Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
No Cover Image

Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota

John D. Bessler
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 336
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Legacy of Violence
    Book Description:

    In Legacy of Violence, John D. Bessler takes us on a compelling journey through the history of lynchings and state-sanctioned executions that dramatically shaped Minnesota’s past. Through personal accounts of those involved with the events, Bessler traces the history of both famous and lesser-known executions and lynchings in Minnesota, the state’s anti–death penalty and anti-lynching movements, and the role of the media in the death penalty debate.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9287-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xx)

    The cornerstone for Minnesota’s state capitol building, designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert, was laid in 1898. The white marbled dome, set on a St. Paul hilltop, was modeled on Michelangelo’s dome for the cathedral of St. Peter in Rome. As state officials quibbled over what artwork to commission for the capitol’s interior, another, weightier debate-over the death penalty-was raging among the state’s legislators. In nearly every legislative session from 1891 to 1905, when the new statehouse was finally completed, Minnesota lawmakers sought to abolish capital punishment, with Representative George MacKenzie authoring the bill that did just that in 1911....

  5. CHAPTER 1 Lynch Mobs and Public Hangings
    (pp. 1-24)

    Minnesota is, by far, mainly known for its blizzards and its below-zero temperatures, and as the Land of 10,000 Lakes-a message imprinted on the state’s license plates. It is the home of attractions like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the St. Paul Winter Carnival, and the Mall of America, and is the boyhood home of rock stars Bob Dylan and Prince. Laura Ingalls Wilder and F. Scott Fitzgerald both lived in the state, and in the Metrodome, in the shadow of Minneapolis’s skyscrapers, sports figures like outfielder Kirby Puckett hit World Series home runs and rounded the bases to...

  6. CHAPTER 2 On Lincoln’s Orders: Mankato’s Mass Hanging
    (pp. 25-66)

    In March 1862, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, Henry Whipple, wrote to President Abraham Lincoln asking that he “deal righteously with the Indian nations.” “I ask only justice for a wronged and neglected race,” Whipple pleaded. A man of considerable influence, Whipple had Revolutionary War officers and signers of the Declaration of Independence as ancestors, and his cousin Henry Halleck was Lincoln’s general-in- chief for the Army of the Potomac. Arriving in Minnesota before Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, Whipple, through his missionary work, had gained the Indians’ trust. He had converted many Indians to Christianity, performed baptisms...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Execution of Ann Bilansky
    (pp. 67-92)

    The execution of women in the United States is-and always has been-a rare phenomenon. Women are still executed, but only sporadically, as was the case in 1998 when the State of Texas executed convicted killer Karla Faye Tucker the first woman executed in that state since the Civil War. Last-ditch pleas for mercy, joined by conservative televangelist Pat Robertson, set off a media-driven, worldwide movement to save Tucker’s life. However, Texas Governor George W. Bush and the Texas Board of Pardons refused to stop her execution. Freely admitting to murdering her ex-lover with a pickaxe, the thirty-eight-year-old Tucker, a born-again...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Gallows Reconsidered: Executions versus Life Sentences
    (pp. 93-112)

    The death penalty was imported to the American colonies from England, where executions took place at locales like Tyburn and the Tower of London. Many English executions were of lower-class thieves or murderers, but others, like the beheading of King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, showed that even royalty and women were not exempt from death sentences. Boleyn, who failed to bear the king a male heir, was charged with adultery and treason and executed in 1536, with Henry VIII marrying eleven days later. The death penalty, in fact, has been inflicted throughout history on women and men alike...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The “Midnight Assassination Law”
    (pp. 113-140)

    The United States witnessed a resurgence of anti-death penalty activity and reform in the 1880s as politicians came to see executions as unseemly spectacles, even when privately done. More American states chose to outlaw public executions, a few states passed laws mandating nighttime executions to discourage execution-day crowds, and civic leaders, having watched the spectacle of hangings for many years, sought out what they saw as less gruesome ways to kill people. Much of this legislative activity, though not all, was centered in the Northeast and the Midwest, and it often involved attempts to sanitize the news surrounding executions. One...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Botched Hanging of William Williams
    (pp. 141-160)

    The press-muzzling provision of Minnesota’s “midnight assassination law” had been ignored for so long by county sheriffs and newspapers that the law’s author, John Day Smith, must have wondered if his law would ever be fully obeyed. While Minnesota executions after the law’s passage were universally conducted at night, county sheriffs had, by and large, laxly enforced the other provisions of the law, often admitting, for example, far more witnesses than the law allowed. The state’s newspapers had taken colossal liberties with the Smith law too, regularly describing executions in great detail in print, much to the pleasure—or, depending...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The Abolition of Capital Punishment
    (pp. 161-182)

    The bungled hanging of William Williams cost Sheriff Anton Miesen his job in the next November election. It also fueled Minnesota’s abolitionist movement, part of a larger national effort begun in earnest in 1845 with the founding in Philadelphia of the American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. The national anti-gallows campaign achieved only limited success in its early years, with only one state, Michigan, abolishing the death penalty in the 1840s, and just two states, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, doing so in the 1850s. No state abolished the death penalty during the Civil War, and only Iowa, Maine,...

  12. CHAPTER 8 A Travesty of Justice: The Duluth Lynchings
    (pp. 183-224)

    Efforts to reinstate Minnesota’s death penalty followed swiftly on the heels of Representative George MacKenzie’s 1911 legislative victory. In the next election, Ernest Pless, a young Republican miller from Gibbon, ran against MacKenzie, defeating him by a substantial vote. Pro—death penalty sentiment in MacKenzie’s legislative district almost surely contributed to the loss. A local newspaper, in fact, had expressed the view in 1911 that life sentences were an inadequate punishment for crimes like the James-Younger gang’s notorious bank raid. “The old-timers will remember that many years ago Minnesota did away with capital punishment in response to a demand of...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 225-230)

    The popularity of America’s death penalty has ebbed and flowed. The anti-gallows movement in the United States gathered momentum in the 1830s, but those reform efforts, continuing into the 1850s, were quashed by a concurrent push for private executions and, ultimately, by the outbreak of the Civil War. When tens of thousands of innocent lives were being lost in the bloodiest conflict in American history, anti-death penalty reformers held out little hope for their cause. The Progressive Era brought the death penalty’s abolition in Minnesota and elsewhere, but the eruption of World War I brought that penal reform movement to...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 231-286)
  15. Index
    (pp. 287-307)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 308-308)