Two weeks before North Dakota became a state, attorney Leslie Simpson of Minneapolis rented an office above a Dickinson bank and immersed himself in the world of frontier justice. Four years later, he was elected to the ND House and then served in the state senate until 1912.
Simpson’s highest-profile case involved a Dickinson rancher claiming to be Daniel Blake Russell, the son of deceased Massachusetts senator, Daniel Russell, Sr. Upon the senator’s death, his considerable fortune was to be split between his older son, William, and – if he could be found – his youngest son, Daniel, who had run away some 25 years before.
Dan Russell went to Melrose, MA, to claim his inheritance, but William refused to recognize him as his brother. The case landed in probate court, and hearings began September 20th, 1909; seven months later, the Boston Globe would call it the “World’s Record Probate Contest.”
A bearded keen-eyed judge named George Lawton heard more than 200 witnesses and examined 346 pieces of evidence. An early twist came from a New York woman named Mrs. Rousseau, who testified that she believed Dan was actually her own long-lost son, Jim. She said she recognized his handwriting, but when Senator Simpson questioned her, she admitted she couldn’t read or write – and she had never actually seen her son write anything, either.
A second major twist came after the last witness was dismissed on March 24th, 1910. A California fruit picker came forward saying he was the real Dan Russell, and the papers promptly labeled the two contenders Dakota Dan and Fresno Dan. Meanwhile, the trial took on mythic proportions. On April 7th story read: “In the expectation of hearing Senator Simpson presenting his arguments, the largest crowd that has yet visited the hearing was present.” Extra chairs were brought in, and people crammed themselves around the edge of the room and out into the corridors. It got so hot the windows were opened, allowing people outside to hear Simpson’s “brilliant address.”
Photos of Senator Simpson show him to be sort of softly handsome, with intelligent eyes, a mildly receding hairline and a fashionable suit. The papers said he had “a sweet, musical voice, a very pleasant and agreeable smile and a most winning and agreeable personality.” Of Simpson’s closing arguments, however, the Globe’s headlines read: “Attorney Simpson Uses Very Severe Language.” Among the many arguments was the contention that Dakota Dan was far too healthy and hefty to be the small frail man who ran away 25 years earlier. Simpson pointed out Teddy Roosevelt was frail before moving to the Badlands, too. (Interestingly, the bespectacled Dakota Dan bore a striking resemblance to Roosevelt.)
On April 12th, Judge Lawton proclaimed Dakota Dan a fraud, and the next day’s headlines read, “Dakota Dan’s Angry Friends Create Havoc!” The Boston Post reported more than 1,000 people rioted in the streets. “Cheers for ‘Dakota Dan’...were interspersed with hisses, hoots and catcalls whenever the names of William C. Blake (and others) were mentioned.” An effigy of William Blake was created, hanged and burned, and the ex-mayor had to be spirited away from an angry mob. Leslie Simpson promised to appeal, but the next day, William Blake agreed to accept Fresno Dan as his true brother. Dakota Dan still wanted to fight, but in the end, his appeal failed.
Back in Dickinson, the eloquent pioneer lawyer expanded his practice, and it now exists as the Mackoff Kellogg Law Firm – the oldest and largest law firm in western North Dakota and eastern Montana.
Source: Boston Post: 4/7-14, 1910; Boston Globe: 4/7-14, 1910; http://www.mackoff.com/about/History.asp
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm