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Execution of Thomas Brown

Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County
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Thomas Brown

Photograph of Thomas Brown taken shortly before his execution, ca. 1889. From the A. J. Olaughlin Collection, Clay County Archives (Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, Moorhead).

The only documented hanging held in Clay County occurred on September 20, 1889, when Thomas Brown was hanged for the murder of Moorhead Patrolman Peter Poull. Newspapers across the country reported on the sensational event; the Los Angeles Herald called it “a quiet execution.”

Thomas Brown was probably not the man’s real name. He spent much of his adult life in prison and was known as Tommy Ryan as an inmate of the Dakota Territorial Prison in Bismarck. He had served time in a Wisconsin jail under yet another name.

In the fall of 1888, Brown was with a group of vagrants near Hillsboro, North Dakota. No record exists of what caused an altercation, but someone pulled a gun. A shot was fired, and one of the men lay dead.

A farmer reported the incident to the Fargo Police Department and described the culprit’s appearance. With this information, Fargo police tracked down and detained a suspect, but the man evaded their surveillance and escaped.

An off-duty Fargo police officer named Benson (his first name is not recorded) then spotted the suspect at a dance at Erickson’s Hall in Moorhead. Benson identified him as Thomas Brown, the man wanted for the vagrant’s murder. Since Officer Benson did not have jurisdiction in Moorhead, he enlisted the help of Moorhead police patrolman John Thompson before continuing the pursuit.

When Brown saw Benson and Thompson approaching him, he pulled his gun. He told the officers to go downstairs, then followed them with his gun raised. When they reached the bottom of the stairs and went out into the street, Benson dodged into a hotel bar and hid.

Brown kept a gun on Thompson and demanded to know what Benson had said to him. While they were talking, a bystander who had seen Brown pull a gun on the officers found Moorhead Patrolman Peter Poull and told him that Thompson was in trouble. When Poull ran to help, Brown shot him, and he died in the street where he lay. Thompson shot and wounded Brown, who collapsed and surrendered.

Poull’s murder came as a shock to the citizens of Moorhead. People knew he was survived by a young wife, and that their baby was only two weeks old. Brown had been taken into custody, but he was by no means safe. Rumors began to circulate of a plan to administer instant justice and lynch Brown.

Sheriff Jorgen Jensen had no plans to allow a lynching in his town. Before vigilantes could break into the jail, Jensen was on his way to the Hennepin County Jail with Brown in his custody. Shortly after the men left town, an angry crowd descended on the jail in Moorhead. The officers there allowed a few men to search the jail. After they were convinced that Brown was gone, the disgruntled vigilantes quietly left.

Brown was returned to Clay County, where he stood trial for murder in January 1889. In his defense, he maintained he had never meant to kill Poull, only to frighten him. The jury conferred for three hours before delivering a guilty verdict, and Brown was sentenced to death. The hanging was scheduled for June 1889. The Minnesota Supreme Court granted a stay of execution, but Brown was denied a new trial. His new execution date was set for September 20.

Public executions were the rule in Minnesota until 1889. Though intended to deter criminal behavior, they were often drunken and rowdy affairs, with spectators gathering for entertainment. In 1889, Minnesota passed the John Day Smith Law, which required executions to be held privately and at night. State representative John Day Smith, the law’s sponsor, said it was meant to promote public morality. But since the law forbade newspapers from printing descriptions of an execution, they could only report that it had happened. Furious newspaper editors called it the “midnight assassination law.” The editor of the New Ulm Weekly Review said it was “a mighty queer and outrageous check on the freedom of the press.”

Brown was hanged at 4:30 a.m. on September 20 and buried in Moorhead, in St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery. His grave remained unmarked.

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  • Related Resources

“1889: Thomas Brown, Fargo-Moorhead Outlaw.” Executed Today, September 20, 2015.

Anderson, Michael. “Minnesota’s John Day Smith Law and the Death Penalty Debate.” Minnesota History 58, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 84–91.

“A Quiet Execution.” Los Angeles Herald, September 21, 1889.

“The Review.” New Ulm Weekly Review, July 24, 1889.

Related Images

Thomas Brown
Thomas Brown
Peter Poull
Peter Poull
Clay County Jail [undated]
Clay County Jail [undated]

Turning Point

In Moorhead in 1888, police arrest Thomas Brown for the murder of Patrolman Peter Poull.


October 1888

Fargo police identify Thomas Brown as a suspect in the fatal shooting of a man in Hillsboro, North Dakota.

October 18, 1888

Brown is spotted in Moorhead at a dance in Erickson’s Hall after midnight and approached by the police. Brown murders Patrolman Peter Poull.

January 1889

Brown is tried for murder, found guilty, and sentenced to be executed by hanging in June.

June 1889

The Minnesota Supreme Court stays Brown’s execution.

early September 1889

Brown is again sentenced to death.

September 20, 1889

Brown is hanged.


The State of Minnesota bans capital punishment.