Rockford was a pretty wild place in 1856. The city was making advances in what would become the foundation for the manufacturing boom that was to put Rockford on the map. But in the early days, crime was very common. Robbery and cattle rustling were especially prevalent.
John F. Taylor was the sheriff in those days. He was from all accounts a very fair man. When he left for work on Nov. 11, 1856, he kissed his wife and 1-1/2-year-old son goodbye as usual, neither could know it would for the last time.
Sheriff Taylor was alerted to possible cattle thieves in the town when two brothers, Alfred and John Countryman, rode into town with a deal that seemed too good to be true. They were trying to sell a herd of cattle for a sum much lower than market value. The prospective buyers grew suspicious and alerted the sheriff.
At around 9 that morning, Sheriff Taylor arrested the brothers for the suspicion of theft. He carried through with the usual routine of searching the suspects and found pistol balls in Alfred’s pockets, but when he questioned the suspect, Alfred denied having a gun. The sheriff and one of the deputies started to walk toward the jail. Just as they reached the steps, Alfred broke away from the sheriff, leaped over a fence on Elm Street, and ran down the street with Sheriff Taylor in pursuit.
The sheriff caught up with Countryman and was about to grab him when Alfred pulled a gun and fired at the sheriff. Taylor staggered a few steps, gasped out, “I’m shot, catch him.” He then fell, mortally wounded.
Alfred Countryman continued to run and made it all the way to Kent Creek, before he was brought down by one of the many citizens who took up the chase when Taylor fell. Witnesses from that day would claim the pursuers numbered more than 100 men. There were rumors that a lynch mob had been calmed by the Sheriff Elect Samuel Church. He promised that justice would be swift.
Sheriff Taylor was respected in Rockford, and his funeral definitely reflected that. It was held on the public square under the charge of the Masonic Fraternity, of which Taylor was a member.
Alfred Countryman’s trial was held in February 1857. The jury found him guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to hang. His execution took place on March 27, 1857, at the farm of the new Sheriff Samuel Church.
Countryman was the first man to be publicly executed (officially) in Winnebago County. Eight thousand people came to witness the event. Ironically, extra precautions were taken to make sure that he arrived safely to the execution. There was a procession from the jail including two fire companies, armed with sabers and rifles, surrounding the carriage in which Countryman rode. Countryman’s father, brother and sister were there to witness the hanging. Alfred addressed the crowd to beg their forgiveness. His body fell through the trap, and witnesses remarked that even though the crowd was huge, the only sound that could be heard was the sobbing of Countryman’s family.
Sheriff Church addressed the crowd before the body was taken down. “These painful proceedings being now concluded, and the sword of justice about to be returned to its sheath, I hope never again to be drawn with so much severity, I would thank you all for the good order you have maintained — your conduct does credit to the city, and I hope you will observe the same decorum in retiring.”
Unfortunately, Sheriff Church’s wish didn’t come true and the need for the “sword of justice” would arise several more times in the Forest City.
Copyright © 2014 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events