Voter Fraud in McLeod County

October, 1857:

It was an exciting time for the territory of Minnesota. The North Country territory was to become the 32nd state of the Union in May of 1858, so on an October day in 1857, the people living within the borders of the eventual state cast their ballots for Minnesota’s first Governor.

The candidates were two well known men of equal standing in the North Country, Henry Sibley, and Alexander Ramsey. Sibley, a Democrat, had a long-standing history in the region that stemmed from his days as a fur trader and was well informed in the politics and economy of the territory. Ramsey, a Republican and former Whig, had previously held the seat of Territorial Governor from 1849-1853, and was hardily rooted in the foundation of the state. (Author’s note-at this time in history, Democrats were the conservative party and Republicans were the progressives)

The election was to be a close one. Both men had a viable bid to the office of Governor, yet it was felt that both men would govern quite differently and who was elected first Governor would play a role in laying the foundation of how Minnesota would forge ahead with its political identity.

National and state politics were reaching a boiling point in 1857. A massive financial downturn had swept across the nation in 1857, that, along with abolitionism, anti-alcohol, and state sovereignty were sure to be issues that Minnesota’s first Governor would be forced to deal with.

In McLeod County, specifically Hutchinson, where abolitionism and temperance were hot button topics, there was strong support for Alexander Ramsey, who was a progressive Republican and equaled the liberal views of the Hutchinson brothers. However, the county also had its fair share of conservatives who shared the ideals of Sibley and the Democrats. The race was certainly going to be close.

After the votes were tallied, Henry Sibley was elected Minnesota’s first Governor, yet there was evidence of voter fraud in McLeod County, specifically in the precinct office at Cedar City, a lost town that once stood 5 miles north of Hutchinson. Here, it was found that 48 votes were in question. On the morning after ballots were collected, a McLeod County Register (name unknown) found that a bundle of ballots was slipped under the door during the night and were counted. Republicans claimed that the ballots were forged, and that the handwriting on all 48 matched that of a known Democrat from Glencoe. They also claimed that the Register, being a Democrat, counted the forged votes without question.

Questions of voter fraud came to light in other areas of the state as well. Republicans claimed that evidence of forgery existed Pembina, Cass, and Ottertail Counties as well. Armed with sums, the Republicans claimed that with all the forged ballots tallied, Alexander Ramsey should have won the election by 94 votes. Their claims would go unsubstantiated, however, and Democrat Henry Sibley would go on to be Minnesota’s first Governor. Republicans would not have to wait long, however, as Alexander Ramsey would be elected Governor two years later, and would be the first in a long succession of Republican Governors in the State of Minnesota.

The Grasshopper Scourge

It was June of 1873 – a time of year, and a season that was likely similar to today. One could imagine that it was a pleasant day, warm, with plenty of soft sunshine – the kind of day where a warm breeze gently rolled atop the tall prairie grass and made it dance in harmony like waves on the ocean. On the frontier, June not only meant a time of pleasant weather, but a time of optimism. Gardens and farm fields that had been planted earlier were starting to sprout upward and climb toward the sky – their success having great impact on the year to come and they were monitored carefully.

By afternoon, it appeared as though a change in weather was coming. Those to recall the day would lament on what appeared to be a storm cloud on the horizon, some describing it akin to what looked like a snowstorm. Indeed, a storm was coming, yet it was not one of the meteorological brand; rather, the storm on that June day was a colossal swarm of locusts – one so large and so thick it was seen with biblical proportions. It was the start of the great grasshopper plague of 1873.

They were called Rocky Mountain Locusts, a species of grasshoppers now extinct. They were green, large, and devoured every piece of vegetation they could find. Those who lived through the incident recalled that after a swarm swept through, they left a patch of land that resembled late autumn rather than summer. All across central and southwestern Minnesota, the swarms destroyed vegetation – trees became bare and fields yielded no crops.

There seemed to be no stopping them. Of the first swarm in 1873, they left larva everywhere they went that hatched the following spring, creating more swarms across the prairie. It seemed as though no method, not even prayer, would rid the region of the locusts. One man, John E. Beach, whose grandfather owned land near Buffalo Creek, recalled, “Grandfather’s land lay with Lake Addie to the east and Buffalo Creek to the northwest. These were partial barriers to the locally hatched hoppers. Enlisting half of the neighbors who were fully exposed on the open prairie, they plowed barriers across the southwest flank and by using tar, burned old hay and straw spread in long windrows, adding eternal vigilance. They saved enough crops to make flour for the families involved…using every resource and ingenuity, the folks were able to stick it out, but scars could never be erased from memory”.

Those who were unable to devise methods to relieve themselves from the locusts chose other means to rid themselves of the grasshoppers. McLeod County resident, Carlos Avery remarked “When the grasshoppers came, the exodus was almost as marked as the Indian Outbreak of 1862. Our family was one to leave the farm to the hoppers and move east until the scourge was over”.
It wasn’t until 1877 that the grasshoppers finally left. That spring, a late snowstorm passed through much of the state and killed most of the freshly hatched larva. It was followed by good rains (which would put a damper on grasshopper hatching) and pleasant weather that allowed the crops to grow fast. Later that summer a drought hit, and a new swarm of grasshoppers emerged as years before. This time, however, the swarms did something unexplained – they took wing and left the area. By the end of summer, 1877, few of the locusts could be seen. It marked the end of the great Minnesota grasshopper plague.

A Real Pioneer

Bradbury Richardson was a young man of 26 years when he came to Minnesota. It was the height of the initial rush of pioneers to the state. For centuries, the land was largely populated by Native Americans, and a sparse number of French fur traders. By 1857, however, the Natives had moved onto the reservation, and white settlers began filtering into the countryside in search of new beginnings.

The land that Bradbury Richardson came to was desolate, yet not empty. The woods south of Glencoe, where the young man built his log cabin, teemed with wildlife. The shaggy buffalo, wolves, and black bear were beginning to disappear from the countryside, but deer, fowl, and upland birds still abounded in the land. In addition, though the Natives were living on the reservation, it was not uncommon to see large groups of Dakota Indians pass through the region. This was the world that Bradbury entered in 1857. He came to the area with his brother, Marquis, a man referred to as Cpt. Reed, and Bradbury’s young wife, Huldah.

They were of old New England stock, had come from Maine, and were accustomed to the comforts of the old New England communities. Though unaccustomed to the hardships and privations of frontier life, Bradbury was full of youth, and determined to make his life on the desolate countryside of Minnesota – he and his young bride would not falter, nor be discouraged.

Obstacles in their path were evident from early on. Upon approaching their future homesite, Bradbury and Huldah came to a large marshy area that had to be crossed. Being the eastern gentleman, Bradbury removed his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants, and carried Huldah across the swampy threshold and to their new home – a tiny log shanty in the heart of the woods.
It was a lonely life for the Richardsons. During the first month, the only people they encountered were members of the party with whom they traveled to Minnesota. They had no neighbors, and supplies were limited – they had no salt for seasoning and were forced to live on the land that surrounded them. At one point, Huldah thought she heard a rooster crowing. She proceeded to climb the tallest tree to discover if the sound was real and meant that others had moved to the area, or if she had only imagined it.

The young couple’s six weeks of solitude finally came to an end when a group of Dakota Indians came calling. They were friendly enough, but clear that they were of an entirely different culture. The Indians had no qualms about walking into the home without announcing their presence, and often surprised the Richardsons by spying through the windows. Huldah quickly learned her first words of Dakota, and would shout “packachee”, which loosely translates to “nothing doing” – and would result in the Dakota leaving the home.

On one occasion, Bradbury was striding alongside his oxen when a large band of Dakota came running by. As each man passed, he would slap Bradbury on the back, a customary way to say hello. So many came running by that Bradbury’s shoulder was lame for several days after.

Several years later, when the Dakota declared war on the white settlers, the Richardson family packed up and headed to Carver. By this time, they had children, and with Huldah, they headed to Rochester for safety. Bradbury, however, returned to Glencoe to aid the town in defense of any attack that might come their way. At one point he volunteered to act as a messenger and ride to Fort Ridgely, but since he was a husband and father, was told he could not go. The man who did go, Eliphalet Richardson, was killed a few miles from the fort.

After the fighting ceased, Bradbury and his family went back east, but later returned to McLeod County in 1873. Here they lived until old age. Bradbury died in 1907, and Huldah in 1912. They were true Minnesota pioneers, and an important part of McLeod County history.

Opening Day

It’s a beautiful day in May. The sun is high over the lake, and thirteen gulls circle the water. The wind blows a soft, but steady breeze that rolls the water into gentle waves that slap at the side of a boat in which two old fishermen sit. It’s opening day, and the lake is full of other fishermen, yet the men in the boat pay little mind. They are focused at the task at hand, to catch some walleye. They’ve been fishing together since they were kids, and this is their 75th year. They’ve had many good outings and some that didn’t go so well. They’ve caught big fish, and they’ve caught no fish. For the man piloting the boat, he’s still looking to catch his fish of a lifetime, the one that’ll hang on the wall above his fireplace. He came close once, but the line broke just as he was landing the monster. Like so many others, his “big one”, was the one that got away.

Another boat, a newer boat, races through the water. Its aluminum sides are bright with fresh paint. Its large outboard motor hums as the boat cuts across the water at high speed. The two old fishermen look up. The sight of this new, fast boat stirs emotion in one of the old timers, the one who owns the boat they’re sitting in. It’s an old boat, one with bench seats made of wood – one that has that old familiar smell of sweaty marine plyboard. Its sides are faded from the sun, the paint chipped away from dock posts and rock outcroppings. The bottom, too, has grooves cut along the keel from rubbing against gravel flats and sandy shorelines.

Like the boat, the motor is old. It was once painted, its bright colors visible from across the lake, but nature had long ago chipped and faded the paint to little more than a film over top of a metal shell. The motor is a tiller, the kind that needs to be started by pulling a cord that’s wrapped around a greasy flywheel. The owner of the motor has thought often of replacing it with a more efficient model, yet though it smokes a bit, it still pushes the old boat across the water. Like the boat it’s attached to, it still gets the job done.

This certainly isn’t the first trip the boat and motor have had. They were once new, the prized possession of a young man with visions of catching limits of fish and trophies to hang on the wall. As the years passed, “it” became a “she”, and finally an “old girl”. A quick bit of math and the owner realizes it’s the boat’s 50th year on the water. With this thought he wonders how many trips his prized boat has left, and how many trips he has left before he no longer hears the waves slap against her hull, or the hum of his old, smoky motor. It’s a deep thought, but as every fisherman knows, deep thinking is always a companion on the water.

The only thing not old is the newly bought Rapalas that the two men are using – a tradition they have held up for years. The old timer piloting the boat is using a “shallow-dive” Rapala, he feels the choppy water will bring the fish closer to the surface. Soon, he’ll find out just how right he is about his hunch. Behind his lure is a trophy walleye, the kind he always envisioned would hang on his wall, yet the one that has always eluded him. On this day, the day that could possibly be his last opening day, he’ll finally catch his fish.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to a painting, I would say that it’s worth a thousand thoughts. The aforementioned scene of two old fishermen is one frozen in time, created from the brush of none other than Les Kouba. The story that jumps out of the painting, at least to me, is the one I write down today. With opening day of fishing at hand, I thought this would be the best time to describe one of my favorite prints at the McLeod County History Museum. It’s titled “Opening Day on Lake Mille Lacs”, and was painted by both Les Kouba and Bud Grant in 1995 during a period of conflict between the State of Minnesota and the Mille Lacs Lake Band of Ojibwa over treaty rights and walleye harvest quota for non-band members. It was donated a number of years ago by a friend of Les named John, one of many on display in the museum’s Les Kouba collection. When John donated the painting, he said that one day Les borrowed some clothes to go fishing. When he returned the clothes, Les said “John, now I know what it’s like to be in your shoes”.

Murder in Hutchinson

It happened on a Monday, one that fell on the 30th day of January in 1950. Mrs. Clara Schouse stood in the kitchen of her small apartment in Hutchinson, MN. It was 11:08 AM, and Clara was preparing an early lunch. As she made her meal, she thought she heard what sounded like a gunshot. The sound, though distorted at first, was followed by a commotion. A moment of a few seconds passed, and Clara heard another gunshot – this one unmistakable. What followed was a moment of silence that was so deathly quiet one could have heard a pin drop. It was broken by the sounds of a woman’s voice “My baby, my darling, why did you do it”, spoken between hysterical sobs and cries.

Clara stood still in her kitchen, speculating as to what could have happened. As she pondered the event, the sound of footfalls racing down the stairway reached her ears. Mrs. Schouse couldn’t stand the suspense of the situation any longer – moved away from preparing her lunch and made way to her apartment door to take a peek into the hallway. As she peered down the building’s corridor, she noticed that the office door of Mr. Gordon Jones, a young attorney in Hutchinson, was slightly open, and from within came two moaning gasps.

Meanwhile, at the L&S restaurant on Hutchinson’s Main Street, Lee Cooper sat atop a stool enjoying his lunch. He didn’t hear the gunshots, nor did he hear the sobs to follow. What he did see, however, was a woman named Laura Miller rushing into the restaurant – crying and pleading for his help. “Come quick, come quick”, she screamed. Together, they raced to the office of Gordon Jones. It was a disturbing scene. Jones lay dead in a pool of blood with a bullet wound to his chest.

The alarm was raised, and Hutchinson Police Chief, Frank Broderius, was immediately dispatched to the scene. Jones was pronounced dead, and after examination of the scene, Laura Miller, the only eye witness, was arrested.

It had only been an hour since Mrs. Schouse heard the gunshots.

The trial that ensued transfixed McLeod County as well as much of Minnesota. The news media pounced on the story, an affair between a young woman and a married lawyer that ended at once when he learned she was pregnant. The defense team took advantage by painting a picture of a wronged woman taken advantage by a dastardly lawyer. They preyed on the public sympathy for a young pregnant woman, going so far as to set up a photo shoot of Laura celebrating her birthday behind bars as well as allowing a published interview of Laura discussing the hardships faced of a young woman behind bars. The media devoured any detail they could find about Miller and made it public. She was a young woman, smart, bookish, and naïve. Quotes were published about how Laura Miller didn’t like to go to parties, how she preferred to stay home and read, and how she was swept off her feet by the charm of Gordon Jones. It was a tactic that set a scene during the trial, one where the public tuned in, and one where the future of a young pregnant woman would hang in the balance.

As the trial went on, however, new facts would emerge…

The trial of Laura Miller was slated to begin in Glencoe, MN on February 20th, 1950, yet the backstory of the murder and the events leading up to were well known around the county. The facts were that on January 30th, 1950, Hutchison Lawyer, Gordon Jones, was found dead in his office from a gunshot wound, and a young woman named Laura Miller was accused of his murder. The story behind the murder was a tale of romance, deceit, and wrong-doing. It was a backstory made for a Hollywood drama, and one that had captivated not just McLeod County, but much of the state.
Gordon Jones was a young Hutchinson Lawyer, one who was married with two children. On occasion, Jones would find himself in Minneapolis on business. It was here that he met Laura Miller. Miller was a young woman, self-described as “bookish” and not one who went on dates often. The two met at a restaurant in downtown Minneapolis in 1948. Miller was taken with Jones, claiming he was charming and a delight to listen to. Though they parted that night, the two would continue to see one another when Jones happened to be in the city. Eventually, Miller fell in love with Jones, claiming to be unaware of his marital status until a year into their affair.

Laura Miller was infatuated with Jones, regardless of him being married and a father. She claimed that she knew there was room in his heart, regardless of his wife, and she spent hours in her room where she would doodle the words Mrs. Laura Jones over and over on a pad of paper. Yet, the knowledge that she could never be his wife brought her to depression, and she claimed to have contemplated suicide on a number of occasions.
The affair eventually took a turn for the worse when Laura found she was pregnant and insisted that Jones was the father. She kept the news from him for some time, but finally relented to telling him the news, at which he was angered that she kept it from him. Miller claimed Jones pledged to make accommodations for her and the baby, going so far as to coax Miller into thinking that he may even leave his family in favor of her and the unborn child. In reality, however, Jones became cold toward Miller and did what he could to drive her out of his life – going so far as to hire a woman to impersonate his wife and confront Miller in an attempt to scare her off.

During Miller’s stay in the county jail, while she awaited trial, she recounted the story to the media on numerous occasions, always telling of how she was innocent, and how she had only traveled to Hutchinson to confront Jones about how he was going to take care of her and the baby, not to kill him. She maintained that she blacked out the incident, and did not fully know how he was killed.

The media circus surrounding the murder turned Laura Miller into a local celebrity. A good portion of the public sympathized with her, a tactic set out early by the defense team. Yet, there was a faction that still stood by the irrefutable truth, that Laura Miller, believing herself to be pregnant with the child of Gordon Jones, walked into his office with a gun, and when she left, Jones lay dead in a pool of blood.
The entire county sat on pins and needles, waiting for the trial to begin and for a verdict to be given. McLeod County was abuzz with anticipation.

The trial was slated to begin at 10am, yet spectators began showing up as early as 7am to secure a seat in the high-ceilinged courtroom in the McLeod County Courthouse, a room that could hold a capacity of 200 people. Those who could not find a place to sit in the courtroom were ushered across the street to the Oriel Theater where sound was “canned” into a loudspeaker on the stage.

The trial was a spectacle, one where the Judge allowed journalists, spectators, and photographers to flood the courtroom and keep a watchful eye on Laura Miller. The news media watched her every expression, keeping a watchful eye for nervousness and anxiety, and reporting on her every move.
Miller and her attorneys knew the media was watching. They also knew the key to the trial was to win favor with the public. Laura made sure to dress down, always appearing in a black wool dress with no makeup, and always appearing with a bible in hand. Their tactic was to make her look the part of a naïve and innocent young woman taken in by the charm of young and handsome lawyer.

The first round of witnesses was mostly those who had already testified in front of a grand jury – witnesses to the murder scene who could attest to the behavior of Laura Miller at the scene of the crime. As the trial wore on, however, the crowds were treated to more stirring show as the prosecution began calling character witnesses to counter Miller’s persona of a naïve woman, calling attention to the fact that Miller lied about being a bookish loner, and that she was, on occasion, known to frequent places that catered to the night life. They even brought light to the fact that Miller was once reprimanded for wearing tight fitting clothing with low cut bust lines.

Of all the witnesses, the most captivating was a woman named Marion Turek, a beautician that was recruited by Gordon Jones to act as his wife during a meeting with Miller, one where Jones hoped the presence of his “wife” would scare Miller away. Her testimony provided a hint of the alcohol induced weekend routine of the carousing that took place at the Andrews, the hotel and lounge where Jones and Miller first met. Turek also told a chilling version of events where Miller, distraught with grief that Jones was trying to get rid of her, did the unthinkable. During the meeting when Turek was acting as Jones’s wife, Laura Miller opened her purse and pulled a gun – the same gun she allegedly used to kill Jones. She aimed the loaded weapon at Turek, in which Turek responded by saying “Be careful, you will get hurt”. Miller responded coldly with “Don’t worry about me”.

On February 27th, a week into the trial, the prosecution rested its case. What followed was a fight between the prosecution and defense about what evidence, including Miller’s revolver, could be admitted as evidence. This portion of the case was not so riveting to the press, so they filled in the time with speculative news about how the case would unfold from that point on. Question arose as to whether or not Miller herself would take the stand, but it was a question that the defense dodged at every mention.

March 1st dawned cold. It was a Wednesday, and the temperatures were well below normal for the time of year. Though it was cold, the town of Glencoe was hot with the news that Laura Miller would take the stand that very day. At 2:30pm, Miller, with dark rings under her eyes and dressed in her usual black wool dress, took the stand. Before she did, however, the defense took a gamble and asked the judge and jury that the verdict of the case should be either murder in the first degree, or not guilty.

Miller testified for two and a half hours, at times needing to pause to collect her emotions. She told of her upbringing, how she first met Jones, and how she fell in love with him despite his marital status, and how he shunned her after she revealed to him that she was pregnant. Eventually, she proceeded to the events at the scene of the crime, claiming that Jones told her not to come around anymore, of which she responed by pulling her revolver from her purse and pointing it at her unborn fetus. She then said he lunged for the gun. What Miller did next left spectators transfixed. Miller stood from her chair and shouted at the top of her voice as she described the shooting. “I remember that I smelled smoke and my hand was up in the air and I don’t know what happened exactly…he was on this side of me and he was holding my hand down and then he pushed me and I hit a chair and then I don’t remember anything until I remember he was kneeling on the floor.”
Miller’s defense rested its case and court was adjourned.

On March 3rd, Judge Moriarty reviewed the evidence and read the verdict. Laura Miller was found not guilty, the judge declaring that Gordon Jones “died in an accidental manner during a scuffle”. As Miller left the courtroom on that Friday in March, the crowd roared with approval.

As the years went by, the story of Laura Miller never fully left the minds of those in Minnesota. The question, is what happened to Laura after the trial ended? For this question, I have no concrete answer, however, a bit of research turned up a few possible outcomes as to what happened to the defendant of one of McLeod County’s most intriguing court cases.

What we know as fact is that Laura Miller fled McLeod County and vowed never to return. Her last known whereabouts (as far as I can ascertain) was at General Hospital in Minneapolis where she was visiting her mother. Reporters were already there waiting. Laura gave them the interview they were waiting for, stating that she intended to live with family in Omaha Nebraska. As with any community (an entire county in this case), however, rumors tend to fly when there are unknowns related to a hot topic – Laura Miller was no exception.

The most widely accepted story is that Laura Miller moved to Omaha and had her child. Some sources claim it was a boy, others a girl. Some rumors claim the child grew to adulthood never knowing what happened in McLeod County – meaning Laura kept it secret. Others claim that Laura gave the child up for adoption and then moved to New York to disappear from the public eye. Recently, however, an interview conducted with Hazel Graven, Laura Miller’s jail cell attendant came to light, one that ended with a much different theory as to what happened to Laura after the trial was over.

Hazel Graven was a rarity in 1950. In a time when law enforcement was heavily dominated by men, Hazel Graven was deputized. In the case of Laura Miller, many feared she would turn suicidal. As a result, Hazel was ordered to stay by Laura’s side both day and night. During the day, Hazel accompanied Laura to the courtroom, to lunch, in and out of her cell, and even to the bathroom. At night, Hazel slept in a jail cell next to Laura. Twenty-four hours a day, and seven days a week, Hazel Graven was by Laura Miller’s side. In the interview she described Laura as a personable type, easy to talk with, and so well behaved that Hazel could have left the cell door unlocked and Laura would have stayed put. The two even stayed in touch for a bit after the trial. What’s eye opening about the interview is what Hazel thought of Laura’s story, and what she believed happened after the trial.

“Guilty as sin”, is what Hazel said in the interview. The deputy and courtroom attendant of Laura Miller said that outside of the courtroom, the defendant never cried or showed remorse. In the courtroom, however, Laura was known for having bouts of emotional outpouring. What’s more is that Laura Miller was never forced to take a pregnancy test, and Hazel, who was with her when she dressed, when she showered, and when she went to the bathroom, questioned the validity of Laura Miller’s story, stating she did not believe that Miller was even pregnant.

Perhaps someone out there knows exactly what happened to Laura Miller. For now, however, I guess we’ll have to content ourselves with the idea that even though all the facts seem to be in order, there is always more to the story.

A Frantic State of Mind

Carver, Carver County MN. August 20, 1862

It was a scene of utter chaos. Several hundred Refugees were swarming the city of Carver, MN. They were settlers, country folk striving to raise families on the Minnesota frontier – yet, just a day prior, their entire world had blown up. Nearly one-thousand Dakota warriors, angry from their treatment by the United States government, left their reservation in the west and were on a mission to rid their ancestral lands of white settlers.

The attacks were brutal. Entire families, unsuspecting of the warrior’s motives, were killed or taken captive. Some war parties were particularly callous, taking time to torture their victims before killing them. Hearing news of the horrific scenes unfolding to the west, settlers fled in terror, abandoning their homes and leaving their possessions behind. In carts, wagons, or on foot, they made their way east as fast as possible, stopping on for brief periods to rest exhausted oxen or horses – all the white watching nervously to the west for approaching war parties.

In Carver, MN, news of the outbreak reached town the night prior when refugees from nearby Henderson began filtering in. They told of the murders to the west and spread false rumors of Fort Ridgely being wiped out by thousands of blood-thirsty warriors who were rapidly moving east to attack Fort Snelling. It certainly put the town in a state of anxiety, yet nothing could prepare them for what they would witness at sunrise.

On the morning of August 20th, no Indians appeared. What came instead were several hundred refugees from neighboring McLeod County, all crazed with fear and frantically fleeing east. The locals in Carver had never witnessed anything like it before. It seemed the entire population of western Minnesota was now on their doorstep. One onlooker would later recall,

“About the hour of seven in the morning we began to recruit the entire population of McLeod County. On they came, some on foot, some on horseback and some on crutches, sleds, wagons of all shades of manufacture — some with great, big, round wheels; some with low, block wheels; some with only three wheels; some with two only. They brought with them bundles of clothes, axes, spades and shovels; some more, some less of the same; some running with children on their backs, seated upon a ponderous bundle, strapped over the shoulders. Thus matters went on until in came a boy, on a very spirited horse, claiming to be direct from Glencoe, shouting out as he rode at full speed through the streets, that the Indians had burned Glencoe and Young America, and were on a rapid march for Carver! Oh! such a scene I never desire to witness again.” – The Weekly Pioneer and Democrat, Aug. 29, 1862.

At the docks a steamer was boarding refugees to bring them safely to St. Paul. It was chaos from the start. They refugees were panicking, pushing and shoving to get aboard. Mother’s shrieked as children were thrown aside by grown men who raced aboard the steamer. In a matter of minutes, the pilot had to step in and stop people from climbing aboard – the steamer reached its capacity and was showing signs of strain. It didn’t stop the refugees, however, as they jumped from the dock over the steamer’s sides, desperately hanging onto whatever would aid them in their attempt to flee.

The boat was finally able to kick off, yet the scene it left behind was of absolute lunacy. Those on shore screamed with despair for the steamer to return. They quickly found a second, much smaller, craft on shore and stampeded toward it. In a matter of moments, it was full to the brim and heading down stream.

The McLeod County residents had reason for panic. There was little to stand in the way of the attackers sweeping across the county. The army had only a marginal presence on the frontier, and a detachment of troops had already been defeated. Of course, there were some settlers who chose to stay. They built fortifications, raised home guards, and pledged to defend their communities. They were few, however, as most chose to flee, stricken with fear and absent of reason. In the days to follow, some would muster enough courage to return to their communities and aid in its defense. Most would flee to St. Paul; many would never return. Of those who returned, the majority did so long after the troubles were over.

The entire episode of Minnesota History would not last long, yet a multitude of damage was done. When it was all over, anywhere from 450 to 800 civilians perished on the prairies, and apx. 150 Dakota warriors. It stands today as the bloodiest period of state and local history. A time, and a place that put people in a frantic state of mind.

Bank Robbery in Brownton

It was a dark, chilly night in September of 1924. It was a quiet in Brownton – still and silent – a silence that was deafening, broken only by the “click-clack” of a pair of shoes as their owner strolled down the quiet street. It was 1am, and while the tiny town slept, Marshal Sanken was making his rounds. He checked the doors on shops in town, making sure they were secure and locked tight. Occasionally he would cup his hands around his eyes to peek inside a darkened shop window, just to make sure everything was in order in the orderly little town. He felt nothing out of order as he came by the powerhouse – the place where electricity was controlled for the town. Suddenly, and seemingly from nowhere, a cold, gloved hand reached out from the little building and enveloped itself around the Marshal’s mouth. A second hand reached for his arm and subdued the marshal. Inside were five men. They were cutting power to the town and were planning to rob the bank.

The men were armed and meant business. They’d scoped out town earlier that day, and felt they had a fool-proof plan. Under cover of darkness, they would sneak, silently, into town, cut the phone and telegraph lines, break into the bank, darken the interior windows, and blow the vault with nitroglycerin.

You could call it bad timing for Marshal Sanken.

The five men were inside the powerhouse cutting the wires when one of them spotted the Marshal walking down the sidewalk. They remained still, waiting in silence until the Marshal was close enough to grab. As he walked by the powerhouse, the men reached out and accosted him, gagged with a rag, and had his hands tied behind his back.

They took the bound Marshal with them as they made their way to the bank. Once inside, they put Marshal Sanken in the basement and went to work darkening the windows. Next, they blew the vault, or tried to at least. The vault was made of thick steel enclosed in brick and mortar. After four attempts to blow their way inside, they had done little but awaken several townspeople.

One man who was alerted by the explosions was H.E. Seeland, a restaurant owner who lived across the street of the bank. Seeland jumped from bed, grabbed a shotgun, and proceeded to a second story window. He saw the commotion at the bank and fired his gun into the air, hoping to scare the bandits off. Instead, his shot drew returning fire. Shooting from a second floor window, Seeland had the upper hand. While the bandits tried to scramble out of the bank, they were under constant fire from Seeland.

The five armed bank robbers had no choice but to abandon their heist and leave town. The gunfight was sure to alarm the town and soon more people would come to the aid of Seeland. They decided to flee the town, without the loot they sought after. They bolted from the bank and ran out of town as fast as they could, shooting out streetlights and returning fire toward Seeland.

The armed bandits were never caught. The attempted bank heist in Brownton was one of four in the region; Cosmos, Svea, and Kandiyohi were all targets of similar bank jobs. Authorities felt all four attempts were made by the same criminals. To this day, their identity remains a mystery.
-Brian Haines-

The Deadliest Pandemic in History

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”.  Mark Twain

The world is a curious place.  Everyday we make history by doing the same thing we did yesterday.  We wake in the morning, we go to our jobs, try to make a little money, go home, spend time with loved ones, watch the same old headlines, and go to bed.  The next morning, we wake and to it again.  In the average lifespan we repeat this process 31,390 times, and in that span, we see nations wage war, see people suffer, and hope for change.  It’s as if the world were a movie where the setting and the characters adjust, but the plot always stays the same.

Today, our headlines are filled with covid-19, the coronavirus.  The virus has turned the world on its head.  Schools and businesses are closing, professional sporting leagues have suspended play, and many Americans have chosen to quarantine.  There are travel bans, the U.S. is in a state of emergency, store shelves are emptying, and a faction of the population is ready for an all-out panic.  It’s something the likes of most alive have never witnessed, something that didn’t happen yesterday; however, as history shows, this outbreak both is and isn’t all that different from those in the past.

The world has been shaken by sickness many times in history.  Since the beginning, humankind has had to grapple with disease – most notable the black death that swept Europe and Asia in the 14th century, killing more than 20 million people.  More recent however were the H1-N1 (swine flu) that killed over 12,000 in the U.S., SARS, and “Bird Flu” epidemics – however, they all pale in comparison to the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918 that killed an estimated 20-50 million people.

It was March of 1918, nearly a century ago today.  America was gearing up for war in Europe, a war so ghastly it was dubbed “the war to end all wars” – no one felt any nation would be willing to fight a war ever again with such deadly weaponry at hand.  All around the nation, young men were being herded into crowded army camps to train for the trenches.  One such camp was Camp Funston in Kansas.  Hordes of young recruits were sent to the camp during the worst winter on record.  Barracks swelled and troops were forced to sleep in tents under think blankets.

Nearby, in Haskell County KS, a little community was just getting over a mysterious sickness that seemed to only affect the farmers of the community.  It was a flu bug that was shockingly contagious and extremely deadly.  A local doctor was so terrified that he alerted the U.S. Public Health Service.  Being that the outbreak was in a small community, however, the USPHS chose to do nothing, feeling that in a small “backwater” community, the sickness would soon run out of people to infect and this run its course.

Meanwhile, back at Camp Funston, a company cook named Private Albert Gitchell reported to sick bay with flu like symptoms.  He was part of a batch of fresh recruits brought to the camp from Haskell County on February 28th.  Coughing and sneezing, the Haskell Kansas boys crowded into jam packed barracks and spread the disease.  By the end of the month of March, over 1,000 troops were sick with 38 dead.

The first wave of the flu in the United States came on rapidly but left just as fast.  It was March, the end of flu season.  In Europe, however, it took hold and mutated.  Fresh faced American soldiers, with watery eyes and runny noses, walked off the troop ships in France and spread the sickness throughout the country.

By May it had spread across Europe, killing 8,000,000 people in Spain alone where it earned the nickname “Spanish Flu”.  By June it spread through India and China, by July it was sprawling over Africa and South America, and by August it found its way back to the docks on America’s east coast – this time far deadlier than the version that had left so many months earlier.

The infected were suspect to severe nausea, aches, fever, and diarrhea.  Many developed black blotches on their skin and would even turn blue due to a lack of oxygen.  Once a patient turned blue, it was only a matter of hours, or minutes before they would die.  Some became infected only to die as little as 12 hours later, showing no symptoms until the very end.

Troops coming home on boats from Europe were sick, many dying.  Reports were of bodies being stacked like cordwood on the docks.  Masks were handed out, hand sanitation was urged, and large gatherings were banned.  Hospitals could scarcely keep up with the flu and swelled beyond capacity.

In Philadelphia, 200,000 people crammed together on city streets to watch a parade.  Three days later, every sick bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was full of sick and dying patients.  By the end of the week, 4,500 people were dead.  Officials closed the city, all businesses and public services ceased to operate, yet it was too late.  An estimated 12,000 people were killed in Philadelphia alone.

After the deadly second wave of Spanish Flu, the sickness abruptly stopped.  It peaked late in 1918 and diminished to almost nothing.  It simply ran out of victims.  The damage had been done, however, as 500,000,000 people, worldwide, had been infected with the flu, and up to 50,000,000 perished because of it.

Today, as it was in 1918, people are afraid of what tomorrow may bring.  Health officials have yet to get a firm handle on covid-19, there’s no vaccine, and symptoms can be so mild that a person does not know they have it while passing it along to others.  How the coronavirus will unfold is anybody’s guess.  We can hope that it goes to the wayside like so many others, or that a vaccine is developed to eradicate it.  History has proven time and time again that when it’s all over and the dust settles, life will go on.  For now, however, I guess we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed. – Brian Haines.

The Devil at Lake Marion

It was the roaring 20s, a time of moral decadence.  An era best categorized by bootleggers, booze, flappers, and jazz.  Ladies’ dresses and hairstyles became shorter, music became louder, cars became faster, and liquor, which was now illegal, flowed more freely than ever.  The Great War was over, but the victory party that followed ceased to end.

Rarely was there a place in America that wasn’t touched in some way by the roaring 20s.  Minnesota, a state once thought of as a rural mecca with country values, became the nation’s top producer of illegal moonshine.  The trade was so prevalent across the countryside that it caught the attention of the feds and the likes of Al Capone.  All across the state, ballrooms and dance halls became the centers of 1920’s night life.  What were once quaint venues for weddings and ceremonies, were now filled with jazz music, dancing, and booze.

The Lake Marion Ballroom was a beautiful pavilion style dance hall on the shores of Lake Marion.  Cool breezes floated through the screened pavilion, and the full moon reflecting off the lake made it exquisite.  To the north was a small outcropping of rocks where mist from the waves could wash over those who sat atop them while listening to the music through the screened windows.  To top off the atmosphere was the popcorn stand that stood outside the ballroom entrance and filled the pavilion with the scent of freshly popped corn.  It was indeed a landmark of McLeod County.

To some the ballroom was a place of grandeur, yet to others it was a den of sin and decadence.  At a time when a segment of the population looked to tighten the noose around societal ills, the ballroom was often the sight of moonshine vendors, and it was rumored that “women from disorderly houses from the Cities were brought there for illegal purposes”.  It was also rumored that “the dances have been rough and that some of the dancers of both sexes get drunk; that the rooms of the hotel are all engaged in advance and that the cottages are broken into and the rooms occupied by revelers”.  If such ill repute was indeed prevalent at the pavilion, it is no wonder that such deeds would summon the presence of Satan himself.

It was Sunday, October 30th, 1921, the evening before Halloween.  For years October 30th was known as mischief night, the night when pranksters ran amuck with pleasure.  It was common to wake up on Halloween morning to find outhouses tipped over, unhinged gates, windows soaped, or to see property vandalized.  It was the perfect night for a sinister appearance by Satan himself, and what better place to get a good scare than in a pavilion full of people.

There are many versions of what happened, the following is one of them.

It was intermission at the Lake Marion Ballroom.  The musicians were off stage, taking a break, and the dancers were mingling among themselves.  The weather that night was blustery; it was humid, and a late season thunderstorm was passing through the area.  As the dancers reveled and laughed, a loud clap of thunder shook the pavilion and the rain started coming down.  Another earth shattering thunder, and then a scream from the crowd as a strange apparition appeared next to the mirrored column in the middle of the dance floor, and made its way to the bar.

The lights in the ballroom began to flicker, some claiming they gave off an eerie, un-earthly like color.  Some supposed witnesses recalled that the musicians instruments flew off the stage and splintered as they hit the ground.  Then, from the ceiling, a broomstick began dancing in mid-air and made its way to the stage.

A cry emitted from the crowd “The Devil is here to get his dues.  Repent on your knees.  Pray for forgiveness.”  Then suddenly, in a flash of smoke, fire, and brimstone, Satan himself was said to have appeared.  Some say he came from above, while others maintained he rose from the floor.  He did not speak, but made his way through the crowd.  As he walked by, a section of scaffold resting against a wall crumbled into a heap of iron.

People screamed, people fainted, and people scrambled over the top of one another in a race to the exits.  They jumped in their cars and drove away as fast as their old Model T’s would allow.  Many abandoned their cars and ran headlong into the darkness.  Some were transfixed on the spot, unable to move as the dark prince strolled by.  To those who stayed behind as witness, they say the devil strode out of the ballroom and walked across the water on the lake, disappearing from sight and leaving a scene of chaos in his wake.

The story began to evolve over the next few days, and it gained nationwide attention.  The story was told all over the state, in the Minneapolis paper, as well as a number of smaller publications.  It even hit the papers in Chicago, and some recall that the story was told as far east as New York.

Rumors of the perpetrator’s identity were widespread.  Some claimed it was a prankster, some claimed it was nothing but a ball of lightning and the onlookers were exaggerating the story, yet others maintained that it was the Devil himself, complete with horns, tail, and cloven feet.  Whatever it was, something indeed happened on that October night in 1921.

At a resort in Norwood, just a few days after the episode at Lake Marion, an intense game of poker was being played in a backroom where a well-known gambler was present.  While the players were making bets, tossing chips, and laying down cards, it is said that Satan again appeared.  How he appeared is unknown.  Perhaps it was with a puff of smoke, maybe a ball of brimstone and fire, or perhaps he simply strode through the door.  Whatever his means of appearing, it is said that he accosted the well-known gambler, and in a devilish voice proclaimed, “Now you old rascal.  I’ve got you!”  The events beyond that are a mystery.

Not long after these events, a letter to the editor appeared in the Hutchinson Leader.  Mrs. C.L. Bartlett of Bertha, Minnesota was skeptical, and was inquiring to the facts concerning the events, wanting to know what kind of evidence was available to prove that this was the Devil himself and not some prankster.  A week later a reply to Mrs. Bartlett’s inquiry appeared in the same publication by, of all people, a local Methodist Pastor.

Andrus Richardson was born in Chautauqua, New York in 1869.  Pastor Richardson moved around a lot, and in 1921, found himself in Hutchinson, MN.  On November 16th of that year he wrote a letter to the editor in regards to Mrs. Bartlett’s questioning of the Devil.  Interestingly, the pastor seemed to take offense that anyone would not believe the devil appeared.  He claimed that only a certain “class of people” went to these dances, and went on to list the events that made these dances so “rough”.  He described the scene that night, how the lights became lurid, how the women screamed, and how people left the pavilion stricken with terror; it was almost as if he was there himself.  He ends his letter stating that the hotel is now deserted, and that “dancing among that class of people has ceased”.  Lastly, he proclaims that many who witnessed the spectacle were confined to bed with hysteria, and that those who are hardest to convince it was a hoax were those who were witness to the evil dark prince.  At times while reading through his letter, one could argue that he is saying “job well done”.

To this day the Devil at Lake Marion stands as one of the best known legends in McLeod County.  Nearly a century has passed since the event, yet the story remains strong in the minds of all those who’ve heard the tale.  Who was it?  Was the Devil merely a man in disguise, was the entire episode just an overreaction to natural phenomena, or was it indeed a guest appearance from Satan himself?  Perhaps time will tell.  For now, however, the mystery behind the legend remains just that, a mystery.

Then and Now Photo Series

July 17th, 2019, The Hutchinson Center for the Arts and McLeod County Historical Society will be hosting a photo exhibit at the Center for the Arts building in Hutchinson.  The photos are a side by side comparison, old and new, of street scenes from each of McLeod County’s nine communities.  To accompany the photos are booklets that tell the history of the communities. The reception begins at 5pm and runs until 7pm.