Dime Novel Desperadoes

Dime Novel Desperadoes: The Notorious Maxwell Brothers

John E. Hallwas
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 448
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1xcjv9
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    Dime Novel Desperadoes
    Book Description:

    A thrilling true crime narrative and groundbreaking historical account, Dime Novel Desperadoes recovers the long-forgotten story of Ed and Lon Maxwell, the outlaw brothers from Illinois who once rivaled Jesse and Frank James in national notoriety. Growing up hard as the sons of a struggling tenant farmer, the Maxwell brothers started their lawbreaking as robbers and horse thieves in the 1870s, embarking on a life of crime that quickly captured the public eye._x000B__x000B_Already made famous locally by newspapers that wanted to dramatize crimes and danger for an eager reading audience, the brothers achieved national prominence in 1881 when they shot and killed Charles and Milton Coleman, Wisconsin lawmen who were trying to apprehend them. Public outrage sparked the largest manhunt for outlaws in American history, involving some twenty posses who pursued the desperadoes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Nebraska. Some of the pursuers were intent on a lynching, but the outlaws escaped against incredible odds. When a mob finally succeeded in killing Ed, in broad daylight on a courthouse lawn, that event generated widespread commentary on law and order. Nevertheless, the daring desperadoes were eventually portrayed as heroes in sensationalistic dime novels._x000B__x000B_A stunning saga of robbery and horse stealing, gunfights and manhunts, murder and mob violence, Dime Novel Desperadoes also delves into the cultural and psychological factors that produced lawbreakers and created a crime wave in the post-Civil War era. By pointing to social inequities, media distortions, and justice system failures, John E. Hallwas reveals the complicity of nineteenth-century culture in the creation of violent criminals. Further, by featuring astute, thought-provoking analysis of the lawbreaker's mindset, this book explores the issue at the heart of humanity's quest for justice: the perpetrator's responsibility for his criminal acts._x000B__x000B_Every overview and encyclopedia of American outlaws will need to be revised, and the fabled "Wild West" will have to be extended east of the Mississippi River, in response to this riveting chronicle of major American desperadoes who once thrilled the nation but have since escaped historical attention for well over a century. With more than forty illustrations and several maps that bring to life the exciting world of the Maxwell brothers, Dime Novel Desperadoes is a new classic in the annals of American outlawry.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09375-3
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Prologue: A Desperado in McDonough County
    (pp. 1-8)

    The people of McDonough County long remembered how it began, the story of the Maxwell brothers, how it first became part of their common experience—only to escape the limits of their knowing and grow bigger than any of them ever dreamed that it might, becoming a noted part of the American struggle for law and order, and the quest for justice, in a strange and violent time.

    It was in 1874, during a mild winter—what the old-timers sometimes called “an open winter” because the ground failed to stay frozen very long. By mid-February, melting snow and rain had...

  5. 1 The Maxwell Family Moves West
    (pp. 9-18)

    We know little about the background of the Maxwell brothers, but some things, unknown to the public in their time, are now perfectly clear. Of first importance is the fact that they were born to a poor tenant farmer who moved west in the mid-1800s, chasing the fabled American Promise across several states, but repeatedly failed to rise—at least until the closing years of his life. And because they participated in that long, hard, frustrating process, the Maxwell brothers did not belong very deeply to any community or local cultural tradition, and they often felt that their very identities...

  6. 2 The Maxwells in Troubled Fulton County
    (pp. 19-38)

    In the winter of 1859–60, the Maxwells settled in Fulton County, just west of the Illinois River. The decade that was just starting would bring challenges and hardships that neither David nor Susan could have anticipated, and the family’s struggle, as well as the troubled social environment, would have an impact on their sons, especially Ed.

    The 1860 federal census, taken in June, records the presence of “David D. Maxwell,” a farmer, age twenty-eight, who owned no real estate and, thus, was a tenant. He claimed only $200 in personal property. At that time Ed was six, Alice was...

  7. 3 The Maxwells in McDonough County
    (pp. 39-59)

    The Maxwells did not travel all the way back to where they had lived during the troubled 1860s but, instead, moved into a tenant house in McDonough County, which was just to the west of Fulton. Their rented farm was on the northern edge of Tennessee Township, in Section 4, just a mile or so above the heavily wooded banks of the Lamoine River and a half mile west of the road leading from the hamlet of Tennessee across the huge North Prairie to the village of Blandinsville.

    Like so many counties in western Illinois, McDonough had been organized in...

  8. 4 Law and Order, and Prison Life
    (pp. 60-75)

    Ed Maxwell spent a few weeks in the McDonough County Jail, waiting for the circuit court to convene. One can only imagine his father’s response to seeing his wayward son behind bars—and labeled as a dangerous “desperado.”

    In late March 1874, Ed pled guilty to burglary, but his sentencing was delayed, pending court action on the charge of larceny (horse stealing). Apparently, there was considerable discussion of that act. After all, Ed did not keep or sell the horse; he just used it to escape. Fortunately, he had the finest lawyer in the county, Damon G. Tunnicliff, a distinguished-looking...

  9. 5 The Maxwell Brothers Become Outlaws
    (pp. 76-92)

    By 1875 the national depression was beginning to have an impact, even in a growing and progressive county seat like Macomb. Local manufacturing was starting to decline, and building had been very slow for some time. As theMacomb Journaleditor admitted early that year, “Eighteen hundred and seventy-four was a dull year for building in Macomb.” Residential construction, especially, had been below its usual brisk level, and tradesmen were struggling to find work.

    In the countryside, farmers were still feeling the impact of low crop and livestock prices, which had dropped following the Panic of 1873. Loan foreclosures were...

  10. 6 The Great Escape—and Recapture
    (pp. 93-108)

    When the Maxwells were brought in, first to the court in Blandinsville and then to the jail in Macomb, there was considerable talk of lynching—not just because nearby victims of their raids were angry and wanted revenge, but because people feared they would escape. They had little confidence in what theMacomb Eaglecalled “our badly demoralized and dilapidated county jail.”

    That was, in fact, McDonough County’s second jail. The first one had been a two-story log building constructed in 1832 on West Jackson Street, just two blocks from the square. During twenty-four years of use, many prisoners had...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. 7 Prison Time and Justice Issues
    (pp. 109-123)

    When Ed Maxwell arrived at the Illinois State Penitentiary on October 9, 1876, the institution was undergoing significant change, and the man behind it all was Warden Robert W. McClaughry, who eventually became one of the best-known criminologists and prison reformers of the nineteenth century.

    Oddly enough, McClaughry hailed from the village of Fountain Green in eastern Hancock County, just fifteen miles west of the Maxwell home area in McDonough County, but he belonged to an earlier generation. Born on a farm near that isolated frontier village in 1839, and raised there, he was the son of settlers from New...

  13. 8 Lon’s Struggle to Go Straight
    (pp. 124-137)

    Lon was released from the penitentiary on July 8, 1877, shortly after his nineteenth birthday. His “good behavior” had resulted in a three-month reduction of his two-year sentence. Like Ed in 1875, he was given ten dollars, a train ticket to Macomb, and a new suit of clothes—but his was a less institutional-looking outfit, designed to help a newly released man avoid being pegged immediately as an ex-con. That was another of Warden McClaughry’s reforms.

    It is likely that Lon stopped in Macomb only long enough to buy a ticket for Nebraska. He knew that his parents were homesteading...

  14. 9 The Wisconsin Desperadoes
    (pp. 138-155)

    The fateful year for the Maxwell brothers was 1881, and it began with Ed’s release from prison. Having completed his six-year sentence by serving only four years and three months—with time off for good behavior—Ed was set free on January 21. Despite the claims made in his 1877 letters and the assurances that he had probably given to Warden McClaughry on the day he got out, he was not reformed.

    The rigors of prison life notwithstanding, Ed was apparently in good physical condition. Perhaps as an effort to shake off his clean-shaven convict appearance and make a more...

  15. 10 The Gunfight at Durand
    (pp. 156-172)

    The summer of 1881 was a time of rising anxiety across the country, partly fueled by weeks of hot, dry weather in June and early July, which led to a searing drought that spread eastward from the Great Plains, creeping back across the Mississippi River to the farms of that more well-settled part of the West, still struggling to recover from the depression of the 1870s. In late June, a spectacular new comet, first seen by astronomers but soon visible to the naked eye from twilight till dawn, stunned the American public. Viewers often “felt abashed to find ourselves in...

  16. 11 The Great Manhunt
    (pp. 173-189)

    At the time of the Durand gunfight, the great days of the James gang were coming to an end, although Jesse and Frank remained at large. In that anxiety-ridden summer of 1881, the gang robbed two more trains—their final holdups—but since the disastrous Northfield raid five years earlier, the James brothers had spent most of their time hiding, under assumed names, from the lawmen and detectives who were quietly pursuing them. The end of their long career as desperadoes would finally come in 1882.

    The big outlaw story during the first half of 1881 concerned Billy the Kid....

  17. 12 Another Gunfight—and the Renewed Manhunt
    (pp. 190-204)

    September 19 finally brought the long-feared national tragedy: President Garfield died, at his cottage in Elberon, New Jersey, of inflammation brought on by the gunshot wounds of July 2. Newspapers across the country draped the columns of their headline story in heavy black borders and provided details about the stricken leader’s last day, the medical complications that caused his death, and the funeral preparations.

    Afterward, for many days, both city and small-town newspapers were filled with long accounts of the funeral, tributes to the fallen leader, biographical sketches of Garfield’s life, and bulletins on the new president, Chester A. Arthur....

  18. 13 Ed’s Capture and Lon’s Escape
    (pp. 205-218)

    As the fall of 1881 continued, so did America’s massive struggle with the issue of law and order. In Arizona Territory, a hot, dusty boomtown called Tombstone gained national notoriety on October 26 with the gun-fight at the O.K. Corral. Three enemies of the Earp brothers were killed, and Virgil Earp (the new marshal), Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday were wounded. Only the later-renowned Wyatt Earp was unscathed.

    Was the now-famous gunfight a justifiable police action against men who had defied local authority in Tombstone—as several western films would later portray it—or a lynching by gunfire of troublesome...

  19. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  20. 14 The Desperado and the Public
    (pp. 219-237)

    Some of the most notorious nineteenth-century outlaws, such as Sam Bass (d. 1878), Billy the Kid (d. 1881), and Jesse James (d. 1882), had a complex relationship with the public, which saw in them competing aspects of American cultural life: the appeal of individualism and the presence of disorder; the excitement of wild adventure and the threat of violence; the nobility of courage and the persistence of evil. In the unforgettably turbulent year of 1881, Ed Maxwell was also one of those figures, and his death would come midway between Billy’s and Jesse’s, as nationally known outlaws seemed to be...

  21. 15 The Lynching at Durand
    (pp. 238-255)

    In the fall of 1881 almost everybody in America hated Charles Guiteau, and officials were concerned that he would “perish by mob violence” if the public could get access to him. Unable to lynch the presidential slayer, people in towns across the country expressed their desire for vengeance symbolically, by hanging and burning him in effigy. As one Illinois newspaper reported in late September, “The ball was started in Deadwood [Dakota Territory] on Tuesday, where the hanging and burning was done with the wildest excitement; a like demonstration took place on the same evening in Chicago, and another in Wheaton,...

  22. 16 The Lynching Controversy and Durand’s Fate
    (pp. 256-276)

    The lynching of Ed Maxwell, “the notorious desperado,” was reported in newspapers all over the country, from theBoston Postto theSan Francisco Chronicle,and as the dramatically violent year of 1881 came to a close, that act of mob vengeance in a remote north woods village provoked widespread comment on the issue of law and order. The traumatic murder of the president, the attempts to kill his assassin, and the much-discussed trial of Guiteau had laid the emotional groundwork for the discussion, but Americans were finally confronting a deeply disturbing aspect of their culture.

    On November 20, the...

  23. 17 The Mysterious Fate of Lon Maxwell
    (pp. 277-290)

    Unlike western novels and films, which are expressions of American myth, stories of real-life outlaws often have unsatisfactory endings. That the most famous outlaw of them all, Jesse James, should simply be shot in the back while dusting a picture in his parlor was immediately unpopular with many people, so the notion arose that another person, a substitute for Jesse, had died that day. Likewise, that legendary gunfighter Billy the Kid, who had escaped death so often, had been murdered in the dark by his old friend Pat Garrett also seemed unsatisfying, and suspicious as well, so rumors flew that...

  24. Epilogue: The Story Life of the Maxwell Brothers
    (pp. 291-310)

    After Ed’s death and Lon’s disappearance, they continued to be famous outlaws, at least for a time, because of the stories that were told about them. While those accounts were generally inaccurate because they were folkloric or fictionalized, they provide insight into the significance of the Maxwell brothers for American culture, and they illustrate the rise of the outlaw hero in the later nineteenth century. More deeply, the story life of the ill-fated brothers helps us to understand why Americans were, and still are, fascinated by such violent lawbreakers.

    Until sometime in the twentieth century, the general public lived not...

  25. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 311-314)
  26. Notes
    (pp. 315-366)
  27. Bibliography
    (pp. 367-380)
  28. Index
    (pp. 381-402)
  29. Back Matter
    (pp. 403-408)