Beaver Lake and Bogus Island are but memories in this day. It is difficult for the casual visitor to realize that this was a swamp region, thousands of acres in extent, whose deep retreats were frequented by counterfeiters, horse thieves, murderers, and criminals of lesser degree. So changed is the land that only the campaigner of its old days may know with something of certainty "just where he is at," in this lifeless, wide open land of today.
The term lifeless is meant only in a relative sense, as indicating the entire absence of the hosts of wild fowl that once made this wilderness retreat vocal with their cries as they passed in and out. The chatter of the blackbird hosts is but the feeble echo of wilderness life of the long ago. The south-west winds are empty today save where they pick up dry sands of the old lake bed and weave them in spirals and sift them in soft, gray diaphanous clouds, until, in the distance, they seem like spirit-flights of the ancient hosts of the wild haunting this spot of many memories.
Within forty years section lines have been run, fences built, and a perfect checkerboard of stone roads built in the very heart of this swamp region. Its famous secret places are secret no longer, but have been opened to the public in the most ruthless and unfeeling manner and then forgotten, apparently, save by the "swamp-rat," to whom the whole thing is a nightmare--nay, more--a tragedy. "Little Bogus" and "Big Bogus" Islands, famous as the rendezvous of the early-day banditti, loom upon the landscape amid quiet pastoral scenes that afford little or no background for the fierce tales of the border credited to them. The island's most formidable protecting barrier today is the unromantic but practical "barbed-wire" fence.
This island, which is several acres in extent and wooded, was occupied as early as 1836 by counterfeiters, who made quantities of spurious coin, which they circulated on the outside by means of confederates and helpers. The Illinois country was alive with horse thieves and counterfeiters. They were even more numerous that the "hold-up" men of today. There is a tradition that three counterfeiters were arrested on Little Bogus in 1837. They were taken before Justice Wesley Spitler, tried and bound over to the circuit court. They forfeited their bonds and the case never came to trial.
A horse stolen from the neighborhood of Milford, Illinois in 1857 was followed by a posse of twelve or fifteen men to the neighborhood of Bogus Island. The thief, hard pressed, left the horse in the timber and made an unsuccessful attempt to escape. He was discovered crossing the big ditch a little way north of the bridge that crosses the ditch near the Jennie M. Conrad home, and, as he emerged on the other side, the bullets of the pursuing party dropped him in his tracks. Apparently the formality of an inquest was dispensed with. He was a known horse thief, and that was enough. They did drag the body to the top of the sightly sand-hill and buried it there. The eminence is known today as "Horse Thief Hill." About this time, too, "Old Shafer," a swamp character with a most sinister record, variously known as "Mike" or "William," was arrested. He was afterwards tried for harboring thieves and stolen property, and was sentenced to three years in the penitentiary.
Early day citizens of Momence were obliged to wage constant and unrelenting warfare on these undesirables, and to that end the services of Col. Phil Worcester, "Uncle Sid" Vail and Walter B. Hess were enlisted on behalf of the community during a period of years and with something of success. In 1829, at a point on "Big Bogus" Island, on its southeastern side where the sandy promontory rises from the bed of the old lake, a point still distinguished by a huge oak tree, there Col. Worcester and his party surprised a band of five counterfeiters and made them captives. Tradition, which is vague and shadowy, says that the Worcester party consisted of himself, Sid Vail and "Uncle Billy" Nichols, with James Graham for a guide. They came across in a boat from Hunter's Point, to the south-west of the island, in the darkness of the night, guided only by a beacon light which shone from high up in the oak tree. The very audacity of the scheme made it successful. The counterfeiters were sure they were welcoming some of their own party instead of officers of the law.
Walter B. Hess, almost from the first day he became a resident of the border settlement of Momence, identified himself prominently with this movement to preserve law and order. He had a most formidable antagonist in the wiley Shafer whom he at last landed back of the bars for a three-year term. But Shafer had a long memory, he was cunning and revengeful, and in the end Mr. Hess lost many and many a good horse and, apparently, was helpless to avert it. Then, there were the brothers, Shep and Wright Latin who had the run of the town and were concerned in many a shady transaction. Mr. Hess never charged Shep Latin with actual stealing, but his clever brain hatched many a scheme which worked out to the great detriment of people of the community with good, likely horses. Shep Latin was really a likable fellow; not vindictive like "Old Shafer." Mr Hess says that Wright Latin one day went by his house with five horses, which afterwards proved to have been stolen. A day or so later several men came by hunting for them and Mr. Hess gave the fellows such directions as he was able. A day or so later the men returned bringing four horses with them. They said they could not find the fifth horse but found a man in charge of the four. They added significantly that his horse- stealing days were over. The description they gave of the man tallied exactly with that of Wright Latin, and he was never heard from later. Many years later, while some men were digging a ditch near Blue Grass, in Indiana, they were very much frightened on exhuming a skeleton. It was, in all probability, the remains of Wright Latin.
The story is told how one day, while Shep Latin was intoxicated, he said to Mr. Hess:
"Hess you're a fool to work as you do. I can put you in the way of making an easier living-just look at this." Whereupon he pulled out of several pockets handfuls of bills with the remark: "My clothes are just lined with money."
Mr. Hess refused his confidences on this and other occasions. Summing up his life work in the matter of searching out criminals, however, he was quite positive that, if he were a young man again going into a border county he would not take the active part he did in trying to break up lawlessness. Once he pursued a horse thief for three weeks and in the chase ruined a better horse than the one that had been stolen.
"Little Bogus," which was the favorite haunt of counterfeiters and thieves, was reached from the west and northwest by lonely trails, obscure and winding. It was surrounded on all sides by deep water which made surprise attack by officers of the law out of the question. By many of the marsh residents it was suspected that there was an easier way into it than by swimming one's horse through the deep waters surrounding it, and, at the time the waters of Beaver Lake were drained, there was brought to light for the first time a peculiar configuration of the lake bottom. From the island's highest point today the observer beholds, stretching away to the north-west, the zigzag lines of a narrow "hog-back" of sand which, lying close to the surface of the lake yet obscured by the water, afforded easy means of ingress and egress to men on horseback familiar with the peculiar lay of the land. From the point where the "hog-back" stopped abruptly, there was an interval of deep water between it and the adjacent sand-ridge to the west of some three or four hundred feet. Evidences of an early day engineering feat were unearthed at this point years ago at the time when one of the lateral ditches was dredged through. The dredge discovered with its steel nose a roadway constructed of logs six to eight inches in diameter, placed side by side corduroy fashion. This submerged corduroy roadway was laid in a shallow spot in the lagoon, and reached from the sand-ridge on the west as far as the "hog-back," several hundred feet away to the south-east. Long after the waters of the lake had been drained away, this connecting bit of road, deeply embedded in the swamp muck, was clearly visible. One may behold it all today clearly revealed in the sunshine, the winding highway of the early-day banditti and the dip to the sand-ridge where the corduroy road was laid. It is an innocent looking bit of sandy surface today even though it once formed an important link for those who sought the island stronghold.
"Bogus Island" in its primitive days, was as snug and secure a place as was ever hit upon by the fugitive from justice, or he whose questionable practices thrive best in secret. Covered by a thick growth of oak and brush, its shores fringed about by a dense growth of cattails and wild rice, surrounded by deep water, uncharted save for the secret submerged trail to the north-west, what more secure haven could have been desired? Midway of the island, at the head of a small ravine which dips sharply to the east, is today a hole in the grounds which popular tradition fixes as the spot where the counterfeiters had their cabin of logs and carried on their operations. The sandy area about this spot has yielded, in the course of the years, many mementos in the way of spurious coins and counterfeiter's paraphernalia. Here, and at "Big Bogus," three miles to the south-east, as the crow flies, was the rallying point for these underworld characters of border days who, for years continued to be a thorn in the side of the border settlement at Momence. They were clever men, desperate men, who, in the pinch, held human life cheaply, so that in the category of crimes directly chargeable to them, there sometimes occurred the charge of murder. There are tales still told which lack much of detail and color, and legends vague and various touching upon the lives and doings of the banditti of the swamps, bandied about among the older folk of the region. But, for the most part time has wiped the memory clean of all definite recollection of these stirring events, with the possible exception of the chief bandit himself-"Old Shafer," who forms the subject of a special story to follow.
Dr. John F. Shronts, the well known pioneer doctor of Momence, as a young man just out of college, sought a location for the practice of his profession near to the cross-roads where stands the hamlet of Lake Village, Indiana. Here, in the heart of the Beaver Lake country, he occupied a primitive log cabin and hung out his shingle as M.D. as early as 1868 or 1869. Here, for year, he practiced, later removing to Momence, Illionois. A queer place, you may think, for a young doctor to light upon, a place without prospect or future, whose inhabitants, in the main, were of the criminal stripe and desperate. But the facts are these men were just as susceptible to chills and fever and "swamp ague" as the "squatter" trapper and woodsman, of whom, to use the vernacular of the marsh of that day, "thar wuz a considerable sprinkling." There was a broken arm and broken leg, now and then, to be adjusted and at such times when the boys of questionable character and calling celebrated a successful "haul" on the outside by raising high-jinks in their island stronghold for days at a time-when liquor flowed freely and enthusiasm ran high-not infrequently the lone doctor was sought by them to treat a gun-shot wound or repair a damage caused by fists. Boys will be boys, and the best of friends fall out now and then!
Dr. Shronts used to recall that, on his first visit to the secret places of the island banditti, he was obliged to submit to being blind-folded on going in and coming out of the place. In the course of the years, however, this precaution was dispensed with. For years he knew of the secret "hog-back highway" but was unable to locate it by his own knowledge unaided. But the Doctor concerned himself only in his profession and was careful not to show too great an interest in the past life and doings of his patients. Withal, he was discreet, cautious, careful not to let drop the least hint of gossip or criticism relating to the affairs of this underworld clientele so that in the end he held their confidence as no other man of the lake region ever did. Long after he had removed to Momence, Dr. Shronts was called by the swamp folk generally, in time of need, and by members of the island banditti particularly whenever the emergency arose. By day and by night he traveled the precarious footing of "Lyon's Lane," to still more precarious and uncertain trails which wound through thicket and scrub and miniature sand-dunes, and which led, finally to the humble cabin of the trapper and hunter or the more isolated abodes of the "Bogus Island" bandits. It was a faithful service he rendered these inhabitants of the Lake region during all the days he lived-summer or winter in fair weather and foul, day or night.
The incident is recalled of one occasion when Dr. Shronts was out of town, a messenger from Bogus Island sought him on behalf of one of their number who had been kicked by a horse. In the absence of Dr. Shronts his colleague, Dr. H.M. Keyser, was appealed to. The Doctor was reluctant at first to undertake the trip for the reputation of the prospective patient, a habitue of "Little Bogus," was not altogether reassuring. In his professional experience he had had but little to do with them. The messenger offered him a double fee, but the Doctor soon made it clear that his unwillingness, in this case, was not so much a matter of the fee as it was a matter of safety for himself and his horse. "Supposing," said the Doctor, "that someone of your number fancied my horse and helped himself to it? What a predicament I would be in! What assurance have I that this will not happen?" The messenger smiled grimly and replied: "When men of our stripe give a promise they live up to it. Should your horse be stolen, I promise that you will be supplied with a better one! I will take you in and bring you back, and pay you well besides." And, thus assured, Dr. Keyser made the trip to Bogus Island. And these men of shady reputation and desperate character treated him royally.
The passing of Dr. John F. Shronts in many respects was marked like the closing of an epoch-like the last chapter in a tale of stirring events of red-blood days brought to a point where the frontier "faded out" and present day civilization began. What wealth of stirring reminiscence and thrilling incident of the old, lawless days of the lake country passed beyond mortal ken with the passing of the old Doctor, we can only surmise. We do know that it was considerable and that its loss to the generation of today is irreparable.
Source: Burroughs, Burt E., Tales of an Old Border Town and Along the Kankakee. © 1925
The following information was found in the Lowell Public Library Indiana Files (IF--Kankakee Valley) and was originally published in the 1923 Legends and Tales of Homeland on the Kankakee by Burt E. Burroughs, pages 83-95:.
In the early days of the Kankakee Valley, as far back as 1838, and perhaps earlier than that, the settlers were subjected to frequent raids by a highly organized band of horse thieves who, safely intrenched on "Bogus Island," over the line in Indiana, a spot of land surrounded by an almost impassable morass known as Beaver Lake, were aided further in their operations by an "underground system," or stations, extending into Iowa, on the west, and into Ohio, on the east. These "stations" were simply individuals who, with a knowledge of what was going on, were in the pay of the gang and rendered every possible service in expediting the flight of the thief with his stolen booty, east or west, as the case might be, and in instances where pursuit pressed hard on the trail, it was their business to give asylum to both thief and horse. So nicely adjusted was this "underground system," that for years horses from eastern Iowa and from western Ohio were run through and successfully disposed of in the intervening territory. The success of these operations made the thieves increasingly bold, and finally it got so that they did not hesitate to pick up a likely looking piece of horse-flesh anywhere on the line. The station-keepers aided very materially in this, for they were enabled to get a line on many of the local horses, which they tipped off to headquarters.
It was not until the traffic had reached considerable proportions and many had suffered loss thereby, that the settlers decided that drastic measure must be adopted. In the spring of 1844, according to Mr. Nichols, a meeting of the settlers was held at the home of "Uncle Tommy" Durham which was attended by nearly all the settlers on the river. The subject was gone over thoroughly and opinion was unanimous, or nearly so, that heroic measures must be employed, and as a result, a Vigilance Committee was organized, then and there, the said committee embracing in its roster the name of every man present. It was the opinion of the committee that a hanging or two of individuals engaged in the nefarious business of stealing horses would have a most salutary effect, and they went forth from this meeting with that idea firmly fixed in their minds. A few days after the organization of the Vigilance Committee, Sheriff Sammons, of Iroquois county, who happened to be traveling the Limestone settlement, told of meeting a suspicious looking individual on horse back who he suspected of being a horse thief. "Lant" and Baldwin Hawkins, being thus advised, mounted their horses and rode out and intercepted the stranger. They questioned him closely, but his answers were generally evasive, and far from satisfactory, and the sheriff's opinion, that he was bent on no good mission, was more than confirmed. As he passed on down the river the Hawkins boys followed by a circuitous route, keeping well out of sight. They trailed him until he disappeared into the scrub oak of the "Barrens," and while they were consulting as to what course to pursue he reappeared with two horses. They needed no further proof now as to his calling, and immediately the two charged upon him, whereupon the thief (for such he evidently was), wheeled his horse in the direction of the river and made all possible speed. Baldwin Hawkins was mounted on a handsome black stallion and gave chase to intercept him, if possible, before he could reach the river. He rode a speedy horse, but the stranger's was speedier still and, without hesitating for a second as he neared the river, over the bank he plunged into the water, with Hawkins close behind him. Hawkins called repeatedly to the stranger to surrender, to all of which he paid no heed, but urged his horse the faster. He might have made good his escape had not his horse stumbled when about two-thirds of the way across the river. But before he could recover, Baldwin Hawkins was up to him and had his hand on his collar. Together they rode out of the river and up the bank, where they were joined by Alanson Hawkins.
Now, the latter was a justice-of-the-peace, and it was decided to try the stranger instanter for the crime of horse stealing. One thing we can commend that backwoods court for and that was promptness and the absence of unnecessary frills. Although the evidence was circumstantial and somewhat damaging in character, it was insufficient, but, notwithstanding, the court being "all het up" on account of the chase, and remembering, probably, the newly taken oath of the Vigilance Committee, had just about decided to hang the prisoner when Roswell Nichols appeared. Mr. Nichols happened along just in the nick of time. Realizing what was in the wind, he urged moderation on the part of the court. Accordingly, the prisoner, instead of being hung then and there, was bound over to the Iroquois County Circuit Court at Middleport, and the sheriff, being on hand, took him into custody.
Subsequent events tended to show conclusively that the prisoner was the especial protégé of a kindly fate, for, having escaped hanging by the timely intervention of Mr. Nichols, the same kindly fate aided him in eluding the sheriff's watchful eye while on the way to Middleport. He got away and they never did get him.
Evidently Seguin was to the fellow's liking, for, on leaving, he arranged to meet him at a point on the Kankakee river over the state line in Indiana. Seguin made his way to the place on foot, where, in the course of several hours, his newly found friend joined him. He was well mounted and led another horse, which Seguin was invited to mount. Together they set off in the direction of Beaver Lake, the stranger, in the meantime, leading up to the matter of the business in hand by easy stages and in a guarded manner, but making the inference clear that dealing in horses was the industry which was to occupy their attention. Seguin accepted the proposition enthusiastically and expressed his regret at not having been able to connect himself long before with an enterprise so much to his liking and which held the promise of rich returns.
The "Bogus Island" of that day, towards which they directed their steps, was a patch of land several acres in extent, well covered with scrub-oak and with a sand-dune or two, entirely surrounded by waters of Beaver Lake, as the vast, marshy tract was known. The way in and out from this island stronghold was hard to negotiate, except by one familiar with its devious ways, and, as ill-luck would have it, Seguin's conductor chose to go in after dark. They passed through water that came well up on the horses' sides, and Seguin's heart thumped with suppressed excitement as his guide led on and up the well-beaten pathway that wound its serpentine way among the brush, stopping finally at a log house, the rendezvous and headquarters of the thieves who operated the great "underground system." They found four or five men there on their arrival, members of the gang, who were engaged in celebrating a successful raid by indulging in a game of poker, interspersed with frequent drinks. Seguin, realizing his danger, kept a level head, entered spiritedly into the poker game, but was chary of the whisky. He soon became on good terms with the men, who readily accepted him, since he came well recommended by one of their number, and talked unreservedly, meanwhile, of their operations in the horse-stealing line. Among the number was a Frenchman, whom Seguin cultivated assiduously and not without results, for they soon established friendly relations and by reason of a similarity of nationality, got on amazingly. From him Seguin gathered many things which, otherwise, would have required much time. Two days after his arrival on the island, Seguin's newly-found friend took him to view horses, and his heart fairly jumped into his throat on beholding among the number his favorite mare, for which he had risked so much. The horses were kept in a cleverly constructed "hillside stable," dug out of the side of a sand-dune, the open side of which was well concealed with brush.
How to get out of the place with his property was the all-engrossing question for Seguin. He knew the general direction by which he had come into the place, and he knew also that plans had been formulated by which a party was to move eastward with the horses in an effort to dispose of them. If he rescued his horse from the hands of the thieves he would have to act speedily. The pathway made use of by the robbers in gaining access to the island lay pretty well to the south of it, and Seguin conceived the idea of going in a direction directly opposite, even though much deep water intervened between the island and terra firma to the northwest. In the dead of night he made his way stealthily to the hillside stable, secured his horse and, approaching the lake, plunged boldly in. Both man and horse had to swim for it, and it was long, hard pull, but fortune's favors are more often granted to those who take the risk, and the Captain's lucky star was in the ascendant. The next day he appeared in Kankakee with his favorite mare, and the joy he experienced in having her back was only exceeded by the satisfaction he felt in having outwitted the robbers themselves by going into their stronghold.
In the early dusk of a summer's day in the year 1857, a stranger on horseback rode up to the Murray House, in Kankakee. This hotel, a three-story brick structure, built by "Uncle" Jimmy Lamb, was located on the south-east corner of Court Street and Dearborn Avenue, and did real justice to Kankakee's budding aspirations as a metropolis. The stranger put up for the night and was assigned to a room on the second floor. Citizen William A. Ott was at that time the city marshal, and the sparse mail that came addressed to him in that day consisted mainly of notices of horses stolen, together with descriptions thereof, and the invariable reward for the apprehension of the thief and the return of the property. On that particular evening, as horse and rider passed by on Court Street, Marshal Ott's subconscious processes were suddenly quickened and set in motion by beholding certain marks on the horse that had at some time been enumerated in an identification circular. He hastily consulted his files and, sure enough, there they were, especially mention of the white foreleg. Very much excited, he sought the stable where the horse had been put up for the night, and a further examination revealed other marks that served to identify the animal beyond the question of a doubt. He lost no time in notifying Landlord Morrow of his discovery and that he proposed to arrest the stranger. One of the party who passed up to the second floor with the crowd to witness the fun was Roger Sherman. Marshal Ott pounded loudly on the door of the room, announcing in a loud voice that the occupant thereof was under arrest and that he should come forth and give himself up to an officer of the law. The only response was an ominous clicking from within, as of someone cocking a pistol. The marshal, somewhat abashed at this turn of affairs and with ardor noticeably cooled at the possibility of a shot through the door, again demanded that he come forth and give himself up. The silence was ominous. The marshal hesitated. About this time Roger Sherman, who in his younger days liked something "snappy" in the way of entertainment, called out, "Say, Ott, I'll get 'im -- do you want 'im?"
"Yeah," replied Ott, rather weakly.
Immediately Sherman attacked the panels of the door with his heavy boots and in a very short time had kicked it in, despite the remonstrances of the crowd, who feared that he might be shot. With the door kicked to pieces it was only the work of a moment to make sure of the man therein. The stranger had a gun of the old-fashioned powder-and ball variety, but it was unloaded, and for weeks afterwards controversy was rife among those who witnessed the incident as to whether the fellow would have shot Sherman IF IT HAD BEEN LOADED! Evidence far more incriminating than the horse was brought to light when the saddle-bags belonging to the stranger were searched. A diary was discovered in which was recorded certain points or "stations" such as Momence, Mt. Langham, Aroma, Sugar Island, on the Iroquois river, Kankakee, together with places down the river as far as Wilmington. Accompanying the list of "stations" were the names of individuals who might be called upon for assistance in cases of emergency. As it turned out, it was the most important capture in all the history of the "underground system."
Captain Seguin, on hearing of what had taken place, hurried over to the hotel to view the prisoner. Wonder of wonders! The prisoner was none other than the man with whom he had played cards at Momence and later accompanied to "Bogus Island." If the thief recognized Seguin, he betrayed not the slightest evidence of it. "You don't seem to know me," said Seguin. The fellow made no reply. "I spent several days with you at Bogus Island," continued Seguin, "and brought back with me the little mare you fellows stole. If you were going to stay there I might call on you again; but you are headed for a place much harder to get out of." Seguin spoke truly. He was sentenced to a term in the penitentiary and died within a year.
A detailed history of Bogus Island in the 1800's was written by John J. Yost.
A History of Bogus Island and Fair Oaks Farms from 1850 to 2001 gives details of the chain of ownership of that property.
Go to Bogus Island, "Pioneer History Index," for further information.
Return to Lowell History.