The Strange Case of Nathaniel Van Noy
by John Winterbauer
Menard, as it is today, is the result of an 1839 division of a much larger Sangamon County. Following his success in relocating Illinois' capital from Vandalia to Springfield two years earlier, young legislator Lincoln, spearheaded the movement to divide Sangamon, much to the chagrin of the people of Athens. The town lost the county seat to Petersburg, a fact that rankled many of the local citizens.
It is from the period prior to the division, while the area was still part of Sangamon, that much of the most colorful history is drawn. The six years Lincoln was in New Salem, celebrated as perhaps the most important of his early life, occurred in the part of Sangamon County that is now Menard, as did the story I'm about to relay regarding the first murder in the area.
First though, a word about oral history. The history of Menard is, to a great degree, a result of an oral tradition that has been preserved largely through the efforts of William Herndon, Ida Tarbell and Fern Nance Pond, among other historians, who first recorded the testimony of Lincoln's friends and associates from his time in the area. A great deal of this testimony is subject to scrutiny as to its reliability but it remains the essential core of the earliest recorded history of Menard County.
Much of what has come down regarding Lincoln's time here is a bizarre combination of fact and fiction that, at this late stage, is difficult to separate. The story of Lincoln's doomed love affair with New Salem maiden, Ann Rutledge is a perfect example of how fact and fiction have been fused into a story that, despite the best efforts of modern historians, will never been proven to anyone's satisfaction. Did the affair happen? It's impossible to say but it's a great story and far more interesting than having Abe wander through life shy and alone.
That seems to be a motivating factor in the oral tradition of Menard or any other place…it's always more interesting to mix some variables in with the known facts to give a story a little bite. While most historians tend to get a bit dismissive when the phrases "according to legend" or "tradition has it" or the like pop up, it is impossible to dismiss the information that can be gleaned from such accounts. Tales of this sort should be handled with care but to completely ignore them is to throw a good deal of an area's history out the window. While I am a firm believer in fact, I have never been put off by the questionable side of our history. I maintain that much of the color of any area is derived from the oral tradition. It is critical to remember that much of what is drawn from this tradition was recorded years after the events. In many cases the passage of time has left memories fuzzy and often, as is the case with some of the New Salem residents, a desire to put themselves into the story often motivates people in an interview. All those factors must be kept in mind.
The story I'm about to relate is a strange combination of historical fact and oral testimony. Much of the fact is drawn from court documents pertaining to the case or, at least, testimony of contemporaries to the people in question. From a factual standpoint, that's good…but then there's the other stuff. What are we to make of tales of ghosts and reanimating corpses? Much of that is from the oral tradition and, by it's very nature, is subject to scrutiny. I'll leave it to you to draw you own conclusions…
The Murder of Peggy Van Noy
In the lives of the early pioneers events sometimes occurred of such magnitude that they were used to mark time. The murder of Peggy Van Noy was just such an event. For years after residents would recall events (births, deaths i.e.), often starting with the phrase, "Two years before Van Noy was hung…" Nathaniel Van Noy and his wife, Peggy, came to the area that is now Menard County, Illinois. around 1820 settling a small tract of land that came to be known as Van Noy Settlement (about 5 miles west of Athens). The peaceful valley in which the Van Noys settled was comprised of primeval forest intersected by the road from Beardstown to Springfield, which was the main artery of traffic thru the area.
Nathaniel built a comfortable cabin on the south side of the road and a blacksmith shop on the north and began to ply his trade, catering to locals and travelers along the road. All seemed well enough with the Van Noys with the strange exception that Nathaniel was rarely home. The blacksmith would be gone for great lengths of time and upon his return would have plenty of money - this despite not firing his forge for weeks on end.
Late in the night Van Noy returned and was corralled by his captors. The blacksmith was visibly agitated and claimed to have been stalked all day by a deer he had wounded while hunting. Upon being questioned about Peggy's death he tried to shift blame to the Indians of a nearby village. This, apparently, was not satisfactory to his captors and Van Noy was turned over to Sheriff John Taylor.
Sheriff Taylor notified Judge John Sawyer who immediately called a special session of the Sangamon County Circuit Court. A grand jury was empanelled and sworn in to hear the case. The grand jury found sufficient evidence to try Van Noy for the murder and a jury was called to hear the case.
Bowling Green, future friend to Abraham Lincoln, was selected as foreman of the jury, which also consisted of Samuel Lee, Jesse Armstrong, Levi Gordon, Thomas Parish, Erastus Wright (who, coincidently, was the first school teacher in Sangamon County), William Vincent, Philip Fowler, John Stephenson, Levi Parish, James Collins and George Davenport.
The trial of Nathaniel Van Noy commenced on August 28, 1826 with Attorney General James Turney representing the people; James Adams and I.H. Pugh acted for the Defense. There is no record of the testimony for either side but it's not presumptuous to imagine the Defense was weak and evidence against Van Noy overwhelming because it only took a day for the jury to find him guilty of the gruesome crime. On August 28, 1826 Foreman Green read the verdict, "We the jury find the defendant guilty in manner and form as in the indictment against him is alleged" . At 9:00 the following morning Judge Sawyer issued the following ruling, "It is adjudged and considered by the Court that; the said defendant Nathaniel Van Noy, having been found guilty of the murder of his wife, Peggy Van Noy, by the jury impaneled and sworn in this cause, be remanded to the jail of the County and there kept until the twentieth day of November next and that on said twentieth day of November next between the hours of twelve of the clock and four of the clock in the afternoon that the Sheriff of said Sangamon County take the body of the said Nathaniel Van Noy to some convenient place in said County and that the said Sheriff cause the said Nathaniel Van Noy to be there hanged by the neck until he be dead."
In less than three days Van Noy's fate was sealed and he was removed to the County jail to await his execution.
Murder and counterfeiting would seem to be enough to make this story noteworthy however as Van Noy awaited his date with the gallows a series of strange events began to take place that would make any pulp fiction writer green with envy. It seems a Springfield doctor by the name of Addison Philleo had developed a device that if applied to a corpse just after death would reanimate the body. Dr. Philleo approached Van Noy in his cell and the two struck a bargain . Nathaniel Van Noy sold his corpse to Dr. Philleo; apparently with the belief he would be brought back from the dead shortly after his hanging.
On November 20, 1826, the day of Van Noy's hanging, a long procession formed at the county jail. Men, women and children proceeded through Springfield to a hollow north of the present state capital building to witness the spectacle. The wagon carrying Van Noy was driven beneath two posts, a noose slipped around his neck, the horses were started and Van Noy swung.
The body dangled for five hours before being cut down. Apparently Sheriff Taylor had heard of Dr. Philleo's deal with Van Noy and had decided not to turn over a fresh corpse. Dr. Philleo, thwarted in his experimentation, began an autopsy on the spot. This revolted onlookers so much the good doctor was forced to move to a nearby building to finish.
One of Van Noy's last public statements was that he had buried a quantity of gold beneath a tree in the valley near his cabin. For many years people searched for Van Noy's gold but to this day it has never been found.
By 1832 Dr. Philleo had relocated to Galena in northern Illinois where he published the Galenian, the only paper published north of Springfield. When the Black Hawk War broke out that Spring Dr. Philleo attached himself to the battalion of Maj. Henry Dodge as a war correspondent. As Dr. Philleo was the only newspaperman with the army his reports were published across the country.
Dr. Philleo's reports chronicled the campaign of Major Dodge. Philleo always referred to him as General Dodge, which gave readers the impression Dodge was in command when in reality General James D. Henry held that post. The reports were never officially corrected and the result was that for many years thereafter histories asserted Dodge and not Henry was in command.
A single martial deed can be attributed to Addison Philleo during the Black Hawk War. One day a scouting party came upon two of Black Hawk's warriors who attempted to flee. One of the Indians was killed in the chase. A short time later Dr. Philleo came across the body and scalped the Indian. For many years he displayed the scalp as evidence of his valor. Dr. Addison Philleo died in January 1841 in Tampa Bay, Florida.
As Van Noy's story passed into legend, the old homestead became a place to be feared by travelers on the road. Several pioneer memoirs recall hastening the horses as they passed by the former home of the Van Noys for fear of lurking ghosts. It is interesting to speculate on the thoughts of the young Lincoln as he often traveled the route during his time in New Salem, as it was the most direct route to Athens and Springfield beyond, he would have traveled that way often. The house was standing as late as the 1850's before mention of it stops in the accounts of the area settlers. Some say it was standing well into the twentieth century but there is no evidence to support this claim.
The Ghosts of Van Noy Settlement
Shortly after the hanging of the murdering Nathaniel, tales of the spirit of Peggy Van Noy wandering the fields around the house began to circulate. One story recalls a traveler who passed the house late one night only to be startled by the sounds of a woman's screams emitting from inside the dilapidated house. The man, unaware of the building's violent past, dismounted and entered the building to assist the obviously distraught woman.
After a few minutes of searching the premises and calling to whoever had screamed, the man was unable to locate the woman. Perplexed, he returned to his horse and continued his journey. When he reached the Hall tavern in Athens he told his story and was told the story of Peggy Van Noy's horrific murder.
Others reported the spectral form of a woman floating through the trees around the ramshackle cabin. While I can find no particularly interesting accounts, it is said that all the witnesses believed the ghost to be Peggy Van Noy. These reports continued for years and the old Menard families have preserved many as part of family lore. The existing tales are several generations old and, unfortunately, many specific details have been lost over time.
He later recalled a man, surrounded by an unearthly glow, was staring at him and raised a threatening hand in his direction. The would-be treasure seeker didn't wait to see what the spectral man would say, he ran, screaming in terror, back toward Athens!
His companions, having not seen the ghost, and shocked by this bizarre turn, ran after their friend. After catching up with him further down the road and hearing his unlikely tale, Hale and the other wished to return but the scared third man would have nothing to do with the scheme. Eventually the others relented and accompanied their terrified partner home.
The next day Hale and the other man returned to the scene to collect their tools and look for signs of the mysterious "glowing man". Finding no sign of the ghost, they returned to Athens and there the story ends…or does it? The next year Hale, in partnership with John Overstreet, erected a large, brick flourmill in Athens at a cost of $11,000.00, no small sum in 1856. I'll put it to the reader as George put it to me…with a wink…isn't it fun to speculate where the money for the venture might have come from?
Today the valley seems quiet. One of the few remaining stretches of the old Beardstown road still passes the site of the old Van Noy homestead. Sometimes I drive through this peaceful valley and wonder if maybe Peggy still may wander these fields or if some unsuspecting soul may yet encounter the ghost of Nathaniel himself as he still protects his ill-begotten gold. Or maybe, just maybe, the ghosts are quiet now because a couple of entrepreneurs from Athens left old Van Noy with nothing to guard but an empty hole beneath a tree?
Angle, Paul M., "Here I Have Lived" a History of
Lincoln's Springfield, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New
© Copyright 2007 by John Winterbauer. All Rights Reserved.