Abolitionist who helped hundreds to safety is pardoned

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Dr. Richard Eells’ life changed forever in 1842 when he opened the door to his Quincy house to find Charley, a runaway slave who appeared soaking wet after swimming across the Mississippi River to freedom.

Eells immediately arranged for a carriage to get Charley to safety at the Mission Institute — a school for missionaries. But slave catchers spotted him.

Charley was caught. Eells was arrested the next day for harboring a fugitive slave.

And after losing a lengthy appeals process, Eells, a man who helped hundreds of runaway slaves to safety through the Underground Railroad, died with his name tarnished by a criminal conviction.

On Thursday, some 170 years later, Gov. Pat Quinn granted a posthumous pardon to Eells, as well as abolitionists Julius and Samuel Willard of Jacksonville, a father-and-son team whose abolitionist history was discovered while uncovering Eells’ heroic deeds.

The three men were convicted based on previous laws in Illinois that prohibited citizens from helping runaway slaves. Even though slavery was abolished in 1824 in Illinois, harboring or helping runaway slaves remained illegal under Illinois and federal law.

Eells was found guilty of harboring a slave and fined $400. He died before his appeal could be heard before the Illinois Supreme Court, according to the governor’s office.

The clemency positions for Eells and the Willards were prepared by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon’s office. Simon, herself, was approached by former Quincy Mayor Chuck Scholz about pardoning Eells, whom the town still regards as a local hero.

In a town that is home to the first Underground Railroad station across the border of Missouri, Scholz has been involved in keeping Eells’ legacy alive for more than 25 years.

“We’re just thrilled about it here in Quincy,” said Scholz, Quincy’s mayor from 1993-2005. “I think it’s an important thing for Quinconians to know that and for future generations. . . . This shows the criminal justice system evolves, and he’s been vindicated.”

On Wednesday, Simon said she’s glad Eells is getting the recognition he deserves.

“It’s nice to be able to recognize him, a lot later, but still, that we know we can set the record straight and recognize some genuine Illinois heroes,” Simon said. “ We need heroes anytime but especially these genuine heroes, folks who stood up to the law who knew they were risking their own freedom to get other people to freedom.”

As historians searched for information about Eells, the Willard family history came up, she said. Records were found in the Illinois State archives and prepared by legal interns.

According to state historians, Eells was a leader of the abolitionist movement in Quincy and central Illinois and helped hundreds of enslaved African and African-Americans escape to freedom in Canada. After his arrest, he was elected president of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Party in 1843. He was the Liberty Party’s presidential candidate in 1844 and a candidate for Illinois governor in 1846, according to the petition.

Despite his increased political exposure, the appeals process took a toll on Eells both emotionally and financially, the petition said. He died in 1846 on a riverboat while traveling east to rest.

The National Park Service later named Eells’ home in Quincy as one of the 42 most important Underground Railroad sites in the U.S. Eells’ home in Quincy was saved from demolition in 1992, when a non-profit group raised the funds to buy it.

John Cornell, the president of the Friends of Dr. Richard Eells House, said Eells was very active in aiding runaway slaves.

“He was heavily involved in the abolitionist movement and he was very outspoken,” Cornell said. “He moved here from Connecticut for the sole purpose of being able to fight for them, because he wasn’t able to be on the front lines of slavery in his home state.”

The two other men pardoned Wednesday were convicted for trying to help a young woman — known as “D” — reach the Underground Railroad from their home in Jacksonville.

Julius Willard was fined $20, while his son Samuel Willard was fined $1 and court costs.

While the conviction nearly resulted in Samuel Willard’s expulsion from Illinois College, his teachers’ support allowed him to stay enrolled. Dr. Samuel Willard went on to serve in the Civil War as a surgeon in the 97th Illinois Regiment.

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