The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 30, 2012

Turnabout on ‘gallows’ beam

Hanging artifact draws historical dispute

By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO —  A thought-to-be-lost photograph has surfaced that confirms the disputed gallows beam at the Blue Earth County Historical Society is the same notched beam given to the state in 1881 by a Mankato businessman who bought the timber from the military shortly after the Indian hangings.

Last month county Historical Society Executive Director Jessica Potter announced the beam was not the original but was instead an old bridge beam and that the “gallows” beam had somehow been lost decades ago.

The county historical society website, in fact, now flatly lists the beam as  an “1856 Military Bridge Timber.” The website says, “Our documentation ... has busted the myth that the timber was from the 1862 scaffold.”

But Potter last week agreed that the beam in her museum’s possession is the original and not a bridge timber.

Potter, however, said she is still not convinced the beam came from the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota Indians in Mankato in December of 1862 in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. She points to discrepancies in old descriptions of the gallows, such as the size and spacing of the notches in the timber.

And she said she has no intention of publicly displaying the beam in this 150th anniversary year of the U.S.-Dakota War.

Proof that the timber is the original came after Minnesota Historical Society researcher Benjamin Gessner found a copy of a photo in a file related to the U.S.-Dakota War. The photo had been tucked away in the file in St. Paul years earlier by Minnesota Historical Society researcher Lolly Lundquist.

The photo shows the timber, the name of the photographer who took the photo, and a handwritten note that says the beam is from the 1862 gallows and that the beam was at the University of Minnesota at the time the photo was taken.

The location of the beam at the time the picture was taken is key because Potter had concluded the beam had been lost and switched with a bridge beam sometime after it was sent from the university to Mankato in 1927.

The old photo shows a beam with identical notches and holes as the one in the county Historical Society storage room.

The controversial beam also is getting new attention from a study done by an independent historian relying heavily on information from the Minnesota Historical Societyl. The a 37-page study, authored by historian Carrie Zeman, details much of the known research on the gallows and the beam in Mankato and suggests further study of the beam. 

Beam from the gallows?

The provenance of the beam the county Historical Society holds is now well documented from 1881 through today.

According to newspaper stories from Mankato and the University of Minnesota, Mankato business and civic leader John F. Meagher, who had witnessed the hangings, bought the gallows timber from the military shortly after the hangings. 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. Potter had previously speculated that the tag was accidentally or intentionally removed from the original and put on the “bridge” timber at some point.

The university kept the beam until 1927, when it shipped it back to Mankato to the Blue Earth County Historical Society. The beam was stored at several locations over the decades as the county Historical Society relocated.

The beam drew new attention this year as state and local historical societies planned marking the 150th anniversary of the war later this summer.

In a Free Press story earlier this year, Potter said she did not intend to display the beam because its provenance was in doubt, because the museum was tight on space, and because it would be offensive to some people.

The county Historical Society chose to focus heavily on the Dakota history and culture this coming year and the bulk of its museum display regarding 1862 is dedicated to the Dakota and Winnebago Indians (who lived near Mankato at the time). 

Some historians and the public argued that a wide variety of artifacts from the time should be displayed, even those items that carry powerful emotions. 

Less than a week after that Free Press story, Potter announced she had researched the beam and determined it was not the “gallows” beam but a bridge beam.

Mike Lagerquist, president of the Board of Trustees for the county Historical Society, said he has no reservations about how Potter handled the situation, or that she unequivocally re-christened the beam as a bridge beam.

“You go with what you’ve got at the time. The (descriptions) we had of the beam did not indicate it was from the gallows. We see this as the staff doing its job,” Lagerquist said.

He said that they now know the beam was the one removed from Meagher’s building. “But whether it is a beam from the gallows, we’re still investigating.”