Sesquicentennial Highlights

From the files of the Plain Talk

August 18, 1955

The Story of �Vermillion Claims Another Dakota First � First Lynching�

Dakota Territory�s first lynching ended the villainous career of a renegade named James Hogan. On the night of February 26, 1866, bad man Hogan was strung up right here in Vermillion.

According to World Almanac records there were 27 white men hanged in South Dakota between 1883 and 1949. This does not apply to the road-agent and rustler eliminations held in the West River and Black Hills previous to that time. Nor does it include the mysterious demise of Hogan.

No Law Here

In 1866 the Civil War was over and the Red Cloud war on the Bozeman Trail in western Dakota Territory was on. The frontier became a haven for freebooters who recognized no law but their own. Occasionally these obnoxious characters dominated a settlement like Vermillion where there was no local law, jail or constable. A company of Iowa infantry was quartered in the town for defense against possible Indian uprisings.  Otherwise the town was wide open.

Brawlings and shooting had been publicly resented in Vermillion, and there was a growing sentiment to put a stop to them. When a scoundrel named Hagan put a pistol shot through the leg of Herman Oleson, the community became riled to the extent of taking law and order by force. Hagan took the hint and cleared out.

Then on a February day along came a hard drinking, quick fighting hombre named James Hogan. The whiskey primed gent picked a fight with a young farmer in the federal land office operated by Captain Miner. The boys ganged up and tossed Hogan out into the street. Then Hogan stormed into the McHenry trading post, and, spouted vindictive profanity, started to snap his gun at people in the store. The cartridges failed to explode. (Not an uncommon failure in the old black powder days.) It created consternation. The people fled out the door of the store and took cover.

With louder curses and a guffaw of contempt Hogan swaggered up the street snapping the loaded pistol at everyone in sight. It was a hazardous pastime. The dud cartridges might explode the next time the firing pin made contact. A courageous onlooker, Patrick Hand, grappled with the drunk and twisted the gun out of his hand.

The weapon was locked in the land office safe by Captain Miner. Hogan heard where it was kept and somewhat later rushed into the office in a fury, threatening to kill every person in the room if his revolver was not returned to him.  Once more there was united action and Hogan was ejected from the place.

Citizens Take Charge

Now irate citizens took him in hand. He was led to a tree around the corner and tied there despite the cold temperature. Hogan mouthed his curses and threats with a terrible show of anger. A dozen soldiers were sent to watch him while the community decided what to do with Hogan. Many timid citizens approached to see the bearded ruffian. They hurried away thrilled by the sight of him.

General Todd, one of the territory�s distinguished promoters was in Vermillion. He, too, came to see the trouble maker. Todd asked him many questions and Hogan, recognizing him as a personality of influence, poured out a story that should have won him sympathy.

Hogan stated that he came back from a hunt and found his cabin burned down. Scouting around he found a child belonging to another homesteader named Brugess and by using threats he got the boy to reveal that he thought his father might have set the fire.

Hogan said, �I smashed the kids� brains out on a log and came to town. I�m gettin� me a few more drinks then I�m going down river and kill all the Burgess outfit and burn their house on top of them.�

It was a vicious program. Most listeners spread the story that few believed. But when searchers went to the location he mentioned and found a heap of ashes instead of a cabin they realized that at least part of the story was true. Further search found the grave, and the kid that Hogan had slammed against a log. The story spread rapidly.  Murder had been done. The community had a killer on its hands. What to do?

The logical procedure was to notify the United States Marshall at Yankton to come and take him.  Meanwhile, there was lynching talk, and in cabins apprehension for all children, and in the soldier camp, argument. The guard detail had been withdrawn. There was a question whether the army was being unduly imposed upon by the guarding of a civil prisoner.  At any rate, Hogan was left alone with his tree of darkness settled down over Vermillion.

Hogan Escapes

Fear that he might commit more murders was brought on by the report, about supper time, that Hogan was no longer lashed to the tree. Someone had helped him escape. Weapons were kept hand and children herded indoors. The reign of terror lasted until about 8 o�clock that night when a dweller from down river arrived with a startling report that he had seen a body swinging from a rope down near the mouth of the Vermillion.  He was too scared to investigate it in the dark.

The impression that most feared was that Hogan had started his vengeance crusade and that this might be Burgess, the first victim.  While some hugged home hearths to repel attack should he try to enter their homes, a few others banded together to find and identify the body. To their amazement the puffed, blackened features revealed by the lantern glow where those of Hogan.

The women of the shocked community gathered next day and sewed a shroud for his burial. Donations were gathered up to buy a casket.  Even a preacher was present to do justice to the poor, misguided sinner. But who did the deed? Who hanged James Hogan?

In due time Judge J. P. Kidder, one of the judicial lights of the territory, in his official capacity, instructed a grand jury to do everything possible to disclose and prosecute the person charged with the murder of Hogan.

Remarkable Suicide

Efforts were made to carry out the court�s orders, but there was no information available.  It appeared that Hogan, being a truly remarkable man, had by his own effort, transferred himself from town to the biggest tree, tied his own hands and feet, and as a redeeming act of mortification, hanged himself.

The other argument was that Hogan would have been tried for murder anyway, so why worry?  The way it turned out saved the territory some money in court costs.

Thus ended the career of James Hogan. And we still don�t know �whodunnit.�

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