We won't do the time alone

Sandy Vasko


Last time we looked at 1870 and the rash of fires intentionally set by an unknown person. We return to December of that year to find the culprits.

After John Daniels’ barn burned down he quickly started to investigate the matter himself. He found tracks in the snow leading from the road to his burned barn, followed them back to the road but then lost them in the hard-packed snow. A cast was made of the boot prints for future evidence.

After asking around town, three names kept coming up - Charles O'Connell, Julius Gardner (the town constable) and Oscar Livingstone. 

Daniels got a search warrant for all three residences, and pair of boots matching the prints was found in Charles O'Connell's room.

That was enough for an arrest. O'Connell quickly implicated the other two and all three were sent to Joliet to await trial.

The three were also charged with the fire in Mayor Odell's office, and went to trial first on that charge. Livingstone, described as the town drunk turned State's witness, bargained for a lighter sentence. 

At the trial Livingstone testified that he helped O'Connell by acting as look-out while he set the fire in Odell's office. Julius Gardner was then summoned to help cover up evidence.

The trial took three weeks to complete, and the Joliet Signal describes the result, “The case was summed up the State's Attorney, Capt. Hill, in a most able and powerful manner, and at 5 o'clock went to the jury, which after being out about 24 hours, agreed upon a verdict, finding Charles O'Connell guilty, and fixing his term in the penitentiary at two years, and finding Julius B. Gardner guilty as accessory after the fact.

“There is considerable excitement in regard to the verdict. Many believe that it was not right to convict the defendants on such questionable evidence as that of Livingstone.”

O'Connell heard the sentence with dread. Up to that time he had not revealed who paid him to do the job, but now he determined he would not do the time alone. He confessed his guilt to the police and finally told the name. It was Andrew Whitten.

We now turn to the Whitten family. Andrew Whitten was one of the earliest men to settle in Wilmington. He owned several stores on Water Street, was President of the First National Bank, and owned many residences which he rented out, but rarely maintained. 

In the 1860 census he is described as 58 years old, a merchant worth $50,000 ($1,400,000 today) in real estate and an additional $10,000 ($277,000) in his estate. His two sons who lived with him are also merchants, but worth nothing in real estate or otherwise.

In the 1870 census the now 68-year old Whitten's total worth is down to $1,200 (about $23,600) while his sons together are worth $1,100,000 ($21,654,000). It is obvious he had everything transferred into his sons' names. So how did they get all this money? Well, I am not sure but I can tell you this - he was constantly in court because almost everyone he did business with sued him later.

The people of Wilmington were not surprised at this revelation. They knew he was a crook. In fact, it is why many of the people banked with Daniels instead of Whitten. It turned out later that that was also a mistake.

Andrew Whitten, now 68 years old, was immediately arrested and hauled to Joliet. But jail was not for him, and the $5,000 bail was quickly found. He returned protesting his innocence, claiming the three had it in for him, said they were just a bunch of drunks, who could take them seriously?

The answer is, the States Attorney took them seriously and in March of 1871 Whitten's trial began. The prosecution had 17 witnesses scheduled to testify, the defense had none. The first on the stand was John Daniels.

He told of the evidence he found and of his long-time rivalry with Whitten. Then a string of witnesses told how they had seen Whitten and Livingstone talking in O'Connell's saloon. Several had seen the exchange of money between them. Livingstone testified that Whitten had paid him $2 ($40) to set Daniels barn on fire, and another $2  to keep his mouth shut.

The defense called no witnesses. The jury was given the case, and within an hour the verdict was returned. Not guilty. 

Whitten had done it again. The world knew him guilty, but he went free. It was speculated later that Whitten had bribed the jurors, but there was no evidence to support that theory.