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Governor Quinn Issues Posthumous Pardons for Three Illinois Abolitionists

Press Release - Wednesday, December 31, 2014

CHICAGO - Governor Pat Quinn today issued posthumous pardons for three Illinois abolitionists who were found guilty of working on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. Dr. Richard Eells of Quincy and Julius and Samuel Willard of Jacksonville were convicted more than 170 years ago based on previous laws in Illinois that prohibited citizens from helping runaway slaves. Today's action is part of Governor Quinn's commitment to honoring those who fought and died to advance the civil rights movement.

"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."

The three abolitionists were convicted of secreting and harboring fugitive slaves in 1843, acts prohibited by the 149th Section of the Illinois Criminal Code. Although slavery was abolished in Illinois in 1824, harboring or assisting runaway slaves remained illegal under Illinois and federal law. The clemency petitions for Eells and the Willards were prepared by the office of Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon.

"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," Lt. Governor Simon said. "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."

One of the most famous Underground Railroad cases in Illinois history involved Dr. Richard Eells, a Quincy physician. On August 21, 1842, a fugitive slave from Monticello, Missouri was brought to Eells by Barryman Barnett, a free African-American man living in the Quincy area. Since the fugitive's owner was in pursuit, Eells tried to rush the fugitive to the Mission Institute, a school for missionaries that became a haven for persons with anti-slavery views and the number one station on the Quincy Underground Railroad route. A chase ensued, and as he passed a cornfield, Eells told the fugitive to jump from the horse and buggy and run. The fugitive was later caught, and the next morning Eells was arrested.

The case was tried in April 1843 before Circuit Judge Stephen A. Douglas. Eells was found guilty of harboring a slave and fined $400. He unsuccessfully appealed the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, and died before the case could be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which also upheld his conviction. Eells' attorney during the ordeal was Salmon P. Chase, who later became President Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury.

The conviction did not deter the doctor. Eells was a leader of the abolitionist movement in Quincy and central Illinois, presided over the Adams County Anti-Slavery Society and helped hundreds of enslaved Africans and African-Americans escape to freedom in Canada. He went on to serve as president of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Party and ran for Governor of Illinois in 1846. The National Park Service later named Dr. Eells' home as one of the 42 most important Underground Railroad sites in the United States.

Julius Willard and his son Samuel were convicted for attempting to help a young woman known as "D" reach the Underground Railroad from their home in Jacksonville. Julius was fined $20, while Samuel was fined $1 and court costs. The conviction nearly resulted in Samuel's expulsion from Illinois College, but faculty support allowed him to remain enrolled and go on to complete a medical degree. Dr. Samuel Willard went on to serve in the Civil War as a surgeon in the 97th Illinois Regiment. After his service he became a strong advocate for public education.

In preparing the petition for clemency relief, the Lt. Governor's staff collaborated with state historians to assemble an impressive collection of historical documents, including the original case files from the Illinois State Archives. The petitions were prepared as a special project by legal interns, at no cost to taxpayers.

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