3.19.2023 [archived ~ originally published 3.3.2016]
Cass County Jail 1904
On Tuesday January 26th, 1904, William Chounard returned to his home in Cass Lake under the influence of alcohol and shot his wife three times. The first bullet struck Dora in the abdomen and when she ran from him, he fired and hit her twice more. Badly injured, Dora was taken the following day by train to the hospital in Duluth. On Thursday she died. Seven months later William was hung for the murder of his wife, leaving their young daughter Beatrice an orphan.
Although neither the murder nor trial occurred in Itasca County, when the sentence was decided, residents of the area were just as interested in the news as everyone else in northern Minnesota. This was the first death sentence in this part of the state. Our county papers didn’t even carry the news story of the trial. Here are the lengthy headlines from the Bemidji Daily Pioneer on April 30, 1904:
Death Penalty Imposed
Wm. Chounard Must Hang for the Murder of His Wife at Cass Lake
Judge Spooner Passes Death Sentence Last Night
Court Room Crowded to the Capacity During Impressive Scene
William Chounard was born in 1877. His parents died before he was ten and his grandmother raised him and a sister. He attended high school in Little Falls, and then started at St John’s College Before William finished the first year he headed north and was living in Bemidji between 1898 and 1900. He was a professional piano player, playing mostly in the saloons and houses of ‘ill-fame’.
It was in Bemidji that William met Dora and they eventually moved to Cass Lake. They had a child together and were considered married by common law standards. He continued to furnish music for the saloons, and Dora worked when she could. The Chounard’s eventually purchased an establishment and ran it until the time of the murder. Dora was a beautiful woman and William a jealous man. He had no recollection of the night of the shooting, but many witnesses during the trial told of the arguments the couple had the months preceding the incident.
William’s sister Marie and an aunt, Mrs. Young were diligent about getting a petition with over three thousand signatures submitted to the clemency board in hopes of commuting the sentence to life imprisonment. The petition included signatures of eight of the ten jurymen whose findings resulted in the death penalty. The state board of pardons denied the request. The date of the execution set by Governor Van Sant would remain – Tuesday August 30th, 1904.
Chounard’s attorney submitted an appeal with the Minnesota Supreme Court and their decision was filed at 3 o’clock p.m. on August 29th. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the lower court. There would be no stay of execution. William would die within twelve hours. Marie was at the State Capitol with her brother’s attorney when the decision was announced. She was devastated. By William’s request, she had not seen him for months and would not see him before the execution. He had written her that he preferred she not add her own sorrow and grief, and possibly unnerve him, by a visit.
Meets Death Like A Man ~ Bemidji Daily Pioneer 8-30-1904
“At 1:07 o’clock this morning Wm. Chounard was executed at Walker for the murder of his wife at Cass Lake last January. He walked to the gallows unassisted, repeated the Lord’s Prayer, allowed the noose to be fastened around his neck and was swung to eternity, the law fully satisfied. The murderer was a little pale but held up throughout the affair without the slightest emotion being manifested.
He did not flinch, had nothing to say before death, but died without so much as a word on his behalf.
Twenty deputies were in his cell when the prisoner was led out at 1:05. Father Murphy told him to be brave, and Chounard promised that he would. Sheriff Hardy led the procession to the steps of the scaffold; two priests came next, the prisoner and two deputies following them. They walked up the steps to the platform, no hand of assistance being tendered to Chounard.
When they reached the scaffold Father Murphy knelt and repeated the Lord’s Prayer, Chounard repeated it with him. Father Murphy spoke for the condemned man and said that he had nothing to say. The hood was put over the body and the arms and legs of the condemned man were tightly strapped to his side. The noose was then put around his neck by a deputy, Chounard looking around at him as he fastened the rope.
The hood was then pulled over his head, and as soon as it was fastened the trap fell, being exactly seven minutes past one o’clock, and two minutes after the condemned man was led from the cell.
The body hung there until 1:13 when Dr. Wilcox made an examination to see whether or not life was extinct. After a short examination, he said, ‘There is no pulse, gentlemen.’ He found that the neck was broken instantly.”
As far as I know, this was the only death sentence that ever occurred in northern Minnesota. 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 very last person to be hung in Minnesota was William Williams in 1906. When his hanging went awry, newspapers broke state law to report the graphic story. The botched Williams execution caused renewed fervor against the death penalty. Williams was the last person legally executed by the state, and capital punishment was formally repealed in 1911.
I could not find out what happened to Beatrice Chounard, the daughter of Dora and William. She was said to be living with her aunt, Marie Hitts in Brainerd at the time of the trial but Marie’s husband had died by 1905 and she had a young son to care for. Marie was the only sibling I found documentation of, so perhaps the young girl was adopted by someone with the financial means to support her. Beatrice was not listed as residing with Marie on the 1905 state census. The 1910 United States census shows Marie and her son Elmer living in St. Paul where she is working as a dress maker.