The Free Press, Mankato, MN


August 18, 2012

Ojanpa: Maybe we're not No. 1 after all

— Mankato’s most dubious distinction has always been that it’s the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history — the hanging of 38 convicted Dakota on Dec. 26, 1862.

Clearly, it was a large execution. But the largest in the nation’s history? That nod might have to go to Gainesville, Texas, where 40 men were hanged, also in — what a coincidence— 1862.

This blotch on Texas history hasn’t received a fraction of the notoriety or commemoration of the Mankato hangings. And for good reason — profound embarrassment on the part of Texans.

It seems that in the fevered tenor of the times during the Civil War, Confederate Texans ran amok and went on a witch hunt for Union sympathizers.

On Oct. 1, 1862, Texas state troops arrested more than 150 men. A sham “citizens court” of 12 jurors was set up and prisoners were brought before it.

They were charged with insurrection or treason, and 21 were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.

An old elm tree at the edge of town served as a makeshift gallows and the men, guilty of nothing more than possessing a difference of opinion, were quickly strung up.

But apparently that wasn’t enough to satisfy the bloodlust of a vigilante mob that had formed outside the courtroom. The rabble demanded more executions, and the “court” obliged them.

Another 19 men were deemed guilty and days later hanged as well, bringing to 40 the number of those executed that, by one guy’s Minnesota math, is two more than Mankato’s infamous tally.

Granted, the men in Texas weren’t hanged simultaneously, but they were all part of a single execution event that some historians regard as the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

So if that puts Mankato in second place, so be it. In this case being No. 2mber two isn’t a bad thing.


Brian Ojanpa is a Free Press staff writer. Call him at 344-6316 or email

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