Duluth’s First Murder

Law and Order Prevails

The trial began a year later on August 17, 1870. Stokely was the first of the Philadelphia gang to be tried. It was alleged in the newspapers that Stokely had confessed to Anson Northrup that he was drunk and acting in self-defense. However, Anson never testified to this story in a court of law. No one present at the stabbing could testify clearly that it was Stokley who’d done the deed. However, the fact that he’d been seen earlier with a knife and his recognizable frock coat induced the jury to find him guilty. His only defense was that he was a good boy, of good character.

Thomas Stokley was found guilty of murder in the second degree, and sentenced to natural life in Stillwater. All the other accused men were either released or acquitted.

In 1871, however, Daddy Stokely was ready to campaign for mayor. Though his son’s murder conviction had miraculously not (as far as this author can ascertain) been publicized in the Philadelphia papers, something had to be done to clear the way for Philadelphia’s hero of law and order.

National Republicans had strong public mandate to punish the South for the Civil War, along with the Democratic Party. More than anything, they wanted to keep northern Democrats out of office across the board. As a result, Republican Minnesota Governor Horace Austin was under extreme pressure to assist in Stokely’s election. Republican heavyweights leaned on him from all quarters, including the Union Republican City Executive Committee of Philadelphia, who wrote to him, “Naturally Mr. Stokley’s mind is very much distressed on this subject and it being an important epoch in our local politics we would like him to have an assurance that at the appropriate time he will be relieved of this affliction.”

All in all, members of both the grand jury and the trial jury, two members of the prosecution, three former governors, one future governor, and some former members of the Minnesota Supreme Court petitioned for Stokely’s release. Even Jay Cooke wrote a letter and engineered a meeting between the elder Stokley and the U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Alexander Ramsey.

The chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party wrote to Austin on September 4, 1871:

To carry the State of Pennsylvania in this campaign we must carry the City of Philadelphia, and to carry Pennsylvania in the great contest of 1872, we must control the police force of the City. Much at this moment depends upon the activity of Mr. Stokley in the campaign, who since the sentence of his son is almost paralyzed with grief, and we ask you as the Committee representing the great Republican party of the State of Pennsylvania to grant the pardon of the condemned, and by so doing infuse new life and vigor in our candidate for Mayor of Philadelphia, and recover the City to republican rule and control.

Even Anson Northrup and his wife Betsey wrote a letter: “The dead cannot be brought to life, the majesty of the law has been maintained, and we hope and believe a repentant heart has obtained mercy and pardon above. We earnestly write… that the lonely son may be returned to his Parents and Society and that a life of usefulness and honor may be placed in his power.”

Austin caved, and Thomas was pardoned. William S. Stokley was elected mayor of Philadelphia in November of 1871. He subsequently served two more terms.

Thomas Stokely of Philadelphia married a girl named Sarah, and had several children. He died at age 42, having served many years as deputy sheriff and assistant highway commissioner.

It’s unknown when or if the following tale occurred, but according to Jerome Cooley, Anson Northrup ran into the editor of the Duluth Tribune on the street one morning. They greeted each other, and Old Anse said, “One moment, Mr. Mitchell.”

“Say,” said Mr. Northrup, “If you ever mention me or any of my boys in your paper, I’ll shoot you. Good morning.” Cooley adds,  “Needless to say, he was left alone.”

Old Anse’s violent legacy, however, seems mostly to have been visited upon his sons. His second son Charles died some years later in a quarrel just outside of Deadwood, South Dakota.

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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.