Madison County ILGenWeb

index sitemap advanced
search engine by freefind


The Hanging of William Bell

Madison County ILGenWeb Coordinator - Beverly Bauser




On November 21, 1868, a German farmer by the name of Hermann Wendell was brutally murdered near Edwardsville. Wendell’s wife and father-in-law had left for St. Louis to attend the wedding of the sister and daughter, leaving Wendell alone with William Bell, a common laborer who had been living with the family. Wendell went to the nearest neighbor – about 100 yards away – and then returned to his home. Shortly after, a gunshot was heard. When the wife and father-in-law returned, Hermann was missing. Bell told them he gave Hermann $2, and that he left with the intention of going to St. Louis to attend the wedding. Suspicion was raised, and Bell was arrested. The body of Hermann Wendell was found buried in the hog pen.

Source: Alton Daily Telegraph, November 28, 1868
We published yesterday an account of an atrocious murder, near Edwardsville, but have just received, from an esteemed correspondent, the following additional particulars of the terrible tragedy:

From Edwardsville, November 27, 1868.
Editors Alton Telegraph:
A German farmer, named Hermann Wendell, living about four miles from this place [Edwardsville] on the upper road to St. Louis, was brutally murdered on Saturday night, the 21st instant. It seems that on the morning of the day mentioned, Wendell's wife and Casper Heofendeck, her father, went to St. Louis to attend the wedding of the sister and daughter, leaving Wendell and a man named William Bell (who had, for some time, been making that place his home), at the house. On their return home, Monday afternoon, from Saint Louis, Wendell was missing, and, upon inquiry being made, Bell informed them that he had given Wendell $2 on Sunday morning, and that he had left the house with the intention of going to St. Louis to attend the wedding. Upon further inquiry being made, however, it was ascertained that Wendell did not go to St. Louis, and fears were entertained that he had been murdered - suspicion resting upon William Bell.

On the Saturday evening mentioned, Wendell went to the nearest house, about one hundred yards distant, to get a bucket of water, talked a short time with the family, and returned, as is supposed, to his own house. Shortly afterwards, the report of a gun was heard in the direction of Wendell's house, and a noise like that of a man in great pain. These facts being made known to the authorities, yesterday, Bell was arrested by Deputy Sheriff Bonner and W. B. Johnson, who found him in Edwardsville and lodged him in jail to await further developments; and in the evening, Messrs. James T. Cooper, Bonner, and W. B. Johnson went to the house to make further inquiries, and if possible, to find the body of the murdered man. It being after dark when the party reached the place, they could not make any discoveries and deferred the matter until this A.M., and before they could get there some of the neighbors repaired to the house, and in a short time found the body buried about three feet in the ground in a hog pen about ten feet square, which seemed to have been made, and the hogs turned in after the body had been thrown into the hole and covered over. A jury of inquest was empaneled by Esq. Chapman, acting Coroner, who upon going to the place had the body taken up, and discovered that the man had been shot in the neck with buck shot, the shot entering the left side, all but one lodging in the other side. There was no positive evidence before the jury that Bell had killed the man, but the circumstances were so strong as to warrant the jury to return their verdict that they believed Wendell had been killed by Bell, who will be tried tomorrow before Esq. West, when he will no doubt be committed for murder. Bell has been looked upon as a desperate man, and was a Rebel spy. He and Wendell had a difficulty some time ago, on account of his wife and Bell being too intimate, but of late they have been seemingly good friends, and the only reason that can be assigned for his committing the murder is that of his intimacy with the woman, and he wanted Wendell out of the way.

Execution at Edwardsville, Illinois of William Bell for the Murder of Herman Wendell
Bell Launched into Eternity Protesting Innocence of the Crime for Which He Suffered
From the St. Louis Republican Nov. 13, 1869
Yesterday, at Edwardsville, in the County of Madison and State of Illinois, about twenty miles distant from St. Louis, William Bell suffered the extreme penalty of the law for the murder of one Herman Wendell, of that county, on Saturday night, November 21, 1868. The killing was done at a house occupied by Wendell, his wife, her father (Caspar Hoofendeck), and a part of the time by an unmarried daughter of Hoofendeck, and William Bell, the executed man, who as a woodchopper and common laborer, boarded in the family. Feuds were of frequent occurrence in the family, in which Wendell, his wife, her father and Bell were all more or less implicated, and it is said, and has been so proven, that the old man Hoofendeck always sided with Bell, repeatedly declaring that Wendell was a trifling, good-for-nothing fellow. On Friday preceding the murder, Mrs. Wendell and her father (Hoofendeck) came to St. Louis, and on Saturday night (but at what hour is not known) Wendell was killed and his body concealed. On Sunday night or Monday morning Bell told some of the neighbors that Wendell had come to St. Louis also, but on the return of Mrs. Wendell and her father without Wendell, suspicions were aroused. These impressions were intensified by some remarks that Bell had made in regard to Wendell on the occasion of a difficulty that had previously occurred between the three men, Wendell, Hoofendeck and Bell, Search was at once commenced for Wendell, and his remains were found buried in a hog pen, a few yards from the house, and into which Bell had been seen by the neighbors to throw stalks, corn husks, &c., which act first directed attention to that particular place. The neighbors making the search, and removing the sand or earth, came first to one of the murdered man's hands, and at once quitted their search and notified the authorities at Edwardsville. Bell was committed to jail to await the finding of the Grand Jury at the May Term, 1869, of the Madison Circuit Court. At that season of the Court a true bill was found against him, and he was remanded to jail to await the October term of the Court for trial.

At Bell's trial, he put in the plea of not guilty, which plea he maintained up to the very last - his last words from the scaffold being, "I am innocent."

William Bell was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and, to the best of his knowledge, was about 37 or 38 years of age at the time of his execution. His parents moved from Nashville to Saline County, in this State, about 1833-4, when he was quite a child, and about that time his father died. When he was about 7 years of age, his mother went on a visit to Tennessee to collect some money due her, and the last ever heard of her she had collected the money and took passage on a boat for home, and the presumption was that she had been robbed and murdered. Hearing nothing of their mother, Bell and his one brother and two sisters found homes where and as best they could. On one of the calls for troops, he enlisted in a Nevada regiment for three years during the war, and was honorably discharged in December 1865. After his discharge he remained in Nevada until November 1867, when he returned to Missouri to visit his brother and his two sisters. The murder was committed on the night of the 21st of November, 1868. At that time, he was boarding with Wendell.

On the day before, Wendell's wife and her father had gone to St. Louis. Bell's work was about half a mile from Wendell's house, and he went to the house every day for his dinner. On the day preceding the night on which the murder was committed, he had gone home and eaten his dinner, after which he lay down and smoked, as was his custom, and then got up and went down to look at some timber on the line of the Decatur Railroad. Wendell went along, and, after looking at the timber for some time, they went back to the house, from whence Bell returned to his work. In about two hours after, Wendell went to where he (Bell) was chopping, when Bell told him he could have part of his job; they looked around awhile, and about four or five o'clock returned to the house together; they got their suppers; while Wendell milked the cow and went for a bucket of water, Bell chopped some wood for the fire, and then filled his pipe and lay down upon the bed. After Bell had washed the dishes and put the house to rights, there was a knock on the door, and Wendell said "Come in." The door opened and two strange men came in and took seats in front of the fire, and engaged in conversation. Wendell had a shotgun hanging over the fireplace, and one of the men asked Wendell if he would trade it for a pistol, to which he replied he would trade anything he had. The stranger handed Wendell his pistol and then took down the shotgun, and said he would "Trade for $2 to boot." Wendell took the pistol over to the bed where Bell was reclining, and asked his advice. Bell told him he thought it would be a good trade, and lent Wendell $2 to pay the difference. After the exchange had been made, one of the strangers drew a bottle out of his pocket. Bell got up off the bed and they all drank. After this, Bell went back to bed and left the others sitting by the fire. He went to sleep, but was awakened after a while by some noise, and jumping up, he sprung out of bed, and, as he was in the act of reaching under the bed for his shoes, the door opened and one of the men came in, when Bell asked him what was the matter. The stranger told him to shut up and keep still, or he would shoot him. Just then the other strange man came in, and the first one asked him, "How's your man?" to which he replied, "The last breath has left the -- and he will never kill another brother of mine." The last man that came in then stooped down before the fire and seemed to be reloading the gun, after which he rose up and placed it across the corner of the table, with the muzzle pointing directly at Bell, and said they had intended to kill them both - meaning Wendell and Bell - but if Bell would promise secrecy they would allow him to escape. After this they sat down before the fire again, and all three drank together, and Bell asked them if he might get up and wind the clock, to which they assented. Soon after this Bell went back to bed, but could not sleep. At times one or the other of the men would get up and go out of the house, and about 1 or 2 o'clock one of them brought in two sticks, six or seven feet in length, and some boards, and asked Bell if there were any nails about the house, and he told them to look under the cupboard. They got the nails and nailed the boards on the sticks, and about 3 or 4 o'clock one of them said, "Let us go and carry him off." After they left the house, Bell got up and watched them, and thought they went down toward the timber. They were not gone long until one of them came back, and then the other, when they again sat down by the fire, and remained until about 6 o'clock, when one of them got up and asked Bell where Wendell's clothes were. He pointed them out to him, and they went and took them down. One of them tried on the hat and said it was "too good to rot in the ground." They then asked for a spade, which Bell told them that they would find at the side of the house. They then went away, and Bell did not see them again until late on Sunday night, when they returned.

On Sunday morning Bell got up, fed the hogs, milked the cow and got his breakfast, giving a negro who lived near, and who had come over for the purpose, three pints of milk. He remained alone all that day, but at night some neighboring boys came over and sat till about 9 o'clock, and then went home. After they had gone, Bell went to bed, and between 11 and 12 o'clock the strange visitors of the night before returned, and said they had just finished putting him away. They remained an hour or so, and then, reminding Bell of his promise to secrecy, got up and went away, and Bell has never seen them since. After they had gone Bell returned to bed, and spent the night in thinking what he should do, but finally made up his mind to keep his promise. Mrs. Wendell and her father returned from St. Louis on Monday, when Bell told them Wendell had gone to St. Louis. Bell continued his work, but on going to Edwardsville for some tobacco was arrested and held in custody.

The above is Bell's history of the murder, and from it the reader may draw his own inferences and conclusions.

Bell was about six feet in height, with a rather slender form, and of handsome proportions, and was a phrenological study. His head was small and ill-shaped; his countenance almost expressionless, and in the little that was visible, one could perceive neither warmth, pity or humanity. He had a cold, heartless, vicious look. His hair was auburn; forehead narrow, long and receding; eyes gray; small, close together, slow in their movement, withered in appearance, far back in the head and indicative of malice and wickedness. His nose was large, prominent, with clinched nostrils; mouth large and ill-shaped; chin heavy and good; face shallow and hollow, slightly crooked, with a pale rose tinge on cheekbone.

From some cause, known, perhaps, to no one but himself, Bell doggedly kept his arrest, and the facts that led to it, a secret from his brother and sisters until after his trial, conviction and sentence, when he wrote, or caused to be written (for he had no education and could barely read), to them a letter, of which the following is a copy:

Edwardsville, Ill., Oct. 23, 1869
Dear Sister:
I am in jail at this place under the charge of murder, have been tried, convicted, and sentenced to be executed on the 12th of November next. I have never asked a favor of you, yet, but now want you to come and see me, and if you could come write to me and let me know where brother is. The reason I did not let you know of my trouble was I thought I would not be convicted, and I did not want you to know anything about it. Wm. C. Bell

After Bell had been sentenced, a letter was received by the jailor that was somewhat mysterious in its character. It bore no date, but was postmarked "Upper Alton, Nov. 2. " The writing, as well as the wording, was disguised. It was evidently written by someone used to handling a pen, as could be easily detected. The construction was grammatical, while the orthography was of the worst character. The letter is as follows, verbatim:

Bill Bell:
I know of your truble [sic] and have writ to the Jug (meaning, as is supposed, the Judge) you may tell everything if you want to. I dident [sic] think to get you into this truble [sic]. (Signed) The Brothers

Another one was written, evidently by the same party, and addressed to Judge Gillespie at Edwardsville, mailed at St. Louis, a copy of which is not at hand, but is in substance as follows:

“Bill Bell is not the man that murdered Herman Wendell. My brother and I did the act. I am on my way to Texas. Catch me if you can.” (signed) A Brother.

These letters would indicate that Bell had some friends outside, and, perhaps, confederates, but whether they will ever be traced up time alone will tell.

A few days ago, Bell received a letter from his brother, dated Brunswick, Missouri, November 8, 1869
Dear Brother:
I am under the painful necessity of writing to you in place of coming, as I find it out of my power. I thought when I heard from you, I could get off in a day or two. I had no money on hands. I thought I could raise what I wanted very easy. I have failed up to this time. I have been sick all Summer, off and on, and not well now. Brother, I am very sorry that you have got in such trouble, but simply being sorry don't do you any good. Brother, I don't see how I could do you any good; you give me short notice of your trouble. I don't know anything about the circumstances of the case. You ought to have wrote to me at first, then I might have done you some good if the crime you have done was not too great. I don't see why you did not get a change of venue and move your trial to your old native county where you were acquainted, and where you know your friends was. Brother, I wish you could get the day of execution put off a month or so. If I knew the circumstances, I might get a petition to the Governor of that State. It might do some good. Brother, you know my situation when you were here as regards money matters. I have never collected my money yet. Brother, it may look strange to you that all of us can't raise money enough for one of us to come to see you, but it appears to be so. Brother, you have no idea how we all hate it. Brother, I can't write anything as I know of that will do you any good, so I will close by telling you that I am. Sister Elizabeth, she takes it mighty hard about your situation. She wrote one or two letters to you. We are very anxious to hear from you while you live. Brother, I close by saying good bye for this time, and hoping, if we never meet in this world, we will meet in a better one above. D. H. Bell.

P. S. Direct your letters to New Frankfort, Saline County. John Graves sends his kindest regards to you, and says he would rather see you than one of his own brothers. So farewell, brother.

On Thursday night last, Deputy Sheriff Cooper, at the request of Bell, wrote his letter to his brother and sisters, which is transcribed below:

Edwardsville, Ill., Nov. 11, 1869
Dear Brother and Sisters:
I received brother's letter of the 8th today, and was glad to hear from you again, but sorry that I could not see you again and that you could not be here to see what was done with me. I am going to leave happy and perfectly content. I never was better treated in my life than I have been in jail. The jailor has been a father to me, and as kind as a brother.

The reason I did not change my trial was that I did not think the crime was against me. The people all liked me, and I was not afraid of the truth, and that I did not think it would go hard with me if tried in this county. It was nothing but prejudice, jealousy and false testimony that convicted me of this great crime. My last words that I say are that I am innocent of the crime. I am sorry that I cannot see you all, so that I can tell you all my troubles. Tell sister Elizabeth that I shall never forget her; that the last few days I spent with her were happy days to me, and wish they could be again; that I am very sorry that I did not reverse my road, and go back to Nevada; that it has been my lot ever since a child to fall into the hands of cruel people; that if I had taken her advice, and stayed at home, I would have been happy; that we may never meet again in this world, and hope that God may bless her when she hears that I am dead, to pray for me and pray for herself, and be prepared to meet me in Heaven. Tell brother John that I can never enjoy myself with him again in this world, and be prepared to meet me in the next world. Tell Matilda that I want her to remember me, and remember her sisters that are dead and gone. I want her to raise her little family up in the world to be good and truthful, to love God and love her. I am in such a situation that I cannot think, and I do not know what to write. Remember all of you that you have got to die. Don't forget to serve the Lord. I would have been happy if I could have only met with you on my last day. Tell brother Oliver that I remember him; he was good to me when I was a child. I want you to pray for me when you hear that I am dead. Pray to God to take my soul home to rest. I have nothing more to say but farewell, dear brothers and sisters. W. C. Bell

About 9 o'clock our reporter was permitted to visit Bell in the hall of the jail. When he first went in the prisoner was pacing back and forth in his cell, but in a few minutes was brought out into the hall, where the details of his life and his version of the Wendell murder were obtained. We found him somewhat hard of hearing, and at first not disposed to be very communicative, but, by degrees, we succeeded in obtaining what is recited above. About 12 o'clock his spiritual advisers, Rev. A. D. Jack, of the Presbyterian Church, and Rev. J. P. Dews, of the Methodist Episcopal Church, were ushered in, and with them Bell retired to his cell, where they engaged in devotional exercises. Mr. Jack, after a brief exhortation to the condemned man to examine well his own heart, read from the 8th to the 17th Psalm inclusive, and, after singing the hymn commencing "Salvation, O, the Joyful Sound," knelt in prayer and supplication, Bell evincing a good deal of feeling and earnestness.

A few minutes before 11 o'clock, the physicians necessary, the jury and witnesses, and some of the county officials were admitted to the enclosure, and Bell, supported on either side by a Deputy Sheriff, and followed by the clergymen named above, and several Press representatives, was conducted to the scaffold. The doomed man seemed nerveless and weak, and as soon as he had ascended the steps was seated on one of half dozen chairs taken up for the occasion. Soon after reaching the scaffold, Rev. Mr. Dews engaged with the prisoner in prayer for the last time, offering up in his behalf an appropriate petition.

At the conclusion of the prayer, Captain L. W. Moore, Sheriff of Madison County, stepped to the front of the scaffold and read the death warrant, which was of the usual form, and, when he had finished the reading, turned to Bell and asked him if he had anything to say. Being assisted to the front of the platform, Bell took off his hat, which he held in his right hand, and spoke as follows:

"Gentlemen: I am honestly innocent of this crime for which I am charged. I die for other crimes. I was asleep at the time the crime was committed. These are the last words I have to say: I am innocent. Gentlemen, it is cruel and hard. I never was afraid of the truth. Truth did not bring me here. I go happy. My soul is with God, but you have got my body. But I forgive everybody. That is all I have got to say."

He was then conducted back to his seat, and in a brief space of time, everything being in readiness, he was led to the trap. While one of the officials was pinioning his lower limbs, Bell fainted and fell over backward. He recovered speedily, was raised up and placed again on the fatal plank. Just as he reached it, he exclaimed, "O! my, O!" Besides this and the remarks given above, he uttered not a word. He had to be held up by a man on either side while the awful preparations were in progress.

At 11:01 minutes, the trap was sprung, and Bell's earthly career - whether of guilt or innocence - was ended. At 11:08 his pulse ceased to beat; at the end of twenty-five minutes life was pronounced extinct. He made no struggle, except at the end of the first ten minutes there was a slight twitching of the legs. When life was pronounced extinct, the body was lowered down into a black walnut coffin, and an examination made by the physicians. The vertebrae was found to be thoroughly dislocated. On removing the cap, the face was pallid and clammy, but otherwise as natural as life. The coffin was partially closed and carried out into the street, where, for a short time, the crowd of anxious people were permitted to gaze upon all that was left of an executed man. From there the remains of William Bell, the murdered of Herman Wendell, were taken to the County Farm burying ground and committed to a murderer's grave. He was buried in the same clothes in which he was hanged, which consisted of black pants, pretty well worn, black vest, heavy black coat, flannel undershirt, white overshirt, small black, figured necktie, coarse brogan shoes, and white socks - all the worse for weary, and indicative of a want of friends.


Back to the Top