By JOSEPH I. McCAIN
From page 37 of the July 1977 issue of Lost Treasure magazine.
Copyright ©1977, 1997 Lost Treasure, Inc.
Central Illinois today is an agricultural area, sprinkled here and there
with small peaceful towns. Very few of its citizens know that these same communities were
once terrorized by a vicious outlaw gang. Even fewer are aware that the desperados cached
substantial amounts of their loot in glass bottles sealed with beeswax.
In 1832, John Birch migrated to central Illinois from North Carolina and settled on forty acres in Clark County. With him came his two sons, Robert and Timothy. Robert Birch was just twelve years old at that time, but before the next decade had passed, he became the undisputed leader of one of the most notorious gangs in outlaw history.
It is likely that John Birch (known by the nickname "Old Coon") encouraged his sons to enter a life of crime. It is a known fact that he kept a rendezvous-hide-out at the Birch family cabin nine miles southwest of the county seat of Marshall.
This cabin was in a small clearing surrounded by virgin forest. Due to the Birch's reputation and the formidable countryside, it is small wonder that few dared venture there without invitation.
By the early 1840's, the activities of the Birch gang had spread over most of Illinois as well as parts of Iowa, Missouri and Indiana, and included the dubious arts of horse stealing, counterfeiting, robbery and murder. The scope of the gang's operation, and the large numbers within its ranks, made it nearly impossible for local law officers to combat the outlaws. However, in 1845, a crime was committed by the gang that aroused the wrath of the public to a point where it was decided to bring in outside help to destroy the Birch gang.
In the northern Illinois community of Rock Island lived an elderly gentleman named Col. Davenport. The Colonel owned a beautiful home overlooking the Mississippi River, and was locally popular and well respected. On July 4th of that year, he was attacked in his home by three men and tortured in a vain attempt to force him to reveal where his money was hidden. Leaving the old man dying of numerous wounds, the three desperados fled, taking the colonel's pocket watch, firearms, and a small amount of cash.
Col. Davenport was able to crawl to a window which faced on the river, and his cries for help soon summoned aid from a boat that was passing below. He lived just long enough to give descriptions of Robert Birch and two other gang members.
Rock Island law officers subsequently engaged the services of Edward Bonney, already famous for his detective work, and set him on the trail of the outlaws. Bonney traveled to Marshall, where he persuaded the sheriff to show him the trail to the Birch homestead. Within a mile or so of the Old Coon's cabin, the sheriff pointed the direction for Bonney to take and prudently set off in the opposite one.
Detective Bonney approached the shackled dwelling alone and was met by the Old Coon and his son, Tim. By carefully dropping a few names and known facts, Bonney was able to convince the two bandits that he was himself an outlaw, and a friend of Robert Birch. Thereafter, he was invited to spend the night. And during the evening's conversation, Old Coon revealed to Bonney that the clerk of the court in Marshall was a friend of the gang and always warned them in advance of approaching trouble.
Years later, when Bonney recounted his adventures in his book "Banditti of the Prairies", the enraged citizens of Marshall assumed the unnamed clerk to have been one Davis Phillips. He and his son, Tom, were seized, roped to trees, and publicly whipped. As a result the Phillips family left Clark County and moved west.
The next day Old Coon sent Bonney to join another gang member who lived a few miles away. "Old Grant" Redden kept a tumbledown hideout for gang members at his farm on Devil's Creek near Montrose, Illinois. Based on Old Coon's recommendation and Bonney's story, he quickly accepted the detective as a member of the gang.
From this point on, Bonney pretended to join with the outlaws in their deviltries, all the while learning more and more about the band and its members. This information eventually helped him break up the Birch Gang, causing some of them to be hanged and sending many of the others to prison. Robert Birch, when finally arrested by Detective Bonney, still had Col. Davenport's watch in his possession.
In 1852, an angry posse of Clark County citizens attacked the Birch family cabin and captured Timothy Birch. The few remaining gang members fled to Missouri and were never seen in Illinois again.
The extent of the Birch's operations would; of course, indicate that they were able to accumulate a hoard of stolen valuables. Old Grant Redden confided to Detective Bonney that large amounts of money had been sealed in glass bottles with beeswax and buried in a wheat field near the Devil's Creek hideout. In his memoirs, Bonney indicates that this method was a common practice among gang members who desired, for one reason or another, to cache their ill-gotten wealth.
There is no record of any of this loot being recovered. Careful research of newspaper files in areas where the gang operated could provide valuable clues to potential treasure sites. Robert Birch himself spent a lot of time in the Rock Island area, where he eventually committed the crime that brought about his downfall. An additional clue is that he often used aliases. Blecher and Harris were two--Joseph I. McCAIN