McLeod County jailer Edward Wadel wondered who could be knocking shortly after midnight on Sunday, Sept. 6, 1896. When he opened the door of his home in Glencoe, Minn., 50 miles southwest of Minneapolis, he faced a large crowd of masked men — one of them wielding a sledgehammer.
Dragging Wadel upstairs, the men demanded that his wife fetch the jail key, tucked in a dresser-top cigar box, before tying him to a chair and heading to the jail next door. They overwhelmed guard Adolph Hopps, who warned the men they'd regret what they were about to do: "Let the law take its course."
Two inmates in their 20s — Dorman Musgrove and Henry Cingmars — crouched in their shared cell. Described as vagrants, the migrant workers had been tending cattle Up North, buying and selling alcohol to Ojibwe near Lake Mille Lacs and were on their way to work the Iowa wheat fields.
Trouble had erupted a couple of months earlier when Musgrove and Cingmars hitched a ride from a wagon driver near Silver Lake. Musgrove fired his rifle at a dog barking at the team of horses, igniting a fight with the farmer who owned the dog. After Cingmars beat him up, the farmer swore out a warrant for their arrest.
A few hours later, McLeod County Sheriff Joseph Rogers, 39, was shot and killed by Musgrove as he attempted to arrest the pair. Nearly 20 innocent vagrants were rounded up before a group of posses numbering in the hundreds caught up with Musgrove and Cingmars the next day as they swam from their pursuers in a lake.
Gov. David Clough sent a militia company to Glencoe to quell a mob intent on lynching the suspects, who were temporarily moved to the Ramsey County jail in St. Paul for their safety before their separate trials.
Back in Glencoe, a jury found Musgrove guilty of second-degree murder but not first degree — meaning life in prison rather than a death sentence. After the verdict, the mob reassembled with deadly resolve.
As the masked men hammered their way into the cell and gagged Cingmars, he told them to "Give my love to mother," who was in town for his trial.
The mob then dragged Musgrove and Cingmars a few blocks south to an iron bridge spanning Buffalo Creek. Noosed at the neck with ropes secured to the railings, they were pushed off both sides of the bridge.
"Ten feet below their bodies were left with their feet dangling in the water," according to the Minneapolis Tribune. "As quietly as they had come the perpetrators of the deed returned to their homes, and Glencoe slept on in total ignorance of what it would awake to in the morning."
Next day, the lynchings made the front page of the New York Times. But no one came forward to identify the vigilantes or push for their arrests, so no punitive action was taken against them.
The jury had weighed the evidence and rendered its verdict, the Tribune reported, but "this mattered not. A life for a life was the watchword. On the early morning breeze this watchword breathed its fateful song in the ears of Glencoe citizens."
William Erwin, the dead men's defense attorney, called the lynchings "an outrage against the fair name of the state" and demanded officials "step in and apprehend and punish every man connected with premeditated, heartless, inexcusable and coldblooded double murder."
They never did.
"There might have been some excuse for the lynching of the two men within a few hours after the death of Sheriff Rogers, while the public mind was excited by the tragic death of the public officer," Erwin said, "but three months after the homicide, and after the law had stepped in and guaranteed a fair and impartial trial, to have a band of men take the law in their own hands and administer what they probably call, or term, 'justice' is an outrage on the law and the rights of men."
On the 125th anniversary of the Glencoe lynchings, credit goes to former McLeod County Sheriff Scott Rehmann and the county's historical society for rekindling the dark chapter.
Rehmann, 56, suffered a stroke and resigned last year after 14 years as sheriff. In the meantime he's compiled a well-researched, 200-page unpublished book on the slaying of his predecessor, Sheriff Rogers, and the lynchings that followed.
"I went to the McLeod County Historical Society and the volunteers started giving me all the news articles and pictures, and it grew from there," Rehmann said.
His book includes drawings recovered from the hanged men's cell, such as sketches they made of the prosecutor, County Attorney Frank Allen, and their attorney Erwin. Rehmann even tracked down one of their relatives, who has since died.
"It was almost hysteria," said Brian Haines, executive director of the county historical society, who wrote about the lynchings in the Hutchinson Leader in 2018. "Though it was nearing its end, the Old West was still alive in the heart of McLeod County … on that cool September evening in 1896."
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.