John N. Sweeney, my third cousin four times removed, was born in Illinois around 1866. He was not from my maternal Hoffmann side of the family (many of whom lived and/or still live in Illinois) but instead was from the paternal Sweeney branch which originated near what is now Belfast, Northern Ireland, then emigrated to what became Buckingham County, Virginia, then continued on to Casey County, Kentucky. Some of these Sweeney branches then moved again, this time to Illinois.
John’s parents were John Merritt and Eletha J. (Foley) Sweeney. They married in 1865 in McDonough County, Illinois1, and John N. Sweeney was the first of their ten children. The family was enumerated in Emmet, McDonough County, in 1870 and 18802,3. The 1890 census was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1921, but even if it had not been, the younger John would not have lived long enough to be enumerated.
John, Sr., and Eletha were still living in Emmet in December 1889, but John, Jr., then about 23, was working for a John Williamson three miles northwest of his parents’ home. The younger John had spent Sunday, December 8, with his parents, then in the evening left to return to the Williamson farm. Later reports indicated he stopped on the way to attend a church meeting. When he didn’t appear to work on Monday morning, Mr. Williamson assumed his employee was still visiting his parents. However, on Tuesday, John’s body was found in a field near a water tank by a man working half a mile south of the Williamson farm.
According to newspaper accounts of the incident, John’s throat had been cut from ear to ear; a bloody razor was found near a haystack “some rods distant,” along with his boots and stockings. There was a trail of blood leading from the haystack to the water tank where the body was found. An inquest was held, and the finding of the jury was that John had committed suicide, cutting his throat near the haystack, then stumbling (with his gaping neck wound?) to the area of the water tank, where he died.4, 5
Maybe I watch too many true crime shows, but I’m not sure I’m sold on the suicide angle for poor cousin John. This method of suicide is unusual enough, but it seems even less likely that John would be traipsing around barefoot after inflicting the fatal blow. However, I can’t find any evidence that the inquest findings were disputed, in spite of the fact that “He left no reason for the act, nor do the family know any.” While it’s not impossible that the inquest findings were correct, I’m sure that in the 21st century there would be enough questions about the circumstances and details surrounding John’s death to warrant further investigation.
1Illinois, Marriage Index, 1860-1920/1800-1940; Ancestry.com
21870 U.S. Federal Census; Ancestry.com
31880 U.S. Federal Census; Ancestry.com
4The Macomb (Illinois) Journal, 12 December 1889; www.newspapers.com
5The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago), 11 December 1889; www.newspapers.com