Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota

By John D. Bessler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
The Botched Hanging of
William Williams

The press-muzzling provision of Minnesota’s “midnight assassination law” had been ignored for so long by county sheriffs and newspapers that the law’s author, John Day Smith, must have wondered if his law would ever be fully obeyed. While Minnesota executions after the law’s passage were universally conducted at night, county sheriffs had, by and large, laxly enforced the other provisions of the law, often admitting, for example, far more witnesses than the law allowed. The state’s newspapers had taken colossal liberties with the Smith law too, regularly describing executions in great detail in print, much to the pleasure—or, depending on one’s viewpoint, the chagrin—of their readers. By century’s end, Smith must have felt what every legislator comes to know at some point in time: it is one thing to pass a law, it is quite another to have the executive branch squarely behind it and have law enforcement authorities enforce it. If Smith was still praying in 1905 that his aging law would be resolutely enforced, his prayers were about to be answered, if only in a way that, by then, Smith could not have predicted. Well over a dozen years after its passage, the “midnight assassination law” was about to take center stage in what would become one of the state’s most hardfought legal battles.

The controversy over the Smith law—and the renewed interest in it—began when Edward Gottschalk, a condemned prisoner, committed suicide. A tinsmith and fisherman in his early thirties, Gottschalk had

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