The Hanging of Betsey Reed
A Wabash River Tragedy on the Illinois Frontier

by Rick Kelsheimer

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Historical Novels Review Online
THE HANGING OF BETSEY REED
Rick Kelsheimer, Infinity Publishing, 2007, $15.95, pb, 258pp, 0741440229
Nathan Crockett lives in the wilderness of southeastern Illinois during the 1840s—a time when hunters and trappers ruled the area. He meets the mysterious Betsey Reed and her husband Leonard by chance and is immediately and inextricably drawn into their lives. Though Betsey has a reputation as a healer with mysterious gifts, strange things tend to happen when she is around, and her bizarre behavior leads the locals to believe that she’s a witch. When Leonard dies, his troubled niece Eveline accuses Betsey of poisoning him to death, leading to a sensationalistic (and not quite fair) trial.
Kelsheimer’s fast-paced tale is based on the true story of the only woman ever to be hanged in the state of Illinois. Betsey is an outsider in her own community, one whose behavior is the result of years of childhood abuse and torment. The narrator, Nathan Crockett, has a love-hate relationship with Betsey—he is drawn to her and maintains that she is innocent, but he also fears her apparent power over the people around her. Kelsheimer is a native of southeastern Illinois, near the area where Betsey Reed lived, and he conducted a significant amount of research on the case and on those involved. The characters include both real people and invented characters, and all are portrayed realistically. (Of course, as with any historical novel of this era about Illinois, Abe Lincoln makes a brief appearance.)
The novel is heavy on dialogue, which keeps the pace quick, and the plot progresses rapidly enough to maintain the reader’s interest. This was frontier justice, cruel though it was, and Kelsheimer has captured it quite effectively.
-- Nanette Donohue


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