Voices from the Grave: The Regulators and the Driscolls: Justice in the early days of the Rock River Valley

The rock marking the execution of John and William Driscoll.
The rock marking the execution of John and William Driscoll.

The grave of John Campbell.
The grave of John Campbell.

By Kathi Kresol
Local historian, paranormal investigator and operator of Haunted Rockford Paranormal Events

This story could be a screenplay from the golden days of Hollywood, when men like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart rode the wild frontier and saved their town from the clutches of the lawless bandits.

In the 1830s, when this area was being settled, Illinois was the frontier, and bandits roamed the plains of the Rock River Valley. They were counterfeiting, horse thieving, robbing and even murdering their fellow settlers long before Rockford even had a jail to put them in.

Daniel S. Haight was elected as the first sheriff in 1836, and he had a force of seven constables who served with him. The crime continued almost as if there were no police force, and in 1841, local citizens had finally had enough. Representatives from Winnebago, Ogle and Lee counties took their concerns before Ogle County Circuit Judge Thomas Ford, and he advised them to form an “organization” that would assist the sheriff and his constables in keeping order in the counties. He also suggested their punishments be so strict it would deter the bandits from committing crimes. Lashes from a horse whip were his suggestion — 36 for the first offense, and 60 lashes for a second offense.

Ford’s suggestions were followed to the letter, and the word was spread that men would be needed for these “posses.” Numbers vary, but at least 500 men showed up to volunteer throughout the three-county area. The men came from all walks of life and were doctors, lawyers and bankers. The name given these groups of men were the Regulators, and Rockford had its very own chapter.

One of the Banditti’s leaders was John Driscoll. John Driscoll brought his family to northern Illinois in 1835 and settled his family on Killbuck Creek in Ogle County. He had four grown sons: William, David, Pierce and Taylor. All of the Driscoll boys were involved with the Bandittis and were considered some of the worst criminals of their day.

These two groups clashed in many small skirmishes, and many lines were crossed until the local citizens feared the Regulators almost as much as the Bandittis. The fighting came to a head in the summer of 1841.

June 27, 1841, two of the Driscoll boys (stories vary as to which two actual boys it was, but most claim David was the main offender) rode onto John Campbell’s property. It was Sunday evening, and the Campbell family had just arrived home from a church meeting. John Campbell was walking from his barn to his house when shots rang out. He was struck in the chest. He walked about 40 feet toward the house when he fell dead. His wife ran to his side as his 13-year-old son, William, picked up his father’s shotgun to return fire.

Word spread like a wild fire, and soon, there were 200 men who gathered to hunt down the Driscoll family. John, William and Pierce Driscoll were found and brought to a wooded area. More than 500 people gathered in the wooded area for the proceedings. Lawyers were appointed from the crowd, and a trial began. The jury was made up of the 111 Regulators who were part of the crowd. They found there was not enough evidence to prove that Pierce had done any crime, but William and John were found guilty and sentenced to hang for their crimes. They accepted their fate without emotion, but did ask to be shot rather than hanged.

The 111 men were assigned into two different groups for firing squads. When asked if they had any last words, William confessed to killing five men, but John Driscoll remained silent. John met his fate first, and his hands were tied, he was blindfolded and made to kneel. Fifty-five bullets found their mark, and John Driscoll fell forward onto his face. William was brought before the 56 armed men from his group, and the process carried out again.

The Regulators offered to assist Pierce in getting his father and brother home, but he refused and rode away. The two Driscoll men were buried where they fell. This dark time in the Rock River Valley’s history is remembered with a memorial marker and a stone where the lynching of the Driscolls took place.

Kathi Kresol is a local historian, paranormal investigator and operator of Haunted Rockford Paranormal Events. Through Haunted Rockford, Kathi gives paranormal and haunted history tours and sponsors other paranormal events in and around Rockford throughout the year. For more of Kathi’s history articles, and for information about upcoming paranormal events, visit www.hauntedrockford.com.

From the Aug. 27-Sept. 2, 2014, issue

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