newell, clerk, and Samuel M. Dunn, sheriff. The prisoner’s counsel asked for a continuance, which was refused, and the prisoner pleading “not guilty,” a jury was impaneled, consisting of Benjamin Fry, Jacob W. Whiteman, Samuel Rush, Alexander Wilson, James Frame, Jacob Morgan, Wesley Spider, William A. Cole, Ira Lindsey and Isaac Fry.

The evidence was that the prisoner had been seen in the company of the deceased, that a knife found upon the person of the prisoner was identified as one belonging to the murdered man. These and other facts presented caused the jury to bring in the following verdict:

“We, the jury, find the defendant guilty in manner and form, as charged in the indictment.”

On May 19, 1836, a motion for a new trial being overruled, the court passed sentence as follows:

“It is ordered and adjudged by the court that the said defendant be taken hence by the sheriff of Iroquois county, and confined and safely kept by said sheriff until Friday, the loth day of June next, on which day the said defendant shall be taken by said sheriff to some convenient place in said county and then and there, between the hours of ten o’clock in the morning and three o’clock in the afternoon of the said day, by the said sheriff hanged by the neck until he shall be dead.”

The prisoner was ironed and confined in one of the houses near by until the day of his execution, which took place at the appointed time. He was placed in a wagon and a rope was looped around his neck, the other end of the rope being fastened to the limb of a large walnut tree. This tree stood in the bottoms, on the north side of the Iroquois river, about half way between the present wagon bridge and the bluff. The wagon was driven out from under him and he was left hanging until dead. His guards, during the time between his sentence and execution, were Samuel M. Dunn, sheriff, and George Courtright. A large crowd of people came from long distances to witness the execution. The day was one of rain and storm. The prisoner, on his way to execution, smoked a cigar with great fortitude and, on arriving at the place of execution, made a short speech, justifying his past life. When life was extinct the body was buried at a point a little southeast of Bunkum.


Ade, John. Newton County: a collection of historical facts and personal recollections concerning Newton County, Indiana, from 1853 to 1911. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., c1911.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top