Hanging Judge

A damning verdict on executions in Minnesota

John D. Bessler
Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota
University of Minnesota Press

An especially chilling photograph in the new history Legacy of Violence depicts an 1882 Minneapolis lynch mob and its handiwork. What makes it disturbing isn't the distended corpse, which, if anything, is diminished by the lens, a gray rag draped from a crooked branch. Rather, it's the crowd in the foreground: mannish children and men from every walk. Some look smug, some solemn, but all are ecstatic, taking evident satisfaction from their work. One man even tips his hat to the camera in a kind of salute. The expressions are typical of every mob from Golgotha to Duluth. You can read it on their faces: Something in us loves an execution.

This collective confusion of blood sacrifice for justice is the largely unacknowledged subtext of John D. Bessler's new history of lynching and execution in Minnesota. Bessler is an attorney, and his interest is in the legal and political history of judicial and extrajudicial killing. His book narrates the story behind the 1882 photograph (an Irish tramp was accused of raping a four-year-old girl) and a dozen others like it. He also untangles the strange drift of Minnesota's capital punishment laws, which can be summed up as a determined effort to sanitize state-sanctioned murder. The two forms of execution are linked, he suggests, two faces of the same god: one of swift and public retribution. In fact, proponents of the death penalty frequently justified its use with the specter of the mob. Men must have justice, the argument went, and if the law won't provide it, they'll take matters into their own hands.

Moreover, there was little to distinguish the crowds at one event from the other. Sheriffs raised public gallows (Harry Hayward, a notorious Minneapolis killer, had his request honored for a red gallows) and hundreds, often thousands of citizens jockeyed for a view. "Execution-day crowds were not coming to hangings to honor the sanctity of life," Bessler writes, but "out of 'morbid curiosity' or, worse yet, for entertainment, and alcohol consumption and crowd control were often major problems at these events."

In response, the legislature, always ahead of the curve, prohibited public, daylight executions and imposed a gag rule preventing newspapers from reporting on the spectacle. (A concurrent bid to replace the noose with the "humane" electric chair was doomed after a demonstration was botched so badly that its canine victim sat howling for several long minutes, to the discomfort of the assembled members of the State Medical Society.) Inevitably, such shallow efforts emasculated the punishment of whatever dubious stature it might have had. And Minnesota finally abandoned the death penalty in 1911.

But as Bessler's chronicle illustrates, this is more the result of the somewhat random forces of politics than of any immunity on our part to the appeal of eye-for-an-eye justice. (Today, it seems that random politics--otherwise known as abduction-victim grandstanding--could bring about its reintroduction.) If our state was not, by and large, the scene of the white-on-black violence that defined the south (a notable exception being the 1920 Duluth lynchings of three black circus hands falsely accused of raping a white girl), Bessler's chronology of horrors far from absolves us. We boast the distinction, for instance, of orchestrating the largest mass execution in the history of the nation. Henry Sibley's original plan had been to hang 303 Dakota men who had the effrontery to take up arms and demand the ouster of crooked reservation bosses.

Abraham Lincoln, notoriously loath to impose the death penalty, intervened, and reduced the number to 38. Wearing white hoods, they were led to a mass gallows on the day after Christmas, 1862, before a crowd of 4,000. As the trap was sprung, Bessler writes, many of the men struggled out of their ropes and clasped hands "in a final show of solidarity," a gesture that comes as something of a relief--a welcome reminder that there are two sides to human nature.

 
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