Ann Bilansky was the only woman executed by the action of Minnesota courts. She died in 1860, but doubts about her guilt remain alive.
From soon after statehood in 1858 until 1906, Minnesota law authorized the death penalty for murder. In that time twenty-seven convicts were hanged by order of state courts. The most controversial execution remains that of Ann Bilansky, the only woman ever hanged in Minnesota.
Stanislaus Bilansky, a Pole, arrived in St. Paul from Wisconsin in 1842 at age thirty-five. He worked as a tailor, then a storekeeper-barkeeper on what became East Seventh Street. He was a melancholy man, angry, a drinker, and often ill. His second wife, Ellen, abandoned him and their four children in 1856.
Mary Ann Evards Wright (known as Ann), a widow originally from North Carolina, moved to St. Paul in April 1858 at the request of her nephew, John Walker. In September she married Stanislaus Bilansky and took over the care of the Bilansky children. John Walker took up residence in the two room shanty behind their home.
In late February 1859 Stanislaus Bilansky began showing symptoms of stomach illness, including fever and vomiting. He died on March 11.
A coroner's jury, hastily assembled the next day, ruled the death natural. Bilansky was buried March 12. But that evening one of the witnesses at the inquest, Lucinda Kilpatrick, reported to police that she now remembered having been with Ann Bilansky on February 28. She recalled that on that date, Ann Bilansky bought ten cents' worth of powdered arsenic and made some odd comments about her husband "drop[ping] away sudden." On March 13 the coroner exhumed the body; medical examiners found a trace that resembled arsenic. Ann Bilansky was arrested later that day and on March 15 a new coroner's jury ruled the death a homicide.
The trial began May 23 with Isaac Heard prosecuting and John Brisbin for the defense. The heart of Heard's case was that Ann Bilansky had bought arsenic on February 28; twelve days later her husband died of arsenic poisoning. The proposed motive was a liaison, or desired liaison, with John Walker.
Brisbin put up a skilled and vigorous defense. The medical evidence was inexpert and ambiguous, and his own expert witness gave a contrary opinion. The evidence of any love affair was slender and speculative. Ann Bilansky had sound reason for buying arsenic: rats infested the house and store. But a jury may choose which witnesses to believe. It convicted Ann Bilansky on June 3.
The case went to the state supreme court, though on narrow and technical grounds. The court denied the defense's appeal on July 23. Within hours of learning her appeal had been denied, Ann Bilansky escaped from jail by squeezing through window bars. Authorities caught her a week later just a few miles away.
On December 2, 1859, Judge Edward Palmer imposed his sentence: death. Governor Alexander Ramsey set March 23 as hanging day. But Ann Bilansky still had many supporters, a new attorney in former territorial governor Willis Gorman, and two more avenues to pursue.
On March 5 the legislature passed a bill commuting Bilansky's sentence to life in prison. Governor Ramsey, whose brother Justus had served on the jury, vetoed the bill.
Willis Gorman now turned to clemency. The state constitution gave the governor sole and unlimited power to pardon Bilansky or commute her sentence to any length of imprisonment he wished. Pardon petitions came from citizens deploring the death penalty. Gorman submitted a strong argument for Bilansky's innocence that lamented many irregularities in the trial.
Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice Charles Flandrau wrote that he opposed the execution of a woman. Ann Bilansky wrote Governor Ramsey a four-page letter asserting her innocence. The most powerful plea came from a surprising source, prosecutor Isaac Heard, who wrote of his "grave and serious doubts as to whether the defendant has had a fair trial."
Their efforts were to no avail. On March 23, before about a hundred people at the corner of Fifth Street and Cedar Street, Ann Bilansky mounted a temporary platform and was executed. Before she died, she promised that she would find justice in heaven.
She is buried in an unmarked grave in Calvary Cemetery.
Bessler, John D. Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Cecil, Matthew. "Justice in Heaven: The Trial of Ann Bilansky." Minnesota History 55, no. 8 (Winter 1997–1998): 350–363.
Lewis, Chad. Haunted St. Paul. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010.
Just hours after a coroner's jury rules Stanislaus Bilansky's death a natural one, Lucinda Kilpatrick tells police that shortly before his death Ann Bilansky had bought powdered arsenic. Traces of something that could have been arsenic is found in his exhumed body the following day.
Stanislaus Bilanksy moves to St. Paul from Wisconsin and builds a cabin between Phalen's Creek and Trout Brook. He later operates a combination store and bar on what becomes East Seventh Street near downtown.
Bilansky's second wife, Ellen, leaves him after nine years of marriage.
In September, Bilansky marries Mary Ann Evards Wright, a widow from North Carolina by way of Illinois.
Ann Bilansky buys ten cents' worth of arsenic from Day & Jenks, a St. Paul.
After about two weeks of stomach illness, Stanislaus Bilansky dies.
A coroner's jury rules that Bilansky died of natural causes and he is buried. Later that day Ann Kilpatrick tells police that Ann Bilansky had purchased arsenic.
Stanislaus Bilansky's body is exhumed; medical examiners find traces of a substance that is possibly arsenic. Ann Bilansky is arrested.
A second coroner's jury rules that Bilansky died of arsenic poisoning.
Ann Bilansky's murder trial begins.
The jury finds Ann Bilansky guilty of murder.
The Minnesota Supreme Court denies the defense's appeal. Bilansky escapes from jail.
Bilansky is captured.
Bilansky is sentenced to death.
Governor Alexander Ramsey sets March 23 as the date of execution.
The legislature passes a bill commuting Bilansky's sentence to life in prison.
Governor Ramsey vetoes the bill.
Ann Bilansky is executed by hanging in downtown St. Paul.