Dakota Datebook

Anders and Bassanella Bros

Monday, November 10, 2003

Today marks anniversaries in the lives of two North Dakota men who were complete opposites. One was the winner of the Medal of Honor, and the other was a cold-blooded killer.

Today is the birthday of Frank Anders, who was born in 1875 at Ft. McKeen near Mandan, where his father was stationed. After his father was discharged, they moved to Fargo, and in 1890, his father died from wounds he had suffered in the Civil War. Anders, who was only 15, left school and went to work for the railroad in order to support his family.

In 1898, Anders was serving a second enlistment in the National Guard when his unit was sent to the Philippines to fight. He saw combat and was awarded the Medal of Honor for “most distinguished gallantry” during action against the enemy in Luzon. At the time of his death in 1966, he was the oldest living holder of this medal in the country, for which he was invited to a reception held by President Kennedy at the White House in 1963.

As a retired army engineer and student of history, Anders spearheaded a project to mark the path taken by General George Custer from Ft. Lincoln to his last stand, and on May 17th, 1951, he led the 75th anniversary of that march.

This is also the anniversary of the sentencing of James Smith for killing a wealthy farmer in 1902. But the young Smith surprised everybody by admitting that he was actually one Jacob Bassanella, wanted for killing another farmer, Anton Anderson, in a boxcar in Grand Forks the year before.

Jacob and his younger brother, Joe, were both caught shortly after the boxcar murder and put in the county jail. On May 22nd, they escaped, but Joe was caught three weeks later in Montana. He was tried, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in the Bismarck penitentiary.

Shortly after that, a likable young man showed up in Washburn with tales of recently fighting in the Spanish American war. He stayed on and led an unremarkable life doing odd jobs. Then in March, he used a shotgun to murder a wealthy bachelor farmer, Anton Heilinger.

Smith was caught and charged with the crime several days later, but still showing himself to be an escape artist, he broke out of jail in September. He was caught after several weeks, this time at Fort Yates. He was moved to the Burleigh County jail in Bismarck, but he broke out again in late October. Caught again, Smith was held in Washburn until his trial in November.

He was found guilty and was brought in for sentencing on November 10th. He caught the judge off guard by, first, brashly admitting he killed Heilinger and then by admitting he was the other half of the Bassanella Brothers. He was sentenced to hang in February and was held again at Washburn. This time he was caught as he was carrying out another escape, and was put under watch day and night until the execution. He was hung on February 22nd, 1904.

They found a hand-written letter in his pocket absolving his younger brother of all blame in the boxcar murder. But Joe, the younger, was not absolved. He remained jailed until March 14, 1908, when he escaped by digging a tunnel. A sheriff recognized him, and 17 miles north of Washburn, they shot it out. A bullet to the brain brought Joe down, and the Bassanella Brothers faded into history.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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