Final words from the gallows: The story of the 8 executions performed in North Dakota
From the vaults of American author and television documentarian William Jackson, The Dickinson Press presents this Dakota Mysteries and Oddities story exploring North Dakota's death penalty and the final words of those few who faced it.
Deathbed words have long garnered public attention, scratching that morbid itch of knowing how famous, or infamous, people used their final breaths to leave their lasting impression on the world before uttering their mortal farewells. This is especially true when it comes to those final words of individuals who have been sentenced to death.
The Dakota Territory, established in 1861, would see the Homestead Act of 1862 precipitate a significant population growth and development by settlers. Before gaining statehood, one execution would be carried out by North Dakota. Following admission to the union as a state, the Peace Garden State would continue the tradition of capital punishment until 1973.
In total, eight people would receive the highest judicial punishment: death.
First executed may not have been killer
“I am accused of the crime of murder, which I did not commit,” George Miller told those waiting to watch him swing from the gallows in Grand Forks on Oct. 30, 1885.
The 19-year-old Miller stood accused of murdering Abbie and Herbert Snell, wife and young son of a Baptist minister, near Inkster. Miller implicated another man, Henry Rutherford, as the mastermind behind the murders.
After the murders, Miller drove to Anoka, Minnesota, and was apprehended. He initially confessed to the crime, claiming liquor made him do it. However, he would recant his confession and accuse Rutherford after the latter testified against him in court.
Miller claimed that Rutherford took an ax and went to the Snell home, while Miller went to the barn and harnessed the family’s horse. Shortly, he claimed, Rutherford joined him in the barn declaring that he, “had done it,” in killing the Snells.
Moments before his hanging, Miller retold the story of his innocence saying, “Now, gentlemen, I want you all to remember that this is the truth and nothing else. I won’t meet you anymore in the world face to face, but I hope we can all meet in the world to come.”
Miller turned to the executioner and asked him to tell his friends goodbye before the trap door was quickly sprung and his body plunged downward, breaking his neck.
First mass murderer?
Albert Bomberger was hanged near Cando, North Dakota, in January of 1894 for committing what some consider to be the first mass murder in the state.
While working as a farm laborer on the Daniel Kreider farm, Bomberger became infatuated with Annie Kreider, one of the farmer’s young daughters. Daniel Kreider told the unwanted suitor to leave the farm, however, Bomberger instead killed six members of the family before raping and murdering Annie Kreider. Three of the youngest children survived their attack.
After pleading guilty, Bomberger was hanged from a scaffold erected one mile north of Cando. The gallows were high enough to allow Bomberger full view of the Kreider homestead during his execution.
His final words from the gallows were, “I am sorry for the crime I have committed. I would not wish anyone in the crowd to follow me. I do not wish any preacher to stand here with me.”
Model prisoner walks green mile
Outraged when 14-year-old Bismarck school girl Sophrinia Ford rejected him, James Cole shot her as she walked to school. After dropping letters by her side, he walked to the police station and confessed to the brutal murder.
Cole, described as a burly African-American man who was a "well known" resident of Bismarck, was by all accounts a model prisoner. It was noted by jailors at the time that Cole refused to “even use vulgarities.”
On March 24, 1899, the morning of his execution, he was given cigars he requested. Smoking his third, a Manila cigar, he was led to the gallows. There he expressed his love for the victim, said he was sorry and was prepared to meet the same fate.
When his address was finished, he stepped back upon the trap and said, “Let her go, boys!”
'I won't even kick'
Hans Thorpe died blasting the press on the gallows built east of Minot on Sept. 14, 1900. Thorpe was convicted of killing his wife, Ida, the preceding December after following her to a neighbor’s house.
The scorned man shot his wife twice in the head, before placing the gun to his own head and pulling the trigger. Although his wife died instantly, Thorpe survived his own attempt at his life — losing an eye in the process.
On the gallows, just before the trap was sprung, Thorpe took the opportunity to blast the press with whom he had an ongoing battle.
“Say [editor] McClure, will you now take back what you said about my collapsing. I won’t kick even when the rope is fixed.”
The statement, Thorpes’ final, was referencing a column written by McClure saying that Thorpe would, “likely collapse from shame” before the noose would be affixed.
True to his final words, Thorpe didn’t so much as move throughout his execution.
Cursing to the end
There remains confusion as to what really happened at the Casino Coal Mine in Wilton, North Dakota, in the spring of 1900. What is known is that Gust Stark, an employee there, lay dead.
When police asked Ira Jenkins and his father, owners of the mine, what happened, their stories were so conflicting that both were initially detained as suspects. However, it was Ira who was finally prosecuted and convicted of the murder. He was sentenced to hang.
Before the execution, Ira Jenkins’ father came to the jail to visit his son. Records of the time indicate that the two got into a heated argument. Reports were that Ira Jenkins asked his father to help him out of the deadly situation by engaging in a ploy to recant his confession and have his older father confess. When the elder Jenkins refused, it is reported that a string of vulgarities were hurled at all by the death row prisoner.
On the morning of his execution, Jenkins and his father met and amicably said their goodbyes. After the elder Jenkins left, Ira Jenkins once more began his contemptuous swearing. A last breakfast of ham and eggs, which he ate heartily, was interrupted by another fit of vulgarities aimed at the quality of the ham he had been served.
While standing on the scaffold, Ira Jenkins released a final tirade of swear words against his lawyer. When the traditional black cap was lowered over his face, he yelled.
“I am an innocent man!” he said.
With the final words spoken, the trap was sprung and Ira Jenkins fell through. A search of his pockets later revealed a letter that read, “Please clear the old man for I take all guilt on myself.”
Converted to Catholocism
On a fall day before his execution in 1901, William Ross told authorities that he and an accomplice named Hanson had in fact killed Napoleon LeMay near present day Blaisdell, North Dakota.
This delayed his hanging for several months, resulting in the arrest of his so-named assistant.
Ross would ultimately stretch the hangman’s noose, but not until he converted to Catholicism.
The day James Smith didn't hang
James Smith was supposed to hang in Washburn, North Dakota, in 1903 for the murder of Anton Heilinger, a Hancock, North Dakota, farmer. Although the hanging took place as scheduled, it wasn’t Smith who swung from the gallows — it would be another man, Jacob Bassanella.
During sentencing, Smith told the judge that he had in fact been using an alias the entire time and noted that his real name was Jacob Bassanella. He told the court that his brother was Joseph Bassanella, another man who was already serving a life sentence for separate murder.
The Bassanellas were captured after the murder of Anton Anderson near Grand Forks. However, Jacob espaced and settled in the Washburn area where he did odd jobs. Anton Heilinger, a wealthy farmer, ended up paying dearly for Bassanella’s services.
On March 25, 1902, a shotgun blast would take the life of the famer.
Bassenella, aka James Smith, would ultimately hang for the crime and his final words were, “Young men, don’t follow in my footsteps.”
Last man executed
“Good evening gentlemen. I am sorry to entertain you at such a late hour,” Jon Rooney told those attending his execution in Bismarck in 1905. After singing those gathered a song he had written, the trap was sprung and Rooney dangled at the end of a rope.
Rooney would be the last convicted person to legally be executed in North Dakota. Convicted of killing a farm laborer west of Fargo in 1902, he maintained his innocence until the very end.
Because of a 1903 law, he was hanged on penitentiary grounds instead of on the lawn of the Cass County courthouse as originally intended. Prior, those executed were hanged in the county were the crimes occurred.
Rooney would be the first and the last to hang at the penitentiary.
William Jackson is an American author of ten books and a television documentary. He is best known for his Dakota Mysteries and Oddities series which explores unusual events which occurred in North and South Dakota.
Dakota Mysteries & Oddities ᵀᴹ is a William Jackson registered trademark and provided to The Dickinson Press for publication for special use.