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Execution of Ann Bilansky, 1860

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Oil on canvas painting (1888) by Alexis Jean Fournier of the Ramsey County courthouse in St. Paul as it appeared at the time of Ann Bilansky's trial in 1859.

Oil on canvas painting (1888) by Alexis Jean Fournier of the Ramsey County courthouse in St. Paul as it appeared at the time of Ann Bilansky's trial in 1859.

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.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

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.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/55/v55i08p350-363.pdf

Lewis, Chad. Haunted St. Paul. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010.

Related Images

Oil on canvas painting (1888) by Alexis Jean Fournier of the Ramsey County courthouse in St. Paul as it appeared at the time of Ann Bilansky's trial in 1859.
Oil on canvas painting (1888) by Alexis Jean Fournier of the Ramsey County courthouse in St. Paul as it appeared at the time of Ann Bilansky's trial in 1859.
Watercolor on paper of the office of the St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat newspaper as the building appeared in 1858.
Watercolor on paper of the office of the St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat newspaper as the building appeared in 1858.
Photograph taken by Benjamin Franklin Upton from the steeple of the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, 1857. The Day and Jenks drug store appears in the middle-left of the image.
Photograph taken by Benjamin Franklin Upton from the steeple of the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, 1857. The Day and Jenks drug store appears in the middle-left of the image.
Pastel drawing on paper made c.1900 of John Ball Brisbin, the St. Paul lawyer who defended Ann Bilansky in her 1859 murder trial, as he appeared c.1860.
Pastel drawing on paper made c.1900 of John Ball Brisbin, the St. Paul lawyer who defended Ann Bilansky in her 1859 murder trial, as he appeared c.1860.
Carte-de-visite photograph of Charles E. Flandrau taken by Whitney's Gallery in December of 1862. Flandrau served on the Minnesota State Supreme Court from 1858 to 1864.
Carte-de-visite photograph of Charles E. Flandrau taken by Whitney's Gallery in December of 1862. Flandrau served on the Minnesota State Supreme Court from 1858 to 1864.
Willis Arnold Gorman, Brigadier General, First Minnesota Infantry
Willis Arnold Gorman, Brigadier General, First Minnesota Infantry

Turning Point

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.

Chronology

1842

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.

1856

Bilansky's second wife, Ellen, leaves him after nine years of marriage.

1858

In September, Bilansky marries Mary Ann Evards Wright, a widow from North Carolina by way of Illinois.

February 28, 1859

Ann Bilansky buys ten cents' worth of arsenic from Day & Jenks, a St. Paul.

March 11, 1859

After about two weeks of stomach illness, Stanislaus Bilansky dies.

March 12, 1859

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.

March 13, 1859

Stanislaus Bilansky's body is exhumed; medical examiners find traces of a substance that is possibly arsenic. Ann Bilansky is arrested.

March 15, 1859

A second coroner's jury rules that Bilansky died of arsenic poisoning.

May 23, 1859

Ann Bilansky's murder trial begins.

June 3, 1859

The jury finds Ann Bilansky guilty of murder.

July 25, 1859

The Minnesota Supreme Court denies the defense's appeal. Bilansky escapes from jail.

August 1, 1859

Bilansky is captured.

Decem-ber 2, 1859

Bilansky is sentenced to death.

January 25, 1860

Governor Alexander Ramsey sets March 23 as the date of execution.

March 5, 1860

The legislature passes a bill commuting Bilansky's sentence to life in prison.

March 8, 1860

Governor Ramsey vetoes the bill.

March 23, 1860

Ann Bilansky is executed by hanging in downtown St. Paul.









  

Comments

Is there eye witness art of the hanging, such as the drawings of the mass execution in Mankato?
Are there any eye witness writings of the hanging, such as newspapers, diaries, letters, etc.?
I once toured the Tower of London and they have an amazing treasure trove of contemporaneous artifacts documenting the bloodthirsty bloodlust at the bloody public executions. Maybe we could do one at the corner of Fifth and Cedar.