Dakota Datebook

Gudmunder Grimson, Part 3

Thursday, June 24, 2004

This is part 3 of the story of Cavalier County State’s Attorney Gudmundur Grimson, who in 1922 prosecuted a case involving a Munich boy’s death by flogging in a Florida forced-labor camp.

Florida Governor Hardee had personally assured Grimson he would convene a grand jury investigation into 22 year-old Martin Taber’s death, but nothing happened. So the prosecutor turned to the North Dakota legislature, which soon passed a bill calling on Florida to act. Florida papers responded by telling ND’s “farmer legislators…to go back home and slop their hogs.”

Most Florida citizens had no idea that their penal system leased prisoners to private companies for slave labor at that time. All they knew was that they didn’t want this upstart “Yankee” – Gudmundur Grimson – bringing them bad publicity. One article condemned Grimson as an “ill-bred Northerner” for addressing an African American as “Mister,” and one even accused him of being a pawn hired by Florida’s competitor, California, to ruin Florida’s booming economy.

North Dakotans started sending donations to help fund the prosecution, and finally “Captain Walter Higginbotham, the man responsible for whipping Martin Tabert to death, was arrested.

Grimson needed more money to successfully prosecute, so he wired ten of the Nation’s largest daily newspapers to gain support and momentum. The first to respond was the New York World. The Florida legislature was extremely embarrassed by the nation-wide outcry and reacted by appointing a committee to disprove the charges. But after Grimson brought his witnesses and evidence before the Florida Grand Jury, they indicted Higginbotham.

Meanwhile, additional witnesses started to come forward to describe their own horrors at the hands of Florida’s corrupt penal system. Grimson, himself, testified before a Florida legislative committee for 30 days, after which the committee chairman admitted the North Dakota charges were true, and he publicly thanked Grimson and his State for their “interference” in Florida affairs.

Higginbotham was sentenced to 20 years, but he was re-tried in Dixie County, owned mostly by Putnam Lumber – the company that had leased Tabert from the county sheriff.

Higginbotham was acquitted, raising further outrage regarding Florida’s penal system. The end result was a reform of prison laws not only in Florida, but in many other parts of the country, as well.

When Higginbotham was set free, Grimson went after Putnam Lumber itself. The case was settled out of court, with the Company paying Martin’s family $20,000. The Taberts used the money to pay Grimson and to refund all the financial donations that could be traced.

One year after he took the case, the Indianapolis News stated, “Gudmundur Grimson, a plain, ordinary prosecuting attorney, has found it within his power to start a reform of great significance, hundreds of miles from where he lived. America could stand a few more Gudmundur Grimsons.”

Grimson was later appointed Judge of the District Court of the Second North Dakota Judicial District and, in 1949, he was appointed to the State Supreme Court, a position he held until 1958.

For it’s coverage of the Tabert case, the New York World was awarded the 1923 Pulitzer Prize.

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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