Just before the black hood was drawn over his face, a doomed man faced the crowd that gathered at 5 a.m. to witness the only execution ever recorded in southwestern Minnesota’s Redwood County.
“I stand on this platform … a poor unfortunate man who in a few minutes must swing,” William Rose said from the Redwood Falls gallows on Oct. 16, 1891. “I see a number of faces before me which will live to see the day that I shall be declared innocent.”
The botched hanging that followed “was more like a hog killing than a judicial execution,” this newspaper reported, detailing how the rope snapped “as though it were a cotton thread.” Rose’s body crashed to the hard floor of the execution room. Unconscious, his pulse still perceptible for nearly five minutes, Rose was hauled back up to a second noose. After 23 minutes, he was cut down and placed in a burl coffin with an etched plate that read: “At rest.”
Nearly 130 years later, Patricia Lubeck won’t let Rose’s case rest. A retired curator from the county museum, Lubeck has written two books that chronicle a love triangle that couldn’t get more tragic. In addition to his prolonged hanging, a young woman he loved, Grace Lufkin, committed suicide after her father, Moses Lufkin, was fatally shot through a window — a crime for which Rose was finally convicted after two earlier hung juries.
“Many think that when the rope broke, God was sending a message,” said Lubeck, who combed through boxes of trial transcripts and thinks Rose might have been wrongly hanged.
“I can’t prove he was innocent,” she said from her home in Belview, not far from the scene of the 1888 crime in Gales Township. “I was outraged by what he went through and felt I was the voice for William Rose.”
Rose was born in Illinois in 1861, making him 30 when he was executed. Moses Lufkin, 30 years older, came from Maine. They both settled in southwestern Minnesota about 1878 on neighboring parcels and began to clash after Lufkin’s cow wandered into Rose’s cornfield.
“The quarrel grew into a fully developed feud,” one newspaper said, when Rose fell in love with Lufkin’s daughter, Grace.
Grace “didn’t reciprocate his affection,” so her father put the kibosh on her relationship with Rose. The dispute between the men turned ugly with lawsuits, attempted fire bombings and accusations of incest.
On the night of Aug. 22, 1888, Moses Lufkin was staying with a niece’s family named Slover in Gales Township when a gunshot tore through an open window, striking him in the back.
“I am shot deader than hay,” Lufkin said, dying within 10 minutes. Eli Slover ran to the door and saw a person fleeing who looked like Rose.
The evidence against Rose was circumstantial but damning. Tracks in the mud matched Rose’s footprints. The fatal bullet fit his gun. Rose’s pony, lathered with sweat, was reportedly the same one he stole from a woman he had killed in Dakota Territory a couple years earlier.
Two juries, perhaps finding the evidence sketchy, couldn’t agree on Rose’s guilt. By his third trial, Redwood County had three other murders and an image problem. The third jury needed only an hour to convict Rose of first-degree murder.
Lubeck said the key difference in Rose’s third trial was Eli Slover’s testimony. After saying he wasn’t positive Rose was the man he saw escaping, he changed his tune the third time around — insisting it was Rose disappearing into the darkness.
Both from the gallows and in a letter to a St. Paul newspaper, Rose pointed the finger back at Slover. Lufkin had recently sold a farm and had additional cash from a pension payment — a possible motive for Slover.
“Watch that old man Slover,” Rose said in his gallows speech. “And see if my words don’t come true.”
In 1900, a report surfaced a dozen years after the crime that Eli Slover made a deathbed confession in California that he had killed Lufkin. But death records show he didn’t die until 1934.
“I don’t know what to make of that,” Lubeck said, flummoxed. “Maybe the editor was just making it up.”
Grace Lufkin, the shooting victim’s daughter and hanged man’s love interest, slit her own throat in 1890 — despondent at a sister’s house in Chicago.
“This celebrated case and the romance coupled with it … concludes with the assassination of the father, the suicide of the daughter, and the execution of the lover,” one newspaper reported. “And the people of Redwood County, who have bourne the enormous expenses of the trials, say, ‘Amen.’ ”
Minnesota’s last public execution came 15 years after Rose’s hanging. That one, too, was botched. William Williams was hanged in 1906 with too much rope in St. Paul after fatally shooting his 16-year-old male lover and his mother. Deputies needed to pull on the rope and strangle the convicted man for 14 minutes. 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.