The cornerstone for Minnesota’s state capitol building, designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert, was laid in 1898. The white marbled dome, set on a St. Paul hilltop, was modeled on Michelangelo’s dome for the cathedral of St. Peter in Rome. As state officials quibbled over what artwork to commission for the capitol’s interior, another, weightier debate—over the death penalty—was raging among the state’s legislators. In nearly every legislative session from 1891 to 1905, when the new statehouse was finally completed, Minnesota lawmakers sought to abolish capital punishment, with Representative George MacKenzie authoring the bill that did just that in 1911. The MacKenzie law would make the 1906 botched hanging of William Williams in St. Paul the last state-sanctioned execution to take place within Minnesota’s borders.1
This book tells the nearly forgotten story of that hard-fought struggle in a midwestern state—Minnesota—between death penalty proponents and those opposed to death as a form of punishment. It is a story about convicted killers and murder victims and the people who made life-ending decisions, from military tribunals and President Abraham Lincoln—in the case of the largest mass hanging in U.S. history—to lynch mobs, judges, juries, and the state’s governors. The state’s executions and lynchings are paramount in this story, as are the state’s antigallows and anti-lynching movements and the unique laws they spurred.