The Hanging of Thomas Brown

Originally published in CCHS Newsletter, July/August 1989 © Clay County Historical Society

Next month marks the centennial of the only execution carried out in Clay County. Thomas Brown was hanged September 20, 1889, for the murder of Moorhead Patrolman Peter Poull.

According to several newspaper accounts, during the harvest season of 1888, a bunch of drunken hoboes got into a fight near Hillsboro, ND. One was shot and killed. A passing farmer gave authorities a very good description of the perpetrator. A short time later, Fargo policemen spotted a man who fit the description. They kept him under surveillance for several days until October 17, when the suspect gave the cops the slip. Image: Thomas Brown, hanged for the murder of Patrolman Peter Poull.

Shortly after midnight, an off-duty Fargo Policeman named Benson spotted the suspect at a dance upstairs in Erickson’s Hall, just north of the Jay Cooke Hotel. (The hotel was located on the northwest corner of today’s Center Avenue and 8th Street. Now the Wells Fargo Bank’s drive-up windows occupy the spot.)

Benson pointed out the character, later identified as Thomas Brown, to Moorhead Patrolman John Thompson. Brown spotted the men and walked over to the doorway where they stood. He suddenly pulled a revolver and said, “You sons ________, I know what you’re going to do. Both of you go down stairs.” The policemen did, followed by Brown.

When they reached the street at the foot of the steps, Benson dashed to the right and into the hotel bar room next door where he reportedly “hid behind the ice box.” Brown told Thompson to walk north up the sidewalk. When they reached the Great Northern Railway tracks, they stopped; Thompson on the west side of the sidewalk and Brown on the east, near the street. Brown demanded to know what Benson had said to Thompson.

Meanwhile, Ed Gleason, who had seen Brown draw on the officers upstairs, located Patrolman Peter Poull outside the hotel. Gleason told him Thompson was in trouble. Poull trotted north up 8th Street, approaching Brown from Brown’s left. Brown spotted Poull, cursed and fired at Poull, hitting him in the heart. Poull said, “My God, I am hit,” then fell and died. When Brown turned, Thompson pulled his .38 and shot Brown once. Brown got off two shots at Thompson and ran east down the tracks. He fired twice more at the following Thompson, again missing him. Thompson shot twice and hit Brown once. Badly wounded in the shoulder and leg, his five shot revolver empty, Brown surrendered and collapsed between the tracks. He was taken to the Clay County Jail. (The jail was where the Law Enforcement Center now stands, west of the present Clay County Courthouse.) Image: Jay Cooke House about 1884. The view is to the northwest. Erickson’s Hall was upstairs in the building at right. Brown shot Poull from the Great Northern Railway tracks, off the picture to the right.

Brown very nearly became the only man lynched in Clay County. Poull was very popular in Moorhead. Only 26, he left a young wife and a two-week old baby. By afternoon, rumors of a possible lynching were afloat. County Sheriff Jorgen Jensen spirited Brown out into the country then waved down the night train at Tenney (between Dilworth and Glyndon) and took Brown to the Hennepin County Jail in Minneapolis. Image: Moorhead Patrolman Peter Poull, shot by Thomas Brown.

About midnight, a crowd of 500 men armed with wrecking bars marched on the jail. Deputies told the crowd that Brown had been moved. No one believed this so five men were allowed to search the jail from basement to attic. After their report the would-be lynchers dispersed.

Brown was charged with murder and tried in January 1889. He admitted shooting Poull but said that he only tried to scare him. The jury didn’t buy that and after deliberating about three hours, pronounced him guilty of first degree murder. He was sentenced to die in June. Brown received a stay of execution from the Minnesota State Supreme Court but lost his bid for a new trial. His execution date was reset for September 20.

Not much is known about Brown’s past. Indeed, his name probably was not even Brown. He was only about 26 but had spent much of his adult life in prison. He did time in the Dakota Territorial Prison in Bismarck under the name Tommy Ryan and at a Wisconsin prison under another name. Pressed for information by a [Fargo] Daily Argus reporter the day before the execution, Brown said, “My folks – they know nothing about me – about this – and I don’t want them to.” He died without revealing his true identity.

Brown spent his last months in the Clay County Jail. The Argus reporter described the interior: “Surrounding the steel cells in the jail is a corridor about five feet wide. The cells themselves are seven feet in height. On top of these at the north end is the dungeon or steel cage. The only light afforded is through the diamond shaped holes between the heavy cross bars. The interior is about seven feet by nine feet, through the center extends a partition, dividing the room in twain. In one of these little apartments, Brown has spent the lonely hours of his confinement… within easy sight of these little diamond holes has the gallows been erected, near the head of the stairs leading to the top of the cells. The gallows is in the southwest corner. It is created of pine. Two upright beams have a crosspiece to which the rope will be attached. The drop is even with the platform and two feet, three inches above the top of the cells and is about two feet square, so arranged that by moving a lever four slides are withdrawn and the drop falls, launching the condemned into space. From the top of the platform to the floor is nine feet, three inches but the drop or rope will be only seven feet. The rope is about ten or twelve feet long and five-eighths of an inch in thickness. At the end is the hangman’s knot, a peculiarly coiled one holding the loop. This will be kept in the Sheriff’s safe until used.”

The pending execution was a great source of curiosity for local residents. When the Argus reporter visited Brown, “several carriages were in front of the jail, and on entering, the reporter discovered a half dozen or more young ladies and gentlemen standing about the gallows within only a few feet of Poull’s murderer. Their conversation was not fitting to the occasion, nor calculated to steady the nerves of the man who had only a few hours to live. ‘I would hate to drop through that hole,’ remarked one. ‘Yes, and just wonder how Brown must feel!’ ‘Suppose the knot would slip and he’d strangle, ugh! Wouldn’t it be awful?’ And kindred remarks reached the ears of the prisoner…” Image: Clay County Jail, scene of Brown’s hanging. The Sheriff’s residence is at left and the jail proper is at right.

The comments did not seem to bother Brown. “This man bore up with the fortitude of a martyr, or one so hardened in crime as not to care for the present or think of the future…[He] talked with the death watch and held conversations with the prisoners in the lower cells about his impeding doom in as an indifferent a manner as though it were of no concern to him… He desires there be no ‘hitch’ in the proceedings…”

On Brown’s last day, he slept until noon and spent most of the day with the Argus reporter and praying with Father Augustine of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Moorhead and Father Wolfgang from Luxembourg. He ate no supper.

The differing approaches of the local newspapers to coverage of the execution itself are interesting. The Moorhead Daily News stated, “The law of the state passed last winter forbids the presence of newspaper men and the publication of the details of the execution…The News is cognizant of many details… but will comply with the law and refrain from publishing them…”

The Fargo Argus applauded the News‘ integrity then promptly printed a detailed eyewitness account. The Minneapolis Tribune ran an article (which the Argus reprinted and never denied) claiming, “In a vain attempt to get a better account of the Brown hanging than any of his contemporaries, Major Edwards, [publisher] of the Fargo Argus had one of his reporters arrested and locked in jail… The unfortunate wight was made to scrub floors and perform other menial services during his incarceration, and when the hour of execution came, was removed to a distant part of the jail [the ladies section].” If true, the ruse proved unnecessary. State law or no, the Argus‘ City Editor was allowed to witness the hanging.

The execution was set for 4:30 a. m., Friday, September 20. The spectators began arriving at 3:00. They included three men invited by Brown – H. Hannnafin of Moorhead and John Kelley and Bruno Kipples of Glyndon – the County Coroner, an undertaker, the Cass County Sheriff, Sheriff Jensen and his assistants, Fathers Augustine and Wolfgang, Policeman John Thompson and about eight others. It was Jensen’s job to drop the trap.

Jailor Nels Holbeck and the two priests walked with Brown from his cell to the gallows. Brown kept his remarkable nerve until the very end. Holbeck later reported, “Brown walked to the steps of the scaffold alright, yet his step was not overly steady. When he reached the steps, he dropped. I put one hand under either arm and almost lifted him up the two steps onto the platform.

The Argus reported, “When the spectators reached the gallows, Brown was standing on the drop, on either side being a priest, all engaged in half audible prayer… Sheriff Jensen then tied Brown’s feet, and adjusted the noose about his neck, the knot being behind his right ear… In a weak and trembling voice, almost inaudible he bade the jailor, Sheriff and priests goodbye, shaking hands with them and wishing them well. He then turned to the spectators, half smiled and nodded a farewell. The black cap was then pulled over his head and fastened under the chin, he with the priests praying meanwhile.

“The drop fell at exactly 4:30 o’clock and the murderer of Officer Poull was launched into eternity. Brown’s neck was broken by the fall… [Contrary to popular opinion, a hanged person does not die from a broken neck. The severing of the spinal cord creates immediate unconsciousness and loss of sensation but death comes from strangulation.] In twelve and a half minutes his pulse ceased to beat, and in fifteen his heart had ceased action.”

The Clay County Jail was torn down in 1966. Brown’s body lies in an unmarked grave in St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Moorhead.

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