“A Place Where Law and Order are to be Upheld” ~ Itasca County During Prohibition part 4 of 8

3.8.2021 [archived ~ previously published 8.23.2020]

Making arrests, especially during Prohibition, could be hazardous, even in Itasca County.  In July 1922, John Lence caught wind that his home in Taconite had been searched for moonshine and that law enforcement was looking for him.  A train ran between Grand Rapids and Duluth several times each day. Lence was expected to be on the evening train and, if so, would disembark at the Holman station just east of Taconite.

Earl P. Hyatt and Howard Harmon are identified as deputy sheriffs and employed at the Oliver Mine as policemen.  As mentioned in a previous article on Prohibition, there were no specific guidelines for the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment when it took effect in January 1920.  It appears that in Itasca County game wardens and mining company policemen had the authority to make illegal alcohol arrests. Hyatt and Harmon were waiting at Holman station.  When Lence got off the train, they planned to place him under arrest.  Lence had already decided as to how he wanted to deal with the situation. He shot both men, claimed self-defense, and was found guilty of murder less than two months later.

Moonshiner Shoots Two ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 7-5-1922

“Enraged because his activities in disposing of illicit liquor had been discovered, J.L. Lence, former Oliver policeman at Taconite, shot and seriously wounded E.P. Hyatt and Howard Harmon, Oliver patrolmen and deputy sheriffs, last Monday evening.  The shooting occurred at Holman, the Great Northern station nearest to Taconite, just as Lence stepped off the evening train to return to his home in Taconite.  Four shots were fired by Lence, three taking effect in Hyatt, and the other in Harmon.  Hyatt was shot twice through the neck and once in an arm, while Harmon was shot through the left breast, just above the heart.

“It appears that activity in moonshining was suspected of several individuals in Taconite, so the officers came to Grand Rapids on Monday and secured search warrants.  A search of three houses resulted in the arrest of Paul Salitero and H.N. Steinhart, and the finding of evidence in the Lence home.  Lence himself was away, however, and Hyatt and Harmon took the evidence they found and brought it and their two prisoners to Grand Rapids.  They then returned to Holman to await the arrival of Lence, who was expected on the Merry Widow train.

“Evidently, Mrs. Lence, or someone else knowing his location during the day, had telephoned him of the officers’ action, for when he got off the train, he had his heavy revolver in his right hand, carrying his grip in front to conceal it.  Seeing Hyatt and Harmon awaiting him on the platform, he opened fire as he stepped from the train, dropping both at once.  He then ran from the platform, and took the road to Taconite, escaping in the gathering dusk. His wife ran behind him, shielding Lence so that others who were on the platform could not shoot the escaping criminal.

“Word of the shooting was telephoned to the office of the sheriff in Grand Rapids and the Oliver police headquarters in Coleraine as soon as possible, and the injured men were taken to the Coleraine hospital.  The entire section between Holman, Taconite, and the mine pits to the north was surrounded, for it was thought Lence was hiding there.  Instead of that, however, he escaped through the cordon of guards and walked to a point two miles west of Coleraine, where he secured a lift from Claude Merritt of Deer River, who had been on the range and who was returning home.  Reaching Grand Rapids, the gunman first secured a lunch, and then went to the county jail and asked to be locked up, saying he had shot the officers.  He was immediately accommodated, and the hastily formed posse called in.”

The following day, the Iron Range News reported that while at Duffy’s restaurant, Lence heard that everybody knew what had happened and he told Deputy Sheriff Ed LeFevre that “he would no longer try to make his getaway.”

Although every effort was made to save Hyatt’s life, he died from the gunshot wounds two weeks later.  Immediately following Hyatt’s death, Judge Charles Stanton called a special term of the district court in Grand Rapids.  The term was scheduled to begin August 17. Both grand and petit jurors were drawn for the purpose of trying Lence, who was now charged with the murder of Hyatt.  It was one of the first murder trials in the county since women had the right to vote and be part of a jury. Alma Chalberg, the wife of Charles Chalberg of Goodland, “was ‘foreman’ of the [grand] jury which was made up largely of women.” [Iron Range News 8-24-1922]

John Lence

John Henry Lence was born about 1874.  At trial he stated he was from Kentucky, but the information in the 1930 and 1940 federal census records indicate he was born in Tennessee.  It is not known what brought him to Itasca County or when he arrived.  There is a Charles and Clara Lence in Bass Brook as early as 1905, but they were born in Iowa and Minnesota, respectively.  John Lence was married at the age of 42, and there are no known children.  He told Judge Stanton that while in Minnesota, he had lived a short time in Bemidji, Deer River, and Cohasset. When he got the job at the Oliver Mining Co., he and his wife lived in Taconite.  I have found no information on Mrs. Lence, other than that she died between 1930 and 1940.

Major Earl Hyatt

Earl Pearl Hyatt was born in Anoka, MN, in 1881.  He married Catherine Stewart, and together they raised two sons, James and Irving.  The 1910 Federal census shows the family living in Anoka, and Hyatt working as a store clerk.  Hyatt received the commendation of major during his nearly 20 years in the army.  He started as a member of the Minnesota National Guard in 1899, and by the time he returned from France after WWI he was a major.

The 1920 census shows Hyatt’s family living in Anoka, but he is not listed in the household. The Grand Rapids newspaper stated that he had been a deputy sheriff in Deer River before taking the job as a policeman for the Oliver Mining Company. Perhaps upon returning to Minnesota, he came north in hopes of securing a good position before moving the family.  General Albert F. Pratt was Colonel in the regiment in which Major Hyatt served in the army.  He was a friend of Hyatt’s and agreed to aid the prosecution in the trial of Lence, the man who killed his comrade.


The murder trial of John Lence began on Tuesday, August 22, with the selection of ten jurors from a pool of sixty men and women.  The following day, after two more jurors were secured, the presentation of evidence began.  There were fifteen witnesses for the prosecution and six for the defense.  Lence pleaded he shot in self-defense and, while on the stand, stated that the officers struck him with clubs. By late afternoon on Thursday, the case was given to the jury who returned a verdict several hours later.

Found Guilty of First Degree ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 8-30-1922

“‘Guilty of murder in the first degree.’ This is the verdict of the jury that tried J.L. Lence for the murder of Earl P. Hyatt, Taconite patrolman for the Oliver Iron Mining Company and deputy sheriff of Itasca County.  The evidence was all heard, the attorneys made their pleas, and the case was given to the jury, on Friday afternoon at 3:30.  It is reported that the jury determined the guilt of the defendant in less than ten minutes after entering the jury room, but that the degree which should be named took them several hours to decide.

“Judge Stanton and a large number of interested spectators were in the courtroom when the announcement was made late Friday evening that a verdict had been agreed upon.  The judge took his place on the bench, and the jury filed in.  After the verdict had been read, each member of the jury stated that it was his or her verdict.  The judge then congratulated the jury members on performing a difficult and disagreeable task in a satisfactory manner and discharged the members.

“The sentence was then passed upon Lence, who was present in the courtroom with his attorneys.  Judge Stanton imposed the penalty of imprisonment at hard labor in the state prison at Stillwater ‘for the term of your natural life’.

“During the trial, the defense attempted to enter a plea of self-defense in the killing of Hyatt and the shooting of Harmon.  This was disproved, however, by the testimony of a number of eyewitnesses who showed conclusively that no attempt was made to strike Lence or injure him in any way before the shooting was started.

“It is the general expression of opinion that the state’s side of the case was presented in the best possible manner by Ralph A Stone, County Attorney.  Mr. Stone worked diligently in the preparation of the case and presented the evidence in such a manner that it was clear to the jury, beyond doubt.  The summary disposal of this case, and the immediate sentence of the guilty man, will do much to put Itasca County on record as a place where law and order are to be upheld, and criminals punished.”

The jury for the trial included seven women and five men.  The newspaper listed the women by their husband’s names.  Instead, I chose to identify them by their birth name first. Elvira “Vie” (Crabill) Gary, Cohasset; Josephine Syverine (Noderhaug) Bartels, Cohasset; Emma Ruth (Sturgeon) Franti, Bovey; Eldora “Hattie” (Zimmerman) Franks, Coleraine; Mary (McDonald) Harlin, Marcell; Margaret (Benzing) Passard, Grand Rapids; and Mrs. G. Hill, Marble.  I could not find Mrs. Hill’s given name.  The men were: Albin Rudquist, Third River; James Duffy, Grand Rapids; John Rush, Bowstring; Ed Bowman, Nore; and Ernest Sweedman, Max.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s