There was no smoking gun in the murder case that erupted 130 years ago between neighboring bachelor farmers mowing hay in west-central Minnesota.
But there was a buried gun. And by the time word of it finally surfaced, a young, hard-luck, one-armed farmer had been locked up in Stillwater prison for seven years.
“The resolution is an ironic kind of redemption,” Thomas Schwartz writes in a recent issue of Minnesota Genealogist.
“With the benefit of 130 years hindsight and access to a wealth of primary sources in the digital age,” the retired Ohio State journalism professor, who grew up near St. Paul, revisited the deadly 1888 clash in Millerville — then a township of nearly 700 people. Today, the Douglas County town 150 miles northwest of Minneapolis is down to about 100 people.
Henry Schecher’s lousy luck started at 19 when he fell between cars while boarding a train in 1882. The accident required amputating his left arm at the shoulder.
Born in Indiana in 1863, Schecher was the second of eight children. An infection from a leg injury would kill him in his mid-40s. Seventeen years earlier, his father — a Millerville farmer and mail carrier — had entered the state hospital for the insane in Fergus Falls. One newspaper said the “old man took the matter” of Henry’s life sentence, for fatally shooting Christian Blatt, “much to heart.”
The dispute between the Schechers and Blatt centered around a vertical strip of railroad-controlled property. Blatt said the Northern Pacific & Manitoba Railway gave him permission to farm the parcel in 1886. But Schecher said the railroad let him farm the land to compensate him for his lost arm. Blatt sowed the land; Schecher harvested the crop of 8,000 wheat bundles.
Enter Horatio Jenkins, an unscrupulous Alexandria lawyer and former Civil War colonel. Trained at Harvard Law School, Jenkins was such a celebrated war hero that President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him as a tax collector in Florida after the war. Grant also pardoned Jenkins in 1874 for embezzling $16,000. Jenkins moved to Alexandria in 1881, serving as Douglas County attorney for six years.
In the Schecher-Blatt feud, Jenkins obtained a court order for the sheriff to seize the wheat from Schecher and return it to Blatt. An 1887 jury reversed things, ordering Blatt to fork out $204 for the grain.
A year later, on the morning of July 16, 1888, when Schecher and two brothers noticed Blatt mowing hay behind a team of horses, tensions boiled over. In a 19th-century game of chicken, the Schecher brothers also began mowing until they faced off with Blatt.
“Is this your property or mine?” Blatt shouted. Henry insisted it was his. He said Blatt then fired a pistol at him twice, so he shot back in self-defense four times. Blatt’s horses ran on for 1,000 feet before a teenage farmhand stopped them and found Blatt on his mowing machine with two bullet holes in the face, one in the abdomen and one in the back.
Later court testimony revealed the fatal shot entered Blatt’s back, undermining Schecher’s claim of a face-to-face showdown. Schecher’s defense attorney, C.J. Gunderson, countered by introducing a blue shirt Henry wore that day. Henry’s sister testified that she was doing laundry when she found two bullet holes in the left sleeve that dangled where his arm would have been.
But prosecutor Jenkins insisted no gun had been found when authorities combed the crime scene. So jurors convicted Schecher, 24, of second-degree murder and sentenced him to life at Stillwater prison.
Seven years later, a German-born woman in her 60s gave a sworn statement that changed everything. Louisa Kapphahn told a court reporter she was picking potatoes when she heard gun shots that morning in 1888.
She joined the crowd around Blatt’s body, where she found his hat and revolver — with two empty chambers — in a rut in the mowed field. She told two farmers in the crowd about her discovery, and said a bitter enemy of Schecher’s picked up the gun and buried it in a secret spot.
Kapphahn told Jenkins, the prosecutor, about the gun and showed up to testify when subpoenaed. But Jenkins sent her home, saying he knew everything he needed to know. About five years after the trial, she learned Schecher and his lawyer never learned of the gun she saw.
Stillwater Warden Henry Wolfer and Gov. Knute Nelson, a former Douglas County attorney, joined the swell pushing for a pardon. Jurors signed a petition saying they would have acquitted Schecher had they known about the gun.
The state pardon board in April 1897 reduced Schecher’s sentence to 12 years — the penalty for manslaughter — and chastised prosecutor Jenkins for failing to disclose the gun.
Schecher’s role in Blatt’s death, the pardon board ruled, “was done in self-defense and wholly without malice or premeditation and solely for the purpose of saving his own life, which he then and there believed to be in imminent danger by reason of assault made upon him by the deceased who was armed with a deadly weapon.”
When he was released for good behavior days later, the Brandon Echo newspaper said Schecher, by then in his mid-30s, was back home with his parents — “a very happy man.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.