The doomed man asked the sheriff for an accordion a few days before his 1891 execution in Fergus Falls.
“Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” Adelbert Goheen said, “and it’s music we want now.”
But the sounds of the accordion echoing through the Otter Tail County jail proved anything but calming — especially as Goheen insisted he was innocent until the end, blaming his older brother for the murder.
“A harrowing, revolting spectacle to see this murderer condemned to die within a few short hours, jerking away spasmodically at a wheezy accordion, tapping away with his feet,” one newspaper account said.
Goheen turned 21 in jail, waiting to hang for killing Rosetta Bray — an eccentric woman whose snow-covered body was found along the Great Northern Railway tracks in Fergus Falls on March 23, 1891.
At first, authorities assumed she froze to death. But when one of the ghoulish gawkers at the morgue turned the dead woman’s head, a .38-caliber bullet hole was discovered behind her right ear. Another bullet had pierced her lung. When police arrested Goheen the next Sunday, they found five unused .38-caliber revolver cartridges in a leather case between his belt and waist.
“A murder, obviously planned to look like a casual accident, was thus unmasked,” wrote Walter Trenerry in a 1962 Minnesota History magazine account.
At the trial, which centered around a circumstantial prosecution, there was one piece of hard evidence. Surgeons had sawed off the cap of Bray’s skull during the autopsy, and it sat on the judge’s bench through the four-day trial.
Born in 1870, Goheen was the eighth of 11 children from a family that drifted up from Iowa. By the time he turned 18, he’d been convicted of larceny — both petty and grand — and spent two years in the Stillwater state prison.
Bray joined him on what Trenerry called “society’s fringes.” She was about 30. She’d become a vagabond after her husband left her. Said to be too stubborn to accept services from the county poorhouse, she begged for food and slept in barns and sheds.
Although insanity charges prompted an investigation that found her mentally sound, a newspaper story said “the general impression, however, among people who knew her, was that she was mentally unbalanced.”
Prosecutors detailed how her relationship with Goheen began after he got out of Stillwater and she rented a room at the Goheen family home that summer. Goheen had the keys to another room she rented months later. When the building owner found the pair in her locked room, Goheen explained that he was helping fix her stovepipe.
A friend testified that, two days before her body was discovered, Bray confided that a man “thought so much of me” that he vowed to shoot her if she looked or spoke to another man. Witnesses said she’d gone out that moonlit Saturday night to meet a man — presumably Goheen. He’d been seen wearing a derby and no overcoat in the area. Another witness saw a man with a hat and no coat walking with a short woman along the railroad tracks before two pistol shots cracked the clear night.
Perhaps the most damning prosecution witness was ex-convict William Bowmaster, who’d done time in Stillwater with Goheen and visited him in jail before the trial. He testified that Goheen said “he was out with a girl and got caught at it; and the same night the girl was killed.”
Bowmaster testified that when he asked Goheen if he’d shot her, the defendant winked at him. Goheen had been mild-mannered during the trial but suddenly leaped up, raised his fist and shouted: “You are a lying cur, Bowmaster!”
When jurors found him guilty, Goheen snarled at the jail keeper: “I don’t give a damn.” But he soon told the sheriff that Anderson Goheen, his 30-year-old brother, was the real killer. He said he’d followed him the night of the shooting and witnessed the murder.
Sheriff Jack Billings arrested Anderson Goheen at a Moorhead barber shop, where the new suspect insisted he “would not have soiled his pistol bullets” on an “abandoned woman” like Bray. The two brothers were locked up together briefly but, when Adelbert refused to testify, the older brother was released.
Two hours before he was hanged, Adelbert Goheen penned a statement, still insisting his brother killed Bray.
In 1918, some 27 years later, Anderson Goheen reportedly made a deathbed confession in Montana that he had indeed killed Bray. That prompted Otter Tail County Historical Society researcher Maxine Adams to launch a campaign that placed a headstone over Adelbert’s unmarked grave at St. Otto’s Cemetery in Fergus Falls.
The tombstone, etched in 2005, says Goheen was “wrongfully accused of the murder of Rosa Bray.”
Minnesota’s last public execution came 15 years after Goheen’s when a St. Paul man’s hanging was botched — taking 14 minutes because of too much rope. The Legislature formally banned executions in 1911.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.