Our Iowa Heritage: Gilman Folsom vs. ‘Very Slippery Fellow’ in Iowa City.

Gilman Folsom moved to Iowa City in 1841, where he became a prominent citizen, practicing law and serving in the Iowa House of Representatives – elected in 1850 and 1852.

In December, 1852, Gilman Folsom is a very busy man. He is an attorney, overseeing his law practice in Iowa’s state capital, Iowa City. He has also just been re-elected to the Iowa House of Representatives, and his ferry business, which he took over from his late father-in-law, Pleasant Arthur, in 1845, is booming. In the early 1850’s, Iowa City was the jumping off point for the West, and with the recent Gold Rush in California, hundreds of fortune-seekers are lined up on the eastern shore of the Iowa River on a daily basis, at the foot of the Stone Capitol, to take Folsom’s ferry across the Iowa River. By May of 1853, Gilman will be applying for a license to build Iowa City’s very first toll bridge located at this same ferry-landing, positioned perfectly on the National Road crossing.

A Letter Asking For Help From Oregon, Illinois.

Sometime, right before Christmas of 1852, a letter arrives in Gilman’s mail. It’s the letter you see below. Dated December 10, 1852, it’s a personal, hand-written letter from a concerned man from Oregon, Illinois.

(C-0237) Stamp-less Cover/Letter postmarked and dated December 10, 1852. In March 2021, we secured another letter to Gilman Folsom. It’s a personal letter from what appears to be S.A. Irvin of Oregon, IL written to Mr. Folsom in order to secure his legal help in resolving a financial debt owed him by an Iowa City citizen, Boyd Wilkinson. Oregon is located in Ogle County (north-central Illinois) and has a very unique history. When settlers moved in, they discovered the area contained a large number of Pottawatomi and Winnebago burial mounds, most 10 to 12 feet in diameter. The name Oregon means “River of the West.”

The hand-writing is difficult to read, so our best guess is that this letter is from a gentleman named: S.A. Irvin. In his letter, S.A. explains that he has “a matter that I wish attended to in your city” and is “induced to write to (Gilman),” needing legal help in tracking down one Boyd Wilkinson.

Boyd Wilkinson – Keeper of a Livery Stable – A Very Slippery Fellow.

There is a man in your city by (the) name of Boyd Wilkinson, who I believe keeps a kind of Livery Stable, who I hold a judgment against of $83.00 exactly + interest for nearly two years making now some $90.00 or more. Boyd is a very slippery fellow, and will not pay if he can avoid it, and will make way with his property if he can do it. This judgment was recovered before a Justice of the Peace of County, of Kane County, Illinois.

Apparently, other men living in the area (Jones and Eastman of St. Charles, IL – Kane County) have been duped by Wilkinson as well, and are in the process of securing legal help from James Harlan, another attorney in Iowa City. S.A. shows an urgency in writing Mr. Folsom, wanting to get to the head of the line before others win back their debts from this “slippery fellow.”

Records show that Boyd Wilkinson, born in 1820 in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, was married to Harriet A. Vescelius (1847) in Ogle County (Oregon is the county seat), and had two of his five children in Ogle, and nearby Kane, Counties in 1848 and 1850 respectively.

S.A., in his letter, is giving Gilman complete freedom to do whatever he can to settle this long-standing legal issue, and, of course, $90, in 1852, is quite a bit of money for most average citizens.

I would be willing to to compromise and take $75 or even $10 or $15 less if you thought it prudent to do so. Perhaps he will agree to something like that or you will no (sic) better how under the circumstances to act than I can suggest. Please do your best, you will see how the matter is & how I am fixed. Boyd as I have said is crafty and you must try your hand on him.

Read All About It: Boyd Wilkinson Murdered!

Unfortunately, we don’t know how S.A.’s legal matter turned out. We don’t know if Gilman stepped in and got a fair settlement in 1852/1853, but from reading all the accounts from the day, we do know, for a fact, that Boyd Wilkinson was indeed, a “very crafty and slippery fellow” who obviously kept up his questionable conduct until it finally cost him his life on May 11, 1858, at the hands of a mob made up of fellow Iowa Citians!

Historian Erik McKinley Eriksson writes this…

Philip Clark, one of Iowa City’s first settlers. Click here to read more about Clark and his rich Johnson County history.

Iowa City historian Irving Weber describes this “sensational Iowa City story” well…


So, there you have it. Our letter from December 10, 1852 certainly gives an early indicator that Boyd Wilkinson was up to no good, and that S.A. Irvin had him pretty well pegged when he tells Gilman Folsom to be careful when dealing with this “crafty, slippery fellow” who sadly couldn’t swim as well as he swindled!

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Mob Intent on Lynching, Irving Weber, Historical Stories About Iowa City – Volume 2, Article 114, 1975, pp. 37-40

The Boyd Wilkinson Case, Erik McKinley Eriksson, The Palimpsest, Volume 6, Number 3, Article 3, March 1925, pp. 95-97

Wilkinson’s Body Found, Davenport, Iowa Daily Gazette, May 26, 1858, p 2

Boyd Wilkinson, Find-A-Grave website

Gilman Folsom, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 1872 – Number 4, 1872, pp. 298-301

Gilman Folsom, Find-A-Grave website

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