From Literature to Lynchings: the Dark History of Cairo, Illinois

By Jennifer Young

You might suppose that a city named Cairo is destined for great things, especially when it’s sited on the confluence of two mighty rivers: the Mississippi and Ohio. But this river town is in a sad, dilapidated state—its business district crumbling and its buildings boarded with plywood. It likely was not its deliberate mispronunciation of its name (it’s pronounced CARE-o) that led to its decline. Further north, Athens, IL, (pronounced EIGHTH-ens) is still paying homage to its Old World-namesake.

No, Cairo’s decline and largely abandoned setting may be traced to these two things: economic crisis and racial tension. But perhaps this Midwestern town was doomed from the start.

CAIRO, 1885

When passing through the city in 1842, Charles Dickens wrote of Cairo,

“Nor was the scenery, as we approached the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, at all inspiriting in its influence. The trees were stunted in their growth; the banks were low and flat; the settlements and log cabins fewer in number: their inhabitants more wan and wretched than any we had encountered yet. No songs of birds were in the air, no pleasant scents, no moving lights and shadows from swift passing clouds. Hour after hour, the changeless glare of the hot, unwinking sky, shone upon the same monotonous objects. Hour after hour, the river rolled along, as wearily and slowly as the time itself.”

Dickens went further to call this southern-most Illinois city a “dismal swamp” and the spot it occupied on the river—”the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise.” Such was his view of Cairo. But, after all, Dickens may have penned Oliver Twist, but it’s well-known that he tried to have his wife committed to an insane asylum so he could move in with his younger mistress; he could be said to be a-swim in his own swamp.


Regardless of Dickens’s take on Cairo, the spot that the Cairo City and Canal Company established in 1836 had known sorrow before. In 1702, French traders attempted to build a tannery at the site, but were slaughtered by Cherokee Indians.

Yet, not long after Dickens passed through, Cairo began to thrive. It became, in fact, the only Illinois city to be surrounded by levies—such was its importance as a river town, a hub for the steamboat industry. Trade of molasses, sugar, cotton, and wool transformed Cairo into a veritable boom town. Before the Civil War, Cairo’s population hovered around 2,000, but during the war years and after, the population bulged to 12,000. By 1889, it was named the seat of Alexander County and there were those who believed it would be a more fitting place to host the nation’s capital, but its golden days would soon be tarnished.

STEAMBOATS LINED UP AT CAIRO

The waning steamboat industry took a serious toll on Cairo and led to a major economic downturn and severe racial tensions. It has long been suspected that Cairo was a stop on the Underground Railroad. In fact, more than 3,000 escaped African American slaves are known to have settled there at some point. After the war, many African Americans took to the rivers to find work and many remained in Cairo. The railway system there helped keep its economy propped but when a nearby town established it own railway system, the ensuing competition threatened to break Cairo.

According to the history, the tension between white and black business owners was combustible and escalated in 1909 after Will James, a black man, was convicted of raping and killing a young female clerk of a dry goods store. It’s been reported that no physical evidence linked James to the murder; even the sheriff expressed his concern and attempted to make plans to hide James in the woods, but a mob broke James out of the jail and lynched him as well as another man convicted as his accomplice. The rope didn’t kill James and, instead, broke; the mob shot him with an estimated 5,000 bullets and his dead body through the city.

CROWD AT THE LYNCHING OF WILL JAMES

The violence, civil unrest, and racial divide would only continue. During the mid-1960s, a young black soldier on leave was allegedly killed by area police, a situation that prompted the activation of the National Guard who quelled the rioting and protests that followed.

With each passing decade, Cairo sank further into decline. Today, its downtown, once thriving with its proud Victorian spires and paved streets, is nearly completely shuttered. Is there hope for Cairo or is it truly doomed? Though largely abandoned, roughly 2,800 people still call the city home. And while it’s not open on weekends, the Cairo Public Library operates weekdays from 9:30 AM – 4:30 PM, and while there’s a library in town, of course there’s still hope—no matter what Charles Dickens cares to say.

CAIRO DOWNTOWN TODAY