On Friday, May 11, 1877, Winnebago County would experience one of the worst disasters it had suffered up to that time. While constructing a new courthouse, the time came to lower the new dome onto the limestone walls. The men were all in place as they lowered the elaborate piece onto the walls. Folks in town had been fascinated with the whole process and they lined the streets. Suddenly, there was a loud cracking sound. No one could believe it when the walls began to crumble under the weight of the dome.
Men and limestone blocks tumbled everywhere. Towns folk worked together for days to dig out men both alive and dead. Newspapers from those days were filled with the graphic descriptions of the wounds suffered by the men.
They laid the bodies of the dead on the lawn and rushed the injured to the City Hotel where they were treated by the doctors gathered there. One of the injured men was Charles Schultz. He had serious injuries including a bad head wound. His friends and family all said that he must be the luckiest man they knew.
Though Charles’ wounds healed quickly, his wife Elizabeth grew worried about him. There was something different about Charles after the accident. The news articles through the years gave clues to these changes. Charles was arrested numerous times for drinking, for fighting, and for disturbing the peace.
The drinking and violence increased until finally in 1884, the decision came that something must be done with Charles. There must have been an incident with the family because it was given as the reason for his “confinement”. Authorities were concerned about Charles’ hurting someone, especially his family members. The correlation between personality changes and brain injuries was years away. But it was easy to see that Charles had changed after his accident. The people who knew Charles before the accident no longer referred to him as lucky.
Charles was escorted to the Winnebago County Poor Farm and Hospital on North Main Street. He was confined to a wooden cage in the basement area. It was an area used only for the most “demented” patients.
John Atkinson was the Superintendent of the Poor Farm in 1884. He had held the position since 1876. It was a prosperous time for the Poor Farm. Atkinson had earned the reputation of a kind, patient keeper. But the treatment of the insane was archaic during this time and consisted more of confinement than treatment. In the daytime during warm weather the inmates were confined in large wooden cages outside. They were brought inside and locked in large wooden cages during inclement weather and during the night.
Superintendent Atkinson’s day began early and by 5:00a.m. on May 12, 1884 he began his rounds of waking the inmates. He worked his way from the top floor where most of the residents were just there because of their financial situations. He saved the basement patients for last. Atkinson unlocked the main door and began to make his way to the first cage which housed Charles Schultz. Atkinson was surprised to see Charles standing by the cell door. The fact that Charles did not move when Atkinson greeted him alarmed the superintendent. He rushed back to his office for the keys to the cells.
When he opened the door to Charles’ cell it was obvious why he hadn’t answered. Charles had a noose made from cloth wrapped around his neck. His beard had hidden this fact from Atkinson at first. Lifting his beard, Atkinson saw the black bands that proved his fear to be true.
Atkinson backed out of the cell and called the coroner. Coroner McCaughey arrived in short order. Schultz’s body had been cut down by Atkinson and his assistant. They laid him on a small bed inside his cage.
McCaughey would later testify that Schultz must have planned his suicide from the day he arrived. He ripped strips from the bedding. Then Charles took the time to weave these strips together to form a rope. When confronted with the fact that it was too thick to fit through the small opening above the door, Charles had removed a piece of wire from his mattress. He used this to attach the woven rope to the doorway. Charles then placed the noose around his neck, climbed on his bed and hurled himself from the bed. One of his feet was still on the bed when Atkinson cut him down.
The headlines from the day carried the story under the head line “Schultz Shuffles off this Earthly Coil with a Coil of Rope.” Charles was laid to rest in the Poor House Cemetery. His wife Elizabeth married again and stayed in the area with her new husband. One can only hope that she and Charles’ children remembered their father the way he was before the horrible accident that changed his life and theirs forever.
Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events