Before Iowa was Iowa, it was a land without law enforcement or courts, but when cold-blooded murder was committed there in 1834, the settlers in Dubuque improvised quite well.
Frontier justice in a lawless land just west of the Mississippi River ran its swift course, and on June 20, 1834, cheers greeted the hanging of one-legged Patrick O’Connor—the first man to be legally executed in what would become the state of Iowa. At the time, this area was on the eastern edge of Missouri Territory; there was no territorial government here, no law enforcers and no courts. Just to the south, the state of Missouri had been cut out of Missouri Territory in 1821, but not all the settlers who ventured to the Mississippi’s west bank in the next 13 years went to the new state. White men found the lead mines of Dubuque, developed by Julien Dubuque in 1790, particularly attractive.
Only two years before the hanging, in August 1832, the Black Hawk War had ended with the defeat of Chief Black Hawk, and the Sauk and Fox Indians had ceded to the United States a 50- mile-wide tract of land along the Mississippi north of the Missouri state line. Miners, farmers, shopkeepers and craftsmen swarmed across the river that fall to occupy the land in and around the Dubuque Mines, even though the Black Hawk Purchase Treaty did not allow for settlement there until June 1, 1833.
The Dubuque Mines, not belonging to any state or territory, were without law. But transgressions did not necessarily escape punishment. This was dramatically demonstrated in May 1834 when an Irish immigrant miner named Patrick O’Connor, without provocation, shot and killed his cabin mate, George O’Keaf. The enraged citizens of Dubuque hastily convened a court to try O’Connor. The foreman of the jury was Woodbury Massey, who had come to the Dubuque Mines the year before and had established himself as a pillar of the mining community; he was founder of the first Methodist church in Dubuque. Twenty years after the hanging, Eliphalet Price, an eyewitness to the event, wrote a short account, “The Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner [sic] at the Dubuque Mines in the Summer of 1834.”
Patrick O’Connor was born in 1797 in County Cork, Ireland, and emigrated to the United States in 1826. He settled in Galena, Ill., and took up lead mining. An accident aboard a steamboat in the fall of 1828 shattered his leg and resulted in amputation. The Galena community rallied around O’Connor and provided medical and financial aid, which got him a wooden leg. O’Connor proved ungrateful and became a brawling drunkard. In an effort to obtain more charity, he burned his own cabin. The fire, however, spread and destroyed his neighbor’s home. His treachery was exposed by a John Brophy, whom O’Connor attempted to kill. When folks in Galena threatened to lynch him, O’Connor fled across the river to the Dubuque Mines, where he became a business partner of O’Keaf, a 22-year-old Irish immigrant.
On May 19, 1834, O’Keaf hiked two miles into Dubuque for provisions. At 2 p.m., accompanied by a friend, he returned to the cabin he shared with O’Connor and found the door locked from the inside. O’Keaf called to O’Connor to open the door. The eyewitness reported that O’Connor replied: “Don’t be in a hurry. I’ll open it when I get ready.”
O’Keaf, burdened by a bundle in one hand and a ham in the other, became persistant, saying: “It is beginning to rain. Open the door quick.” O’Connor didn’t reply, so O’Keaf forced the door open with his shoulder. When O’Keaf stepped into the cabin, O’Connor leveled his musket and fired at his partner. Five of the slugs entered O’Keaf’s chest, and he dropped dead.
Friends of the victim ran to a nearby lead smelter and reported the murder. The miners hastened to the cabin, accosted O’Connor, and asked why he had shot his partner. O’Connor replied, “That is my business” and proceeded to tell the miners what they could do with O’Keaf’s body. Many in the crowd wanted to hang O’Connor on the spot, but saner heads prevailed, and the prisoner was taken to Dubuque.
The next day, the community organized a court to try Patrick O’Connor in the shade of an old elm tree. The people chose a Captain White as prosecuting attorney. O’Connor, directed to select his own counsel, eventually chose a Captain Bates, who had once employed the accused in Galena. Out of a panel of 24 persons, O’Connor was allowed to choose 12 jurors.
“Are you satisfied with that jury?” White asked. The accused replied: “I have no objection to any of them. Ye have no laws in the country, and ye cannot try me.” The prosecutor continued: “You, Patrick O’Connor, are charged with the murder of George O’Keaf. Do you plead guilty or not guilty?” O’Connor answered, “I’ll not deny that I shot him, but ye have no laws in the country, and cannot try me.”
In spite of O’Connor’s rejection of the proceedings, the community insisted on its authority to try him. The jurors examined three or four witnesses and retired to reach a verdict. Within an hour they reported back, and the foreman, Woodbury Massey, read from a paper: “We the undersigned, residents of the Dubuque Lead Mines, being chosen by Patrick O’Connor and impaneled as a jury to try the matter wherein Patrick O’Connor is charged with the murder of George O’Keaf do find the said Patrick O’Connor is guilty of murder in the first degree and ought to be and is by us sentenced to be hung by the neck until he is dead; which sentence shall take place Tuesday the 20th day of June, 1834, at one P.M.” The verdict was greeted by unanimous approval among the bystanders.
During the month between the May trial and execution in June, O’Connor sought pardons from the Dubuque miners, the governor of Missouri and President Andrew Jackson. Although there was a possibility of leniency among the Irish of Dubuque, the Rev. Charles F. Fitzmaurice alienated the Catholic population when he denied the community’s authority to try O’Connor. Next, Governor Daniel Dunkin denied a pardon application, because he said he had no jurisdiction over the country. He did refer O’Connor to the president, but Jackson maintained that he had no authority to act in the matter since U.S. laws had not been extended over the newly acquired Black Hawk Purchase. Furthermore, the president acknowledged the authority of the Dubuque community to carry out the execution.
A few days before the hanging, a rumor reached Dubuque that 200 Irishmen were on their way from Mineral Point (in what would become southwest Wisconsin) to rescue O’Connor. Although the rumor proved false, the Dubuque miners were summoned to arms. On the morning of the 20th, 163 men bearing loaded rifles formed a militia complete with elected marshals. They marched from Main Street to the house where O’Connor had been confined while, according to eyewitness Price, “the fife breathed in lengthened strains the solemn air of the dead march” accompanied by the “long roll of the muffled drum.”
“The stores, shops, and groceries had closed up their doors and life no longer manifested itself through the bustling hum of worldly pursuits,” Price noted. “All was silent as a Sabbath morn save the mournful tolling of the village bell. Men whispered as they passed each other while every countenance denoted the solemnity and importance of the occasion. Two steamers had arrived that morning from Galena and Prairie du Chien with passengers to witness the execution. The concourse of spectators could not have been less than one thousand persons.”
The company of militia parted to allow the arrival of the cart bearing the executioner, who sat upon O’Connor’s coffin. Executioner Adams wore black silk gloves and had fit a black silk handkerchief over his face so that, according to Price, “he had the appearance of a Negro.” The marshals escorted the shackled O’Connor and the Rev. Fitzmaurice out of the house and into the cart and drove to the blacksmith’s shop, where the irons were removed.
O’Connor gave up all hope of release and became agitated. He began to wring his hands and shout out, “Will the Lord forgive me!” The procession moved to the quarter beat of the drum and at noon arrived at the gallows, which had been constructed on an Indian mound. The cart was driven under the gallows, and the militia formed in a square to secure the site. A grave had been dug at the foot of the gallows, ready to receive O’Connor’s body.
Following the priest’s prayer, O’Connor addressed those assembled. He admitted killing O’Keaf and asked for forgiveness. The executioner then adjusted a white shroud around O’Connor, secured his arms behind him at the elbow, drew a cap over his face, fixed the noose around his neck and, lastly, removed his wooden leg. At the signal, the cart started and moved away from beneath O’Connor. O’Connor’s body convulsed and hung 30 minutes before he was pronounced dead. The body was reunited with its wooden leg in the coffin and buried. Twenty years later when the foundation was dug for the Jefferson Hotel, O’Connor’s bones were exhumed and reinterred in the city burial grounds. In 1867 his remains were moved to Linwood Cemetery.
Three days after the hanging, Congress hastily reported out a bill to attach what is now the state of Iowa to Michigan Territory “for the purpose of temporary government.” The bill had passed through both houses of Congress by June 27. President Jackson signed it into law the next day. Dubuque County and Demoine (later Des Moines) County, both on the west side of the Mississippi, were referred to as the Iowa District.
A year after O’Connor’s execution, jury foreman Woodbury Massey purchased a mining claim known as the “Irish Lot.” A dispute arose when John B. Smith and his son William claimed the same property. Following a lawsuit, Massey was awarded the land by a jury. In late summer 1835, Massey and the sheriff went to the Irish Lot to evict the Smiths, but the two Smiths ambushed Massey, shooting him through the heart. Massey was buried in the city cemetery and was later moved to Linwood, where his tombstone survives as the oldest grave marker in Dubuque.
John and William Smith were arrested and held for trial at the next session of the circuit court at Mineral Point. (Feeling that Michigan Territory was too large, Congress in 1836 created Wisconsin Territory, and the Iowa District became Western Wisconsin.) The defense counsel objected to the jurisdiction of the court, and Judge David Irving sustained the objection. The Smiths were released and let loose on society much to the disappointment and anger of the Massey family.
On March 13, 1836, Henry L. Massey, a younger brother of Woodbury and an established Galena merchant, saw John Smith walking in front of his harness shop. Henry grabbed a pistol and shot Smith, who lingered a few days before he died. Henry was never arrested and subsequently traveled to Santa Fe, in the Mexican province of New Mexico, on a trading expedition. Later, he became one of Wisconsin’s leading citizens and was named to a top-level commission of surveyors in 1844.
The death of John Smith angered William, who vowed to avenge his father’s death by killing one of the surviving Massey brothers, Henry or Benjamin. Rumor of this scheme reached their sister Louisa Massey. Wearing a disguise, she found Smith sitting in a store on Dubuque’s Main Street, ordered him to defend himself, and then shot him in the chest as he stood up. The bullet hit a large wallet full of papers, and Smith was only wounded. Louisa ran from the store and found refuge with friends. Later she moved to Galena and married S.J. Williamson.
General George W. Jones, a territorial delegate to Congress, cited the Massey–Smith feud as an argument for the necessity of organizing a separate territorial government for the land west of the Mississippi. On July 4, 1838, Dubuque and the rest of Western Wisconsin officially became part of newly formed Iowa Territory. Eight years later, on December 28, 1846, Iowa became the 29th state. The O’Connor hanging and the Massey-Smith feud will always be remembered as pivotal episodes in the bloody history of how order was created out of chaos in Iowa.
Edward E. Deckert and Constance R. Cherba of Dubuque, Iowa, often write about American history, particularly the Civil War. Suggested for further reading: A History of Iowa, by Leland Sage; and Iowa: A History, by Joseph Frazier Wall.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.