Dr. Richard Eells, a Quincy, Ill., abolitionist, lived on the borderline between slavery and freedom during the antebellum period. His house, only blocks away from the Mississippi River, was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
His home was constructed in 1835 and is the oldest remaining brick house in Quincy. Facing demolition in 1989, it was saved by a group of concerned citizens who formed the Friends of Dr. Richard Eells House not-for-profit corporation. Today it is a museum recognized as a national historic site by the National Park Service and a member of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
More than $900,000 has been spent on restoring the house whose furnishings include period furniture, carpeting, and wallpaper, including an exact replica of the original wallpaper used in Dr. Eells’ bedroom. A number of portraits adorn the walls, one which some believe is of Dr. Eells, though this hasn’t been confirmed and no description of his likeness has been found to compare it with.
Originally from Connecticut, Eells came to Quincy in 1833 with his wife Jane and six-year-old daughter, who died that year. The Eells later adopted a son of his sister and a daughter of his brother. They arrived during a period when a vicious conflict was occurring between abolitionists who moved to the area from the East and resident slaveholders who lived across the Mississippi River in the slave state of Missouri.
The first of these Easterners to come to Quincy was the Reverend Asa Turner, who in 1830 established a Presbyterian church and an anti-slavery society. The knowledge that friends who would help slaves lived just across the river was a great temptation for them to escape, and the Underground Railroad developed from this.
Eells went to Yale, as did Turner; the two may already have known each other when Eells arrived. In any case, Eells joined Turner’s church that year, which had converted to the Congregational denomination. In 1836, another major player in Quincy’s Underground Railroad moved to the village when Reverend David Nelson, formerly the president of nearby Marion College, a missionary school that he founded in Missouri, was forced to leave the school because of his antislavery views. He too joined the Congregational Church.
The three abolitionists were the leading figures in the formation of the Mission Institute, also a missionary school, and their zealous antislavery beliefs were the foundation upon which the school was established in 1838. Eells was both a trustee and a teacher, and Nelson served as its president. A former Mission Institute student, N.A. Hunt, explained in an 1891 letter to Underground Railroad historian Wilbur Siebert that Nelson came to him one day about the year of 1840 and asked him to go with another student across the Mississippi River to patrol the shore opposite Quincy and tap stones together. This was a signal to slaves who might desire to escape. From there they were taken to a red barn, 16 miles east of Quincy. This was likely near Mendon and the home of Jireh Platt, one of the most active conductors in that area. Hunt added that these patrols were regularly carried out on Sunday nights, which was usually the slaves’ day off.
In 1841, two Mission Institute students and an antislavery activist were captured by a Missouri mob while attempting to bring two slaves to freedom. James Burr, George Thompson, and Alanson Work were betrayed by the very slaves they were attempting to help. They were convicted of slave stealing and sentenced to 12 years in prison. All were pardoned within five years, and Thompson wrote a book about their ordeal, Prison Life and Reflections, which was published in 1849, three years after his release.
The case created a national furor and focused greater attention on Underground Railroad operations in Quincy. On the night of Aug. 21, 1842 a free black, Berryman Barnet, was patrolling the riverbank for the local Underground Railroad, watching for fugitive slaves. He spotted a man swimming across the river. It was a fugitive slave named Charley, and Barnet took him at once to Eells’ house. Eells gave him a change of dry clothes and took him in his buggy drawn by his horse, White Lightning, who had developed a reputation as the fastest horse in the region. They headed for a safe house at the Mission Institute, but Charley’s master, Chauncey Durkee, was in hot pursuit with a posse and they spotted Eells’ buggy. Apparently knowing of his association with the Mission Institute, they headed him off farther up the road. Eells drove through their roadblock and managed to drop off Charley in a cemetery and double back home, but Charley was captured hiding in a stable the next day.
An indictment was brought against Eells, who spent the rest of his life in a legal battle. At one point while awaiting trial, an order to extradite him to Missouri to face charges was issued by the Governor Ford of Illinois. An extradition to Missouri put Eells in jeopardy of being lynched by a mob there, and he went into hiding. During this time it was believed he went to Chicago and was able to get the assistance of influential friends who convinced the governor to rescind the extradition order. In April 1843 Circuit Court judge Stephen A. Douglas, the future senator of national fame, fined him $400 for harboring a slave. The case eventually was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1852, six years after Eells death, with Salmon P. Chase arguing unsuccessfully that the Illinois law against harboring fugitive slaves was unconstitutional.
The strain of the prosecution and the stress of retaliation by pro-slavery forces from Missouri, who actually came to Quincy in March of 1843 and burned down the chapel at the Mission Institute, took a toll on Eells’ health. Nevertheless, he continued his active role in the cause of abolition, being elected president of the state antislavery society in 1843 and being a candidate for Congress under the banner of the abolitionist Liberty Party in 1844. No doubt, he continued to aid fugitive slaves at 415 Jersey Street and in all it is believed he aided upwards of 200. But his health continually worsened despite a trip to the West Indies in 1845 in the hope of restoring it. He died of pneumonia on an Ohio River steamboat at the age of 46 in 1846.
Reverend David Nelson had died two years before, struck down by a paralysis at the age of 51, and Eells’ horse White Lightning also died in the service of the Underground Railroad. One night the horse and buggy were taken out by conductor Rasselas Sartle to scout ahead of a wagon carrying nine fugitive slaves. Unfortunately, they were confronted by a dozen slavecatchers who shot and killed the horse. Fortunately, the fugitive slaves were able to escape.
By the mid-1850s the Mission Institute had closed, but the Underground Railroad continued through Quincy until the Civil War brought emancipation.
Tours of the Eells House are available year-round by appointment. Call Conrad McNay at 217-223-1800.