Lurking around in the background of the Sears family tree is Thomas Sears, son of John and Hannah Ione Johnson Sears.
When the soldiers of the 140th Illinois Infantry came to the Sears home near Bingham in South Hurricane Township on Aug. 11, 1864, it was Tom they were looking for.
Lieutenants John Nale and his contingent, including a provost marshal, surrounded the Sears house, and one of the soldiers approached the door asking to borrow a saddle, as he was tired of riding without one.
The only people at home that day were Tom’s aged parents, John and Hannah, and Frances Landers, who was engaged to be married to their son, John. The Sears’ two-story frame house was situated not far south of the Shelbyville-to-Greenville Road that cut a swatch through Fayette County.
In family lore, Tom was kind of a bad boy in the family and ended up hiding out in Joplin, Jasper County, Missouri. He would sneak back at times to visit the Will Isbell family and other homefolks, and Will Isbell remembered being the one who carried water and feed to Tom’s horse hidden in his father’s corn field.
Tom was involved in an incident recounted in the 1878 History of Fayette County where Lt. Thomas M. McClanahan, a former Union soldier with the 87th Illinois, and Tom got into an argument and pistol fight in Ramsey. Tom’s relative, Thompson Culbertson, an onlooker, was struck by a bullet and died. Tom was grievously injured. McClanahan was tried and acquitted.
After this incident, it was said, Tom moved to Joplin to hide out.
Thomas J. Sears was born on March 3, 1832, in Fayette County and died on Dec. 22, 1903. He married Joicey Alexander, and she died in 1855, leaving two children, Hannah Rena and William Henry Sears. His second marriage was to Mary Alexander, sister to Joicey, born in 1833, died in 1883, by whom he had two children: Joseph, born in 1859, died in 1881; and Joicey (Joyce) Supinger, born in 1862, died in 1925. He then married Sarah Moore Bryson, by whom he had two children, Thomas and Lee.
In November 1864, Tom along with 15-20 other men from this same area, were arrested not long after arriving in Chicago. Tom appeared before the judge advocate, where he was asked numerous questions, many regarding the Clingman Gang that terrorized Fayette, Bond, Montgomery and Christian counties between the years 1861 and 1864.
Known as “The Chicago Conspiracy,” the idea was to help release the 8,000 southern prisoners of war at Camp Douglas and make them into a fighting force against the north. Even before the day arrived for the prison break, the planners knew this would not work – they had few weapons and the men would have to be drilled and trained.
Eliphas Davis tells a similar story in which he, along with Dr. Levi Boone of Hillsboro (relative of Daniel Boone and later mayor of Chicago) and others wished to visit the Camp Douglas to check on the condition of prisoners of war being held there. They were arrested and had sandbags tied to their legs so they could not escape. Both Boone and Davis eventually were released, with Davis near starvation when he finally made it back home.
In a family story handed down from Audrey Halford Probst, Eliphas’ wife, Aunt Angeline, was very careful in feeding him broth, because in his physical state, had she fixed a large meal, it would have killed him.
Tom denied serving under Clingman, but agreed that he was one of 15-20 who were arrested in Chicago on Nov. 7, the day before the election, all from the same county.
He told that he was there to see a fair election, and if they should try to keep the Democrats from voting, in that case there might be trouble.
The leaders of the men were to have red, white and blue ribbons and that was how they were to know them. His understanding was that when they arrived in Chicago, these men were to take care of them, but they never saw them.
Tom testified that the men were paid in advance at the Ramsey Station on Nov. 4, “with the lump sum being given to Garlan, who then paid us.”
His way to Chicago was paid by Mr. Laller, with each man receiving $15. Laller “gave us instructions to get into no trouble or difficulty, and to return as soon as we could; he was the man who fetched us the money. He said we were to go to Chicago to see that the Democrats had a fair election, and he told us that trouble should get up and we should get into a fight, he did not know but the prisoners would be released.”
Upon further questioning it appears that once the men arrived in Chicago, they were on their own. They fully expected trouble and Tom, for one, was willing to do his part. If things turned bad Tom said that they figured that a leader would come and tell them what to do.
Tom Sears was held at least five months in Camp Douglas after his arrest on Nov. 6.
Although Tom denied being a member of the Clingman Gang, one of their hideouts was not far from the home of his parents. A second was east of the Old Hurricane Church in the white oak thicket near VanBurensburg.
Was Tom Sears a member of the Clingman Gang? Probably, and in any other family he would be called an outlaw, but since he is in our family tree, we refer to him as the family’s “bad boy.” After all, he’s ours.