MOUNT VERNON -- The phrase “cracking the whip” still registers in our language, though flogging as a corporal punishment was given up many years ago in most western countries.
It may surprise many to know, though, that it was used one one memorable occasion in the early years of Knox County.
Not much is known about the victim, William Hedrick, who surfaces in this story then gets lost in the dust of time. What is known is that Hedrick was present in the area just as Knox County was being formed in 1808 and the total population was small. Only men were permitted to vote in 1808, so the total number of votes cast – 56 – was less than the population, but even with all their family members counted, there couldn't have been more than 200 white settlers living here.
With a population that small, it would have been foolish to commit major crimes, for the chances of being caught must have been extremely high. That didn't daunt William Hedrick, who appears to have gone on a crime spree. One of the first legal actions of the new county in April 1808 was to put Hedrick on trial for stealing a watch from William Bowen, stealing a horse, a bell and collar from William Wallace, and stealing a pair of overalls from Joseph Cherry Holmes.
The jury quickly found the man guilty of all crimes. But not only was he required to pay fines totaling $27 and replacement value of $91.50, plus court costs, he was sentenced to a month in jail. But those were the easy parts. Hedrick was also sentenced to 40 lashes with a whip: 20 for the horse, 10 for the watch, and five each for the overalls and bell/collar.
Sheriff Brown, who had newly been elected as the first sheriff of Knox County over opponent Ichabod Nye, was given instructions to carry out the public flogging. Sheriff Brown apparently took Hedrick directly from the log courthouse (as the jail hadn't yet been built) and marched him to the northeast side of the square.
There stood a crooked hickory tree that would serve well as a whipping post. Hedrick's arms were tied above his head to the bent tree and his shirt was stripped off his back.
The sheriff got to work. Using a long, thick, braided rawhide whip, Sheriff Brown delivered the first few strokes low across Hedrick's back, resulting in howls of pain from the prisoner. One of the bystanders, Mount Vernon's first grocer, Gilman Bryant, spoke up.
“Whip him somewhere else,” Bryant said, “that's no place to whip a man.”
If the sheriff had continued the blows across Hedrick's kidneys, the whipping could have caused permanent injury or even death. The sheriff adjusted his aim higher and finished the sentence.
Eyewitness accounts state that Hedrick's skin was cut and broken, with blood oozing out. Hedrick himself was sobbing and moaning as they cut him down.
“You should not blame me for this,” Hedrick said to the gawkers, “for is not my fault.”
A man named Bob Walker replied to him sarcastically.
“No, by God, you wouldn't have stood up and been whipped that way if you could have helped it,” Walker said.
The crowd of bystanders laughed at Hedrick, who made no further attempt to speak. It is not known what happened to him after he served his month in jail — after it was built. He appears on no later tax lists or census reports.
Whether or not is was because of the whipping incident, Silas Brown didn't remain sheriff long. By 1809, his former opponent Ichabod Nye is installed in the job, where he remains for the next five years.
The county commissioners reimbursed Brown $13.33 for his expenses for the previous year. That included $4 for the cost of conducting elections, $4.00 for summoning two grand juries, $2.50 for three hasps and a lock (perhaps for the new jail?), and 50 cents to feed Hedrick for the month he was imprisoned.
Brown, who lived in what is now Pleasant Township, continued to be involved in public life. In 1810, he served on the jury that tried the first slander case in Knox County history. What the case is about is not recorded, but apparently a young woman by the name of Martha Zenick must have said something bad about David and Mary Miller or their family in general, for the Millers sued Martha Zenick and her father.
William Zenick didn't even bother showing up for the trial – for which he was fined $1 – and the case itself resulted in a hefty $30 fine against the Zenicks for slander.
Silas Brown went on to marry Sally Marett, serve in other elected offices, and grow a family. By the 1830s, he's one of the county commissioners. By 1840, he no longer appears on census reports. Instead, a younger Silas Brown, presumably a son or nephew, appears in his place.