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The Lynching of Hans Jakob Olson, 1889:
The Story of a Norwegian-American Crime
    by Odin W. Anderson (Volume 29: Page 159)

ON SUNDAY evening, November 24, 1889, a Norwegian immigrant, Hans Jakob Olson, 51 years old, was hanged from the branch of a burr oak that stood outside his log cabin on a small, scrubby farm some four miles from Blair, Wisconsin. A vigilante group, consisting of his fellow Norwegians and one Irishman, had intended only to drive him out of the area, but the plan had failed.

Lynching was rare in the growing Middle West, and this event was unique in Norwegian-American history. Its uniqueness and violence warrant describing for the historical record the environment, the people, and the circumstances surrounding it. Blair is in Trempealeau county in the west-central part of the state, halfway between the cities of LaCrosse to the south and Eau Claire to the north, which are eighty miles apart. Around Blair, Wisconsin, now a village of 1,200 people, this gruesome happening has understandably taken on all the qualities and embellishments of legend. The thirty or so men who assembled to drive Hans Jakob Olson from the area have many descendants in Blair and elsewhere. The author is one himself. His grandfather, Ole Anderson, a farmer, [160] was among those arrested for observing the events from a hill overlooking the victim's log cabin. {1} Ole Anderson and his family lived hardly a mile from the scene of the lynching, on an adjacent farm. Three brothers of the author's grandmother were also arrested - Ole L. and Ludwig Olson and Bernt Tennyson, a half-brother. They were young men in their early twenties at the time and lived on a farm nearby. Also, the wife of the victim, Bertha, was the aunt of the author's grandmother. Although the grandmother's maiden name was Olson, she was not related to Hans Jakob.

In the main, information on the events leading up to and following the lynching was obtained from the court records of the indictment and the trial, which was held in the county seat at Whitehall. Unfortunately, the trial proceedings were not recorded verbatim, but were summaries of what transpired. Another source was the full play given to the lynching and the trial by the weekly Whitehall Times. Blair did not have a newspaper at that time. Another invaluable source was L. A. Stenholt, a journalist then in La Crosse, who was present during the trial and wrote about it. {2} There is also an account by Hans A. Anderson, the prosecuting attorney, which he wrote from memory in 1908. Another source was the author's grandmother, Andrea, Ole Anderson's wife, who often told the story on wintry evenings when the family was assembled in the farm kitchen after the evening chores were done.

General background information on the population characteristics of Trempealeau county, the size of the villages, and the economy was obtained from the usual census sources and from an invaluable book on the history of Trempealeau county between 1840 and 1880. {3}

By 1889, Trempealeau county was a fully matured society with law enforcement agencies, churches, schools, and villages supported by a flourishing crop [161] agriculture and a budding dairy industry. Virtually all the farm land had been taken up by settlers from Norway, New England, New York, and Poland. The Yankees, as the Norwegians called the New England settlers, were first and they dominated the commercial, legal, and law enforcement agencies of the area. Around Blair, at least, this element was soon outnumbered by land-hungry Norwegian immigrants who arrived between 1850 and 1890. In 1885 the Town of Preston, the township in which Blair is located, had a population of 1,636 (exclusive of the village of Blair) of whom 688 had been born in "Scandinavia," the term used in the Wisconsin Census. Almost all of them were Norwegians. If the offspring of the Norwegian-born residents were counted, it would be reasonable to infer that a clear majority of the population in the Town of Preston were of Norwegian origin. Blair had a population of 169 of whom 70 were born in "Scandinavia," again mainly Norway, and counting those of Norwegian descent, Blair must have had a clear majority of Norwegian stock. By 1895 the township had a population of 1,692, of whom 596 were born in "Scandinavia." The village of Blair had grown to a population of 422 of whom 131 were born in "Scandinavia." In summary then, in 1885 the Town of Preston plus the village of Blair had a total population of 1,805, and in 1895 this figure had grown to 2,114. In 1895 the county seat, Whitehall, seven miles from Blair, had a population of 402 of whom 69 were "Scandinavians." {4} The nearest large metropolitan areas were Minneapolis and St. Paul, 150 miles northwest; Milwaukee, 200 miles east; and Chicago, 300 miles southeast. The area was thus quite distant from direct urban influence.

The Norwegians were mainly farmers; the Yankees, a minority, were mainly in business and the professions. Naturally, the Yankees formed the in-group and the Norwegians were an out-group striving to become part [162] of the Yankee mainstream. From all reports, there were no basic conflicts between the Norwegians and the Yankees. In fact, the Norwegians were regarded favorably and welcomed to open up the land. {5} From Norway, the Norwegians were accustomed to the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, a popularly elected government, a desire for literacy, and the concept of private property. But law enforcement was difficult. The sheriff's office was seven miles from Blair. There were no telephones. Rural mail delivery had not yet been established. Roads were impassable in winter and spring even with horse and buggy. Petty crimes were difficult to report. Farms were located from one-quarter of a mile to a mile apart. A railroad built in 1873 passed through the middle of the county, connecting Blair with main lines between Chicago and the Twin Cities at Winona, Minnesota, to the west and Merrillan, Wisconsin, to the east.

Resort to vigilante action seems to be indigenous to a frontier-type society. Although lynching was uncommon in the Midwest it happened occasionally in the South and the Far West. Vigilantism appears when people feel frustrated with the slowness and uncertainty of the established law enforcement agencies or when these are absent in sparsely settled areas. In Trempealeau county and the Blair area vigilante activity emerged out of frustration with the inability to control a public nuisance through the usual legal means. Norwegian Americans could have been influenced by newspaper accounts of lynchings as an extra-legal means to control a dangerous person among them.

An extensive statistical study of lynchings in the United States was made by James E. Cutler for the period from 1882 to 1903. {6} During these years 1,169 persons were lynched in the United States: 567 in the South, 523 in the West, and 79 in the East. There were five [163] lynchings in Minnesota, eleven in Illinois, seven in Michigan, and six in Wisconsin. Murder was by far the chief motive for lynching and the next was theft. In Wisconsin, there was one lynching in 1884, one in 1888, one in 1889 (Hans Jakob Olson), two in 1891, and one in 1894. Cutler gave no information on the national origins of those lynched and their lynchers.

More information on lynchings in Wisconsin was compiled by Jack Holzhueter. Between 1849 and 1891 there were at least fifteen lynchings. {7} Norwegians participated in a lynching in New Lisbon on September 10, 1863, brought on by inflammatory anti-war remarks during the Civil War, but apparently no Norwegians were involved in lynchings again until the Olson affair.

Adding to the difficulties of integration into Yankee society for many Norwegians was the language barrier. Although many Norwegians learned English out of sheer necessity, it is likely that only a small minority achieved real competence. Among the few who succeeded in bridging the two cultures were two important participants in this narrative, Charles Johnson, the ringleader of the vigilante group, and H. A. Anderson, the district attorney. A few of the Yankees who were merchants reportedly learned Norwegian to facilitate trade. They also joined the Lutheran churches, since there were no other denominations in Blair and not enough Yankees to establish Congregational, Methodist, or Presbyterian churches. How could a society with these characteristics and traditions erupt into a lynching? The events leading up to the lynching should help to produce a plausible explanation.

Hans Jakob Olson was born in Flekkefjord in southern Norway, in 1838, and after a period as a sailor came to this country to Blair. He married Bertha Pedersen, also from Flekkefjord, born in 1833. They probably met and [164] were married in the Blair area. They had six children, four boys and two girls. At the time of the lynching, the ages of the children ranged from eleven and twenty-five. Bertha, the mother, was fifty-six years old. The eldest child may not have been at home. One son mentioned in the court records was Ole, the second child, twenty-one years old in 1889, who was living at home and who became an accomplice in the lynching of his father, as did the mother, Bertha. The other children were presumably at home, though children left home early in those days, the custom being for them to do so after church confirmation at the age of thirteen or fourteen. The Olson household and farm could certainly not support this large a family into early adulthood, for it was a very modest place even by the standards of those days. A house and a barn, at least, were reported in the court records, for there was testimony that another son, unnamed, was sleeping in the barn when the gang of men appeared at the house. The location of the farm itself indicates that Hans Jakob Olson had settled on a piece of land, possibly not more than forty acres, in an obscure hollow a quarter-mile from the township road and not easy to cultivate or to reach. It had, of course, been cheap.

One dark night in 1876, when the author's grandmother was ten years old, she encountered a man with antlers on his head on the dirt road near her home in Reynolds Coulee. He chased her. She ran back to her house safely, but she had been frightened enough to break out in a rash afterwards. The grandmother repeated this story many times. She thought she recognized Hans Jakob, who was her uncle by marriage. She also recalled that Hans Jakob roamed the neighborhood at night, scaring people by peeking in windows and then running off. Around twelve farms were within easy walking distance of Hans Jakob's farm. He always went on foot and probably did not own a horse. The grand [165] mother also reported some specific episodes of unusual behavior on Hans Jakob's part. For example, he went into a neighbor's barn and tied a leather thong tightly around a bull's testicles. She also remembered that Bertha, Hans Jakob's wife, was driven out of the house barefoot by her husband on a cold winter night. She sought refuge at the grandmother's home a mile away. Her feet were frozen. It was also rumored that he slashed neighbors' horse harnesses, and cut off teats of cows' udders. {8}

Hans Jakob's habit of roaming the neighborhood at night and scaring people was, of course, fearsome even when the men were at home. In the winters, however, from January to March, many men went off to the logging camps in northern Wisconsin to earn some cash. The author's grandfather was one of them. Hans Jakob apparently did not go to the pineries, as the logging camps were called. The men feared for the safety of their women and children at home on their isolated farms and the women must also have been very frightened. Hans Jakob Olson was not simply a nuisance, but a constant threat. What was he capable of doing? His actions were probably serious enough to be reported to the sheriff, but he was miles away by horse and buggy, and there had to be witnesses. Further, legal action could not be brought against a person for being a threat. There had to be a clear incident.

Eventually, Hans Jakob provided an incident by trying to blow up a hardware store in Blair, which had the owner's living quarters in the same building. This happened in December of 1883. The owner, B. K. Strand, had received a delivery of grub wood - stumps from land being cleared - for his stoves in the hardware store and his living quarters. According to Strand's written court testimony, the first explosion occurred in the stove in his living room: "About 23 of December I found [166] one grub loaded with powder and [blank space in original manuscript] in my Sitting Room blowed the top off the Stove throwed the fire over the carpet burned the carpet. . . I saw that the grub was bored and on the 29 of December the second grub exploded in my store stove. Myself, wife and boy were in the store. I was about three feet - from stove and childe by my side wife close by. Top of stove blew off, blew the stove pipe down. Fire did not burn anything in the store. Found grub with bore, next morning found another grub in the pile, split it and found powder. Covered with dirt. Holes bored by same auger." {9}

The bored holes in the grubs were traced to an auger that Hans Jakob had borrowed from a neighbor, Peter Erickson, who lived about a mile away. It was borrowed in December of 1883 and returned shortly after Christmas. As further evidence, Hans Jakob's eldest child, Sam, who was then nineteen years old, reported that he had bought the powder that his father used.

According to Strand, who had known Hans Jakob about five years, the motive for the action was that in the fall of 1883 Hans Jakob had bought goods from the hardware store, and having no money, had given Strand a chattel mortgage on his personal property. By December, Hans Jakob had not yet paid for the purchases, and Strand sent word to him that he would foreclose on the mortgage unless Hans Jakob paid up. Hans Jakob did not and Strand then took the property to settle the debt.

Shortly thereafter followed the explosions in the grub wood delivered to Strand by Nels Gusteferson. {10} Hans Jakob had apparently persuaded Gusteferson to include at least three grubs filled with gunpowder in the load destined for Strand. It was reported that Gusteferson did not like Strand either, but he was never charged.

It is curious that it was more than a year before a warrant for Hans Jakob's arrest was issued. Perhaps it took [167] that long to assemble the evidence. In any case, on January 21, 1885, on the basis of a complaint from Strand for malicious trespass, a warrant to arrest Hans Jakob Olson was ready and the sheriff carried out the arrest on January 27, 1885. The warrant and complaint were read to the defendant, Hans Jakob, who pleaded not guilty. On motion of the defendant, the record reads, the case was continued until February 3, 1885, at 1:00 o'clock, at the office of F. Immell, justice of the peace. The defendant was required to furnish a bond of $100, not a small sum in those days, which was produced jointly by Hans Jakob and one Bendt J. Loga. The clerk of court signed X for them, which indicates that they were probably incapable of signing their own names.

Witnesses for the prosecution included B. K. Strand, the owner of the hardware store; Peter Erickson, the owner of the auger; Simon Bersing, {11} who was in the store at the time of the explosion; and Charles Holcum (actually, Haukom), who helped to split the grub in which the powder was found. Sam Hanson, {12} Hans Jakob's twenty-one-year-old son, who had bought the powder, even testified against his father.

Not surprisingly, the court found that the offense charged had been committed and "that there is probable cause to believe the defendant guilty thereof" and ordered that the defendant "produce bail in sum of $1,000 for his appearance at the regular term of' the Circuit Court for Trempealeau County." Hans Jakob could not produce bail. He was brought to the LaCrosse county jail in LaCrosse, because there was still no jail in Trempealeau county.

On June 16, 1885, Hans Jakob was tried by jury at the Trempealeau county courthouse in Whitehall, found guilty, and sentenced the next day to five years in the state prison. The judge was A. W. Newman. Hans Jakob did not serve the full sentence but was released after [168] four years, in June of 1889. Presumably, his sentence was shortened for good behavior, revealing yet another aspect of his personality. Hans Jakob came straight home to his scrubby farm and his wife and family. According to his wife Bertha, he became violent and threatened to kill her and the children and burn down the house. {13} Bertha went to the district attorney, H. A. Anderson, to have her returned husband arrested. Hans Jakob was then arrested again, upon the testimony of his wife and son, convicted and required to furnish bond to keep the peace. Unable to furnish bond, Hans Jakob was committed for six months to the new Trempealeau county jail in Whitehall.

District Attorney H. A. Anderson records that he had an opportunity to get acquainted with Hans Jakob while Hans Jakob was in the county jail, near Anderson's office. During the first three months of the six-month sentence, Hans Jakob paid no attention to Anderson at all, but one day Anderson struck up a conversation and offered Hans Jakob some reading material which was accepted. Apparently, he was a quiet prisoner, since Sheriff Boynton {14} allowed him to come and go within the village during the day, where he did odd jobs. Hans Jakob told Anderson, who was not yet district attorney, that he was guilty of the attempt at arson for which he had been sent to the state prison and that he had received a just sentence. There were others who were guilty too, but he would not tell who they were.

During their conversations, Hans Jakob said that his wife, Bertha, was rather peculiar. He said that she was able to cry at will and that she spread lies around the neighborhood that he was harsh with her and the children and threatened them. He admitted that he may have been harsh at times, but he never threatened to burn the house down or harm them.

Anderson advised Hans Jakob that if he could not live [169] peaceably with his family he should go away and make the best of his life elsewhere. According to Anderson, he promised to do this and said he would go home to have his clothes mended. If his family did not seem to want him he would go away. At the time of the trial following the lynching, Anderson said he was "reliably informed" that Hans Jakob had been ready to go away in a day or two when he was hanged. As subsequent events prove, his neighbors believed otherwise. Hans Jakob went home on November 22, 1889. Charles Johnson, owner of a farm one and one-half miles from Hans Jakob's place toward Blair, reported that Hans Jakob's son fled to Johnson's place for help immediately after his father came home from jail because he was threatening to burn down the house and kill the family. {15} Hans Jakob was now feared more than ever by his family and neighbors. Within two days after his return from jail, the vigilantes assembled; they arrived at his home on the evening of November 24, 1889.

Charles Johnson, a prominent farmer and community leader and father of five children, became the ringleader in the attempt to drive Hans Jakob out of the county. He was born in Norway and made rapid progress after immigrating to Trempealeau county. At the time of the lynching he was president of the Farmers' Trading Association; earlier he had been a Town of Preston representative on the County Board. He bridged the Norwegian and the Yankee societies. Anderson said that Johnson was a man of "acute intelligence."

Johnson was able to assemble about thirty men on a Sunday evening after church at an abandoned house near his farm. They all came on foot, probably an average distance of two miles, and then walked another mile and a half to Hans Jakob's log cabin. The men who were assembled ranged in age from 17 to 45, though most of [170] them were around 25 years of age. They came from established families in Blair and from the farms nearby. It is likely that some of them might have been drinking. The Whitehall Times, however, reported that "rather than toughs, they were a respectable appearing lot." {16}

The men equipped themselves with a heavy rope for hanging and a light rope for tying the hands, since Hans Jakob was a physically powerful man. As the men approached the house between 8 and 9 in the evening, Hans Jakob's son, Ole J. Hanson, was sent ahead to reconnoiter. He reported that his father was at home and in bed. It is reasonable to assume that Bertha was expecting them, or at least that she was alerted by her son. It is not possible to determine exactly how many men were at the actual site among the thirty or so who were arrested. A few were on the hill overlooking the house, the grandfather of the author among them with his neighbor, Henry Sather, to see what was going on. Only four men entered the house. They dragged Hans Jakob from his bed clad only in a shirt. He offered no resistance. They asked him to leave the area, and he was reported to have said, "This is my home, and I will not leave until God calls me." They strung him up and let him down, but to no avail. They strung him up again and let him down once more, but this time he was too weak to stand. The men took him into the house to be revived. They then dressed him, and according to the Whitehall Times, even put a necktie on him.

Hans Jakob was brought outside again and asked for the third time to leave the county, but he refused. The men then probably panicked, because if they let him remain in the area, he would surely wreak vengeance on them. Hans Jakob was strung up a third time and left hanging. {17} Two of the men (not identified) stayed the night with the new widow, who placed a blanket over the window in the direction of the hanging body. It is a [171] part of the legend that she served coffee twice during the night, and this is very likely true. Those in the Blair area have tended to see it as indicating Bertha's utter callousness; however, this act can probably better be interpreted simply as routine Norwegian hospitality.

The next morning, Monday, the son, Ole J., went to town to report to the justice of the peace, George A. Sly, that his father had been hanged. He said he did not know how it had happened and whether it was a suicide or not. He had seen no crowd that night. On the same day an inquest was held on the body of Hans Jakob, chaired by none other than Charles Johnson. The other members of the board were T. C. Scott, G. O. Gilbert, Lars Hanson, Alfred Thorsbus (Thorbus), and A. Fjelstad. The inquest ruled that "Olson came to his death by strangulation produced by being hanged by the neck by a masked person or persons unknown. {18} This anonymity was short-lived, however, for one of the men in the mob, Christian H. Melby, told his father, Thomas Christian Melby (sometimes also referred to as Thomas Christian Nelson), a prominent farmer, of the hanging and revealed the names of all the participants. The son was joined by two other participants, Henry Hanson and Simon Bersing, and all three turned states evidence. Thomas Christian Melby swore under oath on November 28, 1889, before County Judge R. A. Odell that on November 24, 1889, Charles Johnson killed Hans Jakob Olson. {19} On November 30, 1889, the senior Melby named twenty-eight others as being involved. Warrants were issued for their arrest.

About three weeks later, on December 20, 1889, Christian H. Melby named in addition Henry 0. Sather, Ole O. Anderson (the author's grandfather), and Embret Embretson. The charge was riot and disturbance of the peace, and bail was set at $500 each. The three were taken to court on December 21, 1889, and thereafter [172] were released to await the next court session in March, 1890. The records are not clear, but presumably the twenty-eight men, excluding Johnson, who had already been arrested, were brought before the court and charged with riot and disturbance of the peace, posted bond, and were set free to await the March session.

A warrant for the arrest of Charles Johnson had been issued on November 28, 1899, four days after the hanging. Sheriff John Boynton made the arrest on November 29. {20} Johnson was brought before the court on the same day as his arrest. He asked for an adjournment until November 30 in order to consult his attorney, T. F. Frawley, and was released on $10,000 bond, an indication of Johnson's relative affluence. The court was again adjourned until December 6, 1889, and Johnson was committed to the county jail. On December 6 Johnson was again brought before the court. He waived examination and was committed to the county jail until the next court session in March, 1890. Ole Sletto, Sr., and Ebert Olson (son of Hans Jakob) were arrested on the same day as Johnson and charged with murder. Sletto obtained an attorney. {21}

The timing is not clear, but H. A. Anderson recorded in his letter of 1908 that he issued a warrant for the arrest of Bertha Olson, wife of Hans Jakob, for murder very soon after the arrest of Johnson and "two others," not identified. It seems that the son and the wife did not obtain their own attorney.

To backtrack, the author remembers vividly his grandmother's account of how her husband, Ole, got involved. Ole and his wife had three small children at that time including Edwin, the author's father, the second child. On the Sunday evening of November 24, Henry Sather, a neighbor on the next farm (Ole's farm being between Sather's and Hans Jakob's farms) came by and announced, "They are going to get Hans Jakob tonight. [173] Will you come and watch from the hill?" Ole did so with the subsequent drastic consequences to both him and his neighbor. An actual killing must have been far from their minds. Three weeks later they were named, arrested, and arraigned.

The confident, even arrogant, character of Charles Johnson was revealed by the district attorney, H. A. Anderson, who reported in his 1908 letter that after Johnson's arrest and release on bond he came to Anderson's residence in the dark of night to warn him that, although Hans Jakob had been hanged, Anderson should not be "too fresh, that there were many of them; and, in substance, that it would not be good form to interfere." Anderson further reported that Johnson had encouraged the men who went with him by telling them that if they could get together a mob of forty to sixty men no jury could be found to convict them.

The distress throughout the Blair area caused by this gruesome event must have been profound. The Whitehall Times observed, "The affair has caused an upheaval in Preston that can scarcely be imagined when it is considered that of the leading people in that township there is scarcely a family but had one or more promising sons concerned in the lynching." {22} Suspicion and mistrust must have been rife as to who would try to go free by turning states evidence. It is understandable why the event continues to be a legend in Blair and its environs.

The trial started on March 11, 1890, and ended on March 13, when the case went to the jury at 11:30 a.m. A. W. Newman, judge of the circuit court for Trempealeau county, the same judge who had convicted Hans Jakob in the arson case, presided. The verdict was "guilty of murder in the first degree" against Charles Johnson, Ole Sletto, Sr., Ole J. Hanson, and Bertha Olson. The latter three were sentenced on the day after. All [174] were sentenced to prison for life. Motion for a new trial was overruled.

The twenty-seven others charged with rioting received fines of $100 plus $7 costs each or six months imprisonment. {23} Apparently all paid their fines. Charges against Ebert Olson, sixteen-year-old son of Hans Jakob, and the equally young Ole Sletto, Jr., were dropped. One of those accused of rioting, Dick Martin, fled the county before the trial. Another, Peter Johnson Loga, who reportedly brought the rope to the lynching, committed suicide by hanging on March 10, 1890, the day before the trial, at the very place where the mob had gathered. He was forty years old.

None of the members of the jury were of' Norwegian extraction, although Norwegians comprised a substantial proportion of the county's population. {24} Stenholt reported that the prosecution ruled out "Scandinavians" because they might be prejudiced.

Stenholt reported that he did not believe Bertha Olson understood the legal process going on around her, and that she appeared to be indifferent as to whether she would spend the rest of her days in prison or in her shabby home. {25} All four defendants took the verdict stolidly. Stenholt confessed to feeling ashamed of his Norwegian countrymen. He pitied Hans Jakob (stakkars Hans Jakob): "His fate was tragic, but then he was not mother's best child either, that the Lord knows."

The central figure at the trial, of course, was Charles Johnson. Here was a prominent farmer and citizen with business and political ties with the Yankee establishment, who had been the ringleader in this clearly criminal act. Even if the man's intent had been only to scare Hans Jakob enough to make him leave the county, not to kill him, the action was a risky one. Stenholt reported that Johnson was so well respected that he had the trust of the community, and the fathers and mothers [175] of the young boys who were members of the mob believed that "he wished only to lead the children into good deeds." {26}

Although Johnson confessed to the crime and pleaded guilty, he was able to muster an impressive number of men in the area as witnesses to his good reputation and character. There were six of them, as follows: {27}

1. A. A. Arnold, Town of Gale, 19 miles south of Blair. He had lived there since 1857. He was chairman of the township, justice of the peace, member of the Assembly and state senator, and had known Johnson for some years.

2. James L. Linderman. He had lived in Osseo, 26 miles north of Blair, since 1871. He had known Johnson for ten years, and was census supervisor for the Seventh District of Wisconsin.

3. R. A. Odell. He had been a resident of the county for 30 years, living in Whitehall, and had known Johnson for ten years. He was county judge and had been clerk of the court for ten years.

4. Peter J. Hanson, farmer. He was a resident of Preston township and had been an officer of the Town. He had known Johnson for 12 years. He lived six miles west of Blair.

5. N. D. Comstock. He lived in Arcadia, 15 miles east of Blair. He had lived in the county for 34 years. He had been town assessor, chairman of the Town, member of the Assembly, and state senator. He had known Johnson for 15 to 20 years. He was editor of the Arcadia Leader.

6. Peter Eckrain. {28} He had lived in Pigeon Falls, 15 miles northeast of' Blair, for 21 years. He was chairman of the Town board and a member of the state Assembly. He had known Johnson for 10 to 12 years.

The court records do not contain the testimonies of these worthy citizens, but it can be assumed that they spoke well of Johnson's past. It should also be noted that [176] four of the men who gave favorable testimony were old-stock Yankees and two were prominent men of Norwegian stock. The presumption is that these men testified in order to make the sentence as light as possible even in the face of the seriousness of the crime.

Johnson made an impassioned statement to the court. As reported by the Whitehall Times, Johnson said that he and his family had been threatened by Hans Jakob: "While some of the parties who went to the Olson house on the fatal night were afraid of their own lives, and others sympathized with them, my neighbors and many of the young boys went because they sympathized with me and my family, as they knew what distress we were in and they had once had occasion to witness that we had been aroused in the middle of the night, surrounded with flames which consumed most of our property, including our livestock, caused by an incendiary, and they were afraid they would have to witness something similar or still more terrible. But none of us had any murder in our hearts." {29}

Judge A. W. Newman's charge to the jury was filed on March 14, 1890, and is worth quoting in some detail: "Much has been said upon this trial as to what your duty is, and as jurors, perhaps the Court ought to tell you something on that subject. The Jury are here in order to determine what is the truth of the facts. (The Court is here for the purpose of telling the Jury what the law of the case is . . . and it is your duty under your oaths to take the law as the Court tells you it is. This is your sworn duty.) . . . And you are to find the parties as you believe the truth is from the evidence which is before you in the case. . . . Because it could not be tolerated that men are liable to be hung because the neighbors hate him, or because they have a bad name in the community, or even because they are bad men, without a trial, because you readily see how that might work - to [177] give a man a bad name, and if that is the theory that obtained, to have a right to hang him. That is not the law . . ." The judge remarked that there was "no heat of passion" as a reason for the lynching.

As for the good character of the defendants, the judge said that the court had been asked to instruct the jury with reference to the weight which this should be given. The defendants should be entitled to such weight, but the fact of the murder should nullify good character. The judge also remarked that much had also been said about the character of the deceased. This was also irrelevant. Self-defense could not be argued. The deed was premeditated. The instructions to the jury as quoted in the Whitehall Times read: "Much has been said to you on the part of the defense with reference to the character of the deceased. Now, I am bound to tell you that it makes no difference, and is a subject you ought not to consider in this case at all, what his character was. If he was a good man, certainly nobody had a right to kill him; if he was a bad man, nobody had a right to kill him.

"He had a right to live until God called him away, whether he was good or bad. So far as these neighbors, these defendants are concerned, he had a right to live; and he had the right to live at the place he chose to live until he forfeited that right and the law took him away. His character is not an element in this case. You are not trying him; you are now to find out whether he was unlawfully killed." {30} The judge's reference to God calling Hans Jakob away is reminiscent of Hans Jakob's own statement before the vigilante group.

Further, the judge said, "Those men who were present at this place, or near by, encouraging it to be done, or advising it to be done, were also guilty." Finally, the judge observed that the mob's avowed purpose to drive Hans Jakob Olson out of the county was also an unlawful purpose. [178]

In conclusion, the judge said, "All evidence points to murder in the first degree." Obviously, the jury agreed. All four defendants were sentenced to life in the state prison in Waupun, the maximum punishment possible under the law.

The trial was both short and packed considering the number of defendants charged with murder, four, and those charged with riot, twenty-nine (actually twenty-seven because of one flight and one suicide). The four charged with murder were sent to prison immediately and those charged with riot were free to go home upon paying their fines.

Is it possible to give an explanation, rational or irrational, for the lynching? Human behavior is not random; it has a context. The context has been described. And explanation is not made any easier by the fact that in less than five years, on January 5, 1895, Governor George W. Peck pardoned all four of those convicted of murder in the first degree. According to Stenholt the pardon was sought by Judge A. W. Newman, the same judge who presided at the trial and instructed the jury that the crime was murder in the first degree. It should be recalled that Newman had also sentenced Hans Jakob in the arson case in 1883. Investigation of the state records revealed no reason for the governor's decision, only the fact of the pardon itself.

All of the pardoned prisoners returned to Blair. Ole Sletto returned to his farm; Bertha Olson and Ole J., her son, returned to their house beside the burr oak tree from which Hans Jakob was hanged. Bertha died in 1906; Ole J. reportedly had died earlier. Charles Johnson opened a hardware store in Blair. The district attorney, H. A. Anderson, wrote in 1908 that Johnson sought his counsel on business matters after his return from prison, but in a few years Johnson went west and the [179] community lost track of him. There are descendants of both Hans Jakob Olson and Charles Johnson still living in the Blair area. From all appearances they settled well into the growing communities and no stigma is attached to their families. The impression is given, however, that there is no interest in reviving these events, which are regarded locally as an aberration in an otherwise stable community. {31}

The chief motivation for the attempt to drive Hans Jakob out of the county was fear of an irrational and unpredictable man who had already been convicted of arson. The other actions alleged to have occurred during Hans Jakob's night roaming were difficult to pin on him, but circumstances pointed to him, nevertheless. The author's grandmother being chased in the dark by a man wearing deer horns on his head is a case in point. The people who feared him most were his family and his closest neighbors, established farmers such as Charles Johnson, Ole Sletto, Sr., and Peter Erickson. Within the range of his night wandering there were possibly a dozen farms, some of whose owners were away at the pineries for two months or more in the winters, leaving their families behind. They feared that their women and children would be molested. One can speculate also what influence the women had on their men in this matter.

The assertion is made that it was not the intent of the mob to kill, but rather to frighten. Charles Johnson probably reasoned that he and his accomplices would not be prosecuted for scaring Hans Jakob away, since the victim would not be around to bring charges. He probably also thought that Hans Jakob would be afraid of the legal apparatus anyway. Charles Johnson depended on his reputation and standing in the community to get away with simply scaring Hans Jakob. Even after Johnson [180] confessed to the killing, six very prominent men put their reputations on the line by testifying as to his good character. They were apparently hoping for as light a sentence for him as the law permitted. As for the others who were convicted of riot and disturbing the peace, they included young men from established families, who were out for a lark with a prominent member of the community on a dull Sunday evening after church, and men who were only watching the drama from the hill overlooking Hans Jakob's house, like the author's grandfather, Ole Anderson, and his neighbor, Henry Sather. It is not possible to determine from the records the number and names of those who watched from the hill. They were, of course, clearly implicated, for they did not try to stop the action or report it.

Why did Johnson and Sletto not bring charges against Hans Jakob for threatening his neighbors? A person can not be charged, of course, until an act has been committed. Johnson and Sletto were afraid of an overt act because it might result in the burning of their properties. Apparently Hans Jakob did not engage in direct physical attacks on people he did not like, the arson incident notwithstanding, but struck at property and then fled. This is behavior too elusive for the law to deal with. By current standards Hans Jakob would be regarded as mentally ill. In those times the mentally ill who were considered dangerous were sent to jail or an insane asylum. The state of Wisconsin established an asylum in 1860 near Madison, but the handling of mental illness by confinement in an asylum penetrated the rural hinterland only slowly. {32} Trempealeau county did not have an asylum until 1900. {33}

Mob action is unusual behavior on the part of a citizenry like the Norwegian Americans, who came from or grew up in a society where it was hardly the custom to engage in vigilante activities. The Norwegian [181] immigrants brought with them a concept of the rule of law. Even legal executions were very rare in Norway in the nineteenth century. It is, of course, plausible that Norwegian Americans read newspaper accounts of lynchings, as described previously, and those examples along with their frustration with the law enforcement agencies erupted in a lynching with the unintended consequence of murder.

It is reasonable to speculate that a certain distance between the Yankees and the immigrants may have made the Norwegians feel that the legal system was indifferent to their concerns; on the other hand, the Yankee legal establishment perhaps did not fully understand the immigrants' problems. There were, so far, not enough Charles Johnsons who could communicate with both groups. {34}

The swiftness and directness with which the legal apparatus went into action was impressive, indicating that the courts and law enforcement agencies were in place and functioning. Bear in mind that Trempealeau county was founded in 1854, thirty-five years before the lynching, and that the state of Wisconsin was founded in 1848, allowing time for this development.

Also impressive was the presence in the case of a young new district attorney. H. A. Anderson was born in Sunnfjord, Norway, and educated in this country, and was as bilingual as Johnson. He had been district attorney for only about a year or so at the time of the lynching and this was an opportunity to show his mettle in a dramatic way. As indicated in the foregoing, he acted swiftly and unequivocally. He had a clear case and, the accused being fellow Norwegians, he could demonstrate his objectivity before the law. Although Norwegians were not allowed on the jury a Norwegian American was permitted to conduct the prosecution. This was the district attorney's role in any case, and it would have taken [182] a very positive action on the part of the court to deny Anderson this role. His behavior up to this time had been correct. Stenholt described H. A. Anderson's performance in the court as "magnificent." {35} The trial itself was also fair. The law took its inevitable course, given the zealousness of the district attorney, the legal literalness of the judge, and the clearly defined nature of the crime. The jury might have decided otherwise or been unable to agree if Norwegians could have participated, and if the judge had refrained from instructing the jury that the crime was "murder in the first degree," precluding a judgment of guilt for a lesser offense. A jury is supposed to be made up of the peers of the accused, which was certainly not the case here, and such a situation would not be tolerated today. The judge, then, likely exceeded the prerogatives of his office in the selection of the jury and also in his instructions to them. {36} Some credence is lent to this view by the fact that Judge Newman himself initiated the action for a governor's pardon of all four persons convicted of first degree murder after only four years in prison, even though he had sentenced them to life imprisonment. He must have had second thoughts.

This is the narrative. It is hoped that it will be received by Americans of Norwegian descent, and especially the descendants of the victim, Hans Jakob Olson and his wife Bertha, and the descendants of those convicted of either murder or disturbance of the peace in the spirit intended: as a description of an event unique in Norwegian-American history and, therefore, worthy of extensive documentation and publication for the record. The author wished to report a tragic and gruesome event in an otherwise steady, unspectacular, constructive, and peaceful assimilation of Norwegian immigrants into the mainstream of the culture and society of the Middle West. [183]


<1> Among Norwegians, Ole Anderson was known as Ole Konterud, the name taken from his native farm in Solør, Norway.

<2> John Ring and L. A. Stenholt, Norske og amerikanske kriminal-historier (Minneapolis, 1903), 124-136.

<3> Merle Curti, et al, The Making of an American Community: A Case Study of Democracy in a Frontier Community (Stanford, California, 1959).

<4> Wisconsin State Census, 1885, vol. 31; 1895, vol. 20.

<5> Curti, Making of an American Community, 97-98.

<6> James E. Cutler, Lynch Law, An Investigation Into the History of Lynching in the United States (1905; reprinted Montclair, N. J., 1969).

<7> Jack Holzhueter, "True or False, Lynchings in Wisconsin Made News," in Wisconsin Then and Now, June, 1978, 4; and a letter from Holzhueter to the author, October 27, 1981.

<8> Theodore Anderson, uncle of the author, and Robert Hanson, high-school classmate, report that these stories have been handed down in their families.

<9> State of Wisconsin vs Hans J. Olson, 1885.

<10> The name is probably misspelled.

<11> Variously spelled Bersing, Bergsing, and Bergum, but Bersing is the name that became standard later.

<12> In this instance they followed the old Norwegian custom of using the patronymic, i.e., calling the son Hanson for his father rather than Olson.

<13> Letter from H. A. Anderson, district attorney in Trempealeau county at the time of the lynching, printed in the Whitehall Times, September 30, 1908, and reprinted in the Blair Press, November 14, 1940.

<14> Spelled interchangeably Boynton and Boyington in the records.

<15> Anderson apparently discounted this story; he also believed that Johnson intended to kill Hans Jakob.

<16> Whitehall Times, March 13, 1890.

<17> Oscar Nyen, son of a neighbor of Ole Anderson, reported to Einar Haugen in 1942 that he inspected the tree and the branch from which Hans Jakob was hanged shortly after the hanging and saw that the rope had been pulled up and down so many times that the bark was off. Oscar Nyen was 18 years old at that time. Einar Haugen, The Norwegian Language in America: A Study of Bilingual Behavior (1953; reprinted Bloomington, Indiana, 1969), 529-534.

<18> Whitehall Times, November 28, 1889.

<19> State of Wisconsin vs Charles Johnson, Ole Sletto, Ole J. Hanson, Bertha Olson, Peter Erickson, Gullick Olson, Henry Olson, Thomas Olson, Ebert Olson, Oluf Strum, Dick Martin, Peter Johnson Loga, Salve Peterson, John McKivergan, Thomas McKivergan, Charley Densmore, Marius Hanson, Mads Hanson,Jorgen Solberg, Edward Erickson, Ole Sletto,Jr., Albert Halvorson, Tonnes A. Oftedahl, Ole Bjolseth, Ludwig Tenneson, Ole L. Olson, Elias Glendrangen, Hans Johnson, Charley Hanson, George Peterson, Christian H. Melby, and Ole J. Hanson.

<20> According to the court record, Boynton traveled sixteen miles to make the arrest, presumably by horse and buggy, and incurred the following expenses: cost of making the arrest, 29¢ travel, at 10¢ a mile, $1.60; conveying the prisoner $1.50; cost of an assistant, $1.00.

<21> Whitehall Times, December 5, 1899.

<22> Whitehall Times, December 5, 1899. [184]

<23> The court records of the trial are sparse and not verbatim. Fairly detailed descriptions were found in the Whitehall Times and in the report by L. A. Stenholt. There may have been stories in La Crosse, Eau Claire, and Milwaukee newspapers. It is assumed, however, that they would be unrewarding repetitions of what has already been found.

<24> They were John Quinn, Melvin Bortle, H. A. Field, Robert Hyslop, Carlos Bugbee, John Hayter, N. E. Pratt, John Kilmer, I. S. Farrand, Melvin Pettinger, William Moore, and Leroy Bell.

<25> Ring and Stenholt, Norske og amerikanske kriminal-historier, 124, 131, 134.

<26> Ring and Stenholt, Norske og amerikanske kriminal-historier, 126.

<27> State of Wisconsin vs Charles Johnson, Ole Sletto, Ole]. Hanson, and Bertha Olson, 1890.

<28> Should be spelled Ekern, a very prominent Norwegian family; his son, Herman L. Ekern, became well known in Wisconsin politics in association with Robert M. LaFollette, Sr., and the Progressive party.

<29> Whitehall Times, March 17, 1890.

<30> Whitehall Times, March 20, 1890.

<31> A grandson of Hans Jakob was interviewed, but it was decided not to press further in this direction because what happened to the descendants was not central to the author's interest. The author searched in the Blair community for Stenholt's account cited in this article. Several people were supposed to have had copies, but they had disappeared. One copy, it is known, had been burned because of the shamefulness of the event. The publication was finally found in the Rolvaag Library, St. Olaf College, through the help of a reference librarian at the University of Chicago.

<32> Dale Wendall Robinson, "Wisconsin and the Mentally Ill: A History of the 'Wisconsin Plan' of State and County Care, 1860-1915." Ph.D. Dissertation, Marquette University, 1976.

<33> Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge, comp., and Eben Douglass Pierce, M.D., ed., The History of Trempealeau County, Wisconsin (Chicago, 1917), 117.

<34> Johnson's statement to the court was eloquent. There was little evidence in it that his mother tongue was Norwegian. From the experience of the author, whose own first language was a Norwegian dialect, it was absolutely essential to one's progress in "Yankee society" thirty years later in high school that one speak fluent and, if possible, accentless English.

<35> Ring and Stenholt, Norske og amerikanske kriminal-historier, 132.

<36> Legal advice was sought on these interpretations. The opinion was that judges had more power in those days.


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