J. Henry Shaw played a principal role in the history of Beardstown in the mid 1800’s, and the consequences of his death reached all the way to Washington, D. C. More about that later.
Shaw was born in Boston, Massachusetts on July 25, 1825. His family moved to Morgan County in 1836, settling near Jacksonville. He attended school for a short time, picking up the basics of reading and writing, but his assistance was needed on the family farm.
Henry’s father had some experience as a printer and thus helped a friend who published a Jacksonville newspaper. This allowed the elder Shaw to bring home many papers, which were avidly read by Henry.
Henry’s thirst for knowledge led him to borrow books and to read voraciously whenever his work allowed. His acquired education and talent made it possible for him to write for newspapers and his articles caught the attention of many, one of whom was Richard Yates, future Governor of Illinois. Yates encouraged Shaw to study law and loaned him the books to pursue his dream. At 25 years of age, Henry passed the bar examination in Springfield, left the farm, and relocated to Beardstown to practice law.
In 1858, Shaw was one of the prosecutors during the famous Almanac Trial, in which Abraham Lincoln was an attorney for the defendant. Besides his occupation as an attorney, Shaw was an author, historian, poet and legislator. He wrote a historical sketch of Cass County, much of which he read during a speech to the crowd gathered in the Beardstown city square for the celebration of our country’s centennial on July 4, 1876.
Below is a deed in rhyme, written by Shaw, showcasing his legal and poetic skills:
I, J. Henry Shaw, the Grantor herein,
Who lives at Beardstown, Cass County within,
For seven hundred dollars to me paid today,
To Charles and Wyman do sell and convey
Lot two (2) in Block forty (40), said county and town,
Where Illinois River flows placidly down,
And warrant the title forever and aye,
Waiving homestead and mansion, to both a goodbye,
And pledging this deed is valid in Law,
I add my signature,
J. Henry Shaw (seal)
Dated July 25, 1881
I, Sylvester Emmons, who lives at Beardstown,
A Justice of Peace of fame and renown,
Of the County of Cass and Illinois State,
Do certify here that on this same date,
One J. Henry Shaw to me did make known,
That the deed above and name are his own,
And he stated he sealed and delivered the same
Voluntarily, freely, and never would claim
His homestead therein, but left all alone,
Turned his face to the street and his back to his home.
S Emmons J.P. (seal)
August 1, AD 1881
J. Henry Shaw died on April 12, 1885 in his room at the Palace Hotel in Springfield, while serving as a state representative for the 34th Senatorial District. The district included Cass, Schuyler, Mason and Menard Counties.
During the 1800’s U. S. Senators were still elected by a vote of state legislatures. The membership of the 34th session of the Illinois General Assembly was evenly divided between Republican and Democratic legislators and no Senate candidate could garner a majority of votes. This deadlock had continued for several months. Each party had already suffered the death of a legislator before Mr. Shaw’s (a Democratic member) passing. Both of the previous special elections sent a member of the same party as the deceased lawmaker to Springfield.
Most Republicans favored Gen. John A. Logan’s re-election to the Senate. Logan, who was instrumental in the creation of Memorial Day and the Grand Army of the Republic, was a popular figure among Civil War Veterans. Henry Craske, a Republican residing in Rushville, wrote to General Logan with a plan.
The majority of voters in the 34th district were Democratic and Craske was counting on their overconfidence. He formed a trusted network to quietly spread the word among Republicans in the days before the election that they could elect their candidate if they feigned apathy while secretly working toward a heavy turnout and, most importantly, by waiting until late in the day to cast their ballots. By the time Democratic voters in the district realized what was going on, the polls were about to close and Craske’s plan had succeeded. Shaw had been replaced by a Republican, W. H. Weaver, and Logan was eventually re-elected to the U. S. Senate.