Cass County hanging shook the state

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A Duluthian recently told the Budgeteer about driving through Walker, Minn. and stopping for a meal at Benson's Eating and Drinking Emporium. After ordering her food she noticed an old photo on the wall of a man hanging from a noose with a crowd gathered around. Two words were written on the photo, "Charboneau Hanging." No other explanation was provided.

The traveler, a young Native American woman, didn't know what to make of it. She knew some Native American families have that name, which is famously associated with Sacagawea, guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 1800s. Sacagawea married Toussant Charbonneau, a French-Canadian explorer who also married four other Native American women.

The traveler also knew Minnesota was home to the largest mass hanging in American history, the execution of 38 Dakota Indians in 1862. However, that occurred 240 miles to the south, in Mankato.

The event appears to be a lynching rather than a state-sponsored execution. The man is hanging from a tree, not a scaffold. A crowd proudly poses around the dead man, as was common in lynching postcards that were widely circulated during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

She didn't know whether to interpret the photo as subtle threat to Native or African Americans. Or perhaps it was nothing more than a curiosity and Benson's expected its customers to have strong stomachs. Either way, "I got my food and got out of there fast," she said.

The Budgeteer called Benson's and spoke to the owner, Theo Ringle. He said the restaurant has many historical photos.

"Some people think it's a Native American. It's not," he said. The Budgeteer had not mentioned the issue of race, so the young woman apparently was not the only person to wonder about it.

Still he was unable to say what was the story on the photo. When asked if it alarms customers, he said, "Obviously it has."

Declining further discussion over the phone — though inviting the Budgeteer to visit the restaurant — Ringle suggested contacting the Cass County Museum and Historical Society.

Museum staff historian Renee Geving knew of the photo at Benson's. She said Ringle meant to reference the only execution in Cass County's history, in 1904. But the name is spelled wrong and the photo isn't even of the correct event. William Chounard was hanged with only a few law enforcement officials, doctors and priests present, not a large crowd.

The Chounard case was "one of the most spectacular crime dramas in the history or our county; a case which created much comment in the press of the state," according an account written for the Cass Lake Chippewa Museum in 1937.

WIlliam and Dora Chounard

Geving and co-author Cecelia McKeig detail Chounard's story in their book, a collection of newspaper stories and other documents, "Murder and Mayhem: True Crime Accounts, Cass County, 1897-1938."

Chounard and his common-law wife, Dora, ran "a house of ill-fame," as newspapers described it, in Cass Lake. They had a young daughter who is mentioned in various papers as ages three to six.

On the evening of Jan. 25, 1904, both parents were drunk — he had 83 drinks of whiskey that day, according to testimony — and quarreling at a local saloon. At one point Dora said, "I am not afraid of your gun, shoot if you dare." With a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver he shot her once in the chest. As she ran to the front door he shot her twice more in the back, but she still escaped to a resort next door.

Police arrived and arrested Chounard, who by the next day had no recollection of the event. Dora was was taken to St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth, where she died three days later. While still alive she begged for Chounard to be released and said she still loved him.

"The lower down in the walks of life a woman is the harder she will plead for the man that will misuse her," wrote the Cass County Pioneer. "It is one of the unaccountable things we have to contend with in this world and it will never cease to be a wonder to mankind."

The Cass Lake Voice took a similar outraged view with the headline, "CHOUNARD'S CRIME: Too Many Murders Committed in this Part of the State. Without Adequate Punishment. SHOULD MAKE EXAMPLE. No Maudlin Sentiment Should Be Permitted to Interfere With Justice."

By April, when the case went to trial, the Voice softened its stance: "It is expected Chounard will plead guilty to the charge of murder in the second degree and accept as a sentence imprisonment for life. If this is done, it will be very satisfactory to the people of Cass Lake."

Chounard pleaded not guilty by way of temporary insanity. At the same time the district court dealt with another murder case, in which Nickolai Hill was charged with using an axe to kill man at a lumber camp.

On April 29 the jury returned a verdict of first degree murder and Chounard was sentenced to hang. His sister and aunt took up a petition asking the governor to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. They collected 3,000 signatures from area residents, including eight members of the jury.

The Duluth News-Tribune took a contrary stance: "Chounard should hang. He makes the usual pleas of drunkenness, but it was quite plainly evident that he became drunk purposely to nerve himself up to commission of the horrible deed. In the first place he was a poor kind of man to marry a woman such as he married. Secondly, if he was half a man after he did marry her, he would have removed her at once from her vile and vicious surroundings. Instead he encouraged her to continue her life of shame and assisted her to drag down others. Consenting to this kind of life and aiding it himself, he became jealous. Think of it! What kind of jealousy is that? It is the jealousy that is hellborn, the jealousy of the murderous nature."

The Board of Pardons denied the commutation, as did the governor. Chounard spent his days leading up to the execution reading the Bible. On Aug. 30 he was hanged at the county jail in Walker. The Cass Lake Voice said, "Chounard bore up well. He never faltered, when led to the scaffold. He refused to make any statements."

The Weekly Backus News said, "The body swung from the gallows into eternity." It was the first and last hanging in Cass County. Nickolai Hill, meanwhile, received a 12-year sentence of hard labor at Stillwater.

There's no indication that Chounard was Native American, and the press at the time often used terms like "half-breed Indian" when describing other incidents.

Frank McManus

Then who is the hanged man in the photo at Benson's? An internet search of lynching images easily turns up the photo, as it's available through the Library of Congress and widely circulated. Some sources on the internet identify the photo as "lynching of a black man," but press reports of the time do not mention the dead man's race, which is not clear from the photo.

On the evening April 27, 1882, Frank McManus, a vagrant, was arrested in Minneapolis for allegedly raping a four-year-old girl. By midnight a crowd gathered outside the county jail downtown, battered down the doors, overpowered the sheriff and removed McManus from his cell. According to press reports at the time, the vigilantes were very orderly, checking jail records to make sure they had the right man. He was brought back to the neighborhood where the crime occurred and a committee was appointed to identify him.

McManus supposedly confessed to the crime, but then contradictorily said, "I confess nothing." He was hanged from a burr oak at the corner of Grant Street and Fourth Avenue, opposite a high school. It took five minutes for him to die. He was still there at 7 a.m. when a crowd of 1,000 gathered.

The Minneapolis Evening Journal's comments were typical of the press opinion: "It is a crime at which human nature stands aghast. A devil hot from hell could scarcely conceive or enact so atrocious a cruelty upon the tenderness and innocence of childhood. The Evening Journal is not an organ of mob law. We hold the right of every offender to trial and expiation under the law to be sacred. But there are exceptions to every rule." But the accounts verifying his guilt come from the vigilantes themselves, so whether justice was served may never be known.