Friday, December 5, 2014

'Murder in Minnesota' (book review) - Part 2

Some of the accounts in this book unfolded along with American history at large, so that is another smaller dimension… making something of a window into Minnesota and American history from 1850 to 1960. Another subtle but consistent theme at work was “Americans” vs. “immigrants.” Since the immigrants were largely Scandinavian or German, the rivalry (Anglo-Scot settlers vs. Nordic-German immigrants) was subtle, but it was there… early on at least. Native Americans, within the concept of law enforcement, were subjected to rougher treatment if they didn’t comply.. more so than say the Germans or Irish.

Minnesota was, in many ways, like the rest of the United States then. An immigrant could gain quick acceptance of only they became Protestant, learned to speak English well, changed their name (say from Hoogstratten to “Straten”), and embraced American traditions over their own traditions. This, of course, was a very subtle cultural friction; although the book gave a few examples of the “American vs. immigrant” (obviously the old version) rivalry. Also, the “lynch mob mentality” appears to have been an Anglo-Scot American tradition, not an Irish-German-Scandinavian-Polish inspired concept.

Chapter 4, ‘The Christmas Murders’, gave one account of the “Yankee vs. German” rivalry. Again, very subtle, and would have probably disappeared for anyone who was born in Minnesota. The example in this chapter took place in the town of New Ulm, then a German town. “Give me the drinks for us Yankees,” Since the vast majority of men present were Germans, this statement was unwise; the Germans had little love for Yankees even though the cheerfully swilled drinks for which the Yankees paid.

In Chapter 5, ‘Rally Philadelphians!’, the antagonists—from the perspective of the “Yankees” in Duluth—were a sizable number of Irish-American workers brought in from Philadelphia’s Irish districts in 1869. Although “Americanized,” they were still perceived as a foreign element due chiefly to their unruly behavior in town. Another common theme in the book were crimes which were mainly due to excessive drinking… sometimes playing on Irish or German stereotypes, although true in those cases covered at least.

It probably should be stated that Minnesota has not been known, then or now, for murder or crime. Minnesotans are good people; much better than most… in the whole world actually. Even while reading these accounts of murder, one can read between the lines and imagine the excitement of that time period from 1858 to the turn of the century. The railroads were connecting the larger cities, and movement around the state became easier. The growing towns must have been beautiful against the backdrop of the beautiful green wooded landscape and farm fields. The average citizen was very hardworking, independent, honest, and pure of mind. It must have been a wonderful time and place.

It probably should be noted that, even today, Minnesota is about three-quarters Scandinavian (Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish) and German (German, Austrian, Swiss, Prussian) as far as ancestry. There actually were cases referencing Swiss and Prussian immigrants in the book. Prussia, of course, no longer even exists.

Lombardy is just south of Switzerland and Austria, and there were Lombardian immigrants in Minnesota. Duluth comes to mind mostly from what I have read. Robert Mondavi, although not specifically Lombardian, was born and partly raised in Virginia, Minnesota… not far from Duluth. He later moved to California where he married a woman of Ticinese descent. Ticinese are culturally and linguistically Lombardian. I’ve felt a strong cultural connection to the Mondavis because of this Midwest, northern California, and Lombardian/Ticinese connection.

Ironically, just a few days ago, I noticed that a frozen food product that I took out to cook was packaged in Duluth by Bellisio Foods. I didn’t purchase it for that reason, just coincidence. The founder of the company was the late well-known entrepreneur Jeno Paulucci of Duluth.. although he later headquartered the company in Minneapolis. World War II Medal of Honor recipient (Europe), Mike Colalillo, was originally from Hibbing, Minnesota… not far from Duluth. He lived the rest of his life in Duluth however. I don’t know if they were Lombardian, although it would seem a good bet. Lieutenant Willibald C. Bianchi also received, after his death, a Medal of Honor for his actions in World War II in the Pacific. He was originally from New Ulm, Minnesota, not far from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro. The Medal of honor is the highest military decoration presented by the United States government to a member of its armed forces. Not many have ever been given out.

Chapter 8, ‘Highwaymen Came Riding’, covers the famous Northfield bank robbery of 1876 by the James-Younger gang. One curious long-standing phenomenon here, which I think is worth pondering, is when some women become enamored by a murderer who has been jailed. I don’t mean someone who has served time and has been rehabbed already, but a murderer behind bars.. apparently just because he is who he is. This phenomenon occurs much less with men for female murderers.. although women commit much less murder than men. This occurred for Bob Younger when many young local women visited him every day while he was jailed. Evidently it was a daily line of them. The Northfield case was the most famous covered in the book by far.

Another aspect of the cases in this book was the struggle between co-conspirators or parties within the social circle around the murder. That is what I think makes the true crime genre of books, television, and movies so popular. There’s plenty of that drama in the book, before and after the murders. Many or most of the murders were stupid and pointless even from the criminal point of view. Sometimes a person gets themselves killed, such as the teller in Northfield. I don’t consider his brave actions the same as in other instances where there’s a bigger picture to consider.. and maybe where risking ones life may be worth the risk. I think it’s pretty clear that most people who commit murders suffer from some degree of mental illness, chiefly because the crimes don’t even make any sense. There’s often no gain, even from a vengeance angle.

Chapter 14, ‘The Case of the Convenient Cliff’, relives the account of who I believe to be the worst scoundrel in the book… Frederick T. Price. He destroyed his wife—a totally innocent, slight woman—in a poorly thought out plot for inheritance. That was the only case where I was hoping throughout that he would meet justice, although the death penalty had been eliminated by the early 1900s. He deserved to be hanged.

On a side note, the book shows an old photograph of the original Ramsey County courthouse. I really like the architecture of this small building, which had two main floors, an attic-like floor above, what looks like a windowed dome at the top, I'm guessing a basement, and with the county jail detached in the rear. You can see an image in part one. It was constructed in 1850, and designed by Dr. David Day, with Roman-syle columns and pointed roof. I couldn't Google the answer as to whether the building is still around, although it has to be I think.


1-20-15 Addition: "The mare Lucy"

I had intended to make mention of a mare named "Lucy," who had witnessed one of the murders. In chapter eleven, 'High Stakes and Green Good', a victim named Kitty Ging was brutally murdered along Minneapolis' Lake Calhoun in a rented buggy driven by Lucy on an evening in 1894.

Kitty had previously driven a quiet, gentle, buckskin mare named Lucy, and she specified that this horse be given her for the evening. At 7:08 P.M. Kitty appeared at the West Hotel, climbed into buggy number twenty-seven, which was waiting for her, stirred Lucy into motion, and drove away. The night of December 3, 1894, was brightly moonlit until 8:30 P.M., when the moon sank below the trees.

After the grisly act.. at 9:10 P.M. the mare Lucy had returned to her stable with buggy number twenty-seven--empty. The horse was cool and gave no indication that it had run away. I was struck by the plight of this gentle animal having to watch a barbaric act, by the "superior species" which she faithfully served, then returning to her stable by herself.


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