Up in Smoke, Twice?

I’m writing a paper on the provenance of a collection of 1862 execution-related artifacts, inluding the mystery beam in Blue Earth County and have a pile of sources on my desk to digest, including a newspaper clippings file.

Clippings files are a staple  in research libraries and in private collections. Researchers (volunteers or staff) looking up something else, say an obituary or an event in a newspaper, happen to see something of unexpected interest. So they copy the incidental story and file it by subject. Then the next time someone asks a question like, “What do you know about John F. Meagher?” the library may have a ready-reference: a clippings file on that subject.

Files of newspaper clippings are tricky to use as sources. They are typically not exhaustive studies. Instead they catch fragments of a story the way the high-tide line on a beach catches flotsam from the ocean. When we create clippings files, we are like beachcombers collecting the interesting things we encounter on our daily walk on the beach.

The resulting collection can be fascinating. But even when a clippings file was created by a historical organization or an esteemed historian it is merely a jumping off place for in-depth research, not the jackpot at end of the research rainbow.

Paging through the clipping file on the beam created by the Blue Earth County Historical Society, augmented by some clippings from Alan Woolworth’s research files and passed on to me by a colleague who shared his own research, I found a classic example of the limitations of clippings files.

I want to share the problem I unexpectedly encountered because it is so common in the history world and the solution is not what inexperienced researchers tend to do: jam the facts together to make a story reconcile the way they expect it should.

One of the clippings on my desk, dated July 1898, reported that an old warehouse belonging to John F. Meagher’s estate had just burned down. With it, the Mankato newspaper reported, the last relics of the 1862 scaffold went up in smoke: the beams from the gallows Meagher had used to frame the building.

That story was familiar to me: somewhere in the file I remembered the same story as reported by the competing Mankato newspaper. I located the other clipping and began scanning to see if it had reported anything materially different.

The first thing that caught my attention was that in the second clipping, the warehouse was reported as belonging to Meagher, not to his estate. The next thing I noticed was that the fire was reported as being spotted at 10:00 PM at night, not at 5:00 PM (which in Minnesota in July is bright daylight) and there was no mention of connecting buildings that had burned at the same time.

That sent me back to the date written on the clipping. To my surprise I found the second clipping was dated two years and three days earlier than the first one. I checked my biographical information on Meagher. He was alive in 1896, the year of the earlier fire. He died in 1897. So the following year, the clipping dated 1898 correctly referred to the building’s owner as Meagher’s estate.

The problem: two newspaper stories dated two years apart welcomed the loss of an ancient wooden fire trap –by this time, almost all of Mankato’s original log and frame structures had been replaced with brick and stone buildings –and both nostalgically noted the loss of the gallows timbers.

How could one building, John F. Meagher’s gallows-framed warehouse, burn to the ground twice in two years?

It probably did not.

The simplest possibility is the easiest to check out. The photocopy of the 1898 story (pictured above) includes the newspaper’s original banner and date at the top of the page. The 1896 story was dated by the person who clipped it. The handwritten date could be a mistake and the two stories, despite the differences in reportage, could refer to a single fire in 1898. I can check that by looking at the reels of microfilmed newspapers.

However, it also seems possible that the legend of Meagher’s warehouse might have outlived its demise in 1896. After Meagher’s death, when another of his warehouses burned, that second conflagration might have elicited the same old story: virtually the last traces of the 1862 gallows had just gone up in smoke.

Or, if I can verify the clipping dates and find some corroboration for other details reported, Meagher may have re-purposed the scaffolding timbers in two different structures (not one) which burned two years apart.

Of course, one timber is rumored to have outlived the rest: the beam in storage in Blue Earth County. As these newspaper clippings show, the real story may be more thickly shrouded in myth than the beam under wraps in its white sheet.

For the Blue Earth County Historical Society’s position on their beam and measured photos of it, see their web page 1856 Military Bridge Timber.


My transcriptions of the two newspaper stories:

[Mankato Weekly Free Press July 29, 1898]



Four Old Frame Structures Cleared Out by Monday’s Fire

–Mankato’s First City Hall Was One of Them

–Gallows Timber is Destroyed

–Twelve Buildings Were on Fire at One Time

–Narrow Escape of the Milwaukee Freight Depot and Other Buildings

Mankato narrowly escaped a great conflagration Monday afternoon. Had the winds been blowing in any direction great damage would have been done, and it was, remarkably good work by the fire department was the only thing that prevented a disastrous spread of the flames. The old wooden buildings that encumbered one of the alleys furnished fuel for a hot fire, and the experience should not be lost, for the council should at once take steps to condemn all similar dangerous fire traps in the vicinity of business property….

The fire was discovered about five o’clock by John Frescholtz, who shouted to a bicycle rider to give the alarm. Mr. Fresholtz had just driven into the alley to put up his horse in the barn back of his mother’s store. When he opened the door of the barn, he saw fire coming through the board partition that separated his barn from the one used by Benack & Harris. The fire was then under much headway. Mr. Frescholtz states that the fire seemed to come in with a rush, as though driven by an explosion….

An alarm was turned in from box 26, but before the fire department could arrive the buildings were a mass of flames. They were as dry as tinder and warmed by the sun, and ready to go off in a flash as soon as fire should touch them. Just north of the Benack & Harris barn was a warehouse used by the firm, separated from the barn by a board partition. This made three buildings built together, each separated from the other by a board partition. Some twenty feet north of these buildings was large frame warehouse, also occupied by Benack & Harris. All four of these buildings were destroyed, the first three being burned to the ground.

The fire was a hot one, and the roofs of the adjoining buildings in every direction were set on fire. At one time, twelve buildings were on fire in this way….

A large number of streams of water were turned on the fire and on adjoining buildings….

Benack & Harris saved their horse and wagon, but lost a cutter, a can containing 50 to 100 gallons of gasoline, a can containing 50 to 100 gallons of kerosene, both cans being in the small warehouse next to the barn, 100 bushels of charcoal etc. Furnaces, stoves and other hardware were flooded by water and injured more or less. Mr. Benack put the firm’s loss at $300 to $400 with no insurance.

Mrs. Fresholtz’s horse and buggy were saved. She lost a barn, corn crib, farm machinery etc. The loss is estimated at $450. She formerly carried $500 insurance, but had dropped it.

Three of the burned buildings belonged to the Jno. F. Meagher estate and probably $500 would cover the loss….

Historic Buildings

One of the warehouses destroyed was at one time the town hall of Mankato. It was built in 1857, and was a substantial two-story structure, with a second floor used as a hall. The late Jno. Meagher owned the building and had his store on the first floor. When Mr. Meagher built his new brick block, he moved the old frame building back to the alley and used it as a warehouse.

The gallows upon which the thirty-eight Sioux Indians were hung was used as timbers for one of the warehouses that burned, according to James Shoemaker.”


[Clipping identified: “M. R. July 23,1896”]


Were in the Old Warehouse Burned Last Night


John F. Meagher Bought the Scaffold at Auction And Some of Its Uprights Were Put Into the Warehouse

–Relics Worthy of the Name

–A Vision of Early Days

“Fire last night destroyed the old frame building at the southwest corner of Second and Walnut streets, belonging to John F. Meagher. The structure has not been occupied in years and there was no insurance.

The origin of the fire is only a matter of speculation. A passerby noticed the flames at about 10:00 p.m. and within five minutes the entire structure was enveloped in smoke and glare. The hose was turned upon it and the surrounding property protected from danger and with hooks and pikes the shaky framework was pulled to pieces.

This old hulk is one of the few of the rapidly disappearing landmarks of early days. It was built in the winter of 1863 by Mr. Meagher, who was at that time buying grain on the streets of the little town. There were no railroads and he used the place as a storage house from fall to spring.

In the building are half a dozen timbers which formed the uprights of the scaffold upon which the thirty-eight Sioux Indians were hanged. Immediately after the execution a government quartermaster came up from Quincy and sold the scaffold at auction, and Mr. Meagher, being the highest bidder purchased it. The cross beams were used in Mr. Meagher’ hardware store which occupied the ground upon which the H.C. Akers ‘ hardware store was built. When it gave way to the modern structure Mr. Meagher sent one of the beams, with the notches upon which the ropes were tied, to the state university.

On the second floor of the old hardware store was the city hall,and for years it was the only place for public meetings and entertainments. Vice-president Colfax and Galusha A. Grow, the well-known Pennsylvania congressman, delivered political orations in this hall during the summer of 1859.

The destruction of the old grain warehouse last night was perhaps a matter of congratulation to the new generation, but to the pioneer, to whom it conjures up a picture of years agone, it is an occasion of genuine sadness and regret.  The historical beams are mixed up in the charred ruins that lie across the street, but they may be easily singled out by the dark color and the peculiar hardness of the wood. They are four inches square and sixteen feet long, and anybody who has a sharp jack-knife can procure a relic that will be highly prized as time goes on.”

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