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Author Shares Tales of Daring Desperadoes: Notorious Outlaws from Illinois

This article originally appeared in the Crystal Lake-Cary Patch

Ed and Lon Maxwell had a reputation across Illinois as robbers and horse thieves, but in 1881 their crime wave reached a new, more infamous level.

That is when they shot and killed two Wisconsin lawmen, Charles and Milton Coleman.

According to author John Hallwas and the University of Illinois Press – which published his 2009 award-winning book, “Dime Novel Desperadoes” – the murders launched the largest manhunt in American history. About 20 posses pursued the brothers across Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Nebraska.

The Maxwell brothers are among a number of daring desperadoes, included in Hallwas’  lecture on Monday, April 15 – “Desperadoes: Notorious Outlaws of Early Illinois.”

It is the latest offering in the annual Sampler Series at the McHenry County Historical Society Museum, 6422 Main St. in Union.

The program, made possible by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, begins at 7 p.m. A $10 donation is requested. For information, or to reserve your seat in advance, call 815-923-2267.

About John Hallwas

“What you write about is what you end up speaking about,” said Hallwas, who has penned more than a dozen books.

“My themes as a writer are community, remembrance and belonging. I spent my whole life in smaller Illinois communities. And to get [the public] interested in their communities and the gradual deterioration of community, you can’t beat having a crime-type story.”

Hallwas, 68, an Antioch native who now lives Macomb, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Western Illinois University and a doctorate in English from the University of Florida.

He went on to teach English for 34 years at WIU and hosts a namesake lecture series there each September.

 “I was teaching Chaucer and Beowolf when I noticed that scholars were not writing about Carl Sandberg and Illinois historical things that needed attention,” Hallwas said. “I moved in and filled up the vacuum.”

Hallwas shifted from medieval studies to American literature, creating his own courses and developing a reputation on the lecture circuit. Among his favorite topics are true crime stories.

Illinois History

Listeners will dive into Illinois’ notorious past and learn about early law enforcement, vigilantes, lynching and more through dozens of images, featuring outlaws, jails, wanted posters and infamous hideouts like Cave in the Rock.

‘Horse stealing in Illinois was very big,” Hallwas said. “After the Civil War a huge crime wave followed for reasons that I will explain.”

Hallwas said much research remains to be done on Illinois’ early outlaws. He pointed out that Joliet Prison records, that chronicle early lawbreakers and their crimes, date back to 1860. And they are available by visiting the state archives in Springfield.

“Literature allows us to get back and inside people and write books that focus on people,” Hallwas said. “But [Abraham] Lincoln would be the last person I’d ever write about. I’m more interested in writing about the kinds of people who don’t usually get the attention. What made them tick?”

This year’s Sampler Series ends April 29.

Ders Anderson, a Crystal Lake resident and Greenways director for the Openlands Project in Chicago, will discuss historic trails in the county starting at 3 p.m. at the museum.

For information, call 815-923-2267 or visit