Josef Herzen – The Boy Murderer

Josef Herzen – The “Boy” Murderer

December 4, 1910:

It was a cold December evening in the “old back country” of McLeod County.  Around 10pm, long after the sun crowned the western horizon and the world turned pitch black, Henry Wolter, who lived between Hutchinson and Biscay, was walking home after a late-night visit with some neighbors.  Most of the landmarks in the area were obscured by darkness, so Wolter used the railroad tracks as a guide.  About two miles north of Biscay he could see a dark figure looming ahead of him – a fellow traveler walking the tracks and heading toward Wolter.

There was something strange about the traveler.  He was moving fast, running down the tracks, and as he passed Wolter, he gave not one indication that he noticed Henry.  There was no
“hello”, no “good evening”, nothing but utter silence as he sprinted past.

The strange traveler was reported to the McLeod County Sheriff, as were several other strange people, drifters, who had been seen in town – a murder had been committed outside of Silver Lake, and the County Sheriff was on the lookout for suspicious characters.

One young man named Josef Herzan, who was not a stranger to the community, was in Silver Lake on the day of the murder.  Herzan, who lived on a rented farm with his father, left his home that morning at 9am.  He spent the day in Silver Lake, making a few stops while he was in town.  At 6pm, upon the sounding of the town bell, he left the village and proceeded into the countryside.  He eventually came to the Fajmon home, a little log cabin outside of Silver Lake.

Herzan decided to enter the home and ask for money – this he would do at gunpoint.  He went to the door, knocked, then entered the home.  Once inside, Herzan pulled out a revolver that he kept in his pocket.  Inside the home were Mr. and Mrs. Fajmon.  He pointed his weapon at them and demanded money, to which it was replied that they had none.  Mr. Fajmon then emptied the meager contents of his pockets, in which a few coins were present.  Herzan then demanded more money.  Mrs. Fajmon took a lantern and went into the cellar, then came back with two dollars in paper money and an additional six in silver.  Still unsatisfied, Herzan demanded more.  Mrs. Fajmon explained that all they had left was wheat, and that if he followed her, he could have their wheat.

What happened next was a tragedy.

Mrs. Fajmon looked closely at Herzan and exclaimed “I know you”.  Herzan then panicked, lifted the gun and fired, killing Mrs. Fajmon.

Josef Herzan ran as fast as he could across a plowed field toward Silver Lake.  Once he reached town he passed by the lumber yard and headed out to the lake where children were known to skate.  There, he made a fire and rested for some time.  He then left and headed across the lake toward a stand of timber where he discarded the weapon and ammunition.  Then he went to Travnichek’s store where he met his brother Charley and went home.

A long hunt for the murderer ensued.  For weeks people looked for clues to the crime, yet nothing came.

Meanwhile, Josef Herzan decided to travel into Hutchinson to visit with his grandmother.  It was noted that he had more money than he should have with no explanation as to where it came from.  Suspicion was aroused and questions began to get asked.  Local law enforcement, with the help of a Pinkerton detective, found that Herzan owned a revolver of the same caliber that was used in the murder – it was enough to bring him in for questioning where the young man confessed to the crime.  He was given a prison sentence and served 20 years in Stillwater.  Upon release, he tried to resume a normal life in Hopkins.  There he tended bar for a time.  Sometime in the 1940s, he returned to pay a visit to a childhood friend, but was turned away at the door.  Josef Herzan died in 1977.  He was 86 years old.





The Story of Alburn Newcomb

Alburn Newcomb, like so many other early settlers, wanted little more than a peaceful existence in the Minnesota wilderness.  Fate, however, had other plans.  Born in 1836 in Pennsylvania, Ablurn began eyeing the west at the age of 21 years.  His initial motivation for migrating was to better his condition, presumably a health ailment as many others came west for the same reason.  In 1856 he rode the rails to Galena Illinois, as far west as the railroad went at the time.  From there, he procured a team and drove north to Platteville, Wisconsin.  For a time he operated a ferry boat.  In 1858 he again found himself on the move, this time hitching a ride with a family moving to McLeod County, Minnesota.

Minnesota was a mecca for westward migration in the late 1850s – land was cheap, easy to find, and small communities such as Glencoe and Hutchinson were sprouting up across the region.  Alburn made a claim in Sumter township and began living the simple life as a frontiersman trapping furs for the Hudson Bay Company.

By 1861, Alburn Newcomb had established himself as a tried-and-true trapper.  He’d lived in the region for three years and was likely well acquainted with the rivers, streams, trails, and “backcountry” of the area.  Like many men at the time, however, his life became interrupted.  Civil war broke out in the United States and a call went out for all able-bodied men to enlist in the Union army.  Of those dutiful men, Alburn Newcomb was one of the first who sought to enlist.  He was rejected, likely due to his condition, and resumed his life as a frontiersman.  His chance to fight for his home would come soon, however, as in 1862 a large faction of Dakota/Sioux began waging war on white settlers in Minnesota.

Newcomb did not aid in the war effort as a citizen soldier, but instead played the role as a teamster that transported troops across the region to the westerly outposts at Fort Ridgely, Fort Abercrombie, and the numerous outposts that were scattered throughout the settlements in Minnesota.  It was a job that was fraught with danger.  Oftentimes the bulk of the soldiers would go ahead into the most dangerous areas in search of the enemy, leaving the teamsters and a small guard duty alone and at the mercy of an ambush.  In fact, the life expectancy of a teamster was short, and many felt their demise at the hands of a war party was a foregone conclusion.  Dangerous or not, Alburn continued to transport troops across the wilderness until the war ended.

With the war over, Alburn returned to his home in Sumter Township hoping to resume his simplistic life, yet found that the home he left was no more.  As was the case with most farms and settlements in the affected areas of the war, Alburn’s home was destroyed.  Disgusted, he left Minnesota for Iowa where his brother lived.  The stay was short lived, however, and a year later he moved to Glencoe where he attempted to resume the life he had left the year prior.  Far too much change had taken place, however.  The fur trade had declined greatly and Alburn found it nearly impossible to make a living as a frontiersman.  He instead began transporting people as a stage driver, making regular trips between Blakely and Hutchinson.

In 1881, 22 years after he came to McLeod County, Alburn Newcomb began the simple life he sought back in 1858.  He located a farm in Sumter Township and spent his remaining years working the land until his death in 1908.


Holiday Cheer in a Troubling Time

2020 has been a rather detestable year to say the least, so much that I don’t feel I need to go great lengths to describe the situation. If future generations read this and wonder what worldwide ailments I speak of, I instruct you to google, or whatever means of searching reference you have in the future, 2020 and you will likely find out all you need to know. At any rate, there is one bright spot in 2020, aside from it being nearly over, and that is the fact that Christmas is near.

In spite of forces that might militate against it, there’s a certain sense of Christmas spirit this year that I haven’t felt for a while, evident of the seemingly uptick in Christmas lights that shine from front lawns this year. Oddly, or perhaps not so, it’s a similar situation today, as it was in December of 1931.

It was a tough time for Americans. The nation was amid an economic privation so merciless that history acknowledges it as “The Great Depression”. There were those who prospered during the depression, yet most suffered in some way, shape, or form. For some, it was just another day of destitution, for others, however, the Christmas season was a bright, shining star that glowed bright in the dark world around it.

In an uplifting article from the Glencoe Enterprise, dated in December of 1931, Author Win. V. Working wrote a reflection piece on the struggles of the time and the hope that the Christmas season brought to a struggling world. When people could not afford gifts, McLeod County merchants greatly reduced their prices to make their goods affordable for everyone. He wrote “It has been said that a corporation has no soul. Certainly, the large outside firms are lacking the human qualities that we find in our local merchants. It has been demonstrated to us this year that they are our real friends and the ones on whom we may rely in time of stress. As a result of this, the Christmas spirit really seems to be more in evidence this year than in former years. Adversity brings us closer together, and while the present situation is of little import when compared to a real disaster, the pinch has been sufficient to bring out the facts cited”.

In a troubling time, Working also noted that though things were tough, the situation was not so bad as it was for the early settlers in McLeod County, especially those who struggled through the financial panic of the late 1850s. During the panic, money was nonexistent in Minnesota and most communities operated on a system of barter. To make matters worse, spring crops were at the mercy of Rocky Mountain Grasshoppers that could devour a field, coupled with a string of late frosts, those living on the frontier at the time faced the reality of starvation as well as poverty. Working cited a quote from an unnamed pioneer who, in December of 1857, wrote “Times are hard and there will be much suffering this winter if prospects do not become brighter toward spring. I do not know what many of the people here will do as they have no money and little chance to earn enough to provide for the families”.

It’s odd how we, as humans, tend to look to the past for comfort in the present. Today, we look back at the Spanish Flu Pandemic, or the Great Depression as if to say, “at least it isn’t that bad”, and for Win V. Working and those of his time, they looked back to the generations before they in order to say the same. Perhaps looking to the past for comfort is merely a part of human nature.

To close, I’ll offer the words of our cited author, “It is a good thing for us to have a little hard luck one in a while, if only to cause us to more fully appreciate life’s values. The men and women of the early years knew more of life than we. They were in direct and constant contact with its realities. Their pleasures were few and simple but were enhanced by the contrast to their workaday lives. We might all be happier if we could go back to the plain living and the modest objectives of the pioneer days. Still, with a proper appreciation of these facts, we may better enjoy our present circumstances.”

A Budding Rivalry

It was the late 1850s. Though the exact date is not recorded, one can presume the event happened during a warm weather month, and on a pleasant day (you’ll see what I mean). For the sake of a good story, and bearing in mind that I’m at the end of my rope in regards to winter, we’ll place this narrative in the spring of the year – on a lovely day with plenty of sunshine, songbirds singing, budding flowers on the prairie, and a temperature of no more or no less than 73 degrees. It was on such a splendid morning that A. P. Fitch found himself driving his wagon toward Hutchinson.

Hutchinson was, at the time, a town on the rise. Its dirt streets were lined with several homes and budding businesses attractive to settlers looking for a place to lay down their roots. Its founders were of New England stock, steadfast in their desire to promote the ideals of nineteenth century progressivism. They, along with several of the town’s co-founders and leading citizens, fervently worked toward securing a prosperous future for their community.

A.P. Fitch did not live in Hutchinson, but on this day was compelled to take a ride into the town for the sake of attending a church service. In those days, few frontier settlements had buildings designated as churches. Most towns, as did Hutchinson, employed a circuit preacher who would travel from settlement to settlement and perform service in one of the larger community homes. Oftentimes, guests were invited to a place at the hosts dinner table when the service concluded.
Mr. Fitch was a relative newcomer to the area, and a first-time visitor to Hutchinson. It just so happened, that on that day, the service was held in the home of Asa Hutchinson, one of the town’s founders and most prominent citizens. Mr. Fitch was graciously welcomed by Asa, who with the utmost passion, promoted his community to the newcomer. Asa did his best to elevate the town’s points of interest, applaud its potential, and even confided in Mr. Fitch the plans he and others had for advancing the town’s interests.

The conversation continued at Asa’s dinner table, where Asa revealed to Mr. Fitch, that he and a group of committed town leaders had been meeting in private to hatch a plan that would wrestle the county seat away from Glencoe, McLeod County’s largest community. Mr. Fitch listened closely, and with great interest as Asa revealed the details of their plan.
With the dinner concluded, Mr. Fitch said his goodbyes and bid his gracious host farewell. He began his ride back home, pondering the events of the day – the service, the meal, and the news of Hutchinson becoming the new seat of McLeod County. Ordinarily, a guest in someone’s home would not divulge a private conversation with the host, but Mr. Fitch had other plans. It’s likely that his return was made with a bit of haste. Unlike the morning journey, A.P. Fitch did not take time to take in the soft springtime afternoon. Instead, his mind raced. He had to get home and share the news with everyone he knew, because after all, everyone he knew lived in Glencoe.

The Duck Cabin

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I’ve always felt that there’s more to the phrase, however, in that those thousand words are probably different for each person. Some see a painting for what it is – a capture of an event or of people. Others see a story unfolding on canvas. I guess I’m of the latter. I like to think that an artist is telling a story with the stroke of a brush. I suppose in some ways the artist is as much a storyteller as a writer, or even the outdoorsman who stretches the truth of his/her stories. For myself, being a writer and outdoorsman, a thousand words are never enough.

There’s a painting by Les Kouba that I’m rather fond of. It’s titled, “The End of a Classic Era”. Les Kouba admirers probably know that the artist had a flair for telling a story in his paintings. It’s as if the images that came from his brush were a live event unfolding before the viewers eyes. For an outdoorsman and storyteller such as myself, I can’t help but get lost in the event that unfolds on the painting.

It was the late 20s, a golden era of waterfowl hunting. September passed, pleasant with cool autumn mornings and warm summer afternoons. It was weather that stuck into October, an agreeable climate for long walks and watching the leaves change color. As satisfactory as it was, however. it was doomed to change. On the last week of the month a cold snap swept through the region. From the north came a strong wind, chilly to even the heartiest of souls. The leaves fell, the trees went bare, and the air grew cold. For the normal folks in the world, the weather was depressing. For two men, however, it was just what they’d been waiting for.

They were duck hunters, and the cold beckoned them “up north” where a cabin awaited them on the banks of a small and secluded lake in the middle of the Minnesota’s north woods. It was a “ducky lake” – shallow with a sandy bottom and plenty of reeds that grew in clusters. Surrounding the lake was a seemingly endless stretch of vast forest, broken only by narrow logging roads that zigzagged through the woods. For some, it was a cold and dreary place to be, for the two hunters, however, it was heaven.

They left work on a Friday afternoon to headed up for the weekend. The trip was made in a 1925 Model T Ford, a slow moving vehicle that made for a long, and dusty drive, but one passed by with stories of yesteryears’ hunts and hopes for one to put in the books. Anticipation was high as they turned off the highway onto an old logging road. The road was rough going. It had been abandoned for a decade by the logging crew that cut it, yet it was still hard packed and could handle the little vehicle.

The sky was beginning to darken when the lake and the cabin came in sight. It was a rustic cabin, one that looked as natural to the landscape as the trees and lake next to it – it was the kind of place that made you feel like a part of the outdoors. It was a one room shack, built with discounted boards and a blueprint drawn on scratch paper. It was built earlier that summer, but was already beginning to show age from the sun. The roof had yet to be finished, and in places there were gaps covered with an old Coca Cola sign and two pieces of lefse. Like the old Scandinavian song goes, “You can even patch a roof with lefse”. In the years to come it would begin to sag a bit in the middle, and inside would smell of wood smoke and damp boards, in this day, however, it was new, a “Taj-Mahal” of Northwoods hunting shacks.

The hunters excitedly transferred their gear, and food from the little Ford to the cabin. One of the first tasks was to start a fire in the cast iron woodstove that sat in the corner – a big blaze that would take the chill out of the cabin and make for cozy confines as night drew near. Supper that night was beans from a can, thick, smoky bacon, fresh bread, and hot coffee. After a nightcap, the two climbed in their bunks and readied themselves for a cold morning.

Saturday morning began before sunup, while the moon and stars still shone brightly in the dark sky. The hunters dressed in wool sweaters, canvas pants, and tin-cloth hunting coats. It was cold, a crust of ice had formed on shore during the stillness of the night, yet it would soon melt away in the morning sun. In handmade, wooden boats the hunters set out with cork decoys and hopes of a good hunt.

The weather didnt look good for hunting ducks. The breeze stood still, and few clouds floated in the sky. Sunrise, however, was gorgeous, and as the sun crested the eastern horizon, it cast a red glow into the sky. The hunters saw it as a good omen. “Red in the morning is a sailor’s warning”, one said to the other. How right he was. As the morning wore on, the wind came whipping up and the sky filled with gray, low hanging clouds. The air, too, grew cold and damp – as though any moment it might rain big, cold, and wet raindrops.

The hunt was successful, yet one of the men had a mishap when he fell into the cold water. Luckily, he made it back into the boat. With a limit of birds in hand they arrived back at the cabin. The wet hunter changed clothes, put wood in the stove and set to hang his wet clothes on a rope tied to the cabin and a half dead poplar tree. The dry hunter brought the boats up on shore and hung the ducks on the side of the Model T. The wet hunter reached into the stock of beer out on the porch. As Kouba said about the man, he was “getting dry on the outside and wet on the inside”. Meanwhile, his partner brought in the last of the ducks from the boat. With a smoking pipe in his mouth, he looked above the cabin’s roof where the wind blew the smoke straight to the west and saw thirteen plump, late season mallards heading out onto the lake. Though it was thirteen, he took it as a lucky omen, meaning a storm was coming, and would bring ducks with it. Tomorrow morning’s hunt would be one to remember.

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.