Unsound Mind – The Murder Of Banks Dixon

Originally published in “Rockford Writes”, (2015), edited by Heath Alberts.

 

“A sick thought can devour the body’s flesh more than fever or consumption.”  ― Guy de Maupassant, Le Horla et autres contes fantastiques 

 

“We are pained to be called upon to record a terrible and bloody tragedy which occurred yesterday at one and a half o’clock.”  These words begin the newspaper article that described the death of a young man named Banks Dixon, he was 36 years old and he had moved from England to Rockford around 1854.

Life hadn’t turned out quite the way Banks had planned.  He owned a blacksmith shop with his brother in Rockford.  He was married to a beautiful girl named Eliza Jane Lake.  They had a little three year old boy named George, after Bank’s brother. But then their life started to unravel.

According to the newspaper article, at first the only cloud on Banks’ horizon was his father-in-law.  Mr. Lake did not approve of Banks.  In fact, in August 1868, he came to the house and took Eliza Jane and the Banks’ son back to his home in Guilford.  Banks soon tried to get his wife to reconcile, especially when he found out that she was pregnant with their second child.  When that was not successful, he took drastic measures.  Banks waited until Mr. Lake took his daughter to a doctor visit and then he went to the house and took his son back home with him.

Things got really ugly when Mr. Lake had papers drawn up for Banks to sign that would give Jane custody of George, turn over all their property, and the sum of one thousand dollars.  Banks didn’t sign the papers and when he heard Mr. Lake was coming to take his son, George, he left Rockford to go down south for the winter.

Banks couldn’t stay away forever, though.  He waited until Jane, gave birth to their second son and then he returned to Rockford.

Jane’s life had not been going well since the separation either.  First, she developed some kind of infection in her eyes and then after Banks “stole” their son away, she was always frightened.  She became convinced that he would return to steal their second child and then kill her.

As her sight grew worse and her due date approached, Jane’s father and mother moved her to Rockford.  They settled her into the house of Mr. and Mrs. Worsley, and neighborhood women assisted Mrs. Worsley with Jane’s care.  Extra care was definitely needed, as Jane became almost blind, was severely depressed, and extremely paranoid.  She had terrible headaches and was given laudanum and quinine for the pain.  Mrs. Worsley testified that she would make mustard and camphor compresses to apply to Jane’s head to ease the headaches.  She did this so often, the heat blistered Jane’s forehead and temples.  After the birth of her second child, Jane took over five weeks to recover.

On his returned to Rockford, Banks sent Jane a message that he would like to see her and their new son.  He also asked her to reconsider a reconciliation.   He wrote that if she came back, “he would do anything it took to make her happy if she would just return home. “  Jane agreed to see Banks but her attending doctor ordered them to wait.

In the days that followed, Jane didn’t seem as nervous as she had been, she was actually calmer according to the ladies that cared for her.  She stated to the ladies that helped her every day that she was happy Banks wanted to see his new son, and she wanted the baby to look good for the first meeting with his father.

The meeting finally took place on May 26, 1869, and it had been around 8 months since the estranged family had all been in one room. The family was not alone together, and the atmosphere was tense.  Banks brought the lady who helped him with little George and Jane had a couple of neighborhood ladies attending to her.

Eye witnesses would later say that Banks came in with Mrs. Luke who was carrying little George.  Banks crossed to the bed where the little baby was while Mrs. Luke took George to see his mother.  Mrs. Luke asked George if he would go to his mother and kiss her.  The little boy first said no but Mrs. Luke noticed this seem to anger Jane.  So Mrs. Luke told the little boy to go to his mother and give her a kiss.  The little boy then cooperated and said hello and kissed Jane.

They all sat down and Banks attempted to get Jane to talk to him but she was unresponsive.  He even tried to get her to shake hands but she ignored his outstretched hand.  Banks continued to try to get Jane to speak to him, but after a few minutes with no luck, he turned to Mrs. Luke and said it was time to go.  He picked George up and took him to the bed where the younger boy lay.  Banks mentioned to George that he should meet his baby brother and leaned over to allow the boy to kiss the baby.  

As Banks bent over, Jane raised her hand and the ladies in the room were horrified to see that she was clutching a pistol.  She fired two shots into Banks’ back at point blank range.  She was so close to him that the gun started his coat on fire.

Banks dropped George, turned around and wrestled with Jane for the gun.  Banks then ran out of the room with Mrs. Luke following him, carrying George in one hand and trying to put out Banks’ coat with the other.

Banks made as far as the back yard before he collapsed.  Neighbors helped carry Banks back into the house while the doctor sent for. The same doctor who helped deliver Banks’ second child

The doctor found that the first shot had entered Banks’ back by his shoulder blade and passed through his lung and settled in his chest.  The second shot entered his arm in the shoulder area and lodged there. The doctor could do nothing for Banks and the poor man lingered for forty long minutes.  For forty minutes, he struggled for every breath until he had no strength left. 

In the meantime, Jane was hysterical, crying and wailing about her babies.  Nothing could get through to her until she asked one of the neighbors what was to become of her children.  The lady turned toward Jane and said she should of that before she shot Banks.

Jane was arrested and charged with the first degree murder of her husband.  But no one really thought she would be convicted.  There was a parade of doctors who treated her before and after the shooting who all testified she was suffering from depression and was so paranoid that Banks was going to steal her second son, as he had her first.  This caused her mind to finally snap, causing her to believe she had no other way to protect herself and her child.  The gun, it was reported, belonged to her father.  

Jane told doctors that she was so convinced that Banks was going to break in, steal the child, and kill her that she felt that she had no choice but to kill him first. Jane was examined by a couple of “alienists” as psychiatrists were known at the time.  The trial was delayed several times because of Jane’s physical and mental condition.

Banks Dixon was buried in Cedar Bluff Cemetery in an unmarked grave.  

In February of 1870, Jane was acquitted on the charges of first degree murder due to her “unsound” mind. The courtroom was packed with spectators and they began to applaud and cheer when the verdict was read.  As much as people in Rockford loved and respected Banks, they could not believe that such a broken woman would have killed had she been in her right mind.

Even Banks’s friend Mrs. Luke, when asked about the not guilty verdict of Eliza Jane, replied, “Banks always spoke on her (Jane’s) behalf and Mrs. Luke had never heard him speak one word against her, but always to the contrary.”

In 1876, Jane changed her last name and the name of the two boys, George and Frederick to Lake.  In the 1880 census, Eliza and the boys are living with her parents; George is now called Phillip G. and Frederick is now John F. 

Jane inherited the farm in Guilford when her father became too ill to live there on his own.  She continued to live there until her death in 1910.  She left everything to her sons when she passed away.  It seems that the boys had grown up to be fine men.

 

Sources:

“Notice to Banks Dixon.” 17 December 1868 Winnebago Chief (Rockford,IL) : 4

“Murder Case.” 27 January 1870  Rockford Weekly Gazette (Rockford, IL) : 6

“Extra Edition-Murder Trial Complete.” 1 February 1870 Rockford Weekly Register Gazette (Rockford, IL) : 3

“The Trial of Eliza Dixon.” 29 January 1870 Rockford Weekly Register Gazette, (Rockford, IL) : 6

“Mrs. Dixon Acquitted.” 3 February 1870  Rockford Weekly Gazette (Rockford, IL) : 1

“Probate Notice.” 10 March 1870   Rockford Weekly Gazette (Rockford, IL) : 3

“Probate Notice.” 12 July 1882   Daily Register (Rockford, IL) : 3

“Mrs. Lake is No More.”  14 March 1910 Rockford Republic (Rockford,IL)

 

This article first appeared in the anthology “Rockford Writes”, edited by Heath Alberts, (2015); available from the Haunted Rockford online store;  https://www.hauntedrockford.com/product/book-rockford-writes/

 

Copyright © 2015, 2020 Kathi Kresol.