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Crookston Times - Crookston, MN
  • Legendary Locals Part VI: Frauds, fools and shysters in the Crookston area

  • Is there really a sucker born every minute?
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  • The Kensington Rune Stone has had many learned scholars argue over its authenticity for over 100 years. If genuine and if the Norsemen really did visit our area of Minnesota by way of the Red River as early as the 14th century, then we should be happy the Stone was discovered by a simple Swedish farmer, near Kensington, Minnesota. Whether it is real or fake, Alexandria has something to show off as a tourism specimen and it keeps people talking. Several great websites about the rune stone keeps the conversation going. What about Bemidji? That town was bequeathed the fictitious character of Paul Bunyan and Blue Babe. Lumbering used to be their industry and now this timber fiction is part of their tourism.
    So what does Crookston have to show for its early beginnings? According to P.T. Barnum, there is a sucker born every minute. Perhaps we are no different than any other Midwestern prairie town; there were frauds, fools and shysters who traveled through Crookston to either become famous or to line their own pockets or both. My first “fraud” story was written by Russ Sundet in his booklet “Reminiscing with Russ” published in 1998. This story about the “Mystery of the Petrified Man” was about some ditch diggers in 1896 who uncovered a body of a man who was encased in a bed of alkali clay. This body was 5 feet, 6 inches tall, muscular and well proportioned. It was guessed that it was the body of a French voyager and had been in the ground for almost 150 years. This discovery happened 15 miles northwest of Warren, Minnesota in the small town of Bloomer.
    Apparently the ditch diggers sold the “body” and it eventually ended up under the supervision of a man named Peter Bergo. After paying only $175, Bergo took it to Crookston and rented a storefront and charged admission to view the “petrified man.” He later sold this specimen to another man for a whopping $1,000. It created great interest as it was viewed by more than 1,000 curiosity seekers. People from Crookston’s surrounding area wanted to have the exhibit come to their town too.
    But there remained the question of why there was a small hole in the chest of the petrified body. Perhaps, some thought, it was a bullet hole. Then a businessman told a Crookston Times reporter he believed he knew who the man was, a Frenchman by the name of LeCount. Witnesses to his murder claimed they recognized the petrified body as being LeCount’s, shot in the heart around 1838. A lawsuit ensued and created daily interest in the courtrooms as to who should have the legal right over the body. Should it be the dead man’s sons from Red Lake Falls, the person who found him, or the man owning the land where the body was unearthed? Apparently, George McPherin, who lived in Minto, North Dakota, felt he was rightfully entitled to what was found on his Minnesota property.
    Page 2 of 4 - The ensuing debate continued in the daily newspaper as to who really had the legal rights to own the mummified man. There are several versions of what happened next. One story is that Crookston’s Chief of Police, Louis Gonyea, telegraphed the police chief in Winnipeg requesting that the handlers of this body be arrested as they were transporting it from Grand Forks to Canada.
    After several months, a box of unknown origin had been discovered in the freight room of the Great Northern depot in Argyle, Minnesota. Since nobody asked for this box after several months, it was pried open to find plaster of paris molds of human head, hands and arms. Peculiar corresponding measurements revealed it was the same proportion as the “petrified man” which turned out to have been manufactured in Council Bluffs, Iowa and then shipped to Grand Forks. Apparently, George McPherin, was the one who instigated this petrified man fraud and a supposed Mr. Wilson, his tenant on his Minnesota land was not there to plant any crops. His accomplice had left already, and I am not sure what happened to the Minto, North Dakota farmer McPherin or his friend OR the “petrified man” for that matter.
    This next story relates to the first and can be found in the Polk County Centennial book published in 1979 written by E. Boh on p. 454. Mr. Boh titled his essay “Minnesota Man, Number Two” which followed on the heels of what was a known hoax from 1896. Interesting that Lucius O’Brien would try the same stunt in Crookston perhaps 20-25 years later. Apparently he was the son of James E. and Emma O’Brien who lived on 534 Ash St. South. As an adult, he had lived at 123 East Fifth Street. He may have attended the Catholic Church on Ash Street and every Sunday he would make grand entrances and appearances for all to see him. Timing was everything for Lucius to get the maximum value of all eyes on himself.
    So, too, with uncovering this Great Discovery found at a nearby Crookston farm. Somehow “Lucky” O’Brien, as he was known by people in Crookston, obtained the right to the mummified creature “Minnesota Man #2.” Lucky also let himself get talked into having it put on display for everyone to see. This time there would be maximum value of all eyes on the petrified man. Lucky and his accomplice rented a vacant store on Second Street, near the hotel and made arrangements for the exhibition. For several weeks Lucky was able to sell tickets to throngs of people in the Red River Valley. He had sent out publicity notices until his charade caught up with him because of a St. Paul Pioneer Press article describing Lucky’s “great scientific find.”
    Page 3 of 4 - A University of Minnesota professor and two of his younger colleagues came to Crookston on the train to see for themselves what all the excitement was about. They prevailed upon Lucky to see up close the mummy that was under glass. In no time at all they each emphatically pronounced the mummy as a fake, an outright fraud and a hoax! The three got on the next train heading back to Minneapolis by noon. Lucky knew that their proclamations meant an end to his lucrative exhibition business. I suppose the only punishment Lucky received for this fraud was not being believed for anything that he said thereafter. It is not apparent where Lucky ended up. His “petrified mummy” was a relic in the basement of a saloon’s card room known as “The Museum” on Second Street.
    Another story was in Huber McLellan’s 1928 dissertation. I found out that back in the 1870s, the Crookston adults were concerned for the younger generation’s morals. The town had many saloons and a few houses of ill-repute which the Audubon Journal in Sept. 15, 1877 said could “wreck both body and soul.” McLellan further explained that “the Rev. Mr. H. Brandburg preached to a large audience on a Sunday evening. And the same week the young people saw that the way of the transgressor is hard, for Farmer Brown, a notorious gambler, passed through Crookston heavily ironed to make a sojourn of twenty months in the penitentiary” (Audubon Journal, Oct. 13, 1877).
    I learned from another source that “Farmer Brown” would ride into town showing off a big wad of money. Yet part of his “shyster shtick” was that he would appear poor and stupid. He told his potential “victims” he had just sold the last of his cattle and was down on his luck. Once they were taken in by his sad story, he would fool innocent, unsuspecting card players and fleece them of their hard earned money. Farmer Brown’s dishonest card maneuvers and lies finally caught up with him.
    According to McLellan, “A far larger number of saloons were in East Grand Forks and the place had an unsavory reputation, the notorious Gillan case originated in one of these saloons. (Grand Forks Herald, Jan. 8, 1880). The group of buildings on the Point was for a few years called “Struggle Town.” The post office was then known as Nashville, the name being changed to East Grand Forks in 1883 after the town site was platted in Dec. of 1881. (Polk County Journal, Jan. 18, April 5, 1883) “Unfortunately, East Grand Forks became a rendezvous for disreputable characters and at one time all the demimondes from all towns within a fifty mile radius assembled there for a wild masquerade in the castle of Mademoiselle Alice G.[?]. Robberies in East Grand Forks were reportedly common (Grand Forks Herald, Dec. 8, 1881, Nov. 23, 1883, Mar. 15, 1884). After 1889 some of East Grand Forks’ troubles are no doubt due to unruly citizens of North Dakota crossing the state line for a drink.”
    Page 4 of 4 - James E. Montague wrote his own version of what happened in the famous Archibald Gillan vs. Phineas B. Snyder case. As some things never seem to change, even from 130 years ago, the Crookston people felt the judge’s verdict was a travesty of justice. “The first term of District Court was held in June 1879, Honorable O.P. Stearns was the presiding judge. He was one of the ablest the state has ever had and withal one of the manliest men. [Crookston and East Grand Forks furnished the majority of the cases and particularly so after 1915, but by far the greatest number came from East Grand Forks.]
    “Probably the court trial that has aroused the greatest interest in the county was that of Archibald Gillen, in June 1880, charged with the murder of Phineas B. Snyder at East Grand Forks, by striking him upon the head with a beer faucet. W.W. Erwin of St. Paul was attorney for the defendant. The “tall pine” as Bill Erwin was called, was the most brilliant criminal lawyer in handling cases for the defendant that the Northwest has ever had, and he maintained well his reputation on this occasion, thrilling the large audience with his impassioned eloquence. That Gillan killed Snyder in January of 1880 was admitted; the grounds for defense were self-defense and insanity. The jury acquitted the defendant on the grounds of temporary insanity. The verdict was not generally well received. It was quite plain Gillan did not intend to kill, but the opinion was he should have been convicted of manslaughter. He went west and killed a man for his money in Idaho and there was hanged for it.”
    I have run out of space for telling the tale of “Honest Scottie” who wasn’t honest at all. He went by many aliases as told by Judge William Watts which can be found on p. 460 of the Polk County Centennial book. I will save that for another article because William Watts is a legendary local who will be featured in the forthcoming book “Legendary Locals of Crookston.” The aforementioned who were fools, frauds and shysters will not be included in the Arcadia book that will launch in June of 2014, though it could be argued they may be legendary, their dishonesty is not worth repeating.

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