Duluth’s First Murder

William Stokely, father of Thomas Stokely, convicted of committing the first murder in Duluth. The elder Stokely fought for his son’s freedom to improve his chances of winning the 1872 Philadelphia mayoral race. (Image: Public Domain)

The Politician

William S. Stokley was not part of Philadelphia’s hereditary elite, but he did have powerful and rich allies in his successful political career. In 1869, he had been a vocal leader on the city council for nine years, and now acted as its president.  His reputation was built around being a “law and order” man in the face of gang chaos on the city streets. As a gushing later account of his political career explained,

“All grades of thieves, from the sneak to the highwayman, were allowed to ply their vocations without fear of punishment. Riots were of frequent occurrence and alarming fatality. Elections, in many of the wards, were a mere farce. Plunderers and blackmailers, roughs and rowdies, masqueraded as policemen; and often openly instigated and assisted their less favored pals, in breaking peacefully-disposed citizens’ heads, or into their houses, instead of being a terror to evil-doers, they were a scourge to law-abiding people…”

Big city life in America in those days was marked by police and firefighter corruption and favoritism, and large-scale graft over utilities and other fledgling necessities. Though Stokley had a reputation for being a clean-up man, there’s an undertone in the history books hinting he was by no means clean himself. Then, as now, politics was more about the show than the product.

Behind the scenes, Stokely was building a campaign for mayor of the City of Brotherly Love. It didn’t hurt that he had been appointed as the Assessor of Internal Revenue by President Ulysses S. Grant and also operated as the Director of Public Safety. He was a Republican on the rise.

In the summer of 1869, Stokely’s son Thomas had reached the age of 22, and decided to have himself a little adventure by heading to Duluth and working in the building trades. He had broken both his thigh-bones in childhood, and therefore walked a little stiffly. He didn’t dress like a common workingman, but always wore a fine frock coat.

August 14 was election day in Duluth. Two of the Philly Irishmen had run out of money in Nicholas Decker’s saloon on First Street, and run up a big tab. When the bartender refused to serve them any more, they started a fight, and were thrown out. A small knot of angry Philadelphia roughs gathered, and one of them threw a stick through the saloon window. When Decker returned from voting, the bartender pointed out the offender, who was still hanging about outside with his buddies.

Decker confronted the man, who then threw a swing at Decker. Charles Northrup intervened, and ended up punching the guy in the face. The Philadelphia gang yelled “Kill the son of a bitch!” and every Philadelphian around joined in chasing an outnumbered Northrup down the street, spurred on by the cry, “Rally, Philadelphians!”

Thomas Stokley, who was not closely associated with the “Roughs,” but apparently felt some loyalty to his homeboys, joined the melee in his fine frock coat.

Accounts of the running street fight vary wildly, but involved rocks, sticks, and knives (and one gun, which the owner quickly put away because he said he wasn’t that sort of dirty fighter). The men dashed through shops, frightening everyone in their way. When Charles had nearly reached home, he ran into his older brother George driving a team, who abandoned the wagon to assist. This renewed the Philly gang’s flagging interest in the chase.

George picked up a rock, and a man he didn’t know gave him a quick underhanded punch in the gut. He cried out to Charles that he’d been stabbed, at which point Anson came roaring out of their house with an axe, which dispersed the mob. George ran after them. When he came back, the family called a doctor, who gave him whiskey and morphine to dull the pain.

George Northrup was dead by 11 p.m., accusing a man named Edward McGovern with his dying breaths.

The sheriff arrested nine men, including McGovern and Stokely. Because there was no jail then, they were kept in the basement of Decker’s Brewery. A crowd assembled throughout the night calling for a lynching, but they were rebuffed. The next day, a group met at the Masonic Hall and called for an immediate hanging, but Anson Northrup and other citizens stopped them.

Two days later, there was a hearing, and four were released. The rest were charged with First Degree Murder and sent to Ramsey County jail in St. Paul. The lynching fervor remained, however, and Stokely’s lawyer was threatened. As a result, when the accused left for St. Paul via stagecoach, the released men went with them in irons in fear for their lives. When they reached St. Paul, three of the released men promptly re-enlisted in the army.

All of the remaining accused were soon released on bail, with the exception of Stokely. His lawyers attempted to get a change of venue for the trial, but because Duluth was growing so quickly, the judge asserted a fresh jury could easily be found.

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.