Story of James Laird, Naperville’s First Murder Victim

James Laird
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Chicago Tribune article, photo courtesy: Dennis Frantzen

“Terrible Tragedy in Naperville, DuPage County, a Man Shoots and Kills his Wife’s Paramour.” That was the headline for a Chicago Tribune article dated January 13, 1869.

The article is about James Laird who was born in 1838 and died in 1869 at 31 years old. Former Naperville resident, Dennis Frantzen, came across the Chicago Tribune article that his mother had saved.

“That’s what got me started was picking up this Xerox copy and seeing the details, but no one really knowing the details and piecing it together,” said Frantzen.

The story piqued the history enthusiast’s interest, which led him on a long research of who James Laird was and how he became Naperville’s first murder victim.

Who Was James Laird?

Chauncey and Sarah’s marriage license, photo courtesy: Dennis Frantzen

Laird was born and raised in Naperville. His grandfather, John Stevens, is considered to be one of the founding families of Naperville, according to Frantzen.

In 1857, Laird left and made his way to Nevada to the gold and silver fields. Frantzen believes he wasn’t successful and that’s how Laird ended up becoming the editor of the Union Newspaper. Competing editor of the Enterprise Newspaper was Sam Clemens, also known as Mark Twain.

Eventually Laird came back home in 1868 after being in a train wreck. He stayed at his aunt and uncle’s boardinghouse, which is where Sarah Bailey stayed when her husband Chauncey Bailey was out of town.

Laird and Sarah start a relationship, but Frantzen believes that wasn’t the first time they’d been together.

Diary entry of Hannah Ditzler who heard the gun shots, photo courtesy: Naper Settlement

“What I have found, and this is I think what a lot of people haven’t seen or saw and didn’t really connect the dots. Sarah and Jim were in school together at the Naper Academy,” said Frantzen. “I think that they were school sweethearts. They knew each other all along. And what I said before about 1857 when Jim left. This is coincidental with Sarah’s marriage to Chauncey Bailey.”

Murder of Laird

One day Chauncey said he’d be going to Elgin for a couple of days. Laird and Sarah took the opportunity to meet at Sarah and Chauncey’s home.

“That’s when Sarah’s in his [Laird] arms. Chauncey runs in and starts shooting,” said Frantzen. “One shot hits the ceiling, one shot hits a bookcase, but one shot hits Jim [James Laird]. As he passes Chauncey, another shot hits Jim in the side and Jim stumbles out the front door into the snow. He follows Jim out and eventually kills him.”

Chicago Tribune murder trial article, photo courtesy: Naper Settlement

Bailey was arrested and taken to trial. A neighbor said he’d seen Bailey waiting outside of the house and looking through the window for half an hour before going in.

“Now the interesting point is that the curtains had cuts in them,” said Frantzen. “So that says this wasn’t a chance, Chauncey coming home early from his trip. It was planned. He didn’t go out of town at all.”

Though he went to trial, it was eventually declared a crime of passion and Chauncey was let go. Chauncey moved out west to work with his brother and Sarah took their daughter, Minnie, to Chicago.

Preserving a Story

When Frantzen was in Naperville for a dentist appointment, he decided to visit Laird’s headstone.

James Laird headstone, photo courtesy: Dennis Frantzen

“All of the inscription had worn away and that bothered me,” said Frantzen. “I look at this stone and I was familiar with this person and his circumstances and there is nothing there. And it troubled me. And it got to the point where I said what can I do?”

After speaking with the cemetery, they told him either the owner of the gravesite or family could make changes. That’s when Frantzen tracked down the descendants of Laird so he could add a gravesite marker next to the headstone.

New gravesite marker, photo courtesy: Dennis Frantzen

“I didn’t want whatever story there was to just disappear by virtue of weathering of this stone,” said Frantzen.

The new marker reads “our brother… James Laird, 1838-1869,” which is the original inscription that was on the headstone.

Naperville News 17’s Aysha Ashley Househ reports.

photo courtesy: Dennis Frantzen