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Samuel Eaton, a minister, farmer, newspaper editor and state representative in Rochester, wrote vignettes of five murders committed in Olmsted County between 1865 and 1880. For each, he describes the events preceding the crime, the apprehension of suspects, their court appearances, and sentences. The longest segment is about the trial and conviction of George Staley for murdering Frederick Ableitner in October 1867. His appeal was rejected by the Minnesota Supreme Court, whose opinion, Minnesota v. Staley, 14 Minn. (Gil. 75) 105 (1869), is posted in an Appendix.
Vigilantes, popularly thought to be a phenomenon of the far western frontier, were active in several communities Minnesota and other states in the Midwest in the nineteenth century, long after the frontier had passed. Vigilance committees emerged to combat acts of lawlessness that could not be controlled by the county sheriff whose office was not adequately funded or staffed. They were formal organizations with members, officers, and governing charters.
Douglas A. Hedin: "The Emergence of a Criminal Defendant's Right to Testify at Trial in Minnesota" (2011).
Until 1868, a defendant in a criminal trial in Minnesota could not testify in his own defense. Like other states, Minnesota adhered to the common law rule that barred a criminal defendant from testifying because he had an "interest" in the outcome of the trial. The parallel common law prohibition against civil parties from testifying was never followed in Minnesota. On March 6, 1868, the Minnesota Legislature amended the witness competency law to permit a criminal defendant to testify if he chose.
In 1885 the Board of Corrections and Charities submitted its First Biennial Report to the Legislature. It was compiled and written by Hastings Hornell Hart, the secretary of the Board. After his appointment in 1883, Hart inspected each of Minnesota's 55 jails and even toured public facilities in other states. He set forth his findings and recommendations in "The Jail System of Minnesota" that was intended to shock the Board and Legislature into reforming the jail system. A superb writer, he skillfully wove anecdotes into his descriptions of county jails to demonstrate their deficiencies:
In 1891, the State Board of Corrections and Charities published its Fourth Biennial Report to the Legislature, covering the years 1888-1890. As usual, it included a report from its meticulous, reform-minded secretary, Hastings Hornell Hart, on the conditions of each jail he had inspected during this period. Hart's descriptions were short, candid and fair. He quoted inmates on the quality of their meals, grand jury recommendations and even listed the exact dimensions of cells in some facilities, as for example, Stearns County's:
In April 1893, the state legislature passed a law that transformed control and management of the county jail, an important segment of the criminal justice system. Because the elected county board was frequently reluctant to use public funds for necessary repairs and upkeep of the jail, the reform act restricted county commissioners' operating authority over the jail while requiring them to fund the sheriff's jail budget; it increased the responsibilities of jail keepers while imposing penalties on them for violating their new duties; it empowered the State Board of Corrections and Charities to review new jail remodeling and construction projects; and it authorized district court judges to condemn jails and even approve the hiring of additional personnel by the sheriff.
Big Stone County was established by the legislature on February 20, 1862. In 1981, Magdalene R. Sparrow published a history of the county. She included a short chapter on lawyers who had practiced in the county, several of whom practiced more than a half-century. She also related several anecdotes about law enforcement, the most entertaining being about the apprehension in the fall of 1879 of "two members of Doc Middleton's gang" who were wanted for bank robbery, horse stealing, and kidnapping.
In mid-August 1931, a gangland-style murder was committed on a two-lane road south of Red Wing, Minnesota. The victim was Harry Morris, a career bank robber, well known to police in St. Paul and Minneapolis. The killer was never apprehended, though he almost certainly was James Allen Camden, a bootlegger loosely affiliated with the Capone gang. Camden had testified in Chicago before a grand jury which indicted Al Capone. Capone learned of Camden's betrayal through sources inside the grand jury whom he had bribed. Camden was aware that Capone was plotting to silence him. Why Camden came to murder Morris to avoid Capone is told in this article by James Redman. It appeared first in "The Great River Review."
In January 1903, "McClure's Magazine" carried an exposé by Lincoln Steffens, a young journalist, of the corrupt reign of Minneapolis Mayor Albert Alonzo ("Doc") Ames. Steffens described how theft, gambling and prostitution flourished during the Ames administration in 1901-2. In a scoop, he published pages from an account book kept by swindlers called the "Big Mitt Ledger," which listed payoffs to public officials.
Numerous crimes committed in Redwood County from the 1860s through the 1950s are described in this article, which originally was a chapter in a history of the county published in 1964.
A history of Goodhue County published in 1878 contained short descriptions of several murders and criminal prosecutions between 1854, when the first district court session was held, and 1877.
A history of Houston County published in 1882 repeated several anecdotes about cases tried or attempted to be tried in justice court in the 1850s.
On February 16, 1877, Kate Noonan shot and killed William Sidle outside the Nicollet House in Minneapolis. She was tried in June, but the jury deadlocked. When the judge dismissed the jury, Noonan was in her cell. Her attorneys sought to free her via a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that her absence from the courtroom barred a retrial. After the district court refused, she appealed to the supreme court, which heard oral argument on July 3, 1877. The next day, the "Pioneer Press" newspaper carried a lengthy account of that proceeding, one of the few we have of appellate arguments in this state in the late nineteenth century. In October the court dismissed her appeal, and she was retried in December. On December 24, 1877, the jury returned its verdict. Again, the "Pioneer Press" carried a long and colorful description of the atmosphere in the courtroom when the verdict was read.
This is a brief account of a murder that was committed in Fillmore County in October, 1874, but not resolved until November, 1902. It appeared in a history of the county published in 1912.
Shortly after Paulson, a Scandinavian immigrant, disappeared after a night of drinking "frontier whisky" at a log inn in Douglas County, the wife of the innkeeper located the body in a small lake and collected a reward of $500. One of Paulson's compatriots was tried for his murder but acquitted. Years later, the murderer confessed on his death bed, in Canada.
Several murders committed in Watonwan County from 1872 to 1916 are described in this chapter from a joint history of Watonwan and Cottonwood Counties published in 1916. About two-thirds of the chapter is an excerpt from a first person narrative of the Northfield Bank robbery in 1876 by Cole Younger.
The first trial in Becker County, Minnesota, was held about November, 1871. Harvey Jones was prosecuted for domestic assault. He was tried before a jury, which found him guilty. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail. As Jones was being transported to jail, he received some shrewd legal advice from a fledging lawyer named W. W. Rossman. His journey ended shortly thereafter.
The first trial in Birch Cooley Township in Renville County was held in 1868 in the small house of Willard Drury, Justice of the Peace. John Tracy was prosecuted for cruelty to his neighbor's cattle when they strayed over the property line onto his land. He was tried before a conscientious six man jury, which rendered its verdict: guilty.....but not guilty. This story, told by Darwin S. Hall, appeared first in a history of Renville County published in 1916.