The House of Dr. Richard Eells and Jane Bestor Eells, built in 1835 in Quincy, Illinois has been fully restored and is open to the public. The residence of the notable abolitionist was the site of consequential and tragic events in the story of the Underground Railroad.
Here, on an August night in 1842, an escaped slave owned by Chauncey Durkee of Monticello, Missouri came to the house seeking transport across town on his way to Canada and freedom. At that time, roughly one in four residents in the Missouri counties across the river from Quincy, were slaves. A freed black, Barryman Barnett had spotted the escaped slave, only known to us by his first name, Charley, swimming across the Mississippi and directed him to Eells’ house. Dr. Eells, a Yale educated physician and leader in the local abolitionist movement was known to have assisted other escaped slaves. He attempted to hide Charley in his carriage and drive across town to where a safer hiding place awaited. However, a posse of slave catchers looking for Charley were watching the Eells house and tried to stop them. Charley leaped from the carriage into a cornfield near what is today known as Madison Park. After a manhunt he was caught and returned to his owner for probably dreadful punishment. Meanwhile, the posse followed Eells back to his house where the sheriff found Charley’s wet clothes. On Durkee’s request, Eells was arrested and charged with harboring and secreting a fugitive slave, a crime in the Illinois Criminal Code of the time.
Although slavery was illegal in Illinois, many in Quincy opposed the activities of the abolitionists and would have supported the right to own slaves. Stephen A. Douglas, later known for his debates with Abraham Lincoln, was the county Circuit Judge and fined Eells $400. Eells and his supporters began an appeal process that went on for the next decade. The appeal first went before the Illinois Supreme Court where Eells lost.
In the meantime, the celebrated case brought Eells to the attention of the wider abolitionist movement. He was made president of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Party in 1843 and selected as the Liberty Party’s candidate in the 1844 presidential election. He unsuccessfully ran for governor of Illinois in 1846. However, the costly legal proceedings undermined Eell’s finances and health. Exhausted and ill, he died on a river boat on the Ohio River in 1846 long before his appeal finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nevertheless, Eells’ estate continued the appeal process up to the US Supreme Court. Here, abolitionists, Salmon P. Chase and William H. Seward made the case for Eells’ innocence. Chase would go on to serve as Chief Justice and Secretary of the Treasury in the Lincoln cabinet and William H. Seward would serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Despite the heavy weight of this defense team, the Supreme Court was unwilling to challenge the national status quo then sympathetic to slave owners. Eells’ conviction for harboring and and secreting a fugitive slave was upheld.
One hundred and sixty years later, Quincy Mayor Chuck Shultz sought a posthumous pardon for Dr. Eells and it was finally granted in 2015 by Governor Pat Quinn. The house has been carefully restored to what it may have looked like at the start of this dramatic story in 1842.