William Sanders was so afraid of being locked up, he jumped from a train window in 1903 near Elk River as the marshal escorted him to grand jury proceedings in Stillwater.
Once recaptured, he was convicted of the charge that started his troubles in Minnesota: stealing a horse from a barn near Sandstone, 90 miles north of the Twin Cities.
More than 60 years later, Sanders was still confined. He’d been locked up since cars were new, through the assassination of a president, John F. Kennedy, who set the stage for the first moon walk.
Sanders’ sad story of six decades in custody is a reminder that there’s nothing new about the state’s ongoing struggle when mental illness and criminal justice intersect.
His skin color likely didn’t help either.
“Sanders is the Negro who stole the horse at Sandstone last fall,” the Pine County Pioneer reported in 1903. The story went on to use a racist epithet to describe him.
By the mid-1960s, Minnesota Security Hospital psychiatrist David Vail admitted that Sanders had been “clearly forgotten.”
“Somehow he didn’t receive the kind of attention to his mental [health] problem that he should have over this long period of time,” Vail said in 1964. “I never felt that Sanders’ condition really warranted this degree of confinement.”
Added Marsh Ward, a social worker at the Security Hospital: “He didn’t look particularly dangerous here at 80-some years old.”
Sanders first was held at Stillwater prison, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia after complaining that his food was being poisoned. He was transferred to the state hospital in Rochester in 1907, and four years later moved to St. Peter Hospital’s new lockup, then known as the Asylum for the Insane.
Sanders was still there in 1957 when the St. Peter facility was renamed the Minnesota Security Hospital. In 1964, he was sent back to the less-harsh confines of Rochester State Hospital.
“This is heaven compared to that place,” Sanders, then 82, told Minneapolis Tribune reporter Sam Newlund in 1964, referring to his half-century at the hospital in St. Peter.
Sanders was born in Tennessee in 1881, according to U.S. census and other records. By the time he arrived in Minnesota in his 20s, he’d already spent more than two years in an Iowa reformatory and a month in a Pittsburgh jail.
On the night of Oct. 13, 1902, while “just traveling around” as he put it, he stepped into John Michels’ barn.
“Despite the family dog barking,” Newlund wrote in the May 10, 1964, Sunday Tribune, “Sanders was able to rustle the horse through the barn door and vanish into the pine-scented countryside.” He was caught three days later, 13 miles north of the farm near Sandstone.
“Horse deals got me in bad,” Sanders said, 61 years later.
Anna Muehlbauer was a young farm girl in 1902, but six decades later she remembered the crime that started Sanders’ long lockup. When she woke up that morning, her father said someone had broken the barn door and stolen the horse.
“The whole house was buzzing with excitement,” she recalled. She gasped in disbelief when she learned in 1964 that the man responsible was still in a state institution.
“Poor man!” she said. “For stealing a horse, I don’t think he should have to stay in that long.”
Prison records show that Sanders spent nearly 44 hours in solitary confinement for leaving Stillwater prison without permission. He was slapped with another 48 hours in solitary at Stillwater when he threatened to strike a guard.
When Sanders made some comments in 1910 that frightened nurses, he was transferred from Rochester State Hospital to the new ward in St. Peter for the criminally insane.
In 1963, more than 60 years after he stole the horse, an investigative panel discovered Sanders was still incarcerated and moved him back to the state hospital in Rochester. By then, he was using a cane to shuffle through the halls. He sported a small white mustache.
His lack of family or friends in Minnesota didn’t help his case. “He never married,” Newlund wrote. “He had no place to go.”
When the reporter asked if he longed for freedom, Sanders shook his head and said, “No,” because earthly pleasures “do not coincide with the pleasures of God in Heaven.”
Sanders died May 6, 1975, at 93, “a free and gentle man,” according to Minneapolis Star columnist Jim Klobuchar, who wrote about his passing. Sanders spent his last days as a patient at the Glen Lake Sanatorium in Minnetonka.
“He could have been anybody’s grandfather. … ” according to a Minneapolis woman who visited him regularly. “He was fine mentally.”
Vail, the psychiatrist, said Sanders’ case was that of “a kind of professional patient [who] develops a reputation for himself that he will have to live up to. Then after a while, if the question is raised as to why he has to be here, the answer becomes: ‘Well, he might as well be here as anyplace else.’ ”
A state corrections department spokeswoman said recently: “We can’t find any records on this offender.” But a spokeswoman for the Dawn Valley Memorial Park in Bloomington confirms that William Sanders is buried there — beneath a tombstone that reads:
“FREE AT LAST, FREE AT LAST/ THANK GOD ALMIGHTY/ I’M FREE AT LAST.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.