Woodstock's Atticus Finch
Copyright (c) (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro
All Rights Reserved
"The farmers of McHenry County protested even against my being imprisoned there, and it was reported that they would meet the train on which I was to arrive and that a lynching might follow. Heavily guarded, I was thus delivered to George Eckert, sheriff of McHenry County, who met the train at the station and took me into custody. The farmers were there with their threats and mutterings, and with some other sheriff than George Eckert in charge might have attempted their cowardly program. But George Eckert was a man as well as a sheriff, and he told them, in words they did not fail to understand, that I was his prisoner, and that it was his duty to protect as well as to jail me, and that he proposed to do it. The would-be lynchers knew George Eckert, and slunk away in the darkness. They knew he would protect me — if necessary with his own life."
Mourning his recently deceased friend George Eckert in 1923, Eugene V. Debs with these words remembered the beginning of their friendship in Woodstock's McHenry County Jail in 1895. Eckert and Debs agreed on few political issues, but the bond they forged endured for almost 30 years. Each knew the other to be a good man worthy of trust and respect.
"This was my introduction to George Eckert," Debs remembered. "He had read and heard all about me that was false and slanderous and had been led to believe that I was a desperate and dangerous criminal and that I should be treated accordingly. But this did not alter his determination to accord to me the treatment due to any other prisoner in his custody. That night I slept in a clean cell. The following morning the sheriff came to see me and I had a friendly chat and soon came to a perfect mutual understanding which was never once violated on either side. From that hour George Eckert was my friend and I was his, and though 27 years have passed, not one of them brought its holidays without the exchange of mutual greetings and remembrances."
Debs respected and admired his jailer. Eckert recognized Debs as a man of integrity and courage, and he understood that Debs was not a criminal but a political prisoner.
As A.C. Cantley reported for the "St. Louis Post-Dispatch," Eckert trusted in Debs's sense of honor: "[Eckert] allows his distinguished prisoners all the liberty possible under the circumstances. They were allowed to walk into the yard and take exercise. No handcuffs and no balls and chains and no guards have been considered necessary." While incarcerated in McHenry County Jail, Debs led his six fellow prisoners in rigorous daily exercise, in studies of history and economics, and in evening debates. The prisoners played football behind the neighboring McHenry County Court House, sunned themselves on the grounds, and dined with Eckert’s family. Eckert allowed Debs to use his jail time to study and ponder the plight of working-class Americans. Debs hired a secretary to assist with his mail, and Eckert set aside an old jail cell in the Court House basement for the production of Deb’s union publication, the Railway Times.
Eckert even trusted Debs with a gun. A visitor to Debs in McHenry County Jail learned of Debs's absence because "the prisoner is out hunting with the Sheriff." Much later, other wardens would trust in Debs's integrity. After Debs began serving time in federal prison in 1919 because he had protested against American participation in World War One, he travelled from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., to discuss his case with President Harding's Attorney General. Debs went by train to Washington without an escort, and Debs returned to federal prison in Atlanta without an escort.
Others besides Debs recognized Eckert as a man of principle and honor. Upon Eckert's death in 1923 at his home (340 S. Madison Street), the "Woodstock Sentinel" eulogized him as "a manly man, a considerate, kind and thoughtful husband and father. A good neighbor, a devoted citizen of this commonwealth, and a worthy veteran." He had served as Sheriff of McHenry County for 8 years, as an Alderman in Woodstock for 16 years, as Collector for Dorr Township for 2 terms, as Captain of Company G of the state guard, and as Commander of the Woodstock Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Eckert was buried in Woodstock's Oakland Cemetery. His grave, his house, and Old McHenry County Jail survive to remind us of George Eckert.
After Debs left Woodstock in 1895, Eckert's daughter, Georgie, as president of the women's auxiliary to the GAR Post, arranged for Debs to speak to an audience in Woodstock's City Hall. After Debs left federal prison in 1921, both father and daughter visited him as he tried to recover his shattered health in an Elmhurst sanitarium. "Mr. Eckert and his daughter Georgie drove 50 miles on a cold, gusty day to pay me a visit and to comfort me with their sympathy and companionship. The visit was to be the last with my loyal old friend, and I shall never forget how touched I was at the parting. George Eckert had been a true friend to me when friendship is possible only in the heart and soul and conscience of a genuine human being."
Agreeing on little, these very different friends nevertheless recognized and respected each other as men of quality. If we are not able to emulate them, we have lost something valuable.
First published in The Woodstock Independent