Dakota Datebook:


Roosevelt’s Assassin

written by Merry Helm
October 14, 2019 — On October 14, 1912, a small man named John Schrank came at Theodore Roosevelt outside a hotel and shot him in the chest with a 32 caliber gun.
Eleven years earlier, Roosevelt had inherited the Presidency when President McKinley died and was enormously popular. When he ran for office in the next term, he won easily. However, in what many believe was TR’s biggest political blunder, he made the mistake of stating that those first three years in office could be considered an official term of office. He therefore gave up his chance to run again, because it would be considered a third term, which wasn’t allowed.
Three years later, he was hugely disappointed in his self-chosen successor, William Taft, so when the progressive faction of the Republican party came to him and asked him to run for a third term anyway, Roosevelt accepted and went on the campaign trail for the Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party.
The shooting took place in front of the Hotel Gilpatrick in Milwaukee. Roosevelt had reached town a little after 5 o’clock and gone to the hotel for dinner before delivering his speech at the Auditorium. When he left the hotel, Roosevelt waved his hat to the crowd gathered outside. Schrank, who was standing a few feet from Roosevelt’s private car, raised his gun between two men standing in front of him and fired straight at Roosevelt’s heart.
A newspaper report of the incident said, “Col. Roosevelt barely moved as the shot was fired. Before the crowd knew what had happened, (E. E.) Martin, who is six feet tall and a former football player, had landed squarely on the assassin’s shoulders and borne him to the ground. He threw his right arm about the man’s neck with a death-like grip, and with his left arm seized the hand that held the revolver. In another second he had disarmed him.”
When the police questioned Schrank’s motive for shooting TR, he said, “Any man looking for a third term ought to be shot.”
TR, meanwhile, put his hand to his mouth and determined that since there was no blood, his lung hadn’t been pierced. Believing he wasn’t in any danger, TR insisted on going to the Auditorium to give his speech.

With his white vest soaked in blood, Roosevelt faced his throng of supporters and calmly said, “I have just been shot.” He drew the bloodied speech from his breast pocket, held up the bullet-pierced pages and said, “But it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech… (but) I want you to understand that I am ahead of the game anyway. No man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way.”
Minutes later, Roosevelt collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.
Three weeks later, TR’s young cousin, Nicholas Roosevelt, visited him in Sagamore and later recorded this in his diary: “In one of the drawers of TR’s bureau, (his son) found a wad of paper and suddenly exclaimed: ‘Oh, there’s the speech!’ and delving deeper brought out a spectacle case with a bullet hole through it. It was the Milwaukee speech and the steel case that deflected the assassin’s bullet. The speech, done on heavy paper folded double, was pierced and badly torn. Through the spectacle case was a round hole about the size of a finger.”
Thankfully, Roosevelt recovered from his wound and went back on the campaign trail. But his time in the sun was pretty much over at this point, and a third term was not to be his.


Germans to Russia

written by Merry Helm
October 15, 2019 — In 1941, the Black Sea port of Odessa had been surrounded by German troops for several weeks when, on this day in history, the city was evacuated by its Russian troops.
The region surrounding Odessa figures heavily in our state’s history; in the early 1900s, thousands of German Russians immigrated to the U.S., with large numbers settling in North Dakota.
It all began with German-born Catherine the Great, who married the future Tzar of Russia, Peter the Third, when she was 16. When she became the Empress of Russia in 1762, she issued a manifesto to her native Germany offering free land, financial help and freedom from military service if they would come to Russia to develop the land.
Crop failures in Germany, as well as lack of living space and high taxes caused hundreds of thousands of Germans to answer the call.
For many, the journey to Russia was not only difficult but disastrous. Much of the journey took place on overcrowded boats navigating dangerous rivers. Hot steamy days often caused prime conditions for disease, and passengers became so ill, they were quarantined for weeks at a time.
Friedrich Schwarz kept a diary of his journey with his wife and nine children in 1817. His entries describe storms, constant passport checks, extreme heat, rain, insects, hunger, treacherous river rapids and, above all, disease. Beginning on September 6th, Friedrich’s journal tells the story:
“The bodies of my sons Leonhard and Albrecht are completely swollen. Also Margarete’s body is beginning to swell. Josef is becoming thinner day by day, and Johann is also sick in bed… We left the island today and were supposed to go into quarantine (on the ship). But when we arrived, there was not enough room for us, and we had to remain on the shore of the Danube.”
A day later he wrote, “Again we had to remain here. We can scarcely obtain any food for our money, and there is no medicine at all. I have nothing but river water to help quench the thirst of my many sick people.” His September 12th entry reads, “This morning at 8 o’clock my dear son Leonhard fell so peacefully asleep in the Lord, we were long in doubt that he was really dead. This evening, brother Jakob’s daughter Friederike died just as peacefully… my dear Mararete is deathly sick, and Katharina is unable to be on her feet.” On the 16th, his journal reads, “At 4 p.m. my dear son Josef fell peacefully asleep in the Lord.”

The following day, Friedrich was forced to bring his family’s clothes and bedding onto the ship for fumigation. For two days they sat on the riverbank with nothing to cover them. He wrote, “…we froze terribly while we were undressed.”

A month later, they finally reached the end of their 133-day journey. “Jackob and I drove to Odessa to have a look at the far-famed city. But our expectations were greatly deceived when we saw the many desolate places, the numerous huts of earth, the poor houses and particularly the knee-deep mud. We stayed overnight, but since we were not clothed in large sheepskin coats in the manner of the natives, we had to sleep on a cold hard table.”

By the end of the 1800s, the Germans had created thriving colonies, but now Russia and Germany were enemies, Catherine the Great was dead, and the lives of Germans living in Russia were increasingly threatened. When Germans were forced to enter the military to fight their native country, a new mass migration began – this time to the United States. Stay tuned tomorrow as we take a look at what happened to those Germans from Russia who decided to stay behind despite the mounting dangers.


Germans Left Behind

written by Merry Helm
October 16, 2019 — By the late 1800s, Catherine was dead, Germany and Russia had become enemies and German Russians were being drafted into the military to fight their German kinsman. This marked the beginning of the second mass migration of Germans – this time from Russia to the United States, with a very large number of them settling in central and southwestern North Dakota.
The choice to stay or go wasn’t an easy one. Germans had created thriving farms and businesses in separate communities that allowed them to retain their culture and language. Even as they became more and more threatened, many were reluctant to leave. By the 1920s, the ones who stayed behind were considered enemies of the state, and their lives became a living hell.
Michael Miller, a Germans from Russia bibliographer, has been communicating with a number of Germans who remained behind. In one letter, Lena Dyck wrote, “1929 to 1930 was a difficult time for us. Stalin gained power after Lenin’s death. There were terrible conditions, people were deported, everything was left behind. Whoever had a good economical farm was evacuated. We were also on this list, although my sister could not go; dad was also sick, no mercy. At night during a cold winter, about 1,930 (of us) were put on cattle trains destined for the far cold north, deep into the woods. I, with other children, was allowed to go back, but where to? I earned my living with strangers, was not allowed to attend school as an enemy.”
Another who remained in Russia was Johann Schauer. In a 1993 letter to relatives, he wrote, “Until the beginning of the Second World War we lived in Neudorf, Odessa. I was drafted into the Red Russia Army. (I) was wounded…and was two years in a POW camp in Germany. After that they made me a (Russian) translator in the German Army, and I was always close to the front… then I became a soldier in the German Army and fought to the end of the war… I had to fight against the Russians in Russia.”
When Johann tried to find his parents after the war, they were no longer in Odessa. In 1944, they had been allowed to leave their farm but had to leave everything behind except what would fit into their horse-drawn wagon. They made it to Poland, but the following year, the Russians sent them to a Siberian slave-labor camp, the tragic fate of thousands of German Russians. Johann found them there, but he ended up getting arrested and jailed for five years for having served in the German army.
In 1988, Johann and his family were finally able to move to Germany, but ironically, they were unwelcome. Johann wrote, “From 1945 to 1988, we were always the German fascists (in Russia), but now in Germany? Here we are the Russians among the Germans. Many of our children (can’t) speak German, (because the) German language was not allowed in Russia after the war.”
For many years, Germans from Russian weren’t allowed to communicate with Americans, but as that ban has lifted, more and more German Russians are connecting with distant family members here in North Dakota.
It is tempting to imagine what would happen if our long-lost relatives began a third mass migration… sauerkraut, anyone? Kuchen? Knepfla?

Last Execution

written by Merry Helm

October 17, 2019 — It was on this day in 1944 that the Army Corps of Engineers and the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation reached an agreement on a Missouri Basin flood control project, known as the Pick-Sloan Plan, which led to the building of Garrison Dam.

And on this date, in 1905, John Rooney was hanged at the State Penitentiary in Bismarck. He had been convicted of murder, but went to his death claiming he was innocent.

Three years earlier, on August 26, three brothers by the last name of Sweet were camped out near the railroad tracks on the west side of Fargo when three men in masks attacked and robbed them. The oldest of the three victims, Harold, fought back and ended up getting shot in the stomach. His two brothers jumped the gunman and managed to hold him down, but the other two got away.

The man accused of the shooting was identified as John Rooney, and the next day when Harold Sweet died from his gunshot wound, Rooney was charged with first degree murder.

Rooney insisted that he had been wrongly accused and that one of his partners, who he called Kansas Slim, had actually been the one to pull the trigger. The state wasn’t convinced, however, and in January, 1903, Rooney was found guilty and sentenced to hang in March.

Dakota Territory had established the death penalty in 1865, and it had been carried forward into law when North Dakota achieved statehood. Before that, only one legal execution had taken place in the northern half of the Territory in 1885. After statehood, six legal executions took place, usually next to county courthouses. Rooney was to be number seven.

Two of Fargo’s leading attorneys took his case, even though Rooney was penniless and appeared to be a professional criminal. In fact, Rooney was friendly toward local reporters during the time leading up to his death, and according to those reporters, Rooney admitted being the leader of a gang that had regularly preyed upon harvest workers who migrated to North Dakota every fall. Nevertheless, W. S. Stambaugh and Burleigh Spalding were successful in getting Rooney’s execution date put off three times; but the final date of October 17th was finally set.

Rooney was taken to Bismarck to be put to death, as dictated by a 1903 law stating that all executions had to take place at the state penitentiary. A new portable gallows was set up inside the prison’s walls, and though still maintaining that he was innocent, John Rooney was hung by the neck until dead. Hanging was the only method of execution ever used in the state.

Rooney has the dubious distinction of being the last person to be legally executed in North Dakota. In 1915, as a way to protect prison guards, the penalty was reserved for prisoners who committed first-degree murder while already serving sentences for first degree murder. In 1975, the death penalty was abolished entirely.

In 1995, the legislature considered reinstituting the death penalty, but the bill was defeated on the grounds of morality and economics.

In looking back, more people have been lynched than executed in what is now North Dakota. According to state historian, Frank Vyzralek, nine illegal executions have taken place, including a triple lynching in 1897, in Emmons County, after the State reversed the conviction of one of the three unlucky victims.

The last lynching in the state was in 1931, when a mob overpowered the sheriff in the Schafer Jail, east of Watford City, to hang Charles Bannon.


Rodeo #1

written by Merry Helm

October 18, 2019 — Two of North Dakota’s best-known cowboys were born on this date. Both have been inducted into the ND Cowboy Hall of Fame.

In 1905, John ‘J.C.’ Stevenson was born in a sod house south of Leith, the son of a cowboy who specialized in roughstock – to you non-cowboys, that’s bucking broncos and bulls.

When J.C. was still just a kid, his father would send him on horseback to buy horses and then trail them back to Carson. J.C. had a knack for selecting and breeding superior stock, and his keen eye led him to become one of the state’s leading rodeo livestock producers, as well as rancher, livestock marketer, rodeo producer, pick-up man, announcer, rodeo judge, stock contractor, cattle buyer and local auctioneer. He was also on the board of directors when the North Dakota Rodeo Association was founded.

His Brahman bulls were legendary, with names like Funeral Wagon, Yellow Jacket, Peacemaker, Ink Spot, High Horns, Yellow Jacket Junior, and Widowmaker. Among his best bucking broncos were I Walk Alone, Lost Memory and Big John.

In 1974, J.C. took the risk of producing the first State Prison Rodeo in Bismarck. It was a resounding success, and he continued producing rodeos there until his death in 1980. A year later, the State Penitentiary arena was dedicated to him.

J.C. was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2001.

The other birthday cowboy was James Taillon. He, too, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001, in the Western Arts and Entertainment category.

Known to his friends and fans as “Cy, the golden voice of professional rodeo,” Taillon was born in 1907, northeast of Cavalier, the youngest of 10 children.

By age six, Cy had become a violinist; he also learned to play the piano, guitar, tenor banjo and xylophone. But it was an unforseen talent in front of a microphone that led Cy into radio announcing. From radio, Montana cowboy Leo Cremer lured Cy into rodeo announcing, on which Cy once commented, “Leo kept telling me it could be a challenging and profitable field. I told him I’d do six rodeos for him through the summer. Instead, I wound up with engagements extending over 10 months, including such rodeos as the one at Chicago Stadium. By then, I was sold on my job.”

Cy’s first rodeo was in Minot in 1927. Until then, announcers had used an old style ‘corn comedy’ approach. But Cy decided to use a ‘straight man’ style; it is now felt that his concise commentary, precise grammar and distinguished dress and grooming brought dignity to rodeo.

“I always swore if I ever announced a rodeo, I’d try to present the rodeo cowboy as an athlete instead of as a bum,” Cy said. “I want(ed) to explain their way of life, their standard of manhood, their patriotism.”

He announced his first National Finals Rodeo in 1959, and went on to do it eight more times. He also announced for the Denver National Western for 33 years and also for the San Francisco Cow Palace for 30 years. In 1965, Cy was named Rodeo’s Man of the Year and received the International Rodeo Management Award.

Happy birthday, cowboys….


“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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