Pondering the Past, Tales Lost in Time: The Gallows in the Woodstock Square

This month, we are going to leave the Marengo and Union area; and as some travel guides say, go "farther afield" to Woodstock. Most McHenry County residents are familiar with the square in that city. At its core is a lush green park, surrounded by cobblestoned streets, and framed around the outside with blocks of 19th Century-era buildings. Strollers who venture into the park will be greeted by a uniformed granite sentinel, gripping a musket, erected to honor the county's Civil War soldiers. A few more steps will take the adventurer to the bandstand, where on a summer evening the melodies of a band may be heard. The whole scene oozes with a nostalgic small-town America charm. But, to twist an old adage around, every silver lining has its dark cloud, and the Woodstock Square is not immune.

In mid-September of 1884, McHenry County was thrust into the national spotlight. It was by chance that this happened. The precipitating event occurred miles away, in a smoky bar room at 87 South Halsted Street in Chicago. An incident that transpired in only a few seconds resulted in an almost two-year grinding process for our county, and culminated with the hanging of James Dacey for the murder of Michael Gaynor.This is the gallows that McHenry County Sheriff Udell used to execute James Dacey in July 1886.  The gallows was borrowed from Cook County.  Udell is pictured on the far right.  The other men on the Gallows are Cook County Sheriff's deputies and local carpenters who assembled the gallows

On May 13, 1884, residents in Chicago's Ninth Ward went to the polls to cast their ballots in a special election to fill a vacancy for alderman. Dacey was employed by Cook County and dabbled in Chicago's rough and tumble political arena. He quickly made an enemy of city Alderman Gaynor. Preceding the election, a rumor circulated that if Gaynor's preferred candidate, William Mahoney, won the office, Dacey would lose his government position. In a defensive move, Dacey ran his own candidate, Jim Murray, in the contest. By 11 a.m. on Election Day, Murray threw in the towel, and Mahoney won by default. That evening, the victors packed the Halsted Street bars and celebrated with alcohol. Dacey and Gaynor encountered each other and exchanged some hostile words. When Gaynor briefly turned away, Dacey pulled a small .38-caliber pistol and shot the alderman in the back of the head. Bar patrons quickly disarmed and subdued Dacey. A patrolman was summoned to the bar, and Dacey was arrested. Gaynor was taken to his home where he died 11 days later.

Dacey's court proceedings dragged on for several months in Cook County. The case was transferred to McHenry County on a change of venue. Dacey's trial started on September 29, 1884. After five days of testimony, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang. For the next 21 months, legal challenges blocked the execution. The case went to the Illinois Supreme Court and then to Governor Oglesby. In the end, Dacey's defense lawyer failed. The execution was set for July 16, 1886. While Dacey awaited his fate, he was incarcerated in the county jail located in the old courthouse on the square. McHenry County Sheriff Udell ordered the gallows erected a few days prior to the execution on the lot just north of the jail, where the Le Petite Creperie stands today. Confined to his cell, Dacey didn't stop trying to avoid the hangman's noose. On the afternoon of July15th, he tried to take his own life by attempting to stab himself with a pair of shears. When this failed, he turned on his captors and attempted to beat Cook County Deputy Harper with a board that he had torn from his bed. Having no other choice to calm Dacey's violence, the guards bound him to his bed with leather straps. The July 17, 1886, issue of the Chicago Tribune reported that, "[during the earlier hours of the morning [Dacey] frequently broke out in his customary ravings and cursings." When the appointed hour arrived, Sheriff Udell entered the prisoner's cell and read the death warrant. When this formality was completed, the procession to the gallows commenced. A tall fence had been built around the gallows to block the hanging from the view of the public, but as was customary in those days, tickets were printed and distributed for the event. When Dacey emerged from the courthouse, he walked into a yard filled with about 120 spectators who came to witness the grisly event. Dacey finally arrived on the platform of the gallows. The rope was looped around his neck, a shroud was draped over his shoulders, and a white cap was placed over his face. At 12:33 p.m. the trap was sprung and Dacey dropped to his death. The Chicago Tribune described it as, "a quick drop into eternity." That evening, the 4:45 p.m. train pulled out of the Woodstock depot bound for Chicago, on board was Dacey's body.

In 1927, the gallows were replaced with the electric chair. In 1962, the State of Illinois began to do the dirty work. This was the one and only time our county was called upon to do its duty under the law--to execute a man for his horrific crime. The James Dacey story has been long gone from the memories of most local citizens, but it remains forever imprinted in our history. (To make a comment or to ask a question about this story, or any other local history-related item, you can contact Ed Urban at eurban@foxvalley.net).