Posts filed under 'Minnesota'

1859: Oscar Jackson lynched, precipitating the Wright County War

1 comment April 25th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

The story of what would become known as the Wright County War began on September 21, 1858, when Henry A. Wallace was found lying dead in a clump of willows on his own farm, his head bashed in. He had last been seen alive on August 27, twenty-five days earlier.

Wallace’s employee, Oscar F. Jackson, was the prime suspect in his murder. Jackson had agreed to help Wallace reap his hay crop in exchange for a portion of the harvest, and on August 27 the two men had been seen working together in the fields near where Wallace’s body was later found.

Jackson showed a curious lack of concern about his boss’s disappearance. He never even bothered to tell the authorities he was missing, and when neighbors noted that Wallace hadn’t been seen in weeks and decided to launch a search, Jackson declined to join in. An impoverished sharecropper, Jackson also seemed to have become suddenly flush with cash — an oddity because like most of the residents of Wright County, Jackson was poor, still struggling to recover from the Panic of 1857. Wallace was comparatively well-off.

A grand jury indicted Jackson for his employer’s murder, but the case against him was incredibly feeble. At the trial, Jackson’s attorneys pointed out that no one had seen the murder or could even determine the day it took place, and suggested any number of people could have visited Wallace and killed him at any time during that three-and-a-half-week period that he was missing.

The jury quite rightly gave Jackson the benefit of doubt and acquitted him on April 3, 1859, after eighteen hours of deliberation.

That night, a lynch party of fifteen men chased him into the woods. Fearing for his life, Jackson fled to St. Paul.

The local citizenry — among them Henry Wallace’s brother, Hiram — were not prepared to let the matter rest. And, horrifyingly, neither was the Wright County Sheriff, George M. Bertram,* or the justice of the peace, Cyrus Chase Jenks.

Five days after Jackson’s acquittal, the three men went to find the presumed murderer in Hennepin County. There, Hiram Wallace swore out a complaint against Jackson accusing him of theft, and Jenks issued a warrant for his arrest. Never mind that Jenks did not have jurisdiction outside of Wright County: Sheriff Bertram delivered the warrant to Alfred Brackett, the deputy sheriff of Hennepin County, and asked him to serve it.

Walter N. Trenery wrote in his 1962 book, Murder in Minnesota,

Brackett found Jackson in St. Paul’s Apollo Saloon the next day. Handcuffing his prisoner, the deputy set out with him for St. Anthony by buggy. Jackson pleaded for time to call his attorney, but at first Brackett would not allow it. On the ride Jackson insisted that his arrest was based on a false charge, the purpose of which was to get him back to Rockford [in Wright County] where he would be murdered… Brackett reconsidered. When the two men reached St. Anthony, he sent word to Jackson’s counsel and persuaded the Wright County sheriff to spend the night in town before starting back to Rockford.

The implacable Sheriff Bertram

Jackson’s lawyer hastily drew up a writ of habeas corpus and before the day was out he’d served it to Sheriff Bertram. The Hon. Isaac Atwater, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, ordered Jackson’s release on April 11. He was immediately re-arrested, however, as by then Jenks and Bertram had realized their error, gone back to Wright County and drawn up a second warrant. Jackson’s attorney responded with a second writ of habeas corpus, and on April 13, the man was ordered released again.

His friends had pooled their money and come up with enough for him to leave Minnesota forever, but for some reason Jackson returned to Rockford instead of skipping town. The residents of Wright County still wanted to lynch him, and to that end a neighbor swore out yet another phony complaint against him and yet another justice of the peace issued yet another warrant for his arrest.

A mob virtually tore Jackson’s cabin and its contents to pieces and set several fires. They surrounded the home of Jackson’s father-in-law, George Holdship, where the fugitive was reported to be hiding, and set more fires.

On April 24, Sheriff Bertram arrived at Holdship’s residence, and after he swore Jackson would not be harmed, arrested Jackson and took him away.

According to John D. Bessler’s book Legacy Of Violence: Lynch Mobs And Executions In Minnesota,

Less than half a mile from the house an armed mob overtook Sheriff Bertram’s procession. The sheriff relinquished power without resistance and rode off with the deputies, failing to even report the incident. After taunting Jackson throughout the night, the mob strung him up, even as his wife arrived to plead for mercy. Her pleas ignored, she was sent away distraught and empty-handed. The bloodthirsty mob hauled Jackson up and down times, failing to get Jackson to confess but successfully mangling his neck. Only when Jackson was hoisted up for a third time, at 2:00 P.M. on April 25, did his neck break. Jackson’s body was left dangling from a beam that protruded from Wallace’s cabin.

A coroner’s jury was called on the same day Jackson died and decided he had met with his death at the hands of some person or persons unknown. “The jury was not likely,” Trenery noted dryly, “to accuse its own members.”

But the story didn’t end there.

At the time of Oscar Jackson’s lynching, Minnesota had been a state for less than a year; it was admitted to the Union on May 11, 1858. Their first state governor, Henry Hastings Sibley, was anxious to maintain the rule of law, which had been besmirched by the Jackson outrage. One newspaper said, a tad melodramatically, “Wright County will be painted black upon the map of Minnesota — a patch of loathsome leprosy upon the fair surface of the land.”

Sibley offered a $500 reward for the arrest and conviction of anyone concerned with the lynching. It went unclaimed and the lynching started to slip away into obscurity, until July, when Oscar Jackson’s wife spotted Emery W. Moore (called “Emory” or “Aymer” in some accounts) at a gathering in Minnehaha Falls. Moore had been a member of the lynch mob, and it was his warrant that lead to Jackson’s arrest at his father-in-law’s house.

Mrs. Jackson alerted St. Paul’s chief of police, who arrested Moore for murder, and he was sent to Rockford to stand trial.

What followed, as Trenery describes it, was something of a solemn farce:

To prevent further collusion among local officials, the governor directed Charles H. Berry, the state’s attorney general, to conduct the prosecution in person. Berry opened the preliminary examination in Monticello on July 31, 1859, with an angry mob swarming about the building, shouting and threatening the agents of law enforcement. Mrs. Jackson, testifying for the prosecution, clearly and unequivocally named the leaders of the lynch mob and described the circumstances under which her husband had died. When the Wright County sheriff took the stand to explain how the mob had overwhelmed him and took Jackson from his custody, the attorney general found the sheriff’s explanation so unsatisfactory that he ordered Bertram arrested and held as an accomplice in the lynching. Berry then discovered that certain prosecution witnesses had mysteriously disappeared before they could testify, and he was forced to adjourn the hearing before it had been in session a full day.

To add insult to injury, that evening the vigilantes descended on the place where Emery Moore was confined, set him free, and melted into the darkness.

Berry returned to St. Paul and reported all this to the governor.

Fed up, Sibley declared Wright County to be “in a state of insurrection” and sent in the state militia to put a stop to mob justice and force the county officials to do their damn jobs. Three units — the Pioneer Guards, the St. Paul City Guards and the Stillwater Guards — marched in, aided by 35 special policemen.

The results were mixed. At first the militia was unable to find any members of the lynch mob, the locals just shrugged their shoulders when asked where they had gone, and the sheriff and other officials refused outright to cooperate. Only when they found out Governor Sibley was on his way over to personally take charge did the county officials “find” and arrest three suspected lynchers: Emery Moore, Hiram S. Angell, and J.E. Jenks.**

Satisfied, the governor sent the state militia home. The three-day occupation was later facetiously dubbed the Wright County War. It was a bloodless war.

The arrested men were almost immediately set free on a $500 bail, and in October, a grand jury refused to indict them. In the end, no one at all was punished for Oscar Jackson’s death, and Henry Wallace’s murder was never officially solved.

Charles Bryant groused in his History of the Upper Mississippi Valley,

And so the drama ended; the curtain fell; and the so-called “Wright county war” was a thing of the past. Its effects, however, long remained in the enormous expense incurred, which, with other criminal cases of less magnitude, created an indebtedness almost resulting in bankruptcy, and depreciating county orders to less than thirty-five cents on the dollar.

Of the principals involved in this story:

  • Sheriff Bertram left office in 1860 and was succeeded by W. Smith Brookins.
  • Cyrus Jenks died in Meeker City, Minnesota in 1897. He was almost 90 years old.
  • Governor Sibley stayed in office until 1860, and did not seek reelection. In 1862, he was appointed colonel of the Minnesota Militia and led them against the Native Americans in the Dakota War.
  • Charles Berry was later appointed as a judge in the Idaho Territory. He died in 1900.
  • Alfred Brackett fought in the Civil War, leading what would become Brackett’s Battallion, which served longer than any other Minnesota unit. The unit fought against the Confederates between 1861 and 1864, then became part of the Northwestern Indian Expedition in the Dakota Territory.
  • Hiram Angell also fought in the Civil War, with the Third Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He died in St. Louis, Kentucky on April 5, 1862.
  • J.E. Jenks got elected to Minnesota’s House of Representatives in the 1870s and served for a year.

Nearly twenty years after Henry Wallace’s death, first his gold watch and then his rifle were found near the former site of Oscar Jackson’s cabin.

* Wright County boasts a Bertram Chain of Lakes, named for Sheriff Bertram.

** J.E. Jenks was probably Cyrus Jenks’s son; records note that Cyrus had a son named John Edwin Jenks who would have been about 22 years old in 1859, which matches J.E.’s first name and age.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Common Criminals,Crime,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lynching,Minnesota,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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1889: Thomas Brown, Fargo-Moorhead outlaw

Add comment September 20th, 2015 Headsman

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.

So police had their eyes peeled for Brown 40 miles down the way in the border settlement of Fargo-Moorhead. (Fargo is on the North Dakota side of the river, Moorhead on the Minnesota side.)

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.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Minnesota,Murder,USA

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1886: John W. Kelliher lynched in Becker County, Minnesota

Add comment June 23rd, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1886, John W. Kelliher, known as “Reddy” or “Big Red”, was lynched by a mob of some five hundred people in Becker County, Minnesota.

Kelliher had gotten into a fight with a rival pimp and gambler and the village marshal of Detroit (today, Detroit Lakes), John Conway, tried to intervene. Conway was shot dead for his pains, shortly before his wedding day.

Marshal Conway had been very much liked in the village. Though his killer was instantly chased down and handed over to the constabulary,

little business was done in Detroit that day. Men were to be seen in small groups in every part of the town, upon the streets, in the stores, saloons and alley-ways earnestly discussing the tragedy, and the many threatening countenances were ample indications that further developments might be expected, while many appeared anxious, apprehensive and excited, as though waiting for and fearing some terrible event. At precisely ten o’clock in the evening, several taps were made upon the fire bell in quick succession, and the fierce yell, which immediately followed, breaking harshly upon the oppressive stillness, was ample evidence that this was the understood signal for an execution by Judge Lynch. Farmers for many miles around had been coming into town all day, and many men arrived by the evening train from points both east and west; the town was thronged with men and at the ringing of the bell a mass of humanity surged toward the court house; a sledge hammer was brought into use; the sheriff and jailer were overpowered and the keys to the jail taken from them, and Kelliher was quickly brought face to face with his unlawful but determined executioners; a rope was thrown over his head and the cry “go ahead” was given; with probably fifteen men having hold of the rope, and pulling with frenzied zeal the mob left the jail and ran wildly down the street leading west, to the house that had been occupied by Big Red as a bagnio, and in a twinkling the rope had been thrown over the limb of an oak tree, and the body of Big Red was swinging in the air; the victim was doubtless dead long before the tree was reached, or if not dead certainly unconscious.

The scene was one of wildest confusion, but all had been done so quickly and so effectually that the terrible affair could scarcely be realized, but the deed over, the excited crowds melted away and in a short time the village streets were practically deserted. (Original source)

According to John D. Bessler’s Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Tribune took a vehement editorial line against this “barbarous and disgraceful act,” and urged that jails fit themselves out with “a Gatling gun, intended for business” as proof against Judge Lynch. However, the St. Paul Daily Globe demurred, editorializing that “Society owes it to itself to get rid of such tough characters as Kelliher” — and if attaining that end via lynch law was in principle less than ideal, “it was past all human endurance to have a defiant desperado walk the streets of a respectable town and shoot down its citizens in cold blood. Nobody is surprised that he was taken from jail by a mob and swung to the nearest tree. It would have been a surprise if it had not been so.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Common Criminals,Disfavored Minorities,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lynching,Minnesota,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

1895: Harry Hayward, the Minneapolis Svengali

Add comment December 11th, 2014 Headsman

Minnesota executed Harry Hayward shortly after midnight on this date in 1895.

Dubbed the “Minneapolis Svengali” by the press for his perceived similarity to the sinister hypnotist of that year’s hit literary release, the prodigal rake Hayward cast his spell over a New York emigre with the name of Kitty Ging and a pocketbook every bit as alluring.

On December 3, 1895, Kitty rented a horsey from a livery stable, but the ride returned to the stable alone. What terrible fate befell her? And how did the Mesmer of Minneapolis work her murder from his innocuous booth at a theater that night?

Our oft-endorsed friends at Murder by Gaslight unwind this terrible tale here.

He fixed me with his eyes. I couldn’t say no when he looked at me that way — nobody could.

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1896: John Pryde, Brainerd murderer

2 comments July 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1896, John Pryde hanged in Crow Wing County jail for a Brainerd murder over a little bit of money.

Pryde had worked all the preceding winter in a lumber camp but closed his engagement (so he said) with a Valentine‘s Day jaunt to Lothrop — abandoned in the present day but then the terminal stop on the Brainerd & Northern Minnesota Railway, where the lumber he’d been hewing would be loaded up for the Brainerd sawmill. According to this site about Minnesota ghost towns, Lothrop “was a typical hell-raising, end-of-tracks town.”

Some of the hell so raised consisted in the timeless pastime of wagering on small cardboard rectangles, and to hear Pryde’s (possibly suspect) account of it he got sharked at the poker table: ” I knew nothing about cards, only what I had found out by looking on. I tried the game and won, at one time being $100 ahead, and if I had known enough to quit then I would not be where I am today. But I was flush and my companions urged me to keep right on, saying that luck was with me and I could win everything in sight. I did so, to my regret, and lost all my winnings and also my winter’s wages, having but a few dollars in my pocket when I reached Brainerd, and I was all broke up.”

Back in Brainerd so penniless and broke up, Pryde decided a buddy from the logging camp could supply him and sent Andrew Peterson a letter urging him to hie to Brainerd immediately for a job that was waiting him. Peterson did so; Pryde met him on his return on Feb. 24 and escorted his victim around the outskirts of the city to a spot sufficiently remote to shoot him in the back of the head and rummage through his possessions.

Pryde found one dollar.

Unfortunately for Pryde, Peterson survived — not for good, just long enough to be found and identify his killer before he succumbed and made it a murder charge.

By the time authorities took Pryde into custody on this intelligence, he had already made arrangements for another logger to come on down for another “job”, with the same object in mind. (But hopefully more than a dollar in his pockets.)

With that pleasing want of artifice that can characterize the Upper Midwest at its finest, Pryde admitted everything and lodged a guilty plea just days after Peterson’s March 3 death. He did add that he regretted the mistake he made in not slashing Peterson’s throat to finish him for sure, and then burning the body to hide the crime.

Pryde’s fall — from an employed and relatively flush young man on the make to a condemned murderer — took all of three weeks.

There were suggestions that Pryde might have pulled the same trick on a different fellow who had disappeared from the work camp. He rejected that quite indignantly.

This story from his last days, and including his gallows address (blaming gambling) and his written last statement (blaming gambling) shows a man really locking in a narrative.

What we know about John Pryde is that he killed in cold calculation someone who was in no way connected to his gambling woes, and he was preparing to do the same a second time. There’s really only so much misbehavior one gets to write off to tilt. But Pryde was a young man and we might allow that a sense of guilt (however belated) and a wish to reconcile himself to his loved ones (however hypocritically) are not of themselves discreditable qualities. There were no protracted appeals or dramatic stays of execution to grow him into any other person but the one who shot his work chum dead for a buck. He had a bare five months to make sense of it all: one wonders if his parents in Chicago, who received this last missive from him, ever did.

I received your letter and was glad to hear from you, but I know that it was a hard thing for you to hear what I have done. Well, mother, I have thrown my whole life away, and not only that, how I have disgraced you and pa, and my only sister for the rest of your life; it is true that I made an awful mistake in life. Dear mother, my life was thrown away by the gambling hell hole, there is nothing in the world but that, and it would break most anyone up. It was my first time to gamble, and I was led away by one of my companions and was led into an eternal destruction, that is what put me in the place I am in now. Now my lot is a hard one, but I have made my peace with the Lord, and am prepared to meet my father in Heaven. God will forgive the most sinful if we only believe in Him. The Bible says that God has forgiven the greatest of sins.

I am very sorry over this matter, but it can’t be helped now. There is one thing, that I hope this will warn other young men and will put them on the straight road and show them what gambling will lead a young man to do, first from one thing and then to another.

Dear mother, now I have given you all the news that I have. Oh, dear mother, I cannot reward you for your kindness. You always stuck up for me, and if I had only taken your advice, I don’t think I would be where I am today. It is true what you said. I had a good home, and did not realize what a home was. I know I ought not to have left home but we young men do not pay enough attention to our mother and father. Now, father and mother, don’t take this matter too hard, as it won’t help it in the least. We all have go to go some time, sooner or later. There is a home prepared for us all and there we will have peace and joy. Now I will bring this letter to a close, hoping it will find you all well, as I remain, your most loving son,

JOHN PRYDE.

Now, I will bid you good bye, good bye. Father, forget me not, keep this letter to remember me.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Minnesota,Murder,Pelf,USA

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1860: Ann Bilansky

Add comment March 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, Ann Bilansky was hanged in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Bilansky — her Christian name is given as Ann, Anne, or Anna in various reports — was condemned for poisoning her husband, an immigrant Polish saloonkeeper named Stanislaus, so that she could get with her bit on the side.

Just a couple of weeks before Stanislaus’s unexpected March 1860 demise, Ann had gone with a friend to a local drug store and picked up a bit of the deadly powder, allegedly to deal with vermin. (This was arsenic’s very common, legitimate use.) She suspiciously tried to get her friend to put the purchase in her name.

The community suspected Ann a murderess as soon as Stanislaus dropped dead. She showed far less evident grief about her spouse than could possibly suffice for decency, and one local snoop peeped on her being a very merry widow indeed with her suspected paramour … on the very day after the funeral. Call it one for the road: the late husband’s stomach, when autopsied, had revealed that suspicious rat poison. She was soon behind bars, and would be convicted with ease.

(In July 1859, she escaped through a window of the barely-secure jail, rendezvoused with her old lover, and fled to the countryside. It was a week before the law collared her.)

Ann Bilansky continued to maintain her innocence at trial, in jail, and all the way to the scaffold. She reveled in the attention her case garnered and plied numerous visitors with claims of innocence and minute supposed errors in her trial. “She was a complete pettifogger,” said a newspaperman, “and had imbibed an opinion, which is common among better informed people, that technicalities could defeat justice in every case.”

But the versions of events she pushed on her many callers stood so starkly at odds with the evidence and the popular sense of her guilt that she even found her way into the local idiom for a time: a St. Paul resident could drolly call b.s. on someone by remarking, “You have been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

Still, she was a condemned woman — and from the sound of it a rather appealing one — who asserted her innocence, and this meant she did not want for supporters. Legislators were among her jailhouse social circle, and she had enough sympathetic lawmakers that both the House and Senate actually passed a private bill for commutation of her sentence. Gov. Alexander Ramsey vetoed it.

Other visitors arrived bearing more forceful means of liberation: one slipped her chloroform, to disable the guards; a female visitor got caught in the act of trying to swap clothes with the doomed woman. Ann Bilansky even copped to having a specific family that she had arranged to hide out with if she could get out.

She just never quite managed the trick.

Ann Bilansky’s death was accounted a good one by the metrics of gallows-conduct: she did not faint or quail at the sight of the rope, or beg unbecomingly for mercy. But her last words plainly indicate that although she may have reconciled herself to death, she was not in the end at peace with the events that had brought about her end. (Many observers thought she entertained hope for the dramatic arrival of a last-second pardon.)

I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice. I die for the good of my soul, and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice — but I will yet get justice in Heaven. I am a guilty woman I know, but not of this murder, which was committed by another. I forgive everybody who did me wrong. I die a sacrifice to the law. I hope you all may be judged better than I have been, and by a more righteous judge. I die prepared to meet my God.

Bilansky was the first woman executed in the state of Minnesota. (Minnesota had just become a state in 1858.) She remains to this date the last, and since Minnesota has no death penalty at present, she figures to keep the distinction for the foreseeable future.

Source: April 3, 1860 New York Herald

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Minnesota,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,USA,Women

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1854: Uhazy, amid Minnesotan depravity

Add comment December 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1854, a Dakota Indian named Uhazy was publicly hanged in a scene of “Total Depravity” at St. Paul, Minnesota — the first execution in the Minnesota Territory.

Uhazy (many other transliterations are possible) was convicted of the 1852 murder of a German woman near Shakopee. He then enjoyed the hospitality of St. Paul’s jail for two solid years while his appeals played out.

Even when juridical remedies proved unavailing, there was at least some public sentiment for his reprieve.

A large number of ladies (including the wife of the previous governor) applied to territorial Gov. William Gorman for clemency. Gorman refused it.

Besides, if he granted such a petition, Gorman replied, “others of his savage tribe might be tempted to hope for a like release, and commit a like offence; and the danger of such results would be far greater from Indians than from civilized man.”

“Civilized man’s” tense relationship with the “savage tribe” would in a few years spark a brief war and (in Mankato, Minn.) the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Civilization had a different challenge on this occasion: the ribald street scenes that often accompanied public hangings.

St. Paul’s own Daily Minnesota Pioneer (Dec. 30, 1854) were far too genteel to report from the scene, a fact which of itself suggests the intelligentsia’s growing moral disgust for witnessing people witnessing executions.

As we had no inclination to witness the tragedy, we are unable to give the lovers of the dreadful a detail of the poor fellow’s suffering; but understand he met his fate with all that stoicism for which his race is noted.

Others were not so retiring. The scene they reported does not flatter; the mob was so large and unruly that when the sheriff set about erecting a scaffold that morning in a downtown square, he was obliged by Gov. Gorman to relocate it to St. Anthony Hill for public safety. (See this book.) Uhazy didn’t hang until 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

“Liquor was openly passed through the crowd, and the last moments of the poor Indian were disturbed by bacchanalian yells and cries,” one paper editorialized. “Remarks too heartless and depraved, in regard to the deceased, to come from men, were freely bandied. A half-drunken father could be seen holding in his arms a child eager to see well; giddy and senseless girls chatted with their attendants, and old women were seen vying with drunken ruffians for a place near the gallows.”

Capital punishment in general and the public spectacle of execution specifically long troubled the Minnesotan conscience. The Espy file credits Minnesota with just 28 executions in addition to that aforementioned Mankato mass-hanging; in 1889, the state moved all its exections behind prison walls and away from drunken ruffians. It hasn’t executed anybody at any venue since 1906.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Minnesota,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1920: Triple lynching in Duluth, Minnesota

6 comments June 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1920, a white mob perhaps 10,000 strong swarmed into the Duluth, Minn. jail and extracted three young African-American circus workers accused of gang-raping a white woman. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie stood an immediate drumhead trial, then were lynched in the heart of Duluth as they vainly protested their innocence.

The self-congratulatory posed photograph of mob members with the bodies was made into a horrifying postcard, a frequent practice in lynch law America.


“What this looks like is the kind of photo you would see at a hunting lodge, where the guys had been out shooting bear, and they came back and they said, ‘We got three.’ You can see people on tip-toe. They’ve crowded into this shot. These are not people who are ashamed to be seen here. This is, ‘I want to be in this picture.'”

-Michael Fedo, author of The Lynchings in Duluth

Nineteen-year-old Irene Tusker and her boyfriend James Sullivan had attended the one-day circus the evening before. What transpired that night remains unknown to this day: Irene eventually took the streetcar home without incident. Hours later, James Sullivan’s father claimed that the couple had been held at gunpoint by black carnies as Irene was gang-raped.

By the evening of the 15th, a vengeful mob had surrounded the police station/local lockup. Officers were ordered not to use deadly force against the townsfolk, so the battle to push into the premises was waged with brickbats against firehoses, and eventually with ineffectual pleas to let the law take its course.*

The incident drew nationwide reaction — usually condemnation (with a couple of exceptions). Occurring as it did in one of the continental states’ northernmost towns, it also underscored lynching as a nationwide problem rather than “merely” a southern one.

“Duluth has disgraced herself and has, by reason of her geographical position, disgraced the north,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized (June 17, 1920) — just one of innumerable newspaper editorials in the days following the Duluth outrage. “A city that has no more backbone than to submit to the rule of riot cannot be held blameless. But it will be surprising if Duluth and the state of Minnesota do not take steps to punish the murderers. The method of procedure was so deliberate and so brazenly open that identification and conviction of the ringleaders should be an easy matter.”

Brace for a surprise: according to the Minnesota Historical Society’s excellent site on the Duluth lynchings, only three whites served prison time (a shade over one year apiece) for rioting. Nobody was ever convicted for murdering Clayton, Jackson, or McGhie.

One black man, Max Mason, caught a long prison sentence for the supposed rape. He was paroled after five years on condition that he leave Minnesota for good.

“I was just short of nineteen the night that the bodies of McGhie, Jackson, and Clayton swung from a light pole in Duluth. I read the stories in the newspapers and put them down feeling sick, scared, and angry all at the same time. This was Minnesota, not Mississippi, but every Negro in the John Robinson Show had been suspect in the eyes of the police and guilty in the eyes of the mob … I found myself thinking of black people as a very vulnerable us — and white people as an unpredictable, violent them.”

-Minnesota-raised Roy Wilkins, the eventual director of the NAACP, in his autobiography (via)

The great-grandson of one of the lynch mob’s members wrote this book about the hangings’ legacy

The lynching was practically written out of the official state history most white children consumed at school in the middle part of the 20th century,** though the nine-year-old Lithuanian Jewish boy Abram Zimmerman who lived nearby the execution site later told his son all about it. Young Robert Allen Zimmerman tapped his father’s lynching stories under his subsequent nom de troubadour of Bob Dylan, and the Duluth atrocity is alluded to in Dylan’s “Desolation Row”.†

Latter-day Duluth has, to its credit, tried to manage something a little bit more overt.

In 2003, a monument commemorating Duluth’s moment of infamy was dedicated opposite the place where the young men were strung up and photographed. Minnesota Public Radio produced a series on the lynching during the construction of this monument which is still available online.


All images (cc) ArtStuffMatters. The photographer has a thoughtful recent blog post on the [dearth of] public lynch memorials in the United States.

* The law in Minnesota had no death penalty on the books, and still has none today.

** To be fair to the state, its immediate response did include passing anti-lynching legislation in 1921.

† “They’re selling postcards of the hanging/They’re painting the passports brown/The beauty parlor is filled with sailors/The circus is in town.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Common Criminals,Crime,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Lynching,Minnesota,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Summary Executions,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1891: William Rose

Add comment October 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1891, William Rose was hanged — and, when the rope snapped, hauled back up and hanged again — for murdering his feuding neighbor Moses Lufkin in Redwood County, Minn.

The scaffold botch was an apt conclusion to a deeply controversial case. Two juries hung (both leaning towards acquittal) before a third trial finally convicted Rose with the help of new eyewitness testimony that wouldn’t inspire much confidence now — and didn’t even back then.

Lufkin had been shot through a window at night — this is according to that questionable eyewitness testimony — by an unknown assailant who then fled. Connecting Rose to the murder required stitching together circumstances: Rose’s known hatred for Lufkin; the want of an alibi; the fact that he’d recently bought some ammunition. Rose protested his innocence from start to finish, and many people believed him.

In a letter published by the St. Paul Weekly Pioneer Press on Oct. 15, Rose accused that very witness of the murder: Lufkin, who was loathed by many besides Rose, had been living with the witness; said witness also knew Lufkin had cash on hand from a pension payment and the sale of his farm. Rose even repeated this accusation at the gallows.

The contentious proceeding — “one of the most remarkable cases known in the history of the State of Minnesota,” in the words of one contemporaneous report* — has been revived for a present-day audience in Patricia Lubeck’s new book, Murder in Gales: A Rose Hanged Twice. Lubeck and her friend and research assistant Michelle Gatz combed through original trial transcripts and newspaper coverage, and it left the author “pretty sure that William Rose didn’t do.”

Lubeck (author website) is the curator of Redwood County Museum, which still preserves the jail cell where Rose spent his last night on earth. She was gracious enough to share her research with Executed Today. (Other interviews with Ms. Lubeck are here and here.)


Patricia Lubeck. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Lubeck.)

Murder in Gales: A Rose Hanged Twice book coverET: First off, how did you come by this story and what made you decide to devote a whole book to it?

PL: Kind of by a fluke. I came across it at the Minnesota History Center; I was helping my friend research.

When I worked at Yellow Medicine County, I researched the first man hanged in that county and became interested in early crime in southwestern Minnesota. At one point, the archivist at the Minnesota History Center brought out several boxes of court transcripts from trials. I was perusing through several cases when I came across the Lufkin vs. Rose case, and it looked very interesting.

So, William Rose and Moses Lufkin were neighbors and foes. What was the nature of their enmity — how did it get started?

They were two families who settled in southwest part of Minnesota in the late 1800s and they were friendly neighbors in the beginning. But soon petty differences arose, and the quarreling increased in bitterness from year to year.

Then a new element came into the picture when William Rose fell in love with Lufkin’s beautiful daughter Grace, and her father put a stop to the romance. This sparked the feud and lawsuits.

I think because of that feud, when Lufkin was murdered, the community kind of thought that maybe Rose did it.

The problem of the dicey sufficiency of the evidence was at the heart of the case at the time — in trial, on appeal, in the court of public opinion. Does this case have any lessons for thinking about the wrongful-conviction phenomenon here in the 21st century? Or what else do you hope the reader will take away from your book?

I guess I was just really outraged by what William Rose went through, and I felt like I was the voice for Rose. This is a story that not many people know about; it was not just a cut-and-dried case and there were a lot of factors involved. I just want people to know that there were many other possible suspects that could have done it, but that he, Rose, was the one who paid for the crime.

And I still feel that somebody has the missing piece, and somebody may come forward to exonerate Rose. I would like anyone who has information about this case to contact me by mail at: Box 52, Belview, MN 56214.

They had to try him three times to get the conviction, and the case was unusually protracted and controversial. Was there any legal chicanery involved in accomplishing the guilty verdict? By the standards of the time were there any areas where the courts clearly dropped the ball legally?

Another man who lingered alone [after Rose’s funeral] was ol’ man Slover … [who] proclaimed to those still standing at the gravesite, “Gentlemen, this is awful.”

“It certainly is,” replied [Rose’s friend] John [Averill]. “Are you sure you’ve got the right man?”

Slover replied, “I don’t know, John, but I hope so.”

-from Murder in Gales

The difference in the third trial was that Eli Slover came forward and said he was sure that it was William Rose who shot the gun. He had testified at the previous two trials that he wasn’t sure at all … and the shooter was someone he supposedly saw from the back, in the dark, so how would he be sure?

The prosecutor, Michael Madigan, was suspected of meeting with certain witnesses prior to their testimony; coaxing them and possibly even bribing them to give the testimony he wanted in order to bring in a conviction against Rose. I think that the prosecutor wanted to bring in a guilty verdict, and he persuaded Eli Slover to say that William Rose was the one that he saw that night, running away. Later on, this prosecutor got in trouble himself. He went to prison and got disbarred for perjury in 1893.

William Rose on the gallows accused Slover by name as the murderer; Lufkin had moved in with the Slovers and recently sold his farm, so the Slovers knew he had cash on him. He [Slover] is one of a number of other possible suspects I list in the book. This Lufkin guy was a bad man; he himself always stated he would die a violent death.

But at the time that William Rose was facing his trials, there was another murder that happened around the same time period in Redwood County — Clifton Holden, who killed Frank Dodge. People were shocked to have two murders in their midst, after having had a couple of other homicides in the recent past,** and there was a danger that Holden and Rose could have been lynched. At the time, the press and public sentiment cried out for a conviction, and the county was becoming burdened by the costs of trials and so a guilty verdict was found. Holden was also sentenced to hang, but at the 11th hour, Gov. Merriam reduced the sentence to life in prison.


Although memory of these sad events have faded, they were talked-about in the area for years after William Rose’s hanging. “Time and again,” said one newspaper account Lubeck quoted, “has some cute individual started the story that Will Rose was innocent.” There were even confused local rumors that Slover had made a deathbed confession from his later residence in Oregon.

“These events brought home to the people of Minnesota the the truth that the prevailing system during the 1800s, of executing criminals, was radically, morally, and terribly wrong,” Lubeck argues.

William Rose was the only person ever executed in Redwood County. Minnesota abolished the death penalty full stop in 1911.

* St. Paul (Minn.) Daily News, Oct. 15, 1891

** The Marshall (Minn.) News Messenger harrumphed on Nov. 30, 1888, shortly after Rose’s avoided conviction in his first trial, “Redwood County had its fourth murder in two years, and we know of no other county where a murderer may so easily escape, even by going through the court system of Redwood.

“The Alexander murder, premeditated, easily escaped. The Gorres murder only got 6 years for manslaughter, about what a small thief would receive; the Rose murder resulted in acquittal. And now Clifton Holden has murdered a fourth victim.

“Meanwhile the taxpayers are being grieveously burdened with taxation for all these murder trials.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Minnesota,Murder,Other Voices,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1906: William Williams, the last hanged in Minnesota

4 comments February 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1906, Minnesota hanged a Cornish immigrant for the murder of his homosexual lover … and hanged him so clumsily that it never hanged again.

William Williams shot Johnny Keller dead after Keller’s mother intervened in the teenagers’ relationship. A series of mooning-slash-menacing letters failed to win back affections. “I want you to believe that I love you now as much as I ever did,” Williams wrote. “Keep your promise to me this time, old boy, as it is your last chance,” he wrote, later.

When the man with the redundant name went to die in the dead of night at a St. Paul prison, it seems that there’d been a slight miscalculation. When dropped through the trap, Williams’s “feet touched the ground by reason of the fact that his neck stretched four and one-half inches and the rope nearly eight inches.”

Consequently, three deputies on the scaffold hoisted the rope up to get him airborne, where he strangled to death over the span of a ghastly quarter-hour.

Slowly the minutes dragged.

The surgeon, watch in hand, held his fingers on Williams’ pulse as he scanned the dial of his watch.

Five minutes passed.

There was a slight rustle, low murmurs among the spectators and then silence.

Another five minutes dragged by.

Would this man never die?

Fainter and fainter grew the pulsations of the doomed heart as it labored to maintain its function.

The dead man’s suspended body moved with a gentle swaying.

The deputies wiped their perspiring brows with their handkerchiefs.

Members of the crowd shifted from one foot to another.

There were few murmurs, which died at once.

Eleven, twelve, thirteen minutes.

The heart was beating now with spasmodic movement, fainter and fainter.

Fourteen minutes—only a surgeon’s fingers could detect the flow of blood now.

Fourteen and a half minutes.

‘He is dead,’ said Surgeon Moore.

The end has come.

And the end had come.

Two things happened in consequence of this sensational press narrative.

First: the news entities who promulgated these descriptions were themselves prosecuted under a law sponsored by anti-death penalty Republican legislator John Day Smith to make executions as secretive as possible. The St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul Dispatch and St. Paul Daily News each caught fines of 25 bones or clams or whatever you call them.

Second: those illicit descriptions out in the public eye triggered efforts (eventually successful in 1911) to abolish the death penalty full stop in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

There’s a great roundup of the Williams case here, and a pdf from the Minnesota Historical Society about the background and consequences of the John Day Smith law, themselves quite topical for this blog.

Smith’s law was adopted as a half-measure when death penalty abolition couldn’t pass in 1889, as a bit of moral hygiene against the unseemly spectacle of public execution. The measure pioneered the familiar 20th century routine of conducting executions after midnight behind prison walls. Newspapermen derisively called it the “midnight assassination” law — but it was taken up by many other states over the succeeding years as public executions went extinct.

As for Smith himself … there’s a rumor of a ghost story, and (given a tragic love story, a sensational crime, a capital punishment milestone, and a queer identity) the palpable fact of a play.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Minnesota,Murder,Sex,USA

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