Southern Illinois History Page

The Legend of Billy Potts and Potts' Tavern

    The Illinois Department of Public Works, Division of Highways first published this article in a magazine called Safety sometime in 1937. Later, The Metropolis News republished the story below a three-column photograph. Due to the quality of the photograph when copied from the microfilm, it is not reprinted here.
    The following story does a good job of retelling the basic legend of Billy Potts and the Potts' Inn. Historians have not been able to prove the existence of Billy (the very nature of the story prevents that). However, the tavern really did exist and documentary evidence does link the tavern keeper, a man by the name of Isaiah Potts, to the outlawry occurring in the first third of the 19th Century.
    The Potts Inn sat just off of the Ford's Ferry road which ran from the James Ford's ferry a few miles above Cave-in-Rock to the saltworks at Equality. The Golconda-to-Shawneetown road is believed to have intersection the Ford's Ferry road below Potts' Inn and then split off again above Potts' Inn, thus giving the inn a powerful crossroads location. Potts also owned the ferry across the Saline River nearby where the Golconda-to-Shawneetown road crossed the river.
    It's not known when Potts built his inn, but a cabin stood on the site as early as the first decade of the 18th Century. Here, the male kin of a kidnapped/eloped young woman caught up to Moses Steagall and the would-be groom and shot the pair. In August 1799, Steagall had rode with the posse chasing the notorious Harpes after they killed Steagall's wife and son. After capturing Big Harpe, Steagall cut off the outlaw's head. Earlier that spring, after the Harpes escaped from the Danville, Kentucky jail they crossed over into the Illinois Country. They murdered two or three hunters on Potts' future plantation before joining the pirates at Cave-in-Rock.
    Recently, a diary excerpt from 1854 provides the earliest account of the legends surrounding Potts Inn.

    The picture above is a building in Hardin County that is about 100 years old and has a most unusual gruesome history.
    This building is located on what was the old Ford's Ferry to Vandalia Trail in Hardin County. Travelers coming from the eastern territory beyond the Ohio River into the Illinois country, usually crossed the river on Ford's ferry, then followed the Vandalia Trail as a necessity, as it was then the only cross-country route that a stranger unfamiliar with the surroundings could follow.
    The tavern was on the Vandalia Trail about ten miles from Ford's ferry, at the foot of a high rocky bluff, the first indication of the fact that the Ozark foothills would have to be taken into consideration by the weary traveler. Here, also, was a clear, cool spring, which was then and is now, a source of never failing supply of water, about which we will hear more later. The tavern was operated by a cheerful villain who bore the name of Potts.
    Jim Ford owned the ferry and hired one Vincent Simpson to operate it. These three merry-gentlemen — Potts, Ford and Simpson — had an eye for business and were not bothered by any questions of remorse, if their business methods resulted in an untimely death for some of their customers. The dominating idea that the inspiration for this unholy alliance of three cut-throats; was that of separating the travelers from their worldly possessions, which they usually carried in their saddlebags or in a convenient "poke", fastened to a belt. As indicated above if, in the separating process, the surprised customers chose to take issue with them and point out that they were engaged in a nefarious enterprise, which if not illegal, most certainly could be classified as being rude and discourteous, they promptly dispatched him to another world as befitting one who was not versed in modern business and had made the unhappy mistake of talking out of turn, thereby revealing to them that such an uncouth person would not be missed in the circle of polite society of Hardin County.
    In order to put their business of murder and robbery on a big dividend paying basis, they evolved the idea of hiring spotters and runners whose business it was to fall in with approaching travelers and make an inventory of their belongings, which they forwarded, together with a report of about how much resistance to expect from each victim to either Messrs. Ford and Simpson at the ferry or to Mr. Potts at the tavern,. This information, turned in by the spotters and runners, cut down to a minimum the useless knocking off of a penniless wayfarers, which could not result in any possible gain of any sort, and had the added disadvantage of cluttering up the landscape with a varied assortment of lifeless gentry that someone would have to bury, or at least drag off, out of the way of a not-so-very fast coming civilization.
    Potts had a son who finally grew to young manhood and was making a very efficient hand in his father's business organization, as he apparently inherited the knack of murder and highway robbery from a long line of forefathers who have been ranked by historians as being tops in this field of endeavor. However, he chafed at restraint and would on occasions and on his own initiative, make solicitations that did not have parental sanction. One of these individual efforts on his part was rather crudely staged, and resulted in his having to leave the immediate vicinity in a hurry. Thrown on his own, he still plied the trade which had been taught him by long association with his father, and made quite a name for himself in the Ohio River territory as a freebooter and river pirate, par excellence. After an absence of some fifteen or twenty years, pangs of homesickness smote him to such an extent that he turned his footsteps homeward. A newly-discovered sense of humor, and the natural desire of our true artist to test the effectiveness of his careful disguise which had been supplemented by a full, luxuriant, natural bear, led him to have a try at keeping his identity a secret for a short space of time, when he returned to the scene of his boyhood days. More than this, if he were unknown, he would have a chance to view at close range, the business operations of his father's firm, with the now criticizing eye of an efficiency expert and be in a position to finally point out flaws in the set-up or possibly pick up for himself a few pointers on skullduggery to augment his own voluminous knowledge of his craft. Whatever his motive, history records his coming as an unheralded one.
    He approached the ferry from the Kentucky side. Sure enough, a man he knew for a spotter in his father's hire, fell in with him and carefully sounded him out as to his finances. He let it be known that he was in possession of a considerable quantity of the coin of the realm, which later proved to be the truth. This man and the ferry attendant gave him careful instructions to guide him to Potts' tavern, as they were now convinced that fortune had favored them indeed, by sending his lone individual who would yield up a maximum of profit for a minimum of effort. They also knew that if this lone bearer of potential company earnings failed, for any reason, to arrive at Potts' tavern for his already-arranged-for hulling out and demise the wrath of Potts senior, who now had been elevated to the exalted position of managing direct of the firm Death and Robbery, Unlimited, Hardin County, Illinois, would be visited upon the underline responsible for this mismanagement. Previous experiences had t aught them that old man Potts was much more than a mere novice when it came to visiting wrath on anybody of anything.
    Anyhow, Potts junior, wearing his beard at full mast, and enjoying his huge joke to the utmost, drove in sight of the hold homestead and bidden welcome by his father, who was not only a most genial host, but had developed little mannerisms and tricks of hospitality which often induced the guest to extend his stay at the hostelry for an indefinite period of time.
    Potts, senior, now went into the old routine of asking his new guest if he did not want to quench his thirst at the old spring. This idea had long been incorporated in the firm's by-laws for a two-fold purpose. Some of the more fastidious guests had been known to squawk about the idea of sitting idly on the tavern veranda and having to watch the innkeeper bounce a pole ax off the head of another guest, especially just before the dinner hour. Having originated the idea that some of the customers-particularly the ones who had arrived without much money-were always partially right., Potts, with a fine display of sympathetic feeling for his other gusts always maneuvered any newcomer whom he planned to rob out of sight, down by the spring. This couple with the fact that his private burying ground was immediately adjacent to the springs, not only smoothed the remaining, living guest, but added just that gesture of efficiency of the brand he so ardently demanded from all the members of his organization.
    Not knowing that the elder Potts had long since completed his graduate work and had been awarded a master's degree in the gentle art of preparing passengers for their journey across the River Styx, and acting as chief usher to them while en route, Potts junior strolled unwarily ahead of him down the path leading to the spring. Local historian have recorded the fact that this particular murder, because o its masterful handling, should be included in the upper brackets when compiling any kind of a list of deaths by violence in Hardin County. Some have gone as far as to say, without qualification, that its perfection had never been approached when viewed in the cool, analyzing way unprejudiced experts have of judging such matters.
    When it was subsequently rumored that the last Potts' tavern guest who had been murdered and robbed in the order named, was in reality, young Potts, it irked the old man no end, To put a stop to such foolish outburst of woman's chitter-chatter, he without further delay diligently removed the shallow earth covering the body and hauled him forth to prove to all the known world and that part of Hardin County which had shown any interest in the matter, that he was not a citizens who would do such a dastardly thing as murder his own son, even when he was harassed by an unusual rush of seasonal business.
    Here, though, he tripped himself, as he had not reckoned on his wife's remarkable memory. She happened to be dipping a bucket of water from the spring and saw her spouse uproot his latest business venture. She identified the remains as their son by a birthmark and some indentations in his skull, the latter a result of her having tried to correct him in his wayward youth, with an iron poker, usually kept near the fireplace, but had been pressed into use on one occasion as an emergency remedy.
    Potts' tavern is located in Hardin County, on S.B.I. No. 1, 13 miles south of the junction of S.B.I. No. 13, about 400' west of the pavement.
    (Picture and article courtesy of Safety magazine published by Division of Highways, district nine, at Carbondale, in the interest of highway safety.)
    — Ann Laird of Metropolis contributed this article.

Updated July 6, 2000 by Jon Musgrave © 2000