A whipping post once stood on what is now Danville’s Main Street. It was located in front of where the First National Bank building was built in 1918. It was the city’s lone sky scraper and still stands, empty now, a monument to better days.
Long before the bank building was constructed, the spot was occupied by the Barnum building where Abe Lincoln and Ward Hill Lamon had their law office. The whipping post was sunk deep into the dirt path that served as a street in primitive Danville. It predated both buildings and was reportedly hugged by its last customer as he endured the lash in 1831.
When the nation gave birth to Illinois in 1818, the men elected to the newly created state government got busy and wrote up laws for the folks they represented. It would be more than a hundred years before a woman took part in legislating for the citizens of the prairie state.
Even though the state was new, crime seems to have already gained a foothold. Horse stealing was certainly a problem for the settlers who were attempting to develop the land they were acquiring from the federal government for $1.25 per acre
There were not many jails in Illinois in the early years of statehood, and the ones constructed were woefully ineffective at holding prisoners. It was noted an energetic prisoner could usually dig out of the first Danville jail in a night.
The state came up with a novel idea to deal with the lack of jails and prisons. Whipping. A state law proclaimed thieves could legally receive up to 100 lashes on their bare backs for robbery or larceny. The law also allowed a fine and jail time, but after 100 lashes, there was little need for imprisonment.
Thomas Wyatt exemplified the severity of the punishment. He was a man who reportedly traded whiskey to Native Americans for their ponies. He then sold the ponies to the people settling in Illinois. It was noted he often acquired the ponies without leaving any whiskey behind. Wyatt was captured in Blount Township and was given the maximum sentence. The severe lashing was fatal for Wyatt.
Illinois abandoned legal whippings a few years after legislation made them legal, but vigilante organizations continued to use them as punishment for decades. The whippings were not always delivered with a whip — small saplings, some tempered over a fire, were also used.
So effective were these on one individual, it was reported he became an informer on his colleagues to avoid further punishment.
The vigilante groups were eventually replaced by horse companies with constitutions and by-laws. One of the more active of these was the Newell Horse Company organized in 1854. It was led by George Luckey and reportedly put a stop to organized horse thievery in Newell Township. The horse companies also delivered whippings to men for beating their wives.
An effective law enforcement system eventually replaced the need for the active horse companies and they, and the whippings they delivered, became a footnote to history.
But on a long ago day in Danville, Sheriff William Reed delivered five lashes with a white oak sapling to a flour thief, and he did it legally.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.