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Ella, the Window Smasher


According to the newspaper accounts, Ella O’Keefe appears to have been a likeable person who spent most of her time traveling from place to place on transportation furnished by local or county authorities. It appears that Ella had a problem. When despondent, she manifested her depression is a peculiar way—she smashed windows. Ella the Window Smasher was well known in North Dakota cities and on this date in 1896, she was on her way to Moorhead courtesy of the cities of Bismarck and Jamestown. After a brief episode in Bismarck, the Burleigh County authorities decided there was a need to send her, unescorted, to Jamestown.

Her arrival in Jamestown was reported in the Jamestown Daily Alert where she "stopped in her progress up Fifth avenue and expressed an intense desire to smash the windows in the stores of Strong and Chase," but she was prevented from doing so by parties who had accompanied her from the depot. Ella was not new to Jamestown as she had worked for a family in the area the previous year using the name Marie Ricks but she had no prior history of window smashing in Jamestown.

Hospitals have many windows and rather than being institutionalized at the State run hospital in Jamestown, Ella soon found herself on her way to Minnesota, that being the easiest and cheapest way of removing her from the community.

Upon her arrival in Fargo, Ella was arrested as the year before she had attempted to break all the windows at the Fargo Women’s Home, a house for women only. After her arrest, it was learned that she had more or less escaped from an institution in Fergus Falls, thereby beginning her journey from town to town. The Fargo Police Chief secured a ticket for her to Wahpeton after she claimed that her real name was Marie O’Brien and she had a brother living at that location. After1896 Ella drops from sight in North Dakota but one can only hope that she was able fo find help.

But the story of Ella Marie Ricks/O’Brien/O’Keefe, has an interesting footnote. In 1896 the conditions at the State asylum at Jamestown were under investigation and, with Dr. O. Wellington Archibald, the first superintendent, and his wife having a very public, marital discord, accusations of ill treatment of patients were flying in all directions. Into this picture steps the Grand Forks Plaindealer, one of two major newspapers out of Grand Forks at the time, which chose to interview none other than Ella O’Keefe. Ella spoke of cruel conditions at the institution thereby adding fuel to an already flammable situation. The truth is that Ella had never been institutionalized other than her brief stay at Fergus Falls so she had no personal knowledge of the conditions at the hospital in Jamestown but her words were quoted in most of the newspapers of the day giving credibility to the charges.

Today we would recognize Ella’s condition as clinical depression and treatments would be available to help her with her problem, but in 1896 shopkeepers shuddered at her arrival and even institutions, with their many windows, were hesitant to accept Ella the Window Smasher.

By Jim Davis


The Bismarck Daily Tribune February 6, 1896 Page 3

Jamestown Daily Alert February 7, 1896 Page 3.