Thursday, February 28, 2008

The contentious passing of Arthur Lillie

Drive south on the New York Road in Benton Township to the bridge across Lost Branch Creek just before the Wayne County line, look to the southwest and you’ll have in sight the final resting place of Arthur Lillie (or Arthur Lilly, even Arthur Lily --- we‘re not even sure how his name was spelled).

Described as a hermit, but maybe just lonely, he died alone here during May of 1875 and was buried where he fell, almost: just outside the cabin where he had lived. Had it not been for neighborhood gossips, his death would have been little noted. As it was, his passing caused a considerable fuss.

My granddad and great-uncles remembered the stories and used to indicate the general location of the grave by waving vaguely “over there” when passing, but the exact spot has long been lost.

Census records seem to hold the only background. When the 1860 census of Benton Township was taken, “Arthur Lilly,” age 45, a farmer born in Ireland, was living with Levi and Sarah J. Fox and their six children (Ann, Josiah, John, Missouri, Levi and Nebraska), whose own cabin was on the hill above Lost Branch. He may have been working as a farm hand, or perhaps only boarding with the Foxes while building a cabin for himself on the 40 acres he claimed down the hill and across the road. By 1870, “Arthur Lilley,” age 55, was living on his own. Five years later, age about 60, he was dead.

The first report of his death was published in The Chariton Patriot of 2 June 1875, noting only that “Arthur Lily” had died recently on land he claimed title to in southeast Benton Township.

On 5 June, however, The Chariton Leader’s anonymous Benton Township correspondent (operating under the pseudonym Alba Owen) roared into action with the following report:

Perhaps many of your readers are not aware that Lucas County has had within its borders a hermit. On the road heading from Chariton to New York, just before you cross the county line, off to the west of the road, might be seen a little field with an old cabin standing at the farther side, surrounded by tall trees that swayed to and fro in the summer's breeze or winter's blast. This was the home of Arthur Lillie.

I say was the home, for on the 24th of May, the angel of death came and touched the withered frame and "The heart but once heaved, and forever was still." He had lived here for many years, all alone. He sought the society of no one, was peaceable, law-abiding, and inoffensive to all. What his great sorrow was, he knew best, but it is said that he came here from the "Emerald Isles," and after years of toil he sent for his wife, who, it seems, he had left behind. But the ship she embarked on was lost at sea, and from that time "he never smiled again."

But now comes the saddest part of it all. When he was found lying on the floor of the cabin, the query arose: What was to be done? for there was no "loved ones nigh" to perform the sad rights. One or two said: send for the Coroner and give him charge of the case, but some officious characters present took the matter into their own hands. A rude box was constructed and the lifeless form of one of Lucas County's citizens was thrown into it. A hole was dug at the end of his cabin and he was cast in, with this remark from the leader of this damnable proceeding: "You lived like a hog, and we will bury you like one."

The place was then ransacked high and low for valuables, and be it said to the shame of humanity, or rather inhumanity, everything of value was carried away. As he was known to have quite a sum of money, who knows but the midnight assassin had not been there? does the proper authority know that Arthur Lillie died a natural death? When found he had been dead two or three days, it is supposed, and the indications were that the cause was strangulation. The only excuse offered for doing this thing in this manner was to save the expense it would bring on the County to hold an inquest.

In the name of God what do we elect officers for but to perform these duties? If a citizen of our County dies, is there no law to protect his little hoarded store? Have the people become a law unto themselves? If such is the case, it is high time we knew it. Will the parties who did this, come out and give an explanation? We, as a citizen have a right to ask it for our own protection.

We believe we have no case parallel to this in our County; even the case of Huyck is not a shadow to it. We have no comments to offer. These are the facts as given us by an eye witness of the proceedings. (signed, “Alba Owen”)

That report caused unrest among Arthur Lillie’s neighbors, who had buried him, including my great-great-grandfather, Jacob Myers, and his two sons, Abraham and Daniel (my great-grandfather).

As a result, the following clarification was published in The Leader of Saturday, June 12:

“Esq. Chase, Justice of the Peace of Benton Township, and Mr. Michael Reynolds called upon us this week and informed us that the communication signed Alba Owen in last week's Leader, concerning the death and burial of the old hermit, Arthur Lillie, did the people of that locality gross injustice. They both assisted in his burial, and did everything in their power, under the circumstances, that could be done in the matter. His worldly effects, consisted of $71 in cash, which sum was secured and deposited in the bank at Chariton, subject to the order of the administrator of Mr. Lillie’s estate, Esq. Chase himself being appointed as such. There was no indications whatever that the deceased had died from any other but natural causes, as he was known to have been in bad health for some time. The neighbors carefully examined the body before burial, and then contributed their services in putting it away as decently as possible. We are satisfied that no wrong was done to the deceased, nor none meditated.”

Although Arthur’s death occurred before either my grandfather or my father was born, both were told the story of his passing. According to my dad, also Daniel Myers, Arthur’s neighbors were accustomed to leaving him alone because he seemed to prefer it that way, but went to check on him that spring more than 130 years ago after he had not been seen out and about for a few days.

They found his body inside the cabin in an advanced state of decomposition and in large part because of that decided --- in the absence of family or close friends to make other arrangements --- to bury him where he’d lived, building the coffin themselves, rather than transporting the remains to the nearest cemetery, Salem.

So think of Arthur the next time you cross the Lost Branch bridge. We don’t known where he came from, or why, can’t fathom his dreams or aspirations and don’t know the reasons for his lonely condition. But he surely was one of us.

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