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posted: 7/20/2013 8:00 AM

'Rail party' for Volo woman 100 years ago brought widespread attention to town

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  • A 1913 edition of the Lake County Independent showcases the Volo vigilante event.

      A 1913 edition of the Lake County Independent showcases the Volo vigilante event.
    Courtesy of the Lake County Discovery Museum

  • A vintage photo of Main Street in Volo.

      A vintage photo of Main Street in Volo.
    Courtesy of the Lake County Discovery Museum

 
 

The little village of Volo usually doesn't get much attention, but actions taken there by a group of defiant women 100 years ago became front-page news.

What the marauding crowd did to Minnie Richardson on the night of July 15, 1913, is hard to fathom, although the suspicion of infidelity said to have fueled the bold act is at the core of many sensational stories to this day.

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Yet the tale of how and why the women vigilantes literally rode Richardson on a rail escaped the history books. There are no markers or exhibits, and the centennial anniversary of the day Richardson was dragged from her home passed anonymously.

Instead it had become a gray area of some family histories, seldom discussed and unknown to many descendants. Diana Dretske, a local historian and collections coordinator for the Lake County Discovery Museum, said she hadn't heard the story until a few years ago, when she was contacted by someone doing research.

"I'm like, 'No way that happened'. It was just so far fetched," she said. "We do a lot of research with people. You hear odd stories. I've never heard one this odd."

The caller was Heidi Steeves, who lived in Tampa, Fla., at the time. She had learned that Alma Walton, one of an estimated 15 or more women who held a "rail bee" for Richardson, was in the family tree.

"It did get everybody talking for awhile. Nobody knew," Steves said.

According to Dretske's historical blog recounting the story, being ridden on a rail was a common form of mob punishment in Colonial America but was a humiliation usually reserved for men.

"Initially, I was completely doubtful this could ever take place here," she said.

Aurora resident Bob Dillon's daughter-in-law unearthed his family's connection about three years ago while doing research. Walton was Dillon's great-grandmother and one of eight women who posed for a picture with the 12-foot rail used to run Richardson out of town.

"It's just a family historical oddity. My grandmother was such a laid back person, it's hard to believe her mother would have been involved in something like this," he said.

Was the group dubbed the Volo vigilantes jealous and narrow-minded? Outraged at what they perceived as Richardson's brazen extramarital affair with her brother-in-law, William Dunnill? Angry at how Richardson treated her husband, John, who was handicapped?

All were put forth as possibilities, but what happened is undisputed.

According to accounts of the day, Emma Stadfeldt went to Richardson's home at sunset on a Tuesday evening. The wife of the town blacksmith, Stadfeldt was described as weighing 180 pounds and being athletic.

When Richardson answered, Stadfeldt held her arms and dragged her to a crowd of about 15 women who had hidden around the corner. Richardson was partially stripped, placed on a 12-foot rail, and carried a quarter-mile by the jeering women.

"Her statements that we kicked and abused her are untrue. We merely rode her on the rail and then dumped her in the pond," Stadfeldt was quoted as saying.

Richardson later said the neighbors were jealous and she expected they would do something to hurt her, though not physically.

"But as I saw Mrs. Stadfeldt standing in the doorway something told me that drastic means were to be used," she told a local newspaper. "Along the road for a quarter of a mile I suffered misery the like of which I trust no woman will ever have to endure."

Minnie Schultz and John Richardson were married in Chicago in 1904 and by 1910 were living in Volo, which was unincorporated at the time.

So were John's sister, Rose, and her husband, William Dunnill. John Richardson, who used a wheelchair because of a "rheumatic" attack, ran a general store.

According to news accounts, relations between Minnie and Dunnill had been the topic of local conversation for some time and the "rail party" had been planned for about a year. It was meant to be a "doubleheader" but Dunnill caught wind of the plan and took off.

Stadfeldt was quoted as saying suspicions arose because the pair would sit with linked arms on the bench in front of the general store most every night. Richardson's husband often sat with them.

"It was because she was so bold in her actions with Dunnill and because she was always casting slurs at the rest of us women that we decided the best thing to do was to chase her out of town," she said.

Minnie Richardson told a local paper she was accused of going buggy riding with Dunnill and leaving her helpless husband at home.

"It is a cruel lie. I made two trips to McHenry, Ill., in a wagon to get furniture. He is my brother-in-law and he went with me to help me," according to Dretske's account.

Whatever the case, John Richardson mortgaged the store, gave Minnie $1,500 and put her on a train. She did not return and the couple divorced.

And apparently there was something more to the other relationship. Records show she and Dunnill were married about three years later in St. Joseph, Mich., and married a second time in Chicago in 1920 for a total of 38 years.

Five of the women who participated in the rail party were charged with rioting, found guilty and fined $100 each, according to Dretske's account.

She said the story is too good not to share. "I do give presentations to historical societies and such and have folded this story in and their eyes pop out," she said. "They just can't believe it."

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