The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 10, 2013

Researcher, local group face off in gallows authenticity debate

By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer

— Two new research projects on a timber purported to be from the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato come to widely differing conclusions about its authenticity.

An article by Dale Blanshan in the winter 2013 edition of Minnesota’s Heritage magazine argues the timber in the Blue Earth County Historical Society collection can only be from the gallows, used in the nation’s largest mass execution on Dec. 26, 1862, following the U.S.-Dakota War.

Blanshan study here (with input from Blue Earth Historical Society report also)

Blanshan is a retired minister, attorney and educator.

A study by staff and volunteers at the local Historical Society, however, concludes there are numerous problems with claims the timber is from the gallows and suggests the donor of the timber lied.

(Blue Earth County Historical Society video on gallows timber study.)

(Blue Earth County Historical Society website report on gallows timber study)

Historical Society Director Jessica Potter said their research used historical records of the time that described the construction of the gallows and its sale at auction afterward, while Blanshan’s research was more superficial.

“We really studied the information from 1860s and ’70s. He’s using his eyes to have it fit into history,” she said. “He didn’t spend the time on it that we did. It’s just a difference of opinion.”

Potter, who has never displayed the timber publicly, said she doubts there will ever be a conclusion as to whether the timber is from the gallows.

“There’s not that definite piece that gives all the answers, there’s a lot of unknowns and a lot of research that needs to be done. There needs to be some major document that comes forward that sheds light on it.”

Most valuable artifact?

The timber is “arguably the most valuable artifact in Minnesota history,” wrote Blanshan of Rochester. “Of all the artifacts in Minnesota museums, no other could sum up the Dakota War as powerfully and effectively.”

Blanshan uses forensic evidence to argue that the timber can only be a piece of the 1862 scaffold by trying to decipher an assortment of mortises and cut marks.

He said his work identifies corner brace mortises as used in timber framing at the time and said spacing of notches for ropes match the width of a military file (one man in ranks).

The timber’s history

The timber has been in the possession of state or local historians since 1881, 19 years after the execution.

This much is known:

Mankato business and civic leader John F. Meagher, who had witnessed the hangings, said that he bought gallows timber shortly after the hangings. He said he used the beam in construction of his hardware store.

When a fire damaged the store in 1881, Meagher removed the beam he said was from the gallows and sent it to the University of Minnesota for safe keeping. He attached a cardboard tag to the beam that included his name and indicated the beam was from the scaffold. That tag remains on the beam in Mankato today.

The university kept the beam until 1927, when it shipped it back to Mankato to the county Historical Society.

Local official still doubtful

The article is the latest to counter ongoing conclusions by the county Historical Society to suggest the timber is not from the gallows.

Early last year, Potter said the timber in her collection could not be from the gallows and instead was likely a beam from a military bridge. She said the timber was not the same one that had been held for years by the University of Minnesota.

But in April of last year Potter confirmed the timber was in fact the same one that had been at the university. The turnaround came after a photograph taken of the timber at the university — thought lost — was found in files at the Minnesota Historical Society. The timber in the photo matches the one now in Mankato.

Recently, Potter posted information on the county Historical Society website saying volunteers and staff had conducted a 10-month investigation of the timber and effectively conclude that Meagher, the man who donated the timber to the university, had lied. The conclusion includes a 17-minute video done by a Historical Society volunteer explaining why they believe the timber is not from the gallows. (On YouTube, search for “Explanation of the building of the 1862 scaffolding.”)

The conclusion is based on several pieces of information:

Newspaper articles described the timbers as being 1-foot square, while the timber in Mankato would have been about 8 inches by 10 inches when wet.

Blue Earth County Historical Society said records show another man bought the entire gallows from the military at auction and they do not believe he would have sold any of it to Meagher.

They also say that the gallows was reported to be made of oak but a local sawmill operator who looked at the timber recently believes it is elm.

On her website, historian and author Carrie Zeman of St. Paul, who has followed the controversy over the timber, questions the veracity of the local Historical Society’s research.

“Unfortunately, almost all the new evidence comes from newspaper sources, which are not reliable when used as BECHS does, as authoritative evidence.

“Further, the video shows BECHS interpreting this weak evidence in a single direction: to disprove Meagher’s claim. BECHS has ‘proved’ its own hypothesis, which makes its conclusions questionable. The same findings would be received differently if they were the result of an independent investigation,” Zeman wrote.

But Potter said it’s Blanshan’s research that is questionable. “He came here twice and looked at it and came to his own conclusions.”

Blanshan’s work focuses on explaining the confusing array of notches and mortises on the timber. He created scale drawings of each side of the timber to study the positions and types of the various notches.

If the timber is from the gallows, some of the notches would have been added when it was built and others would have been added when it was reused in Meagher’s store. 

Blanshan focuses on unexplained mortises cut into the beam that he said are in a location and angle to accept corner brackets to stabilize the timber-framed gallows. “Without (corner braces) a structure would collapse.”

Blanshan did not return a phone call to The Free Press seeking further comments.

But Potter’s team, which built a scale model of what the gallows might have looked like, shows a gallows with no cross bracket supports. She said the design was based on newspaper accounts by a reporter who watched the gallows being built; that no one in any of the stories mentioned braces; and that Blanshan’s insistence there were braces is “revisionist history.”

She also noted that the auction bill for the gallows described it as being “racked.” She said that is a typo for the word “wracked,” which was a term that described timber construction that was twisted from drying wood and lack of braces.     

Potter said she hopes someone turns up family letters or diaries that shed more light on the timber and gallows, but is doubtful.

“This is not going to have a conclusion because nobody knows.”