Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois: The Legend of Willie Potts

Records and oral traditions tell of numerous tragedies that occurred along Ford’s Ferry Road. One of these concerns William Potts’s son, generally called “Willie.” According to this story, Willie succeeded only too well in the plans he made to play a joke upon his parents. His success cost him his life, caused his parents many years of sorrow, and left to the region one of its most interesting legends.

It was not strange that Willie, growing up in the environment of the tavern his father kept, would be inclined toward a career of violence. Men engaged in robbery along that trail loitered about the tavern. Willie mixed with them, heard their stories, and naturally became interested in their activities.

According to one version, Willie selected for his first victim a prosperous looking traveler coming north from Ford’s Tavern in Kentucky toward his father’s tavern in Illinois and rode along with him for some distance before attempting to rob him. The stranger, who had become suspicious and alert, was first on the draw and shot young Potts in the shoulder. The wound was not too serious and the would-be robber rode away at great speed.

A second account says that Willie met his prospect as they journeyed in opposite directions along the road and was robbing him at gunpoint when two farmers, not friendly to Willie, came upon the scene. Fearing exposure, Willie decided to leave the country.

He did so and was gone for a number of years, during which time it is said that he plied his trade with success in other regions. Then, very much grown up and changed in appearance, Willie thought it would be safe to visit the scenes of his boyhood. He was now a very large man and would not be readily recognized. He also had grown a heavy dark beard that would add to the difficulty of recognition.

Members of the gang with which young Potts had once operated observed the apparent prosperity of the stranger when he stopped at Ford’s Tavern in Kentucky on his way home. One of the men to whom he revealed his identity informed the others that the supposed stranger was their old confederate, Willie Potts; whereupon the plans already formed to rob him were dropped and he was welcomed back by the group. The next day young Potts went on to his father’s tavern at the northern end of the road, arriving there later in the afternoon. Neither the mother nor father recognized the stranger as their son. Willie, enjoying the success of his plan, decided to wait until the morrow to tell them who he was. He and the elder Potts sat talking until bedtime.

Young Potts, being thirsty, asked for a drink of water. His father, as was his custom, suggested that they go to the near-by spring for a fresh drink. When they reached it, young Potts knelt, placed his hands upon the stones as he had done so often in earlier years, leaned forward and began to drink. The father, seeing the opportunity offered, drew a dagger that he always carried and plunged it into the unsuspecting drinker’s back, below the left shoulder blade. The victim died at once.

The elder Potts took the large roll of bills that he found, removed the body of his son to a near-by hillside and placed it in a shallow grave among other victims. He then returned to the tavern and went to bed. Measured by his standards, it had been a successful day.

The next morning some of the group with whom his son once had associated came to the tavern from Ford’s place in Kentucky. They had come to celebrate the return of their former associate. When the new arrivals inquired concerning Willie, the mother and father were puzzled.

They thought that a joke was being played and appeared to resent it. Further questioning and a description of the one sought aroused grave anxiety in both Potts and his wife. They began to suspect that the stranger of the night before was their son.

After the departure of the puzzled visitors. Potts took a spade, went to the newly-made grave and began to remove dirt. His consternation and remorse may be imagined when the body was uncovered and careful examination revealed a tell-tale birthmark. This mark was a dark figure shaped like a four-leaf clover, once called “the lucky mark,” just above the point where the dagger had pierced.

“Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois” – John W. Allen

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