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Gudmundur Grimson, Part 1

North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Gudmundur Grimson was born in Iceland in 1878. When he was four, his family of 15 emmigrated to Dakota Territory and settled north of Milton, and it was on this date in 1965 that Grimson died. Today we bring you part one of his 3-part story.

When Gudmundur was 9, he started attending classes in a sod-roofed log schoolhouse where others, like him, didn’t yet speak English. After finishing eighth grade, Gudmundur worked as a country schoolteacher until he saved enough to go to UND – $150.

In 1905, Grimson earned a fellowship to study at Chicago University for three terms. In the spring, he returned to Grand Forks, completed his course requirements for a law degree, and began his law practice in Munich, north of Devils Lake. It was there that he got to know a farm family headed by Ben Tabert.

Grimson was elected State’s Attorney five years later, and twelve years after that, he met the Taberts again – this time across his office desk. They came to him, because they believed their 22-year-old son, Martin, had been flogged to death in a Florida lumber camp; they had letters from witnesses that made Grimson believe they were right.

The previous summer, young Martin had set out to see America. It was the first time he’d ever been outside Cavalier County, but he was confident he could pay his way working as a laborer. He eventually reached Florida but couldn’t find work. When he ran out of money, he hopped a freight train, but was caught and put in jail. A judge fined him $25 plus costs; if he couldn’t pay, he would spend the next three months in jail.

Martin sent a telegraph to his parents asking that the required money be sent to the county sheriff. His father immediately sent a $75 bank draft to Tallahassee sheriff J. R. Jones, but the letter and money came back with “party gone” written on the envelope.

Unbeknownst to his family, Martin had become the victim of a slave-labor penal system that was legal in a number of Florida counties. Sheriff Jones supplied convicts to the Putnam Lumber Company as “leased labor,” for which he received a fee of $20 per man.

Tune in tomorrow as we explore what Gudmundur Grimson discovered during his investigation.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

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