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Western Illinois Men Pardoned for Work on Underground Railroad

Dec 31, 2014

Illinois' Governor has posthumously pardoned three men for their work with the Underground Railroad.

The men all lived in west central Illinois and were convicted more than 170 years ago based on laws that prohibited helping runaway slaves.  Those laws remained in place even after Illinois abolished slavery in 1824.  

The Dr. Richard Eells House in Quincy
Credit The Friends of Dr. Richard Eells House

Dr. Richard Eells was from Quincy.  He agreed to help a fugitive slave get to an Underground Railroad site but the slave was caught and Eells arrested. He was convicted and fined, but remained a leader in the abolitionist movement and helped hundreds of other enslaved African Americans escape to freedom.  

Governor Pat Quinn also pardoned Julius Willard and his son Samuel.  They helped a woman reach the Underground Railroad from their Jacksonville home.  The Willard's were also convicted and fined.

Illinois Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon and her staff worked with historians and legal interns to prepare clemency petitions in the cases. 

Read the news release from the Lt. Governor's office:

Lt. Governor Sheila Simon applauded Governor Quinn’s action today to grant clemency to abolitionists who were convicted for their anti-slavery efforts. Simon filed petitions last year seeking clemency for three abolitionists convicted during the 1800's.

The Old Knox County Jail - site of Underground Railroad Freedom Center at Knox College
Credit Knox College

“The men and women who defied the law to support the Underground Railroad risked their safety and well-being because they believed that all individuals deserve freedom,” said Simon. “I would like to thank Governor Quinn for honoring their memories and sacrifices with pardons for their selflessness and courage. Abolitionists were on the right side of history, and today we honor their foresight and heroism.”

“These early warriors for freedom put everything on the line to help their fellow man, and their civil disobedience paved the way for civil rights,” Governor Quinn said. “Clearing their criminal records 171 years later shows how far we have come, but reminds us all that we should fight injustice wherever we find it.”     

Simon’s work to clear the names of abolitionists began after being contacted by Quincy historians. Simon’s first petition of clemency was filed for Dr. Richard Eells, who in 1843 was convicted of harboring a runaway slave. Eells, an Underground Railroad conductor, was found guilty of harboring and secreting a runaway slave, and unlawfully preventing the lawful owner from recovering the slave. His case was later heard by the United States Supreme Court, which upheld the original conviction.

Through his involvement in the Underground Railroad, Dr. Eells helped numerous slaves traveling through Quincy toward Chicago, and ultimately, to freedom in Canada. The National Parks Service has declared Dr. Eells’ home as one of the country’s 42 most important Underground Railroad sites, and the home is currently operated by the Friends of Dr. Richard Eells House.

“The Friends of the Dr. Richard Eels House Organization is very excited to hear this wonderful news,” said John Cornell, the group’s president. “It has been a long time coming, but we’re glad the recognition of Dr. Eels work is finally here.”

The Chicago-based Abolition Institute, which is committed to fighting modern day slavery worldwide, honored Lt. Governor Simon on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday for her work fighting for clemency for Illinois abolitionists.

“The Abolition Institute strongly commends the innovative leadership of Lt. Governor Sheila Simon in fighting to honor the legacy of Illinois heroes who risked their own lives to fight against slavery,” said Sean Tenner, co-founder of the Abolition Institute.  “Honoring these abolitionists is the right thing to do for their families and is helping to energize a new generation of Illinoisans to honor their legacy by fighting against human trafficking and modern-day slavery.”

Simon also filed petitions of clemency for Julius and Samuel Willard who in 1843 were convicted of secreting and harboring a fugitive slave. Julius, who was close friends with anti-slavery activist Elijah Lovejoy, moved his family from Alton to Jacksonville while their son Samuel attended Illinois College.

Dr. Samuel Willard later served in the 97th Illinois Regiment, participating in the Battle of Vicksburg. An illness contracted during his military service caused partial paralysis, and Dr. Willard was never again able to practice medicine. Instead, he became a lifelong education advocate, working to establish the Springfield Public Library and libraries across Illinois, as well as becoming the superintendent of the Springfield Public School District.

Despite Illinois residents voting to abolish slavery in 1824, both Illinois and federal law prohibited the harboring or assisting of runaway slaves in free states. Simon’s office worked with historians and experts around the state to identify Illinoisans who were convicted of violating slavery laws.