There is something about stories of the old west that has fascinated people for years. These tales usually focus on one character who overcame unbelievable obstacles including fighting with Native Americans, the elements, animal attacks or marauding men. The hero always saved the day and finished the story by riding into the sunset.
These stories grew in popularity until the 1870’s when someone had the idea to turn them into a vaudeville show. The first acts were small affairs but by the middle 1870’s, they grew into huge, extravagant shows filled with hundreds of participants. An article in an 1889 Rockford newspaper stated that the Wild West show that was traveling through the area made an incredible $50,000 in 6 days! Tickets were $.50 a seat and the tent held 12,000 people. By this time the shows depicted great battles such as the Battle of Little Bighorn where General George Custer and his men were killed by the Native Americans.
Some of the performances were huge, such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show that traveled all over the United States and even Europe. Smaller shows also teamed together with circuses or rodeos to provide entertainment for the whole family.
In September of 1892, Rockford was treated to one of these smaller shows. One of the headliners was Dr. H. B. Hicks, aka “Wild Harry”. Wild Harry was a real gunslinger who had supposedly killed almost as many men as the famous Wild Bill Hickock.
One couple that was looking forward to attending the special show at Rockford Fairground’s Park was James and Josephine Fisher. Their family lived in the small township of Harrison, Illinois where James was a farmer.
They had each started out just like many people that moved to this area during that time. Both were born in the East and moved west. Josephine Goakey moved to Illinois with her parents in 1853 when she was 11 years old. She grew up and married a man named Calvin Johnson in 1858. Josephine held a new born daughter in her arms as her young husband rode away to fight for the Union in the Civil War. He was killed on the battlefield in Shiloh, Tennessee in April of 1862.
James had begun life as James Albert Farnsworth. He grew up in New York and joined the 1st New York Cavalry. He also married shortly after the war. The reason for his move and name change has been lost to time. James chose his mother’s maiden name to begin his new life in Illinois in 1866. He and Josephine were married on January 8, 1867.
They had a little farm not far from her family home outside of Harrison along Moate Road. The couple had three sons, Samuel Edward in 1868, George Albert in 1870 and Thomas in 1873. James and Josephine must have been devastated when the little boy who they nicknamed Tommy died in 1879. He was only 6 years old when they buried him in the small cemetery in Harrison.
By the time the Forepaugh’s Wild West show was rolling into Rockford on September 8, 1892, James and Josephine had been married 25 years. The newspapers of the day state that they were well known in the county and well respected by all who knew them.
The show that James and Josephine attended had advertised famous outlaws and authentic lawmen of the old west. The main show would take place in a large tent that was set up for the occasion. Painted murals of deserts were hung on the inside of the tent to help set the scene. Several of the participants in the show were performing outside prior to the beginning of the show. They are described as real cowboys with faces tanned by the sun. They had long flowing hair, fringed leather jackets, and spurs on the heels of their boots that would thrill the children with their jingle as they walked.
Wild Harry was outside warming up the crowd as James and Josephine approached. They must have been thrilled to see him. Wild Harry was billed as one of the main attractions of the show that year. He was entertaining the crowd with his lasso throwing before he began the shooting portion of the show. For his finale, Wild Harry was known to amaze the crowd with his signature move. He would spin his six shooters around and then throw them over his shoulder, spin completely around and catch them. Then Harry would shoot the target and according to the advertisement, he hit the mark every time. Wild Harry had performed this trick thousands of times in over a hundred cities before that September day. But for some unknown reason, things didn’t go as planned.
James had maneuvered Josephine to the front of the crowd to make sure she had a good spot to see. As Wild Harry twirled the guns and released them into the air, his finger must have pressed the trigger. A shot rang out.
Josephine gasped and cried out, “My God, I am shot.” As she fell into James arms, a bullet fell from the folds of her dress. Josephine was rushed to the City Hospital and two of Rockford’ best doctors, Dr. Richings and Dr. Clark treated her but there was nothing to be done. The .44 caliber ball had passed through her abdomen and exited from her hip causing great internal damage.
James was completely devastated by the shooting of his wife. But as a testament to his gracious nature, he didn’t hold the man who wielded the gun any blame. Dr. H. B. Hicks was the man’s real name. Dr. Hicks never called at the hospital but his wife came to pay her respects and to share her husband’s remorse over the affair. James assured her and the men gathered later for an inquest that it had all been a horrible accident.
Josephine asked the doctors if she would recover and they had tears in their eyes as they told her the truth. She asked James to hold her funeral in the little red school that had been used by her family in the past for such occasions. Josephine died surrounded by family at 4:00 a.m. on September 9, 1892. She was buried next to her beloved son Tommy in the Harrison Cemetery.
The papers spoke of Josephine as a dedicated mother who was the kindest woman you could ever hope to meet.
James Fisher would eventually move to Shirland where he married again. He also decided to become a specialist in internal medicine. Thomas might not have been able to save his wife but he spent the rest of his life healing others. He died in 1914 and is buried in Shirland Cemetery next to his third wife, Alice.
Copyright © 2020 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events