The lynching of Thomas Burke

Tom McDermott
Posted 8/3/21

Two days before Christmas, 1860 is nearing its end. The Village of Lane has filed with the state for incorporation and all is calm in the soon-to-be city.

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The lynching of Thomas Burke


Two days before Christmas, 1860 is nearing its end. The Village of Lane has filed with the state for incorporation and all is calm in the soon-to-be city.

A lone man walks the streets, sticking to the shadows, searching for the perfect opportunity. Soon he finds what he is searching for, he drills a hole into the side of a building, lights a fuse, and drops it into the hole.

The fire smolders in the wall for about 20 minutes before breaking into an open flame which spreads up the space between the wall studs to the roof. By the time the fire is noticed, and the fire bell is rung calling volunteers to form a bucket brigade, it is too late. 

The conflagration will consume 11 buildings in the 300 block of the west side of Lincoln Highway.   

The community rebuilds, wooden building after wooden building springs up, as the business district resurrects. In Feb. 1861, Lane becomes an incorporated Village and Enoch Hinkley becomes the first president and leader of the five-member board. 

The summer of 1861 brings the heat, temperatures are high and politically the north and south are moving further and further apart. The sun is setting and a sole figure leaves Taylor’s Meat Market with a pocket full of wood shavings and a separatist flier.

He walks behind Spaulding’s warehouse. Spaulding’s is the perfect target, there is already a hole in the outer wall where a wagon has struck the building. The arsonist deposits his wood shavings into the hole, lights the paper flier, drops it into the hole and walks away.

By the time he reaches Taylor’s barn, where he sleeps, it was bright enough from the fire to see clearly outside. The fire destroys a row of grain elevators between the railroad and Cherry Avenue.
Twice in six months the village narrowly avoided destruction. Either an individual or a group was trying to destroy the community. The community was not willing to go quietly. The Bradley Detective Agency was hired to ferret out the culprits.

Agent David Vanderwacker was dispatched to the Village of Lane. Working undercover, David quickly identified a suspect and worked his way into a position of trust. Within days, Agent Vanderwacker had garnered enough evidence to prosecute Thomas Burke for both fires.

On June 19, fears were growing that Burke might flee the area or worse, start more fires. With these concerns, Sheriff Hughes was advised to arrest Burke for the fires.

The arrest was carried out at 3 a.m. By 9 a.m. Thomas Burke sat before Justices Hamaker and Hoadley to hear the charges against him. Agent Vanderwacker was the primary witness.

With stories of confessions for the fires which had occurred, disclosure of plans to start future fires at the Turkington building, John Fulton’s barn and Padgett’s Hardware, and the threat of murder against a hired boy at Taylors, the dye was cast.

There were few other witnesses and these only to support the testimony of Agent Vanderwacker. Burke was allowed no defense. The crowd at the Republican Hall was becoming very unruly.

The justices expressed concern for the safety of the prisoner and left the room to decide the best course of action. When the justices left, the mob took over. Thomas Padgett reportedly shouted “I move we lynch him”, at the same time pulling out a rope.

William Colditz, Levi Schoomaker, Tom Skelton and Padgett, were said to have tied Burke to a chair, placed a rope around his neck, and at 12:45 p.m. lowered him out the third-floor window.

In less than four hours he had been tried and hung. After hanging, from between one to two hours, the body was cut down and buried. 

What of the alleged ringleaders of the lynching? The public sympathies were with the lynchers, and though they were tried, no verdict was found against them.

It is hinted that the jury was packed in their interest. One of the points of defense was that there was no evidence that Burke was dead. No physician examined the body after it was cut down, and there was nothing to show that Burke was dead at the time, he might have died after he was buried.

The stigma of the lynching lingered to the point that the Village of Lane was renamed in 1865. Rochelle was incorporated and moved on. In 1900, the three-story brick where the lynching occurred was demolished and a two-story building erected on the corner of Lincoln Hwy and Cherry Avenue.

Tom McDermott is a historian for the Flagg Township Museum and a Rochelle city councilman.