HEAR TRACY BRIGGS NARRATE THIS STORY:
MOORHEAD — We can’t know for sure, but the outrage on that fall day in 1888 in Fargo-Moorhead was most likely palpable. Citizens were up in arms when a beloved, young Moorhead police officer — just 26 years old, a newlywed and father of a two-week old baby — was gunned down on the streets of downtown.
Hundreds of angry citizens made their way to the Clay County jail demanding vigilante justice for the perpetrator, but the sheriff at the time prevented any bloodshed with a little ingenuity and quick thinking. Nonetheless, the mob got what it wanted a year later when a mystery man was put to death.
The sordid tale begins
Clay County Archivist Mark Peihl has researched and written extensively about the infamous downtown Moorhead shootout and the man at the center of it — Thomas Brown.
“Thomas Brown probably wasn’t even his real name,” Peihl said. “We don’t really know who the guy was. It was probably a pseudonym.”
Peihl says what is known about this man is that he was involved in a brawl north of Fargo-Moorhead in the months before he came into town.
“In the fall of 1888, up in Hillsboro (N.D.), there was a bunch of drunken hobos who got into a fight,” Peihl said. “A guy pulled a gun, shot another guy and killed him.”
A farmer, who witnessed the incident, got a good look at the shooter. His picture was circulated to law enforcement departments all over the region. On October 17, 1888, a Fargo police officer named Benson thought he spotted the suspect while attending a dance on the second floor of Erickson’s Hall, which stood right next to the Jay Cooke Hotel, where the downtown Moorhead Wells Fargo Bank now stands.
Benson found Moorhead patrolman John Thompson at the dance and told him what was going on. But Brown got worried when he saw the two police officers talking to each other.
“He walked over to them and pulled the gun and told them, 'I know what you're up to. Come with me.' So he forced them out of the door downstairs," Peihl said.
A gunfight in downtown Moorhead
The two officers did what Brown told them, but when they got to the street, Benson took off and ran into the nearby hotel bar room, where he reportedly “hid behind the ice box". Thompson was on his own.
Brown forced him at gunpoint to walk north, where he demanded to know what the Fargo officer, Benson, told him. About the same time, a witness who saw what was happening in the dance hall found another Moorhead officer, Peter Poull, and told him what had happened. Poull took off running in defense of his fellow officers. But as Poull approached Brown, Peihl says Brown “cursed and fired at Poull” hitting him in the heart.
Poull was heard saying “My God, I am hit.” he then fell and died. He left behind his mother, Margaretha, in Wisconsin, his wife of 10 months, Jannette, and his 16-day-old son, Fred.
When Brown turned, Thompson pulled his .38 and shot Brown once. A gunfight followed with the men exchanging bullets near the area of the Great Northern Railroad tracks. Brown, now out of bullets and bloodied up from wounds to his leg and shoulder, surrendered and was taken to the Clay County Jail between 9th and 10th street north.
Rumors inspire a mob
As stories started to circulate about the brutal death of a beloved young officer, a group of angry men — about 500 of them — armed with wrecking bars, made their way to the jail where they demanded Clay County Sheriff Jorgen Jensen let them get their hands on Brown. Jensen told them Brown wasn’t there, and when they didn’t believe him, he let them search the jail — basement to attic.
“According to one account, the sheriff secreted Brown up in the bell tower of the courthouse, and they didn't look for him up there,” Peihl said. “Most other accounts suggest the sheriff hid him in the back of a buggy, underneath a blanket, and took him out near Dilworth or Glyndon where he flagged down a train, which took him down to the Twin Cities.”
Brown stayed in Hennepin county awaiting trial to decide his fate.
Brown is sentenced to death
When the trial got underway in January, 1889, Brown admitted to shooting Poull, but claimed he only wanted to scare him. The jury didn’t buy that, and after deliberating for just three hours, pronounced him guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to die in June. He received a stay of execution by the Minnesota State Supreme Court but lost his bid for a new trial. His new execution date was set for September 1889.
According to Peihl, the pending execution was a great source of curiosity for local people. The hanging was scheduled for 4:30 a.m. on Friday, September 20. Spectators began arriving at 3 a.m. to watch the morbid event. On the day of his execution, a newspaper reporter noted:
“...several carriages were in front of the jail and on entering, the reporter discovered a half dozen or more young ladies and gentlemen standing about the gallows within only a few feet of Poull’s murderer. Their conversation was not fitting to the occasion, nor calculated to steady the nerves of the man who had only a few hours to live. ‘I would hate to drop through that hole’ remarked one. ‘Yes, and just wonder how Brown must feel!’ ‘Suppose the knot would slip and he’d strangle, ugh! Wouldn’t it be awful?’ And kindred remarks reached the prisoner.”
But the comments didn’t seem to bother Brown. According to one report, “This man bore up with the fortitude of a martyr, or one so hardened in crime as not to care for the present or think of the future.”
Some journalists played by the rules, others not so much
Covering the execution that day proved to be challenging for two local newspapers — The Moorhead Daily News and The Fargo Argus.
Just the winter before, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that journalists would be banned from watching or reporting on executions. The Moorhead Daily News complied with the law and did not report on the execution. The Fargo Daily Argus applauded the integrity of their competing paper, then promptly printed a detailed eyewitness account of the hanging anyway.
In fact, The Argus was so set on getting the best story, the publisher of the Argus, Major Alanson Edwards, had one of his reporters arrested and thrown in jail so he could get a better view of the execution. The sheriff put the jailed reporter to work, having him scrub floors and do other menial jobs, but In the end, the ploy wasn’t even needed as the sheriff defied the law and let in the journalists to watch.
Brown’s hanging went off without a hitch, and he was pronounced dead in the minutes after the noose went around his neck.
At the time of his death, still nobody knew his real name. But they did find out he was 26 years old, just like the man he shot and killed. Law enforcement officials also learned he had spent much of his life in prison. He was incarcerated in the Dakota Territory prison in Bismarck under the name Tommy Ryan and spent time in a prison in Wisconsin under another name.
Pressed for information about his real name by a newspaper reporter the day before his death, Brown said, “My folks — they know nothing about me — about this — and I don’t want them to.” He died never revealing his true identity.
It’s ironic that a man who tried so hard to stay anonymous would end up being at the center of one of Clay County’s most important criminal cases.
“It was a big story. A cop killer is pretty rare — in these days, or even back then — and then an execution, it's even more so,” Peihl said. “I think it's an important thing to remember that this wasn't the federal government executing this guy. It was in the state of Minnesota; it was Clay County that killed this guy. And that's pretty extraordinary.”
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