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Joe Milo and Willie Ross


On this day in 1914, a Bottineau prisoner was raising money, so his body wouldn’t be used for science.

At the time, Joe Milo was facing a death sentence for his part in a double murder at Lansford. Because he was penniless and had nobody who would pay to bury him, he knew that his body would probably end up on a stainless steel slab at the UND College of Medicine.

Joe didn’t much like the idea of students dissecting him after he was dead, so he hung a contribution box on the door to his cell in the Bottineau county jail; he hoped to raise enough to pay for his burial. By December 11th, when the newspaper published an article on him, Joe had already made about $30, which he figured would leave his parts intact until they were six feet under.

The death penalty had been used in Bottineau before, about ten years earlier. Willie Ross, a horse thief, was originally scheduled to hang in December, 1903, but a strategic twist on his part delayed the execution until the following March.

Willie was a life-long horse trader and handler, which eventually led to his thievery. In the summer of 1902, Willie went to Willow City to steal a nice little herd of horses from Thomas Walsh, an elderly farmer. Walsh was sleeping at the time, but Ross wasn’t taking any chances; he shot the old man through the screen door and made off with the horses.

The law suspected Willie Ross from the beginning, and under questioning he finally admitted he was guilty. He was convicted in Bottineau in August and was sentenced to hang on December 5th, 1903.

Events leading up to the execution proceeded smoothly until the day before the hanging was supposed to take place, when Willie suddenly confessed to taking part in a second murder. Ross claimed that two years earlier, he and a young Minot man, Carl Hanson, were working on a ranch near the present-day town of Blaisdell. One night while camping out, they met a man named Napoleon LeMay who had several nice horses with them. Willie wanted to trade for them, but LeMay wasn’t selling. Willie claimed that his camping partner, Hanson, simply shot LeMay in the back, the two men threw his body in a nearby dry well, and then made off with the dead man’s horses.

The surprise confession was enough to stay Willie’s execution long enough for an investigation. Carl Hanson was found near Williston, but he denied Willie’s story. Yet Willie’s testimony was strong enough to get Hanson convicted of murder.

In the end, Willie’s confession gained him only three extra months of life. His execution was rescheduled, and on an enclosed gallows set up by the Bottineau County courthouse, Willie was hanged early on March 6th. In his last days, he converted to Catholicism and went to his death without complaint.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm