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Wm Barry Commits Murder

2/6/2004:

On this day in 1901, 42 year-old Mary Ann Barry died in Jamestown in what was then called the Insane Asylum. Less than a month earlier, her brother, William Barry, drove into Milton, North Dakota, to give himself up for having killed Andrew Mellum in the barn that morning.

It’s a complicated story – one with more questions than answers. On January 3rd, when Barry came to town to confess, nobody believed him. Followed by the deputy sheriff, he went from business to business telling people what had happened. He kept saying, “I need a doctor to go out and examine my sister, and if she isn’t in the same condition as I say she is, I’ve killed an innocent man, and you should hang me from a telegraph pole.”

Slowly, a story emerged. The previous Saturday night, Barry had come home and was putting his horses in the barn, when he saw Mary Ann and the hired man, Andrew Mellum, scuffling inside the house. When he went inside, they acted like nothing was happening, but the next morning the two came into the house upset. Mary Ann asked her brother if she could die from taking croton oil. By asking that question, she was admitting to being pregnant.

Mary Ann told her brother that Mellum had “gotten the best of her” about three years earlier while she was drowsy from headache medicine he had given her. Then in recent months, he had started up with her again. When she became pregnant, he told her to take hot baths every night, hoping she would miscarry. When that didn’t work, he asked her to use the croton oil, which would abort the child.

By Monday, Mary Ann was becoming frightening, and by Tuesday, her behavior was alarming. She paced and ranted and insisted she had to get to the neighbors to save them – that someone was trying to kill them. She wouldn’t eat or sleep, and she kept trying to drag her brother outside to get him away from the evil in the house. “She kept picking and picking at me, trying to get devils off my shoulders,” Barry said. Mellum did chores, and Barry stood guard around the clock.

Before dawn on Wednesday, Barry held Mary Ann down in bed so he could rest and still keep her from running away. She kept pointing at Mellum – asleep in the other bed of Barry’s bedroom – calling him the devil. Later, Barry testified that he, himself, started to see devils that night: one in the pantry, and one sitting on the corner of the bed where he subdued his sister.

By morning, Mary Ann had gotten away. Barry found her wandering on the prairie nearly frozen. He took her to the neighbor’s, went back and cornered Mellum in the barn. He tackled Mellum and gave him a choice to die by either a rope or a knife. Mellum was a small man, 37 years old, but Barry said, “He fought like a hero.” He first tried to hang Mellum, but when his hands gave out, Barry pinned Mellum to the floor and gave him five minutes to pray. Then he cut Mellum’s throat. They had been friends for 14 years.

Mary Ann was taken to Jamestown, where she was diagnosed with agitated melancholia. About a month later, she died without recovering. Barry’s lawyers went with a plea of insanity, but he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. It was never officially reported whether Mary Ann was indeed “in a family way” or whether it was a figment of her tortured imagination.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm