A Question of Hanging
The last person sentenced to die under North Dakota’s capital punishment law was a 34 year-old Austrian immigrant named Joe Milo. On October 8, 1914, Milo and another Austrian, 20 year-old John Miller, were working as farm hands near Lansford in Bottineau County. On the same crew were two Germans, Fred Seisel* and John Karst, a transient worker from Breckenridge, MN.
On the evening of pay day, these four men began walking the railroad tracks to town. Seisel and Karst led, and Milo and Miller brought up the rear. The Austrians had seen the Germans hide their money in their shoes, and when the four of them reached a deserted stretch of track, Milo and Miller hit the other two from behind and stoned them into unconsciousness.
Before fleeing, they their co-workers’ money and Karst’s gold watch. Seisel’s watch was broken at 10:05.
When the crime was discovered, Karst was still alive, but he soon died. The county offered a thousand-dollar reward for Milo and Miller, who had been seen leaving the farm with the two victims. A posse was thrown together, and the fugitives were soon spotted between Deering and Granville. One report read, “...the murderers led the authorities [on] a merry chase over the eastern part of the state and were finally captured at Fargo by [Emery] F. Johnson of Lansford, who had been on the trail of the fugitives from the first.”
Justice was much more swift in 1914 than it is today. Hearings were held less than a month after the crime, and almost immediately the men went on trial before Judge Burr in Bottineau. Miller’s real name turned out to be Janke Kuzata and Milo’s was Gura Makrun. Milo admitted his guilt, but only for killing Karst, not Seisel. For his part, Miller said he took part in the robbery, but he swore Milo killed both men. Evidence didn’t favor his claim, but the jury gave him a slight edge.
Both men were ultimately found guilty of first-degree murder. Miller got life, but Milo was sentenced to hang. In a somewhat macabre decision, Judge Burr set Milo’s execution date for the following August – Friday the 13th. A story read, “[Milo] told the jailer that he was glad he was to die on a Friday, as he could have ‘a mess of fish and a full stomach to pass in his checks on.’”
Determined to keep his body from becoming a cadaver used by medical students, Milo hung a donation box on his jail cell and raised enough money for a proper burial. By December, the Bismarck Tribune referred to him as a model prisoner who ate well and volunteered to do work.
Many people meanwhile opposed the execution. In January a petition was read in the House: “Whereas the death penalty is barbarous, ineffective in checking crime, contrary to the dictates of humanity, and violates the sacredness of human life, we, the undersigned, protest against the infliction of the penalty and make this appeal for the abolishment of capital punishment.”
L. N. Torson introduced a bill repealing capital punishment, and on March 10th, 1915, Governor Hanna signed it into law. Milo’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.
But that’s not the end of the story. Ten years later, in Morton County, Judge Berry held at least one part of the law was unconstitutional, and on this date in 1925, it looked like Joe Milo was again headed for the gallows. Milo told his attorney, William Langer, “It is almost as well to be hung as to be confined here for life; to be here is a living death. One is deprived of thousands and thousands of pleasures and liberties that the person outside of these walls takes as a matter of course. Auto rides, horseback rides, even the pleasure of taking a walk when one wishes, and the every-day little humane instances that are a part of man’s very existence...”
But, Joe Milo was not spared from his life sentence. He died in prison in July 1938, and the Salvation Army officiated at his burial. John Miller died of tuberculosis in 1932, also while still in prison.
* (Seisel’s name was found with many alternative spellings, including Sisel, Sesal, Seisl, etc.)
Hansboro News. 11 Dec 1914.
Bottineau Courant. 27 Nov 1914.
Lansford Journal. 9 Oct 1914; 16 Oct 1914; 27 Nov 1914.
The Bismarck Daily Tribune. 3 Nov 1914; 1 Dec 1914; 5 Dec 1914; 6 Dec 1914; 11 Dec 1914; 21 Dec 1914; 25 Dec 1914; 12 Jan 1915; 10 Mar 1915; 24 Nov 1925; 20 Nov 1925; 9 Jun 1931; 7 Jul 1932; 12 Jul 1938.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm