© 2022
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Deathbed Confession


Women who homesteaded alone in North Dakota faced many challenges – from the land, the weather, natural disasters, hunger, disease and isolation. Another threat came from unwanted attentions from men, and many female homesteaders grabbed loaded guns when strange men approached their shanties.

Since it was considered shameful to be the victim of sexual attacks, many unpleasant incidents went unreported, except in diaries or memoirs. In Elaine Lindgren’s book, Land in Her Own Name, one woman related that one night a man forced his way into her claim shack, blew out the lamp and attacked her. She fought him off and he left. Then he returned with a hatchet. She had her lamp relit, at this point, and recognized him as her sister’s hired man. She told him she knew who he was, and even though he could kill her, God knew who he was, too. He dropped the hatchet, made her promise not to tell anyone and left.

Although the woman was encouraged by her brother to press charges, she refused, which was a typical reaction. In this instance, others saw to it that the perpetrator left the area.

A Langdon correspondent for the Grand Forks Herald reported a story that didn’t end as well. The story, written in 1902, read:

The article closed, saying that when James Jackson was on his deathbed in Ontario, he confessed that it was he who murdered Katie McEwen, not the man that was lynched for the crime.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

Gunderson was a jeweler who plied his trade from house to house, and the day following his visit to Miss McEwen’s, she was found dead in her cabin with the evidence of the foul crime on every side. Gunderson was overtaken near Walhalla by the mail driver and was brought back to Olga where a preliminary hearing was held before the justice of the peace, and (Gunderson) was bound over to answer the charge before the district court.

James Jackson was Miss McEwen’s nearest neighbor, and it was he who found the body and started (the) search for Gunderson. (Jackson) had brought the girl out from Ontario; he was known to be a man of desperate temper and was of such a disagreeable disposition that his own family could not live with him.

The trial took place on the same day as the election in the Olga school district. The cry of “lynch him” was started, and as soon as the polls closed, a rope was secured and fastened around the man’s neck. He was then dragged to the edge of the bush close by and strung to a tree. Several times during the performances, old Jackson ascended a lumber pile and made speeches inciting the crowd to the act and pleading the loss of one whom he loved as his own child.