From 1868 to 1876, Williamson County, Illinois played host to a feud called ‘The Bloody Vendetta’. It started as a pretty standard blood feud between two families, but it quickly drew in multiple families on each side, and its impacts spilled over into the broader community. It’s a great plot hook and setting feature that can be inserted almost anywhere!
Williamson County lies at the heart of the stretch of rural southern Illinois called ‘Little Egypt’. It’s best known for producing coal, corn, and corpses. The Bloody Vendetta was the first time Williamson County found itself in the papers for bloodshed, but its violent reputation persisted into the 1930s.
The Bloody Vendetta began in 1868 with an ordinary tavern brawl that set two families – the Bulliners and the Hendersons – against one another. A year later, the Bulliners got into a business dispute with the sheriff, one George Sisney. The Bulliners took it personally and shot Sisney four times. Sisney lived, and the Hendersons were happy to recruit the Sisney family onto their side. When members of the Sisney family brawled with members of the Crain family at a general store, the Crains chose to involve themselves, siding with the Bulliners.
The feud settled into two sides: The Bulliner-Crain side and the Henderson-Sisney side. All four families were large and prominent. All four were keen for violence. 1873 was marked by a series of brawls, but no one was ever prosecuted. Two Bulliners were shot and killed from ambush, but only one murder came to trial, and there was insufficient evidence to convict. The Bulliners retaliated by sneaking onto the farm of the Hendersons’ paterfamilias and shooting him (fatally) in the back.
Then the effects of the feud started to spread. In May of 1874, a farmer a mile from the last shooting was shot nonfatally. He wasn’t connected to any of the families. Folks figured he must have witnessed something he oughtn’t’ve. A country doctor who testified at the earlier trial was ambushed on his way home and shot dead. Strangers started shunning the region. No one wanted to move to the county, so property values fell. Though the area was rich with coal, no one wanted to open mines.
You might expect the local authorities to have gotten involved. Though Williamson County was rural, it was no Wild West. But the senior figures of the feud wielded considerable political and social influence. George Sisney was no longer sheriff, but he and the other feuders had plenty of pull, and local officials often flat-out refused to prosecute them.
Considering it had lasted for seven years, flaring up here and there, the Bloody Vendetta ended with remarkable swiftness. George Sisney was murdered at his home in 1875. The day after the funeral, a witness was found dead. The two back-to-back murders inflamed the press all across Illinois, and the authorities finally felt obliged to act. The Williamson County Commission, Jackson County Court, and even the governor of Illinois all offered sizable rewards for information leading to the arrests of the murderers. And it worked! A suspect was arrested, he got good and drunk, and he squealed on his associates on the Bulliner-Crain side of the feud. Two months after the murders, the feud was all over except the trials.
Ordinarily, I’d gloss over the trials. This one, though, had a dramatic moment. A man named Marshall Crain was on the stand, denying any knowledge of the murder for which he and two other men stood accused. The other defendants’ lawyers produced a letter Crain had written to his two co-defendants. In the letter, he asked them to round up some folks to swear Crain was at a surprise party the night of the murder. In exchange, Crain would finger a fourth guy for the murder, and all three co-defendants would go free.
When he saw the letter, Crain realized his two co-defendants intended to let him take the fall for this murder, so they could walk. Crain was so infuriated that he recanted his denials. He told the court everything he knew about the murders, which corroborated an earlier witness on every point. If Crain’s co-defendants wanted to see him hang, by God he’d take them down with him! Crain was hanged, and his co-defendants each got 25 years. Five other feuders on the Bulliner-Crain side were also sent to prison.
No one from the Henderson-Sisney side ever went to trial. A suspicious mind could read in this ending a great victory for the Henderson-Sisney faction, perhaps engineered by some enterprising PC-like characters whispering the right facts in the right ears.
The Bloody Vendetta is great for the gaming table, because the violence is pervasive, but infrequent. It can simmer away murderously in the background while your party is off having adventures, then every so often impact the PCs. Maybe an NPC they liked or counted on turns up dead. Maybe someone important leaves town to escape the feud. Eventually, the party will probably have to pick a side or risk having one picked for them (like in the cases of the farmer and the country doctor). If you drop this plot hook early in the campaign, you can let it develop organically until the PCs are compelled to get involved.
The first image is by Daniel Schwen. It’s released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
The second image is by Amos Oliver Doyle. It’s released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.