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A Double Tragedy in Edgeley

To answer the question as to the social place of African-American barbers — such as Julius Whales, the subject of my last essay — in Dakota is a complicated matter. The relationship dynamics of a tiny black minority with an overwhelmingly white majority were full of nuance, whereas the historical sources are thin. In 1898 there arose in Edgeley, North Dakota, a case showing how inscrutable those sources can be, even when they are extensive.

Here is the beginning of the story, in brief. The night of 23 June 1898 some boys were relaxing around the piano and singing in the parlor of the Eureka Hotel when they heard four pistol shots above. Rushing upstairs, they found the proprietor of the hotel, Charles F. Handley, leaning on a bedroom door, bathed in blood, his clothes afire from the close discharge of a weapon. He had three self-inflicted gunshot wounds, while his wife — whose name never appeared in press reports — lay dead on the floor, shot through the heart.

Mr. Handley was not expected to live, but he did, and so stood trial for murder in Lamoure in January 1899. Thus details of the episode in Edgeley emerged. Mr. Handley was a successful homesteader — Bureau of Land Management records confirm he had proved up a claim in 1890. Then he acquired the hotel property in town and split time between his farm and his business. The Handleys, so the press reported, “were well respected in Edgeley.”

It seems, however, Mr. Handley suspected his wife was carrying on with the town barber, a black man named Judge Wheary, who boarded at the Eureka. The suspicious husband followed her when she left the hotel after dark on the 23d; it was easy, because she was wearing a white dress. Sure enough, she made her way to the lumberyard, where she met her alleged lover.

Mr. Handley took Mrs. Handley back to their quarters in the hotel, where an altercation ensued. Mrs. Handley denied lamely she had been untrue, then announced flippantly that when she went out at night hereafter, she would wear a black dress. Upon which Mr. Handley pulled a revolver and commenced shooting.

The trail came six months later, with interesting dynamics evident. Mrs. Handley had family from Jamestown who wanted to see the killer punished. Two prosecutors squared off in Lamoure against a distinguished team of three defense attorneys, with local sympathies on side with Mr. Handley.

Witnesses from Jamestown testified that Mr. Handley was of sound mind and thus accountable for his actions. His attorneys argued this was true, but on the night in question, he was temporarily insane. Discovering his wife carrying on with a black man had made him crazy just on that night — so he should be acquitted on basis of insanity, but need not be hauled off to the state hospital. Court observers predicted a hung jury, but in the end, the defense won acquittal.

The Handley case, headlined as “a double tragedy,” attracted press attention across the region, but what seems most notable to me is what did not happen. No person involved in or commenting on the trial attached any blame to the African American barber, Judge Wheary. No one said, he was the cause of the trouble, and what the heck was he thinking carrying on with a white woman, anyway? At this time in American history, that was behavior that could get a black man lynched, anywhere in the country.

Not in Edgeley, apparently. Mr. Wheary was unmolested, and Mr. Handley went free. The census of 1900 records him back on his homestead, living with his two sons. A black barber and an old settler — both were personages that, if not held in public esteem, at least received the benefit of the doubt.

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