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McHistory: Press Butler the great detective

Press Butler
McLean County Museum of History
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Press Butler

One doesn’t don't think of Bloomington and central Illinois as a lurid hotbed of crime. But it certainly seems it could have been that way during the mid-to-late 1800s as portrayed by the three city newspapers of the day: The Pantagraph, the Daily Bulletin, and the Daily Leader.

Among those lauded as a "great detective" some years before Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of Sherlock Homes was a Bloomington man, James Preston Butler, nicknamed "Press." Yet even historical records of a dashing detective should sometimes be taken with a grain of salt, or more than a grain, even a healthy pinch.

“When we look at the really remarkable colorful life of Butler, the quotation from the great 1962 John Ford film ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ comes to mind: 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ So, a lot of what we know about Press Butler comes from local newspapers. Often, it's too rich or too good to be true,” said McLean County Museum of History Librarian Bill Kemp.

Butler was in his late teens or early 20s when he came to Bloomington with his family. In 1861. The then 23-year-old Butler married Elizabeth "Lizzie" Kavanaugh, who was 14 or 15 at the time, said Kemp. Despite her problematic age, the two seemed happily married, spending their lives together and raising two sons and an adopted daughter.

“He has for the past 25 or 30 years been a citizen of Bloomington. He weighs not over 130 pounds. He's short in stature and of slender build, with black hair and eyes, and a swarthy mustache and goatee. He is the impersonation of self-reliance, grit, and cool courage. His nerve and pluck have been tested time and again and have never failed,” wrote reporters in the 1870s.

Press Butler first gained the attention of the community as a volunteer firefighter.

“These were colorful, well-styled young men, kind of fraternities, but also firefighting companies. This was before the city of Bloomington became involved in the firefighting business,” said Kemp.

Butler was among the contingent of Bloomington firefighters who raced north by locomotive to help during the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871. He would be elected an alderman in the city of Bloomington, and become a Bloomington police officer, captain of the night force, and then detective.

Butler gained street cred when Aaron Goodfellow was murdered not far from Franklin Park, in a case generally recognized as the granddaddy of 19th century Bloomington crime investigations, said Kemp.

“Butler's first success as a detective was made in the capture and conviction of Patsy Devine, who, with Harry Williams in the fall of 1879, shot and killed Aaron Goodfellow, a prominent citizen of Bloomington at his own gate in the twilight. Butler's first clue was obtained by a Bloomington Hackman. This he followed up with unswerving persistence; Devine was captured in the Catskills of New York,” wrote reporters of the day.

Kemp said some of Butler’s reported exploits can be believed and some probably not. The deeds supposedly included a lengthy gun battle at the west side Union Depot in 1883.

“Which ended in the capture and eventual conviction and imprisonment of the 'notorious forger and safe blower,'" said Kemp.

The name of the malefactor is now lost, Kemp said.

A year earlier in 1882, Butler was involved in the investigation of a triple murder in rural Logan County, outside of Mount Pulaski and Chestnut. Farmer Charles McMahon and two of his hired hands had been bound, gagged, and their throats slit in a cornfield on McMahon's farm. Butler played a role in that investigation.

“He was also involved in the Zora Burns murder case in Lincoln, Illinois, in 1883, when a domestic worker was found murdered while five months pregnant. Press Butler was really the first to finger Orin A. Carpenter, who was a well-to-do grain merchant,” said Kemp.

From newspapers of that era: “J. Press Butler, who figures as the leading detective in the Zora Burns case at Lincoln, and whose identification of the reins from the horse-drawn rig of Olin A Carpenter, resulted in the discovery of the alleged bloodstains upon them and the arrest of Carpenter is well known in police circles throughout the state."

“And it was said of Press Butler that he chased down countless scallywags, reprobates, and swindlers involved in all sorts of malicious mischief," said Kemp. "He was involved in rescuing plenty of young women from shame, often whether they wanted to be or not. He tracked down stolen goods from pocket watches, to horses, to false teeth even in one case.”

Butler drew splashy headlines from his police work. But he and Lizzie earned most of their steady income, said Kemp, by running the Butler House, a working-class hotel on the edge of downtown Bloomington at the corner Madison and Front Streets from 1855 to his death in 1918.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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