Sheriff Charley Brown didn’t recognize the decapitated corpse at first. A train had backed over the man, who smelled like booze, cutting off his head as well as his feet at the boot tops near the rail switch outside St. Vincent, Minn. — today a tiny town of 64 people in the farthest northwest corner of the state, across the Red River from Pembina, N.D., and just more than a mile south of the Canadian border.
The grisly scene in the early 1880s didn’t faze Sheriff Brown, who’d fought in the Civil War and endured a stint at the Confederacy’s infamous Andersonville prison. As he looked at the body on the tracks, he noticed two things: An empty bottle of Old Crow bourbon whiskey and a knife partially covered by a trouser cuff.
He drew the blade from the sheath and saw a carving in the wooden handle: Eck M. He hadn’t recognized Eck Murphy because the dead man had apparently just used the knife to shave. But his size 13 boots confirmed the identification.
As onlookers watched, Sheriff Brown seated himself between the rails, simulating the dead man’s position. Would a train sever a man’s head at the neck if that head had been resting on the rail?
Sheriff Brown was pretty sure Murphy had been murdered and then placed on the tracks to cover up the killing. The sheriff supervised the loading of the body parts on a wagon and instructed the driver to go Fort Pembina and have Dr. Appel conduct an autopsy. The sheriff’s hunch of foul play would turn out right: A man named Pete had killed Murphy, placed him on the tracks and doused him with whiskey.
Sheriff Brown and Eck Murphy are just a couple of the forgotten historical characters who come to life — and death — in the most unlikely of places: the blogosphere.
At a blog called St. Vincent Memories, local historian Trish Short Lewis, 55, has spent a decade paying homage to her little hometown “most have never heard of” and the neighboring villages “that are more like extended family.
“My mother and grandmother loved our town and neighbors deeply,” she says. “The past wasn’t an abstract idea, but very much alive with memories that made us who we are today.”
Fearing those stories would be lost if not passed along, she launched the St. Vincent Memories blog 10 years and 1,000 entries ago. It’s a delicious compendium of historical stuff that is well worth exploring. Warning: Once you dive in, it might take hours before you’ll surface.
Her blog has caught the eye of many historians as well as neighbors and St. Vincent ex-pats.
“This is an excellent historical research blog from which local history organizations might learn,” says the Minnesota Historical Society’s own blog.
Short Lewis culled the stories of Sheriff Charley Brown from the late Charles Harris Walker, one of the sheriff’s descendants in Pembina. She includes lots of other people’s writing on her site.
“I began writing my blog mostly for my own pleasure and curiosity,” she said. “I hoped others would discover and enjoy it. That they did, and several of them provided tips on stories I researched and followed up on.”
That includes stories of American Indians, mixed-blood Metis and such treasures as the Gamble correspondence, a collection of more than 50 letters from one of the area’s first homesteading families. Written from the early 1860s to the early 1900s, Short Lewis shared the letters on the blog and in the process brought together Gamble descendants who had never met before.
Here’s a sample of one of the letters, written to a Canadian aunt Oct. 28, 1917, by Lillie Gamble and unearthed recently by her great-granddaughter:
“We are having an early winter here this year and we had snow now for two weeks & guess it’s going to stay. … I have a little boy 4 months old. William Leslie is not very big but is commencing to grow now I think. … Well since I heard from you we are all in the Big War. … Thirteen boys have enlisted from St. Vincent & about six were drafted. … I think I will quit writing as you will be tired reading this scribble. …”
There are countless other slices of history for one far-flung corner of Minnesota. Short Lewis uses online tools from Google to ancestry.com to newspaper archives. “But it also takes boots on the ground research in libraries, historical societies and private collections,” she said.
For her riff on St. Vincent inventor William Thedorf, creator of everything from folding umbrellas to guitar picks, Short Lewis drew on the sketchy memories of her mother and grandmother. They remembered their neighbors, the Thedorfs, whose house burned down long before Short Lewis was around, let alone blogging.
While researching St. Vincent connections on the patent office’s online records, she found detailed papers for Thedorf’s guitar pick and umbrella. “A complete surprise!”
Type “inventor” in the search box located in the upper left-hand corner of her blog and you’ll find Thedorf’s folding umbrella sketches, patented Feb. 25, 1908:
“This invention is an improvement in folding umbrellas, and its object is to provide a device of this nature constructed with a telescoping staff, the telescoping members of which are adapted to be positively retained in extended and contracted relations by a sectional nut carried by the inner member. …”
Apparently, the long winters in Kittson County left plenty of time for tinkering. And blogging.
“The thing I love most,” said Short Lewis, “is that I have found our little corner of Minnesota is rich with history, far richer than I had ever imagined. And going on 10 years now, I’m still uncovering stories.”
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org