Voices from the Grave: The Oregon shooting of 1930

By Kathi Kresol
Contributor

Evelyn Schwingle
Evelyn Schwingle

When the sun came up on that Thursday morning, July 17, 1930 people in the little town of Oregon, Illinois were bracing themselves for another warm day. No could predict that gunfire would disrupt the normally peaceful downtown square. Henry Schwingle certainly had no idea as he pressed his suit in preparation for the day’s events.

Henry’s thoughts on the drive from his home in Rockford to Oregon were probably on having to attend yet another court appearance. Henry and his wife, Evelyn, separated a few months prior and she kept dragging him into these hearings to try to force money from him. Henry would have gladly paid her the $20 a week to take care of her and their little nine-year-old daughter, Betty Jane, but he just did not have the money. Since he lost his important job at the Paragon Foundry, jobs were few and far between. Henry was glad to finally have secured a job as an insurance salesman for a company in Rockford. It meant leaving his little daughter in the care of his wife but that could not be helped. It was the depression and Henry needed to go wherever he could find work.

Henry was concerned about his daughter because his wife was clearly not well. Evelyn had become more and more mentally unstable. It wasn’t always like this between them, of course. Once they had lived a charmed life. They had fallen in love and were married in Michigan in February of 1911. They moved to Oregon, Illinois where Henry found work at the foundry. They became members of the Rock River Golf Club and were active in Oregon society events. Evelyn had once been described as the most beautiful woman in Ogle County.

The hearing on July 17 did not go in Evelyn’s favor. She did not work outside of the home and was completely dependent on her husband’s income. Evelyn had not received any money for weeks and was furious when the court ruled that Henry would have more time to pay what he owed her.

The judge calmed things down and Evelyn and Henry left the courtroom together. They walked over to the garage and witnesses later testified that everything seemed fine between them. Everyone was shocked when suddenly Evelyn reached into her purse and retrieved a small automatic pistol.

She opened fire at point-blank range in the direction of her husband. Henry felt a bullet graze his right hand and another nick his shoulder. He turned and ran for cover. Everyone who witnessed the shooting would be shocked to discover later that not one of the five shots found their mark.

After Evelyn opened fire, she turned around and headed back to the courthouse. Police were already starting to run toward the location of the shots. No one could suspect the fact that this woman who walked calmly into the courthouse was the shooter. Evelyn entered the office of the circuit court clerk. She pointed her gun at the lone clerk left during the lunch hour and told him that she would not hurt him. She just wanted to use the phone to call her lawyer.

By now the Sheriff and his deputies were at the garage and heard details of what occurred. They raced back into the courthouse, no doubt frightened for everyone’s safety. Sheriff Good and his deputy entered the clerk’s office and were immediately confronted by Evelyn. She threatened to shoot them if they came any closer.

Betty Jane Schwingle
Betty Jane Schwingle

“Kiss Betty Jane goodbye for me.” As she spoke these words Evelyn Schwingle raised the small gun to her own temple and sent a bullet crashing into her brain. Though a physician was called, there was nothing to be done. She died there on the floor within a few minutes.

Henry was located at a nearby hotel where he had raced for cover. Their daughter, Betty Jane, was also located nearby where her mother had left her while she attended the court hearing. At first, Betty Jane did not want to see her father. She had been influenced by her mother’s hatred for the man and taken her side in the separation. Sheriff Good spoke to Betty Jane and explained the truth of the situation and told her of the awful death of Evelyn. Only then would the little girl agree to see Henry. Evelyn’s body was still on the floor in the courthouse as the newly reconciled father and daughter left the building.

Evelyn was sent home to be buried in her hometown of Merrill, Michigan. Henry and Betty Jean lived for a while in Rockford before settling in DeKalb. Both of their lives were forever haunted by the events that occurred on that tragic day in July of 1930.

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