Henry Voltz was a man of unknown parentage and nationality. He drifted into Southern Illinois from New Orleans bartering merchandise with the earlier settlers for furs, skins, poultry and produce. His speech was thick and scarcely nderstandable. His accent seemed to be more German than anything else.
On one of his trips through Southern Illinois, Voltz was accompanied by a little Irishman by the name of Lawler. After Voltz returned to New Orleans by a flat boat, Lawler's body was found in a cornfield in White County, bearing all indications of a brutal murder.
Trial Changed To WayneVoltz was the suspect, he was arrested in New Orleans, and brought back to Carmi by the Sheriff of White County, and placed in jail. His trial was in progress in White County when it was found that an erasure had been made in the indictment. The proceedings was stopped at once and a new trial was ordered. Public feeling ran so high that Voltz's attorneys asked for a change of venue. The case was then changed to Wayne County.
In 1853, Fairfield was but a small village -- not much larger than Geff today. The population of the whole county did not exceed 5,000 people.
The principals of this famous trial came across the county on horseback and in wagons from White County to Fairfield. It was a pathetic procession. both dignified and forlorn. There were the county officials, members of the bar, the witnessess, the handcuffed prisoner, and the guards. Everyone had the feeling that Voltz, with his poor command of the English language ,didn't quite know what it was all about.
The April session of the court was called to order by Sheriff Clark, of Wayne County. Interest in all other cases fell into insignificance when the Voltz case was placed on the docket. Samuel S. Marshall was the presiding judge. Judge Marshall was a man of splendid acquirements and ability and had been elected to congress many times. He was an excellent speaker and a close friend of F. A. Kutz of Cisne, Illinois.
The prosecuting attorney was S. Robinson and as was the custom in those days, the prosecuting attorney traveled over the district with the judge. The defense was represented by men by the names of Whiting and Ashton. J.G. Barkley was the clerk of the court.
The court spent but one day selecting the 12 jurymen who were: Benjamin Meeks, Thomas Johnson, William McKnealy, W. M. Crews, Isaac Sailor, Calvain McCracken, Henry Hall, James N. Bland, Gideon N. Gifford, Alex Crews, J. Crews and John G. meeks. All the members of this court and all the jurors had been dead more than 50 years.
All Evidence CircumstantialAlthough the evidence against Henry Voltz was wholly circumstantial, --- one line missing ---. The pleading of the prosecuting attorney had more to do with the outcome of the trial than the evidence . James S. Robinson was an able speaker, and his speech on that occasion was a master effort. One whole day was spent in pleading. The old courthouse was filled to capacity; people had come from all parts of the country to hear the arguments.
The case was turned over to the jury late one afternoon and the jury spent two nights and a day striving at a verdict. One can only imagine the mental condition of the man who lay in the little old jail, which was a lean-to in the old 'fireproof' building awaiting the decision of which meant life or death to him.
When the jury filed back into the courtroom, Judge Marshall looked them over and said, "gentlemen of the jury, have you arrived at a verdict?". The foreman nswered, "we have." Clerk Barkley read the following verdict: We, the jury, find Henry Voltz guilty of murder in the first degree."
Thereupon the judge turned to Henry Voltz and said, " Voltz, have you anything to say as to why sentence should not be passed upon?"
The on-lookers in the crowded court room must have felt a pang of sympathy,if not pity, for the man. He was unable to speak; he only shook his head. If the crowd could not feel sympathy for the man, it was sympathy for the animal, for Voltz was big, and rough, and could hardly make himself understand. Nor could he readily understand.
Sentenced To DieThe the judge ordered him to stand and hear the verdict of the court. Judge Marshall read: "That the said defendant, Henry Voltz, be removed from the courthouse to the jail of Wayne County, there to be kept in confinement until the 24th day of May in the year of our Lord, one thousand, eight hundred and fifty-three, and on that day the said defendent, Henry Voltz, be taken from said jail by the sheriff of said county and be conveyed from thence to a gallows to be erected from the purpose, between the hours of ten o'clock in the forenoon and four o'clock in the afternoon, and then and there upon said gallows, hung by the neck until dead, dead, dead."
Dead-dead-dead -- those are words as written in one of oldest record books in our county courthouse today.
Voltz walked out of the courthouse into the bright sunlight of that April morning with the shadow of death upon him. He didn't quite understand. Somehow he could not, realize the imminence of death upon him. He had a child like faith that something would prevent his execution. He didn't quite understand. But when the death guard was set over him, realization of his plight over whelmed him and on one stormy night he managed to escape from his cell and reach the roof of the jail before he could be overpowered.
Sat On Own CoffinMeanwhile on the mound west of Fairfield, in sight of the old courthouse, an evil looking scaffold was being constructed of rough oaken lumber. The news of the hanging went forth amongst the dwellers of this county and the adjoining counties as well. Hundreds of morbid frontiers men came on horseback, on foot, and in ox wagons, and camped on the ground.
The day set for the execution, May 24th, 1853, dawned into a beautiful morning. The smiling sky of a perfect day. The spectacle on the mound held a Grecian touch. The multitude waiting for the execution. There were many women and children in the crowd. As the sun rose higher, the crowd became restless -- impatient for the ceremony to begin.
But finally, the watching throng caught sight of a wagon surrounded by horsemen, leaving the little village below the hill. They could see the full glint of sunshine on the long rifles of the twenty guardsmen. Now, the holiday spirit of the multitude was broken. As the procession approached the mound, the crowd parted in silence.The condenmed man rode in a wagon seated on his own coffin, made of rough oaken lumber -- his hands and feet tied.
When the wagon drew up to the foot of the scaffold, the prisoner was lifted out and led up the steps and placed beneath the gallows,. The crowd, thoroughly cowed by the preparations for death, began to fall back. Many, after their long vigil could not look back at the scene.
"I Am Innocent"A priest from Vincennes bestowed the final consolations of the church and as he moved away from the prisoner, sheriff Clark said, "Voltz, have you anything to say?" Voltz turned to the crowd below and cried in his broken English, "I am an innocent man. The man who killed Lawler is in this crowd today. You are hanging an innocent man." But Voltz's pleading went unheeded. The sheriff placed a black cap over his head and shut out the bright sun light forever.
"May God have mercy over Henry Voltz." cried Sheriff Clark -- and the trap was sprung. That was all. It was all over. And it was a mistake. All of the man's hope, all of the man's pleading, could not make people see that he was telling the truth. His body was cut down and he was buried beneath the scaffold with fifteen feet of rope about his neck and the gallows were burned.
That is the story of Henry Voltz. It happened one hundred years ago this last May the 24th and his unmarked grave is on the mound somewhere near Southwest 10th street. He was innocent of that crime for the real murderer confessed years later in New Orleans.
He Had No FriendsYes --- that is the story of Henry Voltz. A man far from home without family or friends --- not one person in all that multitude at the hanging or throughout the trial who really cared whether or not he was guilty. Not one man to come to his aid --- and with the one man in the crowd whom he knew to have actually committed the crime, there to watch him die; it must have been an ordeal that we with our full knoledge of the case now can not possibly fathom.
And the officials who have to perform that task. What of them? They must have had their misgivings. We know that Sheriff Clark went home shaken and sick. He had a hard chill. The thing was more than he could stand. It was not a spectacle any more. It was just a mistake.