At 4 a.m. on this date in 1889, Clay County, Minnesota hosted its only execution.
This affair began, as such things do, when “a bunch of drunken hoboes got into a fight near Hillsboro, ND” in the autumn of 1888. One of them was killed, and a farmer who saw it happen identified Brown as the suspect. What little is known of Brown* indicates that he was a hardened outlaw; he broke out of prison in Wisconsin, and did time in the Dakota territories, too. While awaiting his fate he would solve a frontier sporting mystery by admitting that he murdered the tramp who had killed bareknuckles pugilist George Fulljames.
One night in October, an off-duty Fargo cop spotted Brown a few blocks into the Minnesota side of town, and alerted Moorhead policeman John Thompson. But Brown had noticed them, noticing him, and drew on the Moorhead officer. While Brown was demanding to know what the two had spoken about, another Moorhead policeman approached.
This Patrolman Peter Poull’s appearance set off the gunplay: Brown wheeled and felled Poull with a shot through the heart, but the distraction allowed Patrolman Thompson to draw and wound he fleeing desperado. Brown was captured, his revolver empty, collapsed on the train tracks with shots through his shoulder and leg. It was only because the quick-thinking Clay County sheriff whisked Brown out of jail under cover of darkness by forcing a night train to Minneapolis to make an unscheduled stop that a lynching was averted.
“Unless I get a change of venue I guess I shall have to swing,” Brown observed, with preternatural coolness.
He did not get a change of venue.
Brown’s execution was one of the first (to state it more exactly: it was the second) to occur under the state’s new “midnight assassination” law, which not only shamefacedly stashed hangings behind prison walls under cover of darkness, but also prohibited newspapers from publishing the particulars of the event.
Those lingeringly detailed descriptions — of the hardihood of the dead man and the conduct of the onlookers and the ceremony upon the gallows and whether the victim confessed and if he died fast or died hard — have been a staple of print media practically since its birth, and certainly an indispensable font for these grim annals. But the legislature had been persuaded that their circulation constituted a moral degradation to the consumers who eagerly read them. This directive was at best unevenly complied with: a number of newspapers did publish such accounts, and they were not punished for it. And of course the law did not reach across the Dakota border at all, so the Fargo Argus was able to insinuate an editor into the death chamber, who later described the killer’s last moments thus:
When the spectators reached the gallows, Brown was standing on the drop, on either side being a priest, all engaged in half audible prayer … Sheriff Jensen then tied Brown’s feet, and adjusted the noose about his neck, the knot being behind his right ear … In a weak and trembling** voice, almost inaudible he bade the jailor, Sheriff and priests goodbye, shaking hands with them and wishing them well. He then turned to the spectators, half smiled and nodded a farewell. The black cap was then pulled over his head and fastened under the chin, he with the priests praying meanwhile.
The drop fell at exactly 4:30 o’clock and the murderer of Officer Poull was launched into eternity. Brown’s neck was broken by the fall … In twelve and a half minutes his pulse ceased to beat, and in fifteen his heart had ceased action.
* Even to the end he refused to reveal his real identity or background, so as not to shame his family.
** Other published accounts speak of the hanged man’s unusual nerve. Between the moralizing interests of the interlocutors and the circulation of bogus information facilitated by the midnight assassination law, we here profess agnosticism as to Brown’s actual behavior.