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Murder and death by hanging: Capital crimes and criminals executed in northern Dakota Territory and North Dakota, 1885-1905

By Frank Vyzralek, Bismarck, N.D.

The noted historian and North Dakota's first State Archivist, Frank Vyzralek, delivered this address to the Judge Bruce M. Van Sickle Inn of Court on October 19, 2000.

Frank VyzralekDakota Territory's first Penal Code was adopted at the second session of the legislature in 1863. It was repealed two years later and replaced with the code then in use in New York state. Under this law the crime of murder was not defined by degree and was in all cases to be punishable by death.

In 1883 the law covering murder was amended and the whole question of punishment passed from that of a judicial responsibility to being a decision made by a jury while deliberating on the evidence surrounding a case. For anyone convicted of murder in the first degree the suggested punishment was either death by hanging or life imprisonment; for second degree murder incarceration in the penitentiary between 10 and 30 years. Although plenty of homicides occurred during territorial and state government juries found only eight to be of a serious enough nature to warrant the death penalty before the penalty itself was thrown out by the legislature in 1915.

There seems no question that North Dakota juries found the death penalty so odious after 1903 that in nearly all cases a sentence of life imprisonment was considered preferable. And time after time that is exactly what they recommended, even in the face of the worst possible instances of murder. This growing sense of pacifism, if you will, finally culminated in the action of the 1915 legislature which removed the death penalty from the books. The sole exception mandated a death sentence in case a penitentiary inmate serving a life sentence took the life of a prison guard, and was intended to protect the lives of guards and penitentiary officials. It never became necessary to invoke this section of the law.

Enactment of the 1915 law actually saved the lives of the perpetrators of one of the state's most horrifying crimes. Near Lansford during the summer of 1914 one pair of transients inexplicably attacked a second pair and, using handy rocks and stones, beat them literally to a pulp. They were caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to death and were awaiting execution when the new legislation abolishing capital punishment took effect.

Those Who Were Executed and the Circumstances of Their Crime and Trial:

George Miller ­ Grand Forks ­ October 1885

On the early morning of Sunday, January 25th, 1885, a young man drove up to the Northwestern Hotel in Grand Forks in a team and sled, the horses all covered with frost. While registering he identified himself as George Miller and displayed considerable wealth in terms of fine clothes as well as silver and gold coins. He claimed to be on his way to visit a brother in Winnipeg and a few days later he disappeared.

About that time a telegram arrived from Inkster, reporting that Abbie and Herbert Snell, the wife and 6-year-old son of Rev. C. Y. Snell, a Baptist minister, had been found murdered in their farmhouse. The victims had been beaten with an axe and stabbed with a knife. A few days later Miller was apprehended at Anoka, Minn., and returned to Grand Forks for trial.

Miller said he had committed the crime while under the influence of liquor, a claim considered spurious since he had earlier wormed his way into the Snell family's confidence by loud exhortations of religious fervor. Later, as Miller's case moved toward trial in August, he suddenly charged Henry Rutherford, one of the witnesses against him, with actually being an accomplice.

When the case went to trial in late August, Miller pleaded guilty but Judge William McConnell ordered that all witnesses testify so that the record of the case was complete. On September 4th he sentenced Miller to death by hanging, which was confirmed by the territorial Supreme Court in October.

Miller was executed on October 30th, on a temporary scaffold set up near the Grand Forks County courthouse. Before he died he dictated a statement admitting his guilt and again accused Rutherford of assisting him, but the latter claim was not taken seriously.

Albert Bomberger ­ Cando (Towner County) ­ January 1894

In what may have been North Dakota's first recorded serial murder, six members of the Daniel Kreider family were killed on their farm southeast of Cando on July 7, 1893. The dead included Kreider and his wife as well as four of their eight children: Bernice 15, Melby 12, Mary 9, and David, 7. The perpetrator was Albert F. Bomberger, 22, who had worked on the farm as a laborer for about five years.

The case revolved around Bomberger's interest in the Kreider's eldest daughter, Annie (variously described as being 17 or 19 years old). When Bomberger announced his affections for the girl, he was told by Kreider that his interest was unwanted and that he should leave the farm. The youth reacted by killing the parents and children with a rifle and/or a knife. The other children, Aaron, 13, Eva 5, and Henry, 3, survived by hiding around the farm buildings. After forcing the girl to fix his lunch and hand over the available cash ($50), he raped her and fled the scene. Annie Kreider was left to walk into Cando and report the crime.

Bomberger was captured soon after at Deloraine, Manitoba, and, because lynching was a real possibility in the Cando community, was incarcerated in the Grand Forks County jail. He freely admitted his guilt and in late November he was returned to Cando long enough for Judge David Morgan to sentence him to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out on January 19th on a scaffold erected in a farm field about a mile north of the Cando city limits. Bomberger maintained an indifferent attitude throughout the entire proceedings and blamed excessive liquor for making him susceptible to committing the crime. His remains were buried in the local cemetery.

The Kreider children were taken to the family's former home near Lancaster, Pa., soon after the murders and the farm was sold at auction in the autumn of 1893. The farm home were the crime took place burned in June 1917.

James W. Cole ­ Bismarck - March 1899

Cole, described as a burly African-American and a "well known" resident of Bismarck, in late 1898 was deeply infatuated with 14-year-old Sophronia Ford, a "tall and rather comely" black schoolgirl. Unfortunately, Miss Ford failed to reciprocate his affections with the result that on the morning of December 12th he shot her to death as she walked north on 6th Street toward the North Ward school (the present site of the Will-Moore School). Leaving several love letters next to the body, Cole marched directly to the Burleigh County jail and surrendered to the authorities.

With Cole's tacit approval the case against him proceeded with unseemly alacrity and barely three days after the crime was committed, Judge Walter Winchester pronounced the death sentence. The execution was carried out on an enclosed scaffold built next to the county courthouse and reached through an office window. Shortly after daybreak on March 24, 1899, Sheriff H. A. Bogue and several deputies lead Cole to the platform and carried out the sentence.

By custom, condemned criminals of that day were apparently accorded the right to invite certain of their friends or acquaintances to view the execution. Such invitations to the hanging of both Cole and Hans Thorpe, are known to exist; Cole's message is accompanied by a jail cell photograph.

Hans Thorpe ­ Minot ­ September 1900

Though still in his thirties, Hans Thorpe had already seen much of the world, following first the career of a seaman and later that of a railroad worker. Thus, when he landed in Minot, N.D., in 1898 he had little difficulty wooing and winning young Ida Johnson, a girl still in her teens. By late 1899, however, the marriage was floundering. Like many men who viewed women basically as property, Thorpe considered his young wife as being unfaithful every time she left the house, even to simply visit a neighbor.

On the evening of December 1st, after a week-long drinking bout, he followed her next door to Mrs. Johanson's house, pulled a revolver and shot her twice in the head. He then turned the gun on himself, the bullet destroying his right eye and disfiguring his face, but doing little other damage. Ida Thorpe died instantly. Neighbors called the authorities and Thorpe was hauled off to jail.

At his trial in late April 1900, the state had little difficulty convicting Thorpe of first degree murder and he was sentenced by Judge David Morgan to death by hanging on May 10th. The execution took place on September 14, 1900, at a point then outside of the city limits, about a half mile southeast of the Ward County courthouse. Thorpe spent his last moments bantering with reporters. Sheriff William Carroll then distracted the doomed man while an assistant sprang the trap.

Ira O. Jenkins ­ Bismarck ­ September 1900

On March 19, 1900, James Jenkins and his son, Ira, operators of the Casino Coal Mine near the newly established town of Wilton, reported having found one of their employees, August Stark, dead in the mine. At the coroner's inquest, Stark's frozen corpse was described as showing signs of having been extensively dragged and when the two Jenkins told contradictory stories about the matter both were charged with murder.

States Attorney Ed Allen felt strongly that Stark had been murdered by Ira Jenkins, the son, and prosecuted the case on that basis when it came to trial in May. On the stand James Jenkins said his son had admitted to him that he killed Stark and that the motive was simple robbery. But Ira continued to give contradictory evidence and even accused his father of strangling Stark in a drunken fit but when doctors testified the body showed no sign of being choked, Ira's goose was cooked. The jury brought in a verdict of guilty of first degree murder and recommended the death penalty, which Judge Walter Winchester pronounced on May 28th.

The enclosed scaffold erected was identical to that used to execute James Cole 18 months earlier, and Jenkins was scheduled to die on September 14th, the same day Hans Thorpe was to be hanged at Minot. Jenkins spent his last hours in what reporters termed "a remarkable example of depravity and villainy," profanely denouncing everyone and everything within his view. He went to the scaffold puffing on a cigar and loudly protesting his innocence, but left behind a handwritten note in his trousers pocket admitting the murder.

William R. Ross ­ Bottineau ­ December 1903

Willie Ross was an expert on horses, a life-long horse trader and handler. He was also an accomplished horse thief. So, when he went to the Willow City area to steal a fine band of horses from Thomas Walsh, an elderly farmer, on July 5, 1902, he made off with the horses after shooting the sleeping Walsh to death through a screen door. Local authorities focused on Ross from the beginning and under questioning he soon admitted his guilt. Brought to trial at Bottineau in August, he was convicted and sentenced to hang on December 5th.

Events leading up to the execution at Bottineau were moving smoothly until the day before when Ross suddenly confessed to involvement in a second murder. In November 1901, Ross related, he and a young Minot man, Carl Hanson were working on a ranch near Delta (present-day Blaisdell) when they met Napoleon LeMay, camped overnight with several horses which they admired. When LeMay refused to trade the animals, Hanson ended by matter by simply shooting him in the back. The body was concealed in a nearby dry well.

This sensation was enough to stay Ross' execution for long enough to investigate. Hanson was located near Williston and though he denied complicity Ross' testimony was sufficient to obtain his conviction for murder. Ross' execution was rescheduled for early on March 6th, on an enclosed gallows set up alongside the Bottineau County courthouse. In his last days Ross converted to Catholicism and went to his death without a murmur.

Jacob Bassanella ­ Washburn ­ February 1903

The Bassanella brothers, Jacob---the elder---and Joseph cut a wide swath through North Dakota law enforcement circles early in the twentieth century. They first turned up at Grand Forks in March 1901 when Jake shot and killed a farmer named Anton Anderson in a Great Northern boxcar. The pair fled but were quickly caught and lodged in the city jail. Despite their denials they were charged and transferred to the county jail until May 22nd when they escaped. Three weeks later Joe was apprehended near Glasgow, Montana, and returned to Grand Forks. When tried in mid-June he was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment at the penitentiary in Bismarck.

Soon after a pleasant young man calling himself James Smith showed up at Washburn, N.D., where he spoke of serving in the recent war with Spain and found work doing odd jobs. He lived quietly until March 1902 when he murdered Anton Heilinger, a wealthy bachelor farmer, with a shotgun. Within days Smith had been arrested and charged with the crime. He proved to be a slippery character, breaking jail in September and being recaptured at Fort Yates after several weeks. Moved to the Burleigh County jail in Bismarck, Smith broke out briefly in late October but was caught and held until his trial at Washburn in November where he was found guilty.

Brought in for sentencing on November 10th, Smith surprised Judge Walter Winchester and everyone else by first, callously admitting Heilinger's murder and, second, identifying himself as the long-missing Jacob Bassanella. Held again at Washburn, where the execution was scheduled for February 20th, 1903, Smith/Bassanella nearly escaped once again, making it necessary that he be watched both night and day. But he was successfully caged and went to his death on a gallows built adjoining the McLean County jail. In his pocket was found a hand-written letter absolving his younger brother of all blame in the murder of Anton Anderson.

Yet, the strange story had one more ironic twist. Despite his brother's confession, Joe Bassanella continued to serve his sentence until March 14, 1908, when he and another convict tunneled their way out of the penitentiary. He apparently headed north, perhaps with some idea of avenging his dead brother, stealing a target pistol and clothing here, and a horse there. Recognized and pursued by the sheriff, the two exchanged shots at a point about 17 miles north of Washburn until Bassanella fell dead with a bullet in his brain.

John Rooney ­ Bismarck ­ October 1905

Early on the morning of August 26, 1902, the three Sweet brothers were camped out near the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul tracks on Fargo's west side when they were attacked and robbed by three masked men. The eldest, Harold Sweet, fought back and was shot in the abdomen, but his brothers managed to subdue and capture the gunman. When Sweet died of his wounds the following day his assailant, identified as John Rooney, was charged with first degree murder. Though Rooney constantly maintained that one of his partners (known only as "Kansas Slim") had pulled the trigger, the state had no difficulty in convicting him in January 1903 and on March 20th he was sentenced to be hanged.

Although Rooney appeared to have all the earmarks of a professional criminal and had no money, his plight attracted the interest of two of Fargo's leading attorneys, W. S. Stambaugh and Burleigh Spalding, and they were successful in having the execution date reset no less than three times. Finally, however, the date of October 17, 1905 was considered final and Rooney was brought to Bismarck where the execution would take place at the state penitentiary. Rooney stepped onto a new portable gallows set up inside a building, and, protesting his innocence to the last, went quietly to his death.

Rooney was the first (and last) convict to die under a 1903 law which dictated that all future executions take place at the state penitentiary. His friendliness with local reporters resulted in considerable information being published on his life as a leader of a gang which preyed upon the harvest workers who migrated to North Dakota every fall.