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Dime Novel Desperadoes

The Notorious Maxwell Brothers

John E. Hallwas

Publication Year: 2008

This thrilling historical true crime narrative recovers the long-forgotten story of Ed and Lon Maxwell, outlaw brothers from Illinois who once rivaled Jesse and Frank James in national notoriety. Growing up hard as the sons of a tenant farmer, the Maxwell brothers embarked on a life of crime that captured the public eye. Made famous locally by newspapers that dramatized crimes and danger, the brothers achieved national prominence in 1881 when they shot and killed Charles and Milton Coleman, lawmen trying to apprehend them. Public outrage sparked the largest manhunt for outlaws in American history, involving some twenty posses who pursued the desperadoes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Nebraska. Nevertheless, the daring desperadoes were eventually portrayed as heroes in sensationalistic dime novels._x000B__x000B_A stunning saga of robbery and horse stealing, gunfights and manhunts, murder and mob violence, Dime Novel Desperadoes also delves into the cultural and psychological factors that produced lawbreakers and created a crime wave in the post-Civil War era. Every overview and encyclopedia of American outlaws will need to be revised, and the fabled "Wild West" will have to be extended east of the Mississippi River, in response to this riveting chronicle. With more than forty illustrations and several maps that bring to life the exciting world of the Maxwell brothers, Dime Novel Desperadoes is a new classic in the annals of American outlawry._x000B_

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Title page

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

No outlaws who achieved nationwide notoriety have been so thoroughly forgotten as the Maxwell brothers. Except for occasional retrospective newspaper items and one poorly researched article in Real West magazine, they have not received any historical attention. Even supposedly thorough reference books, ...

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Prologue: A Desperado in McDonough County

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pp. 1-8

The people of McDonough County long remembered how it began, the story of the Maxwell brothers, how it first became part of their common experience—only to escape the limits of their knowing and grow bigger than any of them ever dreamed that it might, ...

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1. The Maxwell Family Moves West

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pp. 9-18

We know little about the background of the Maxwell brothers, but some things, unknown to the public in their time, are now perfectly clear. Of first importance is the fact that they were born to a poor tenant farmer who moved west in the mid-1800s, chasing the fabled American Promise across several states, ...

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2. The Maxwells in Troubled Fulton County

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pp. 19-38

In the winter of 1859–60, the Maxwells settled in Fulton County, just west of the Illinois River. The decade that was just starting would bring challenges and hardships that neither David nor Susan could have anticipated, and the family’s struggle, as well as the troubled social environment, would have an impact on their sons, especially Ed. ...

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3. The Maxwells in McDonough County

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pp. 39-59

The Maxwells did not travel all the way back to where they had lived during the troubled 1860s but, instead, moved into a tenant house in McDonough County, which was just to the west of Fulton. Their rented farm was on the northern edge of Tennessee Township, in Section 4, ...

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4. Law and Order, and Prison Life

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pp. 60-75

Ed Maxwell spent a few weeks in the McDonough County Jail, waiting for the circuit court to convene. One can only imagine his father’s response to seeing his wayward son behind bars—and labeled as a dangerous “desperado.” ...

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5. The Maxwell Brothers Become Outlaws

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pp. 76-92

By 1875 the national depression was beginning to have an impact, even in a growing and progressive county seat like Macomb. Local manufacturing was starting to decline, and building had been very slow for some time. As the Macomb Journal editor admitted early that year, “Eighteen hundred and seventy-four was a dull year for building in Macomb.” ...

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6. The Great Escape—and Recapture

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pp. 93-108

When the Maxwells were brought in, first to the court in Blandinsville and then to the jail in Macomb, there was considerable talk of lynching— not just because nearby victims of their raids were angry and wanted revenge, but because people feared they would escape. ...

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7. Prison Time and Justice Issues

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pp. 109-123

When Ed Maxwell arrived at the Illinois State Penitentiary on October 9, 1876, the institution was undergoing significant change, and the man behind it all was Warden Robert W. McClaughry, who eventually became one of the best-known criminologists and prison reformers of the nineteenth century. ...

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8. Lon's Struggle to Go Straight

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pp. 124-137

Lon was released from the penitentiary on July 8, 1877, shortly after his nineteenth birthday. His “good behavior” had resulted in a threemonth reduction of his two-year sentence. Like Ed in 1875, he was given ten dollars, a train ticket to Macomb, and a new suit of clothes—but his was a less institutional-looking outfit, ...

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9. The Wisconsin Desperadoes

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pp. 138-155

The fateful year for the Maxwell brothers was 1881, and it began with Ed’s release from prison. Having completed his six-year sentence by serving only four years and three months—with time off for good behavior—Ed was set free on January 21. ...

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10. The Gunfight at Durand

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pp. 156-172

The summer of 1881 was a time of rising anxiety across the country, partly fueled by weeks of hot, dry weather in June and early July, which led to a searing drought that spread eastward from the Great Plains, creeping back across the Mississippi River to the farms of that more well-settled part of the West, ...

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11. The Great Manhunt

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pp. 173-189

At the time of the Durand gunfight, the great days of the James gang were coming to an end, although Jesse and Frank remained at large. In that anxiety-ridden summer of 1881, the gang robbed two more trains—their final holdups—but since the disastrous Northfield raid five years earlier, ...

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12. Another Gunfight—and the Renewed Manhunt

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pp. 190-204

September 19 finally brought the long-feared national tragedy: President Garfield died, at his cottage in Elberon, New Jersey, of inflammation brought on by the gunshot wounds of July 2. Newspapers across the country draped the columns of their headline story in heavy black borders and provided details about the stricken leader’s last day, ...

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13. Ed's Capture and Lon's Escape

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pp. 205-218

As the fall of 1881 continued, so did America’s massive struggle with the issue of law and order. In Arizona Territory, a hot, dusty boomtown called Tombstone gained national notoriety on October 26 with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. ...,

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14. The Desperado and the Public

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pp. 219-237

Some of the most notorious nineteenth-century outlaws, such as Sam Bass (d. 1878), Billy the Kid (d. 1881), and Jesse James (d. 1882), had a complex relationship with the public, which saw in them competing aspects of American cultural life: the appeal of individualism and the presence of disorder; ...

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15. The Lynching at Durand

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pp. 238-255

In the fall of 1881 almost everybody in America hated Charles Guiteau, and officials were concerned that he would “perish by mob violence” if the public could get access to him. Unable to lynch the presidential slayer, people in towns across the country expressed their desire for vengeance symbolically, by hanging and burning him in effigy. ...

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16. The Lynching Controversy and Durand's Fate

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pp. 256-276

The lynching of Ed Maxwell, “the notorious desperado,” was reported in newspapers all over the country, from the Boston Post to the San Francisco Chronicle, and as the dramatically violent year of 1881 came to a close, that act of mob vengeance in a remote north woods village provoked widespread comment on the issue of law and order. ...

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17. The Mysterious Fate of Lon Maxwell

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pp. 277-290

Unlike western novels and films, which are expressions of American myth, stories of real-life outlaws often have unsatisfactory endings. That the most famous outlaw of them all, Jesse James, should simply be shot in the back while dusting a picture in his parlor was immediately unpopular with many people, ...

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Epilogue: The Story Life of the Maxwell Brothers

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pp. 291-310

After Ed’s death and Lon’s disappearance, they continued to be famous outlaws, at least for a time, because of the stories that were told about them. While those accounts were generally inaccurate because they were folkloric or fictionalized, they provide insight into the significance of the Maxwell brothers for American culture, ...


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pp. 311-314


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pp. 315-366


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pp. 367-380


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pp. 381-402

E-ISBN-13: 9780252093753
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252033520

Page Count: 448
Publication Year: 2008

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Subject Headings

  • Maxwell family.
  • Outlaws -- Illinois -- Biography.
  • Outlaws -- Wisconsin -- Biography.
  • Brothers -- Illinois -- Biography.
  • Brothers -- Wisconsin -- Biography.
  • Illinois -- Biography.
  • Wisconsin -- Biography.
  • Illinois -- History -- 19th century.
  • Wisconsin -- History -- 19th century.
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