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Accused murderer hanged in error?

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By Linda Hanabarger

Nathan Burgess was hanged at half past 1 o’clock on Friday, June 18, 1875.

The gallows was erected on the front portico of the Effingham County Courthouse for carrying out the sentence because the trial had been moved to Effingham County on a change of venue. 

Found guilty of the murder of Joseph Robbins, Burgess mounted the 13 steps leading to the gallows platform, accompanied by three clergymen of his choice.

The actions that brought him to this point took place eight months earlier, when Robbins, a Vandalia Line watchman, was found shot in the watchman’s shack at the east end of the Kaskaskia River trestle bridge.

Enter George O’Dell. Described as a habitual drunkard, O’Dell lived on the east side of the Kaskaskia River, and on a regular basis would hail Robbins to cross the trestle bridge and help him cross on his way home.

Late Saturday night, Oct. 28, 1874, O’Dell called to Robbins to help him cross. When Robbins did not respond, George mustered up his courage and crossed the trestle alone.  There, he found Robbins on the floor.

Summoning his courage again, O’Dell re-crossed the trestle in search of help. The first place he came to was the home of Doctor F.B. Haller, whose impressive brick house stood on the corner of Third and Main streets.

Together, they went in search of the law.Constable Lou Cluxton commandeered a railroad handcar, and with Dr. Haller and George returned to the watchman’s shack.

Transporting Robbins to the Vandalia Depot, Dr. Haller cared for the injured man, but he died the next day from his injuries.

Assembling and putting together the bits and pieces of the story of how Robbins ended up dead is not unlike a puzzle.

The Monday following the murder, some of the Vandalia fellows were gathered at Harnick’s General Store discussing the murder. George Steinhauer, who would later become county sheriff, in a joking manner, asked Burgess what made him kill Robbins.

The youth flew into a rage and replied he would give Steinhauer the same kind of dose if he didn’t shut up. He was immediately arrested, and his home just north of East Gallatin Street was searched. Robbins’ shotgun was found there.

The gun was loaded and, upon further investigation, it was determined the wadding used was from The Vandalia Union newspaper. The shot that killed Robbins had the same identical wadding, and this would prove to be a crucial piece of evidence leading to the conviction of Burgess. Robbins had been killed with his own gun.

Further investigation uncovered that Burgess had attempted to buy the shotgun from Robbins, and had been told it was not for sale.

William Naue stated he had gone hunting in the river bottom with Burgess and recognized the gun he used – it was Robbins’. 

It would later be remembered that Burgess was one of the first people to come to the Depot inquiring about Robbins’ condition after he was transported there.

Railroad authorities came forward, stating Burgess had asked for the watchman job held by Robbins and had been refused.  It was also said his father threatened that if Nathan didn’t put Robbins out of the way, he would.

Burgess confessed to the crime numerous times. He told officials that he saw the dead man’s face in his dreams, and that it haunted him. He was ready to take his punishment, he said.

Defense attorneys were Robert Campbell and E.N. Rinehart. Prosecutors were state's attorneys for Fayette and Effingham counties, E.M. Ashcraft and William H. Gillmore.

Robbins, a native of North Carolina, was 48 years of age at the time of his death, and had lived in Fayette County for a little more than five years, having moved here from Indiana. This senseless murder widowed his wife, Rachel, and left five children fatherless.

Following the execution of Burgess, the Vandalia Railroad Line refused to transport his body to Vandalia for burial in the Old Cemetery.

There is no marker to indicate Burgess’ final resting place.

The story would end here were it not for one final twist. When Nathan Burgess’ father was on his deathbed, he made a confession that it was he, not his son, who had killed Joseph Robbins.