Every community has a few sad stories to haunt its past. In North Dakota we like to think our history leans toward the lighter side of things, but there are always a few dark events to offset the balance. The citizens of Wahpeton were reeling from the aftershock of one of these events on this date in 1888. None other than the Deputy Sheriff had been found guilty of a brutal murder; and members of the community had decided to take the law into their own hands.
It all started with the sweet-tempered Mollie Korbel, a nineteen year old daughter of Bohemian immigrants who worked in the Sheriff’s house. She was well-liked by everyone and considered a part of the Sheriff’s family. But one day when the Sheriff was out of town and Mollie was working alone in his kitchen, disaster struck in the form of Deputy Sheriff Lee S. Elmer. Elmer had a long career of trustworthy law enforcement behind him, which made what happened next even more surprising. When Mollie wouldn’t go with him as he proposed, he angrily left, got drunk, came back, and repeatedly shot her. Milkman Thomas Condon heard the shots and walked into the scene of the crime. When he asked Elmer what happened, some say Elmer responded eerily, “I have shot her deader than hell” before trying to do the same to Condon. But then Elmer surrendered and allowed law enforcement to lock him up. It seemed he was just as confused by his actions as everyone else – all he could say was that he “just went crazy.”
But that wasn’t good enough for the angry citizenry. His cell needed extra security because a mob formed outside, demanding his lynching, although he had already tried to hang himself twice without their help. Finally on July 28th, a mob of 300 people led by over forty masked men succeeded in breaking down the jail cell door. Elmer was compliant as they led him away. Some say his last words were that he wasn’t sorry. Others claim that he said he was crazy and that “something must have happened. I don’t know what.” Then they hanged the confused man, and nobody knows what happened to the body. The funeral of poor Mollie Korbel, however, was overflowing with mourners wishing to pay their respects.
Dakota Datebook written by Leewana Thomas