Dakota Datebook

Last Execution

Friday, October 17, 2003

It was on this day in 1944 that the Army Corps of Engineers and the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation reached an agreement on a Missouri Basin flood control project, known as the Pick-Sloan Plan, which led to the building of Garrison Dam.

And on this date, in 1905, John Rooney was hanged at the State Penitentiary in Bismarck. He had been convicted of murder, but went to his death claiming he was innocent.

Three years earlier, on August 26th, three brothers by the last name of Sweet were camped out near the railroad tracks on the west side of Fargo when three men in masks attacked and robbed them. The oldest of the three victims, Harold, fought back and ended up getting shot in the stomach. His two brothers jumped the gunman and managed to hold him down, but the other two got away.

The man accused of the shooting was identified as John Rooney, and the next day when Harold Sweet died from his gunshot wound, Rooney was charged with first degree murder.

Rooney insisted that he had been wrongly accused and that one of his partners, who he called Kansas Slim, had actually been the one to pull the trigger. The state wasn’t convinced, however, and in January, 1903, Rooney was found guilty and sentenced to hang in March.

Dakota Territory had established the death penalty in 1865, and it had been carried forward into law when North Dakota achieved statehood. Before that, only one legal execution had taken place in the northern half of the Territory in 1885. After statehood, six legal executions took place, usually next to county courthouses. Rooney was to be number seven.

Two of Fargo’s leading attorneys took his case, even though Rooney was penniless and appeared to be a professional criminal. In fact, Rooney was friendly toward local reporters during the time leading up to his death, and according to those reporters, Rooney admitted being the leader of a gang that had regularly preyed upon harvest workers who migrated to North Dakota every fall. Nevertheless, W. S. Stambaugh and Burleigh Spalding were successful in getting Rooney’s execution date put off three times; but the final date of October 17th was finally set.

Rooney was taken to Bismarck to be put to death, as dictated by a 1903 law stating that all executions had to take place at the state penitentiary. A new portable gallows was set up inside the prison’s walls, and though still maintaining that he was innocent, John Rooney was hung by the neck until dead. Hanging was the only method of execution ever used in the state.

Rooney has the dubious distinction of being the last person to be legally executed in North Dakota. In 1915, as a way to protect prison guards, the penalty was reserved for prisoners who committed first degree murder while already serving sentences for first degree murder. In 1975, the death penalty was abolished entirely.

In 1995, the legislature considered reinstituting the death penalty, but the bill was defeated on the grounds of morality and economics.

In looking back, more people have been lynched than executed in what is now North Dakota. According to state historian, Frank Vyzralek, nine illegal executions have taken place, including a triple lynching in 1897, in Emmons County, after the State reversed the conviction of one of the three unlucky victims.

The last lynching in the state was in 1931, when a mob overpowered the sheriff in the Schafer Jail, east of Watford City, to hang Charles Bannon.

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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