Wednesday, December 3, 2014

‘Murder in Minnesota’ (book review) - Part 1

A talented writer with an incisive wit, Trenerry chronicles sixteen famous Minnesota murder cases from 1858 when Minnesota became a state to 1917, revealing the gradual changes in social attitudes from the frontier justice of the 1850s to the abolishment of capital punishment. —Michael B., reviewer

Immigrants from Lombardy settled around the Great Lakes region in small numbers from approximately 1850 to 1880, after which the numbers picked up from approximately 1890 to 1920. Duluth, Minnesota, along Lake Superior, was one such location where Lombardians settled and is worthy of note. However, Wisconsin and Michigan were locations of considerably more Lombardian influence; but the basic way of life was no different.

Although the cases presented in this book have no direct connection to Lombardians, I thought it gave many clues of what life was like from the period mentioned above. It also gives many clues about the lives of other European immigrants (Germans, Scandinavians, Irish) settling in this region, so I believe that it was worth reviewing as well as noting many of these clues as they could have pertained to Lombardians around the Great Lakes.

Walter N. Trenerry was a retired lawyer and former professor at the St. Paul College of Law when he wrote this book as an amateur historian. He chose fifteen famous cases to include in the book. On the back cover description of the book, Trenerry wrote: My investigation of Minnesota murders over the years revealed no new motives for killing anyone. The old ones were perfectly satisfactory. I thought that made for a thought provoking quote.

The original Ramsey County courthouse 1859
“Lynch mob culture”

One observation that I made early on was the insincerity of the lynch mob mentality. A  few of these cases were from the very early period of Minnesota statehood, and the victims were very recent settlers. Yet the lynch mob seemed to clearly and passionately take the ingenuine stand as like “ohh, he killed my best friend.” I know, that’s a lessor aspect of a reaction to a murder. Still, when reading about these accounts, it felt like such a misguided reaction that I thought was worth noting. A very immature reaction.. a rush to judgement without the facts, which sometimes were in dispute. Minnesota probably did have much less of a lynch mob mentality, which was an American phenomenon, than other states… probably because most of the people were immigrants more so than American settlers.

Part of the theme of this book, published in 1962, was the progression from lynch mob mentality, to state sponsored hangings, to the abolishment of the death penalty, to the rehabilitation concept. In Europe it’s very different. Police can legally beat a suspect with impunity, and yet murderers go free after only a few years. I think we can at least say that the American system has been much better.. at least in that way.

I read a book entitled ‘The Lombard Laws’, which was about the post-Roman laws of the Langbard Kingdom. The laws were initially set up in northern Europe, where the Lombard tribe was made up of clans of related families. If, for example, a woman from a certain clan was raped, her clan were go berserk! A terrible bloodbath would occur, and the tribal chieftains had to do something to prevent these blood feuds. Theoretically, if you had a peaceful, harmonious, homogenous, fair, spiritual, non-violent society; you could possibly operate without laws or prisons… up to a point. However, the revenge factor would probably be the one thing which would demand some type of criminal system.

Chapter 3, entitled ‘Not to Foster, But to Slay’ (The Murder of Stanislaus Bilansky, St. Paul, 1859), was for me the most memorable chapter in the book. The basic gist of this case was fairly simple. Older man, younger wife, no children, wife has younger lover, and poisons her husband so she can marry her younger lover and gain the inheritance.

On the surface, the case seems fairly cut and dry. A total betrayal in every way, and a person not worthy of any consideration. To backtrack a bit, in many of these cases, I found the guilty party to be of particularly unsavory character. However, in this case, the guilty party wasn’t just any ordinary murderer. Mrs. Ann Bilansky was apparently a real chip off the old block.. a real character. I found that I at least gained some sympathy for her, and evidently the public felt the same way at that time; which is saying a lot since this was during the days of the “lynch mob mentality.”

Minnesota was, of course, a mere frontier in 1859.. only one year after gaining official statehood. However, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area was already an impressive settlement; and even had its own element of sophisticated, upper class “socialites.” The Bilanskys were at least on the fringes of that social milieu. There’s not really anything which could be said on her behalf as far as the crime, although some believe that there was reasonable doubt. She did what she did, with any justification whatsoever beyond simple greed.

Stanislaus Bilansky was apparently a divorced Polish immigrant of mild wealth, living in St. Paul. Evidently he was in his fifties, and was both gruff and hard to get along with as well as being lonely, not in especially good health, and vulnerable as a result. Ann Bilansky was a tall attractive well-dressed blonde widow from North Carolina who was thirty-four when she came to St. Paul. She was vivacious and talkative, and to quote the author.. although St. Paul was a substantial small city by 1858, one can imagine that this striking Southern woman would attract attention on the streets of Minnesota’s new capitol.

Had Mr. Bilansky not been murdered, one may find this mismatched couple rather humorous. I don’t recall if the book mentions what I have already heard numerous times, that poisoning has historically been a woman’s method of getting rid of someone. Although I cannot go through the entire long chapter here, suffice to say that Ann Bilansky’s sassy-flirty personality along with her dress and manner really came through as I read it.

As silly as it might seem, it appears that she had some affect on the male public. On one evening, the jail guards at the Ramsey County courthouse actually allowed her out of her cell so they could converse with her. Later, as they tired, she simply walked out of the courthouse and walked away. Some time later, she was found and arrested again.

At another point during her trial—and remember this was a murder trial where she would likely be hanged if found guilty—some of the witnesses were being cross examined, and Ann Bilansky was seen laughing when one of them got her facts confused slightly.. and appeared amused throughout much of the questioning.

The whole long process in which she was found guilty and there was much support for her, mostly because society at large did not want to hang a woman. Many men in high positions took her side to the point of trying to commute her sentence. I won’t give away what happened, but you may read a short account of it here, including the result.


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