In general, Minnesota is a quiet place. With a few notable exceptions, news stories from Minnesota don’t generally make it into national or international headlines. The same is true for history books — they leave much of the state’s history out. But that doesn’t mean Minnesota doesn’t have its dark side. In fact, there are more than a few awful stories that you may not know about. From events that had a statewide impact to those whose influence stayed local, here are 9 horrifying stories you didn’t learn about in history class:
1. The 1862 mass execution of Dakota people.
The Dakota War of 1862 was fought between several Dakota bands and some of Minnesota's earliest European settlers. Brought on by lack of payment by the U.S. government, the war worsened over several years before it ended in bloodshed. In the end, 38 Dakota were hanged. It remains the largest mass execution in American history.
2. The grasshopper plague of 1873.
The 1870s were a trying decade for southwestern Minnesota. Starting in 1873, crops were destroyed by huge swarms of grasshoppers. Fields were eaten in a matter of hours. The plague lasted several more years, eventually dying off in 1877. But by that time, the damage was done. Many farmers lost their livelihood and experienced difficulty getting relief from the state government.
3. The 1876 attempted robbery at First National Bank in Northfield.
Each year, Northfield celebrates Defeat of Jesse James Days with fun and festivities, the most notable of which is a live reenactment of the famous attempted robbery of First National Bank. Most Minnesotans know the story of how Jesse James and the Younger Gang was defeated on that day. But what is often left out is that a bank treasurer was killed in the attempt. Northfield may have driven off the gang, but not without a loss of life.
4. The 1878 Washburn A. Mill explosion.
Minnesota's fascinating milling history cannot be told without a mention of the Washburn A. Mill. It was once the largest flour mill on Earth, operating in the world's flour-milling capital. But in 1878, the mill — and several other smaller mills nearby — was destroyed in a fiery explosion that cost 18 mill workers their lives. The loss of life was tragic, but it did lead to innovations in the milling industry that may have prevented future deaths.
5. The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894.
Those who live in east central Minnesota have likely heard of the Great Hinckley Fire. There is even a fire museum in the town that gives the full history of the conflagration. But if you aren't from the area, you may not know that the fire — caused by drought — burned more than 200,000 acres of land. The fire destroyed the entire town and several others in the area. Even worse, more than 400 people lost their lives.
6. Minnesota's first automobile casualty in 1903.
This event did not have a far-reaching affect on Minnesota as a whole, but it is an historic tragedy that caused great pain to those involved. In 1903, the first automobile casualty occurred on Selby Avenue on St. Paul. A child was killed in the collision, marking the first automobile death in the entire state. Coming at the beginning of an automobile explosion, it was a sign of times to come.
7. The 1906 botched execution of William Williams.
William Williams was convicted of double murder in 1905. He was sentenced to death, with his execution date set for February of the following year. What was supposed to be a routine hanging in the Ramsey County Courthouse became an excruciating affair that left Williams alive and gasping for air for 14 minutes. The botched execution was used by capital punishment opponents to abolish the death penalty in Minnesota. Williams' execution was the last in state history.
8. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
In 1918, Minnesota was not the only state impacted by the Spanish flu. In fact, the illness spread across the globe, leading to millions of deaths worldwide. Many factors were to blame for the flu's fast spread, including increased international travel. Minnesota did not get by unscathed. Up to 12,000 Minnesota died. All in all, it was one of the worst pandemics in world history, and Minnesota was not unaffected.
9. The 1920 Duluth lynchings.
One of the darkest moments of Minnesota history is undoubtedly the 1920 lynchings of three black men in Duluth. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie were attacked by a white lynch mob seeking justice for the assault of a young woman. Later testing proved that the three men were not involved in the assault. In fact, some dispute that it occurred at all. Regardless, the damage was already done. Three innocent men were robbed of due process and murdered. Even worse, no one was brought to justice for the murders. Anti-lynching legislation was introduced the following year. It took another 80 for a memorial to the men to be erected.
Did you know about any of these horrifying stories? Do you know of any other surprising historical events in Minnesota history? Share them in the comments below.