We have an anniversary coming up this week in Springfield. We probably won’t observe the occasion, but Saturday will be the 196th anniversary of the first public hanging here, on Nov. 26, 1826. There’s a good story behind it, too. A story about a man from Athens with “a most excellent voice,” a tune that Robert Burns didn’t much care for and the first public hanging in Springfield.
I came across it when I was a volunteer interpreter at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site researching the music of frontier Illinois in the 1830s. We know the tune as “Auld Lang Syne,” but a wide variety of different words was sung to the same melody in pioneer days. And this set of words, by Isaac Watts, was appropriate to the occasion of a public hanging: “Hark from the tombs a doleful sound […] Ye living men come view the ground, / Where you must shortly lie.”
We sang the old song with Isaac Watts’ words at New Salem, and we sang it to the tune associated with New Year’s Eve and Robert Burns. (You can hear it in the clip above, from a Sacred Harp singing in Georgia.) I wrote it up like this for the Prairie Picayune, the interpreters’ newsletter:
According to the Rev. R.D. Miller’s Past and Present of Menard County (1905), the first person to be executed in Springfield was a Nathaniel Van Noy of Athens, convicted on charges of murder in 1826. The hanging was Nov. 26 in “the hollow just east of the new [in 1905] capitol in Springfield,” and Miller said it drew “the largest gathering that, up to that time, had ever met in central Illinois.”
Here’s the story, as Rev. Miller told it.
On the scaffold the murderer, who was a most excellent singer, asked permission of the sheriff to sing. Being granted the privilege, he stood on the platform, or cart, and sang in full, round tones that old hymn, composed by Dr. Watts, the first verso of which is:
‘Hark from the tombs a doleful sound
My ears attend the cry;
Ye living men come view the ground,
Where you must shortly lie.’
He sang the entire hymn and then the cart was drawn from under him.
“I guess I’d sing the entire hymn, too,” I wrote. “And I wouldn’t rush the tempo, either.”
In 1826 Springfield was a little cluster of log cabins, mostly strung out along Jefferson from First street to Fourth, where it intersected an Indian trail running north to Peoria. And the hanging was a notable public event. It took place a little distance from town, at the edge of a grove, or wooded area, just east and south of the Illinois Statehouse that stretched from a creek bed, near the present railway overpass on Second Street past the Illinois Supreme Court building and the secretary of state’s offices in the Michael J. Howlett Building. To the north and west was mostly open prairie.
By all accounts, the hanging was a festive occasion at a favorite spot for public gatherings (baptisms were regularly conducted nearby at a “baptizing hole” in the creek). And the occasion had a macabre twist that left people talking about it, literally, for decades.
Several accounts are available online. Local historian Tara McClellan McAndrews in 2016 pieced together the rest of the story for the State Journal-Register from 19th- and early 20th-century newspaper accounts and a 1909 reminiscence by early settler Zimri Enos in the 1909 Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society. Erika Holst, curator of collections at the Springfield Art Association, wrote it up for Illinois Times, and the Sangamon County Historical Society has a writeup based on John Carroll Powers’ 1876 History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County.
Van Noy was a blacksmith living near Athens, then still a part of Sangamon County. Historical accounts vary on the details, but he was accused of murdering his wife. McAndrews says a customer checked their cabin when the blacksmith’s shop was empty; he found her body in the cabin, and Van Noy had fled the scene. Holst tells the story like this, and it jibes with what I read in Rev. Miller’s Menard County history:
It all began on Aug. 27, 1826, when Van Noy’s wife did not prepare his breakfast with acceptable speed. Hungry, and reportedly drunk, Van Noy picked up a stick and struck a fatal blow to her side, killing her instantly.
He was immediately arrested and put in jail. The wheels of justice moved at lightning speed; his trial began the next day, and the day after that he was found guilty and sentenced to hang on Nov. 26.
The stories are consistent, and I’m inclined to believe both accounts. In any event, Van Noy was charged, tried and convicted in record time. McAndrew fills in some of the details:
When the blacksmith showed up at his cabin that night, he was arrested and taken to the jail, which was at the current intersection of Sixth and Washington streets, according to the Dec. 6, 1897, Journal. He told authorities the Indians killed his wife. A jury disagreed. Within three days, he was found guilty of murdering his wife while intoxicated and sentenced to hang on Nov. 26.
When the big day came, people from all over the Sangamon River country came to watch. Relying on the 1897 reminiscence in the Illinois State Journal by William H. Powels, whose father took him to the hanging, McAndrew sets the scene of the hanging like this:
As the wagon carrying Van Noy traveled from the jail, west on Jefferson and south on First Street to the gallows in “the hollow” south of our current Statehouse, the crowd at the jail followed in a long procession. Before the execution, Van Noy led the large audience in a hymn. “He sang in a firm, clear voice,” recalled Powels in the 1897 Journal.
And that’s not the whole story. Van Noy arranged for the town’s doctor, to revive him by administering electric shock — more or less the same technology as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — but it wasn’t successful. Says McAndrew, who was reminded of Frankenstein:
Per their bargain, Dr. Filleo still tried to revive Van Noy. He took the body to his office “on Jefferson Street, midway between Second and Third streets,” according to the recollections of Enos, whose family lived about 50 feet from the office. But, unlike Mary Shelley’s novel, which was published just eight years earlier, electricity didn’t animate the monster.
So Dr. Filleo dissected the body — with “the door and window wide open and a crowd of men and boys in the street looking on,” stated Enos. The crowd became so disgusted, the physician finally moved his work to the back room.
No wonder they were still talking about it 70 years later!
When I wrote it up for the Prairie Picayune out at New Salem, I was mostly interested in the music. We had a group of shape-note singers demonstrating period music out of the Sacred Harp, and I was documenting early American folk hymns that might have been sung at New Salem. I wrote:
The tune was certainly common in frontier Illinois. Not only did it appear in the shape-note tunebooks under the name “Plenary.” It was sung with the words of the nursery rhyme “Old Grimes is dead, that good old man; / We ne’er shall see him more.” And in her reminiscences published as A Woman’s Story of Pioneer Illinois, Mrs. Christiana Tillson heard a hymn by Charles Wesley, “When I shall read my title clear, to mansions in the sky,” sung to the same tune in the 1820s near Hillsboro.
The tune, which Sacred Harp singers know as Plenary, is an old Scottish tune. Rev. Miller’s history only quotes the words of the Isaac Watts hymn that Van Noy sang — “Hark, from the tombs a doleful sound …” — so there’s some guesswork involved in assigning a tune to it. But it’s a reasonable guess. I wrote:
Hymns and tunes got switched around pretty freely in the early 1800s. But it’s a pretty good guess it would have been sung to the “Auld Lang Syne” tune because both The Missouri Harmony and Southern Harmony print Watts’ hymn to that melody, which they call “Plenary.” Those are the two tunebooks that were most used in Illinois.
The melody itself is an old one. Maurice Lindsay in the online “Burns Encyclopedia” says it was very popular, and his discussion suggests it may go back to a 17th-century strathspey, a kind of stately dance tune, related to “Coming Thro’ the Rye.” When he polished up the words of “Auld Lang Syne” for publication, Burns recommended another melody. He said different things about the song to different people at different times, so it’s hard to sort out. But at one point he told a publisher the tune we now know as “Auld Lang Syne” was “a common Scots country dance” that wasn’t “worth your attention.”
Burns had it right, in a way. His tune is much livelier. But the publishers printed his words to the old country dance tune. They had it right, too. With words and music together, “Auld Lang Syne” is beloved worldwide.
A note on the video. Sacred Harp singers insist, for good reason, that theirs is not a performance art. But if it were, the Alan Lomax recording above would be a classic performance. Hugh McGraw of Bremen, Ga., who led the song, was the executive director of the Sacred Harp Publishing Co. In that capacity, he chaired the committee that created the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp, a shape-note tunebook continuously published since 1844. He worked tirelessly to promote the tradition up north — including in Illinois — and Wikipedia says largely because of his efforts, “Sacred Harp singing outside the South evolved from a kind of artificially-cultivated folk music performance into a more natural and spontaneous experience, in which procedure and performance practice are determined by well-established custom.”
Traditional performance practice includes “singing the shapes” — a form of solfège in which singers first sing the tune, in four-part harmony, by sounding the notes of the old fa-sol-la-mi-fa scale (you’ll hear it at the beginning of the video). Janet Fraembs of Charleston, Ill., tells the story of how McGraw began to teach the art (and it is an art) to northerners before the first Illinois statewide singing in 1984:
Ted Johnson [of Chicago] remembers that it was his wife Marcia and fellow Chicago singer Judy Hauff who were in contact with Hugh and who received the phone call from him enquiring, “Y’all are going to have a [state] convention?” So Hugh sent them the bylaws, the minutes and promised to bring a group of singers from Georgia. Oh, and he said, “do y’all sing the shapes?” and, after a significant pause, “Well, you’ll learn.”
That they did. And the singers from Charleston were generous with their support when we began to sing in the tradition at New Salem in the mid-1990s. Not long after that, McGraw came to Decatur for a singing school at which he
So what you are seeing in that video at the head of this post reflects the tradition as it was handed down from generation to generation, and I believe it is broadly representative of vernacular choral music dating back to the early 19th century.
Tara McClellan Andrew, “Condemned man sought to cheat death,” State Journal-Register, Oct. 1, 2016 https://www.sj-r.com/story/lifestyle/2016/10/02/condemned-man-sought-to-cheat/25280064007/.
“Auld Lang Syne,” Robert Burns Country: The Burns Encyclopedia robertburns.org/encyclopedia/AuldLangSyne.5.shtml.
Jamie Doward, “Who put the spark in Frankenstein’s monster?” The Guardian, March 4, 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/04/frankenstein-monster-200th-anniversary-electricity-mary-shelley.
Janet Fraembs, “Building Community Harmony: Thirty-Three Years of Illinois State Sacred Harp Conventions,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company, Dec. 1, 2017 http://originalsacredharp.com/2017/12/31/building-community-harmony-thirty-three-years-illinois-state-sacred-harp-conventions/.
“Hanging of Nathaniel Van Noy (1826),” SangamonLink, Sangamon County Historical Society, Oct. 16, 2013 https://sangamoncountyhistory.org/wp/?p=2132.
“Hugh McGraw,” Wikipedia Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_McGraw.
Erika Holst, “Springfield’s first hanging,” Illinois Times, Sept. 5, 2013 https://www.illinoistimes.com/springfield/springfields-first-hanging/Content?oid=11450705.
Sacred Harp Bremen [in German], No. 162 https://sacredharpbremen.org/.
My original article appeared in the March 2006 issue of the Prairie Picayune, and I archived it on my blog Hogfiddle Feb. 12, 2006, under the headline “At Springfield’s first public hanging” (https://hogfiddle.blogspot.com/2006/02/at-springfields-first-public-hanging.html).
[Published Nov. 22, 2022]