By MATT HOPF
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
John Cornell believes a pardon for Dr. Richard Eells is long overdue.
"I'm not sure why nobody though of it before, but we've been talking about it for a good five years, if not longer," Cornell said. "It just took a little while to make it happen."
A petition to obtain the pardon for Eells, a Quincy abolitionist who died 165 years ago, was filed Tuesday by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon's office. Simon's office said she would seek to file petitions seeking clemency for Illinois abolitionists convicted for their fight against slavery.
"The men and women who defied the law to help slaves through the Underground Railroad risked their safety and well-being because they believed all individuals deserve freedom," Simon said in a news release. "It is time that we honor their memories and sacrifices with pardons for their selfless and courageous actions. Abolitionists were on the right side of history, and a pardon vindicates their foresight and heroism."
Eells was found guilty in April 1843 of harboring and secreting a slave and unlawfully preventing a lawful owner from recovering his slave. He was fined $400 in the case.
An Underground Railroad conductor, Eells was transporting a runaway slave known only as Charley when they were discovered by slave catchers. Illinois residents voted to abolish slavery in 1824, but state and federal laws made it illegal to harbor or assist runaway slaves.
Eells fought to have his conviction overturned. In 1852, and the case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. Eells was represented by future Secretary of State William Seward and future Treasury Secretary and Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. The high court upheld the original conviction.
"This, in its time, was a big deal," Cornell, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Dr. Richard Eells House in Quincy, said. "It was followed by a lot of people. It was reported in the New York Times."
Eells never lived to see the conclusion of his case or the abolishment of slavery. He died in 1848 while traveling east on a riverboat on the Ohio River.
Nothing is known about Charley after he was returned to his owner in Missouri.
This isn't the first time that a pardon has been sought for Eells.
"We tried to do it with the federal government first, and because it was a state law that he was charged and convicted under, the federal government could not do it," Cornell said. "It's too bad that we had to do it, because if he hadn't been caught, Charley would have been on his way and free that night."
Cornell said the organization, which maintains his home at 415 Jersey, works to keep Eells' legacy alive. The home is the oldest two-story brick house in the city and was the first stop for fugitive slaves escaping from the west on this side of the Mississippi River.
"We've tried our best here locally to promote it and make people understand," he said. "It is a very important piece of U.S. history, not just Quincy history."
Cornell said one way that the organization has increased interest in the Eells House is to encourage students from local schools to visit it when they study the Underground Railroad.
"They can see their own local history and see the impact that at it had," he said. "As that goes on over the years, you'll have a built-in group of people who will hopefully support it and back it."
The Eells House it open from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays from April through November. Group tours can also be arranged by calling (217) 223-1800.