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James Joseph Shaw's role in Joe Chesnas' hanging kept secret

Posted on 8/6/2013, 5:45 PM

Mike Triplett of Galatia came across a startling bit of news recently regarding his great-grandfather, James Joseph Shaw.

He believes Shaw's made his career as a farmer and was an accomplished woodworker.

"He made somebody a wooden leg with a joint in it that moved, so he was pretty handy at making things," Triplett said.

But about two years ago, he also learned Shaw was the man responsible for the last lawful execution by hanging in Saline County on June 17, 1927. Joe Chesnas — or Chesness, as some sources have spelled it — was hanged at the Saline County Courthouse for the Aug. 8, 1926, murder of William "Uncle Billy" Unsell.

Phil Hannah was the hangman in the region, preparing the scaffold and assembling the ropes to ensure a humane execution, but according to Curtis G. Small's book "Mean Old Jail" Hannah would never pull the lever that caused the trap door to swing open.

Triplett said his great-grandfather had that dubious honor that day, being the best friend of Unsell. Unsell was known as "Uncle Billy," the rural mail carrier who was well-liked by all.

On the night of Aug. 5, 1926, Chesnas, 22, and Alfred Dixon, 20, entered Unsell's home at 524 W. Raymond St., Harrisburg, and robbed him at gunpoint for a few dollars. They split the money with Joe Ingram, 31, who had planned the robbery. Police located and arrested Dixon and Ingram the next day, but could not find Chesnas. Chesnas decided to kill Unsell to keep him from further testifying.

On Aug. 8, 1926, he entered the Unsell home through a back window and fired a bullet into Unsell's head as he slept beside his wife.

Officers — already suspecting Chesnas of the robbery — also suspected him in the shooting and were able to locate him the next morning entering his mother's home in Harrisburg.

Chesnas was originally scheduled to hang Oct. 16, 1926. James Joseph Shaw at age 69 was Unsell's was deputized by Sheriff John Small to be the man to pull the lever, sending Chesnas to plunge to his death. Triplett has his great-grandfather's deputy card. It reads "I, John Small, Sheriff of Saline County, Illinois, do hereby appoint J.J. Shaw, As Deputy Sheriff to assist at the execution of Joe Chesness, at the County Jail, Harrisburg, Illinois, on October 16, 1926."

But the governor granted Chesnas a stay of execution pending an appeal to the Supreme Court. Chesnas attorneys prepared a petition asking Chesnas be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming he was not well informed legally of his rights, not properly represented and that his confession had been coerced. The Supreme Court upheld Chesnas' sentence and the hanging was scheduled for June 17, 1927. By that time John Small had been replaced as sheriff by Lige Turner.

The family did not talk about Shaw's participation in a hanging.

"I don't think anybody else in the family knew that. I don't think my mother knew it," Triplett said.

Triplett's great-uncle, Joe Harvey Kimmel of Thompsonville, told Triplett about it before Kimmel's death.

"I never knew the story until about two years ago," Triplett said.

Triplett visited Kimmel regularly during the final years of his life while Triplett, 85, was living in Benton. He gave Triplett items of his great-grandfather's — including the deputy card — and told the story of the hanging.

"My great-uncle said they let him hang him because Uncle Billy was his best friend," Triplett said.