For the Ford County Record

In today’s society, political corruption is sadly a common place. As you look back in our history, you see that mortal man, tempted in the earlier days of higher moral standards, also failed in their elected office and the people of their community more than a hundred years ago. 

Ford County Clerk Merton Dunlap was one of the county’s most highly respected citizens and elected officials during his time. But, sadly, Mr. Dunlap would become a corrupted politician and a wanted fugitive until his death.

Mr. Dunlap came to Ford County in 1872, settling in Patton Township. There, he engaged in his family trade of agriculture by running a nursery firm. Mr. Dunlap received his early education in public schools in Champaign County and attended Illinois College at Jacksonville. In 1873, he was nominated for Ford County clerk and was elected the following November.

After serving 10 years as county clerk, Mr. Dunlap retired from public office at the close of his term and began the study of law with Alfred Sample. Mr. Dunlap became a member of the bar, but he declined a law practice and returned to public office in Ford County.

In 1884, Mr. Dunlap’s most notable accomplishment was authoring "History of Ford County, Illinois" in the J.H. Beers & Co. Historical Atlas of Ford County, Illinois. He opened with the following words.

"Man through all ages of revolving time,

"Unchanging man, is every varying clime,

"Deems his own land of every land the pride,

"Beloved by Heaven’s o’er all the world beside;

"His home the spot supremely blest,

"A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest."

The downfall of Mr. Dunlap began in April 1892. An investigation into his county books and accounts was started by the Ford County state’s attorney, F.L. Cook, and W. T. Morrison, chairman of the board of supervisors.

In examining Mr. Dunlap’s books, fraud was discovered. It was determined that he was embezzling money from the county treasury and the Glen Cemetery Association, and some money was uncounted for. The county sheriff visited the Dunlap residence in Paxton to serve papers, but Mr. Dunlap had disappeared the previous day.

People of the community believed he had fled the country, heading to Germany, since he spoke fluent German and that is where a brother of his was living at the time. A reward of $300 was offered for his capture.

On Dec. 6, 1892, Mr. Dunlap, in absentia, was charged with three counts of embezzlement, one count of taking money under false pretense, one count of forging a county order, one count of forgery and one count of burglary and larceny. He was found guilty, and his property was seized by the county. Friends and family offered to donate money to credit his account and to cover his disgrace in the eyes of the public.

It was discovered that Mr. Dunlap had made some unsuccessful deals on the Chicago Board of Trade. He was funding this with county money that he could not repay.

It was later found after his disappearance that Mr. Dunlap had been in the eastern U.S. For the first four years he was a nervous wreck, spending most of the time in hospitals. Then, he took up work which improved his condition. His first permanent employment was at a law firm in Philadelphia, working for a very low salary. His work proved satisfactory, and he was sent to New York, N.Y., to establish a branch of the business and was placed in charge, becoming very successful. He never made any attempt to repay any of the money, nor did he ever serve one day of jail time.

On April 25, 1904, while still living in New York, Mr. Dunlap became ill and died of pneumonia. His body was returned to Paxton to be buried in Glen Cemetery.

Surprisingly, the family was welcomed back by many in the Paxton community. His body was viewed by more than a hundred mourners at the Congregational Church.

The pallbearers were the area’s most highly respected citizens. Many in the community tried to remember the good qualities of Mr. Dunlap’s heart and mind and forgive him for his faults and failures.   

Derrick K. Babbs is creator of the Facebook site "The Ford County, Illinois Heritage."