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Gudmunder Grimson, Part 3

This is part 3 of the story of Cavalier County State’s Attorney Gudmundur Grimson, who in 1922 prosecuted a case involving a Munich, North Dakota boy who had been flogged to death in a Florida forced-labor camp.

Labor supervisor Walther Higgenbotham had done the whipping, and after Grimson’s initial efforts to get him charged failed, Grimson turned to the North Dakota legislature, which called on Florida to act. Florida papers responded by telling North Dakota’s “farmer legislators…to go back home and slop their hogs.”

Despite resistance from people who didn’t want an upstart “Yankee” bringing them bad publicity, Higgenbotham was finally arrested. Hoping to generate support for the legal fight ahead, Grimson wired ten of the nation’s largest daily newspapers. The first paper to respond was the New York World, and the subsequent coverage left the Florida legislature embarrassed by the nation-wide outcry. It reacted by appointing a committee to disprove the charges, but when Grimson brought his witnesses and evidence before a Florida Grand Jury, it indicted Higginbotham.

Meanwhile, additional witnesses started to come forward to describe their own horrors in Florida’s corrupt penal system. Grimson himself testified before a Florida legislative committee for 30 days, after which the committee chair admitted the charges were true, and he thanked Grimson and North Dakota for their “interference” in Florida affairs.

Higginbotham was sentenced to 20 years, but he was re-tried in Dixie County, owned mostly by the lumber company that had leased Tabert from the county sheriff. In that trial, Higginbotham was acquitted, raising further outrage. Fortunately, the end result was a reform of prison laws not only in Florida, but in many parts of the country.

With Higginbotham set free by the second trial, Grimson went after the Putnam Lumber Company. The case was settled out of court, with the company paying Martin’s family $20,000. 

A year after he took the case, the Indianapolis News stated, “Gudmundur Grimson, a plain, ordinary prosecuting attorney, has found it within his power to start a reform of great significance, hundreds of miles from where he lived. America could stand a few more Gudmundur Grimsons.”

Grimson was later appointed Judge in the Second North Dakota Judicial District and, in 1949, he was appointed to the State Supreme Court, a position he held until 1958.

For its coverage of the Tabert case, the New York World was awarded the 1923 Pulitzer Prize.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

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