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Two Men Hang


Two men were executed in North Dakota on this date in 1900. Their cases were unrelated.

On March 19th, James Jenkins and his son, Ira, reported they had discovered August Stark frozen to death in the Casino Coal Mine near the newly established town of Wilton north of Bismarck. The father and son were the mine operators, and Stark had been their employee.

At the coroner’s inquest, it was reported the victim showed signs of having been dragged to the spot where he was found. When the Jenkins men were separately interviewed about this, they told contradictory stories, and both ended up being charged with murder.

States Attorney Ed Allen believed it was Ira who actually killed Stark, and it was Ira who went on trial. James testified that his son had admitted to him that he robbed and killed Stark, but the younger man denied it and continued contradicting himself. He even accused his father of getting drunk and strangling Stark in a fit of rage, but doctors said the body showed no sign of being choked. The jury found Ira guilty of first-degree murder and recommended the death penalty. Judge Walter Winchester agreed and handed down the pronouncement on May 28th.

The scaffold was built and enclosed against the courthouse; out of view, it could be reached only through an office window. Reporters wrote that Ira spent his last hours in “a remarkable example of depravity and villainy,” cursing and blaming everyone but himself. As he went to the scaffold, he puffed on a cigar and maintained he was innocent. A handwritten note was later found in his pants pocket – in it, Ira admitted that he was indeed guilty.

Almost due north from Wilton, Hans Thorpe climbed to his Minot scaffold with a cigar in his teeth, too. However, a crowd was on hand to see Thorpe’s execution – he sent out invitations.

Thorpe came to North Dakota two years earlier, in 1898. He was a man of the world, in his 30s, who had worked first as a seaman and later as a railroad worker. When he landed in Minot, he ran a store with his brother. He also met and married a pretty teenager named Ida Johnson, but within a year, there was trouble… Thorpe was irrationally jealous every time Ida left the house.

On the evening of December 1, 1899, Ida went next door to visit a Mrs. Johanson. Thorpe, coming off a weeklong bender, followed Ida and shot her in the head as she sat in a rocking chair; he then shot himself but managed only to destroy his right eye. The doctor who treated him found that Thorpe had third-stage syphilis – a side effect of which was insanity.

On May 10th, Judge David Morgan found Thorpe guilty and sentenced him to die in what would be Ward County’s first and last legal execution. Thorpe used Sheriff Carroll’s office stationery to fashion elaborate invitations to his hanging, and some of the people he invited sent him money for tobacco, candy and “red-eye.” Thorpe also built a ship in a glass bottle for Judge William Murray, which he gave the judge on his way to his death. The gift was a thank-you for the trap door of his gallows. Judge Murray had learned the “art of hanging” in Scotland and knew the trap door mechanism meant the difference between quick death and slow strangulation.

The hanging took place about a half mile from the courthouse. Those with invitations stood inside an enclosure, crowds outside tried to peek through the cracks. Thorpe was smiling and cocky as he climbed the scaffold. He joked with the editor of the Minot Optic and then dropped to his death. By all reports, the trap door worked very well.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm