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Dakota Datebook

Gudmundur Grimson, Part 2

Yesterday, we began a 3-part story on Gudmundur Grimson, the attorney for a farm family whose son died in a forced-labor camp in Florida.

In 1921, young Martin Tabert of Munich, North Dakota, had been sentenced to three months in a Florida jail for vagrancy. Sheriff J. R. Jones “leased” Martin to a Lumber Company for $20, and Martin was forced to cut trees and construct a railroad bed though the swamps.

Walter Higginbotham was Taber’s camp supervisor. His favorite motivational tool was a whip called “Black Aunty,” which got regular use.

Martin soon became ill from working in waist-deep swamp water, especially after he developed open sores from Black Aunty. Meals consisted only of field peas, corn bread and side pork; the sanitary conditions were abominable, and the sleeping quarters were infested with vermin.

When his fever made him too sick to work, Higginbotham punished him with more floggings. Martin became steadily weaker, but Higginbotham called it loafing. Florida law limited the flogging of prisoners to ten lashes, but Black Aunty landed at least forty times in front of 85 witnesses.

Martin’s friends helped him back to his bunk. That was Friday night. The next morning, he was flogged again and forced onto the flat car that delivered the convicts to the work site.

By Sunday morning, Martin’s fever was so high he was delirious. The lumber company brought in their physician, who gave Martin’s bunkmate some quinine to administer to the boy, but by Wednesday night, Martin Tabert was dead.

Attorney Grimson had eyewitness accounts regarding these events, but he wanted a closer look. So, in January 1923, he headed to the Florida swamps where the boy was killed. He found the eyewitnesses, obtained sworn statements and confronted Sheriff Jones. Jones responded by closing his roll-top desk and walking out.

Grimson next went to Florida Governor Hardee. He had little trouble getting the chief executive’s promise of a Grand Jury, and he went back to North Dakota confident he had the ball rolling. But, the Florida Grand Jury took no action.

Grimson’s next move was unprecedented. He took the case to the North Dakota legislature. The lawmakers quickly passed a resolution calling on the State of Florida to investigate. It was the first time in the Nation’s history that one state made such a request of another. Tune in tomorrow to learn what happened.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

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