That man Bonney has been held up before you gentlemen, as one of the best men that ever lived. But I now tell you that he is the chief among thieves and robbers…Testimony of John Long, “Confession and Execution of the Davenport Murderers,” Goshen Democrat, 20 Nov. 1845, p. 1, col. 1-4.
Over the past year, I’ve been looking into criminal activities around Nauvoo in the early 1840s, focusing on the evidence of counterfeiting operations. My ancestor, Theodore Turley, was one of twelve men indicted by a federal grand jury in December 1845 for counterfeiting Mexican and American coins in Nauvoo.1 I wanted to better understand the evidence against him and the other accused residents of Nauvoo, both Mormon and Gentile alike. What I’ve discovered is a fascinating story of crime along the Upper Mississippi Valley in the late 1830s and early 1840s. In order to understand this story, though, we must begin with a man named Edward Bonney.
Edward Bonney was born in Willsboro, New York, in 1807 to Jethro Bonney and Laurana Webster. He was the fourth of nine children. When Edward was about nine, his family setttled in Cortland County, New York, where his dad leased a mill. It was there that Edward likely met his future wife, Maria L. VanFrank, daughter of Phillip VanFrank and Mary C. Curry. They were married in Cortland County in 1832.
We don’t know much about Edward’s exposure to Mormonism, but his older brother, Amasa Bonney, became a member of the Church sometime in the early 1830s. Amasa Bonney’s wife, Adaline Works, was the younger sister of Miriam Works, the first wife of Brigham Young. (Miriam died in 1832.) It’s likely that Amasa Bonney was introduced to Mormonism around the same time as his brother-in-law, Brigham Young. We do know that Amasa and Adaline Bonney had gathered with the Latter-day Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, by 27 March 1836, when he was ordained an elder.2
Around 1834, Edward Bonney and his in-laws, the VanFranks, moved with a number of other New Yorkers to Elkhart County, Indiana. Bonney purchased forty acres there in 1835 and began building his house. In the following years, Bonney amassed more land. In 1837, he built a grist mill and saw mill powered by a horizontal turbine he installed on the Little Elkhart River. He even laid out his own town and called it “Bonneyville.”3
Money Troubles and Counterfeiting Connections
Edward Bonney bet on future infrastructure to transform his new town into a bustling trade center. Unfortunately, the bet didn’t pay off. “When the railroads by-passed the Bonneyville site and the proposed canal system was never developed, Bonney’s dream of an urban hub ended.”4 On top of that, from 1837 to 1840, Bonney was sued for unpaid debts (among other infractions) by neighbors and the government alike. His property was levied at least twice to pay judgments handed down by the Elkhart Circuit Court. It appears that Bonney began looking westward, perhaps to bet on a new community in the ever-expanding frontier. In June of 1839, he purchased two pieces of property in Farmington, Iowa.
Bonney’s decision to purchase property in Iowa was likely motivated by the same factors that prompted him to purchase property in Indiana: family connections. Several years before Bonney moved to Indiana, his maternal cousin, Thomas J. Babcock, settled with his in-laws near Osceola, Indiana. Babcock immediately bought property in the town of Elkhart, six miles to the east. Property records show that Babcock (who later changed the spelling to Babcoke) was much more successful at land speculation in Elkhart County than Bonney. Babcoke’s day job as a minister, though, required him to be flexible. He apparently moved to Farmington, Iowa, sometime in 1839, and likely sent back word to Bonney that prospects looked good there.
But the benefits of Bonney’s relationship with Babcoke went beyond property tips. Babcoke’s wife was Lovina West, and her older brother, Dr. Charles West, was connected with the Driscoll Gang, a large network of criminals centered in the Rock River Valley of Illinois. Members of the Driscoll Gang were infamous in the late 1830s and early 1840s for stealing horses, robbery, and counterfeiting. Babcoke’s brother-in-law, Charles West, settled in Inlet Grove around 1835 and was part of the “Bliss, Dewey, West, and Co.” counterfeiting ring.5
Bliss had built a log house, which was known all along the Rock River Valley as the “Log Tavern.” On a board in front of the house, painted in large black letters, was this inscription: “Travelers’ Home.”… Later events showed that this “Log Tavern” was a rendezvous for counterfeiters, or, at least, a distributing point for their currency and coin, especially the latter. Making change is quite a business in its way with hotel keepers, and, as most people know, change is sometimes hard to get, but “mine host” of the “Travelers’ Home” was never “short,” for he had the means of making the supply equal to the demand. When the villainy of the clan began to be unmasked, it was shown that no less tha[n] five sets of bogus dies were kept sewed up in one of the feather beds with which the “Home” was supplied. Dewey was Bliss’ nearest neighbor on the one hand, and West on the other, the last of whom eventually turned traitor, and revealed the secrets of “Bliss, Dewey, West & Co.,” as well as the gang with whom they operated.The History of Ogle County, Illinois, Containing A History of the County–Its Cities, Towns, Etc. (Chicago: H. F. Kett & Co., 1878), p. 354-355.
Edward Bonney visited his cousin, Thomas J. Babcoke, in Farmington, Iowa, in September 1839, and residents there were apparently unimpressed. One man recalled that Bonney and his traveling companion, a man named Osborne, “were suspected of being connected with the bogus operations, and were also regarded as horse thieves.” Babcoke, in spite of his religious occupation, also had a reputation in the community for being connected to criminal activity, and he left the town in early 1841.6
Caught Red-handed in Ohio
Bonney became more entrenched in the criminal networks, and in the summer of 1842 he got into serious trouble. Thanks to a misdelivered letter, an Ohio postmaster became aware of a future meet-up of counterfeiters and passed along the information to local law enforcement. One of the officers later wrote a letter of appreciation to the postmaster, describing the subsequent arrests in Trumbull County, Ohio.
DEAR SIR: Through your communication to Mr. JOHN KINSMAN, in relation to the “band of counterfeiters” in this county, I was enabled to arrest them last night, and now have in our jail, three of them to wit: Edward Bonney, Obadiah Cooley and Henry Kellogg. We caught two of them in the very midst of their work and the other asleep in his house, where all boarded. We found in their possession $2,070[.]50 spurious coin, part of it finished and a part unfinished–consisting of Mexican dollar and American half dollar pieces.“Gang of Counterfeiters Arrested”, Commercial Advertiser and Journal, Buffalo, New York, 14 July 1842, p. 2 col. 1.
We also got hold of a part of their tools, implements and machinery. We are in hot pursuit after two others of the gang, who left a few hours before we made the arrest. There is no doubt an extensive organized gang of these desperadose–not only here but throughout the whole lake country. We have to thank you for your exertions in the matter. We took them in Gustavus in this county.
Your obt. servt.
WM. L. KNIGHT
Edward Bonney was arrested on July 9th and spent the next month in the Trumbull County jail. On August 4th, he came before the judge and bail was set at $1,000. Luckily, Bonney had made a new friend who agreed to act as surety for him, lawyer John Adams. Bonney didn’t plan to return to Ohio for his November trial, so he provided John Adams the means to pay the forfeited money. John Adams was given the deed to Edward Bonney’s beloved Bonneyville Mills.7
Bonney likely felt he was safe as long as he stayed away from Ohio, but the clock was ticking. He failed to show for the November 1842 Trumbull County court term, which meant his bail was forfeited. His case was taken up again in the April 1843 and November 1843 Trumbull County court terms. He likely hoped that the prosecution would drop the matter, but he was disappointed. In 1844, the Indiana Secretary of State received an extradition request for Edward Bonney.
Bonney’s Escape Plan
In a manuscript draft of his later book, The Banditti of the Prairies, Bonney wrote that he first began thinking about resettling “somewhere along the Mississippi River” in the early part of 1843. In the spring of that year, though, “he was stricken with an eye inflammation which rendered him temporarily blind.”8 He eventually recovered and began to look for a new home.
By February, 1844, he had recovered sufficiently to be able to set off on horseback for the Mississippi, where he visited various towns before reaching Nauvoo. Impressed by its rapid growth and the business advantages growing out of its river location, he decided to settle there and engage in the mercantile business. He states that he knew nothing of the Mormons and that he was not “much a religionist.”Doris M. Reed, “Edward Bonney, Detective,” The Indiana University Bookman, No. 2 (Nov. 1957).
Besides business prospects, Nauvoo had two other benefits. One was family. Amasa Bonney, Edward Bonney’s brother, settled in Nauvoo with his wife’s family in 1842. The second benefit was legal. Nauvoo’s mayor, Joseph Smith, had successfully used a unique take on habeus corpus to thwart attempts by outside law enforcement to arrest him (and his friends).9
Edward Bonney likely felt that Nauvoo could be the solution to his legal troubles. He just needed to make a good impression on Joseph Smith.
To be continued…
1The twelve men listed on the indictment were Theodore Turley, Augustus Barton, Gilbert Eaton, Peter Haws, Brigham Young, Willard Richards, John Taylor, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Hyde, Joseph H. Jackson, Carlos Gove, and Edward Bonney. Five of the men were not Latter-day Saints: Augustus Barton, Gilbert Eaton, Joseph H. Jackson, Carlos Gove, and Edward Bonney. Of the twelve men on the indictment, only Edward Bonney went to trial for the charges. He was acquitted in January 1847. Charges against the other eleven men were dismissed by motion of the U.S. district attorney in February 1849.
2See Amasa Bonney’s biography at the Joseph Smith Papers.
3The Bonneyville Mill still stands and is the oldest operating gristmill in Indiana. Jessica Nunemaker, “From Town Founder to Outlaw to Hero: The Story of Bonneyville Mill,” 20 April 2017, Little Indiana blog, http://littleindiana.com/2017/04/bonneyville-mill/; Carl R. Mauck, Bonneyville Mills Then and Now (n.p.: Retrospect Press, 2017).
4“Bonneyville Mill,” Elkhart County Parks, archived 16 Oct. 2016, https://web.archive.org/web/20151016045219/http://www.elkhartcountyparks.org/properties_locations/bonneyville_mill.htm.
5 The History of Ogle County, Illinois, Containing A History of the County–Its Cities, Towns, Etc. A Biographical Directory of Its Citizens, War Record of Its Volunteers in the Late Rebellion, General and Local Statistics, Portraits of Early Settlers and Prominent Men, History of the Northwest, History of Illinois, Map of Ogle County, Constitution of the United States, Miscellaneous Matters, Etc. (Chicago: H. F. Kett & Co., 1878), p. 354-355.
6Still haven’t figured out who Osborne was. Bonney later sold both of his Iowa properties to Babcoke in 1839 and 1840. Statement of James Thomas in Appendix to the House and Senate Journals, Vol. 23, Part 2 (Jefferson City, Missouri: Emory S. Foster, Public Printer, 1866), p. 647.
7Elkhart County property records state that John Adams paid a whopping $10,000 for the property. The deed, however, was dated 4 August 1842, the same day as Bonney’s trial in Ohio.
8Doris M. Reed, “Edward Bonney, Detective,” The Indiana University Bookman, No. 2 (Nov. 1957).
9To get a good understanding of Joseph Smith’s creative use of habeus corpus (and why it ticked a lot of people off), read Benjamin Park’s excellent book, Kingdom of Nauvoo.