Bring ‘Em Back Alive !
Written and contributed by Ben Feld
Based on Watertown Republican story, 04 10 1895
The life of a lawyer can be rather boring at times, but every once in a while some case pops up and adds some excitement to our lives. One incident I remember well took place in 1895 and almost landed the sheriff of Jefferson County in jail. And he hadn’t done anything wrong. But that’s what they all say.
A certain John Armstrong, a man of questionable morals and intentions, had been accused of swindling a resident of the county and before he could be formally charged, he fled the county for parts unknown. Somehow , about April 1, 1895, word reached sheriff Shannon that Armstrong had been apprehended and was incarcerated near Brookings, South Dakota, about 15 miles west of the Minnesota-South Dakota state line.
Sheriff Shannon lost no time in hopping the train in Jefferson, expecting to reach Brookings in less than one day, where he would take custody of the wanted man, handcuff him, reboard the train, and be back in Jefferson, Wisconsin, in short order. This was not a new procedure for him. He anticipated no trouble for swindlers were not generally considered hardened, difficult prisoners.
But when he arrived at the jail near Brookings he learned that a habeas corpus petition had been filed and the prisoner’s case could not be heard until ten days after the proceedings were instituted. So Sheriff Shannon could do nothing but wait until the proceedings were finished.
During his wait, the lawman received a letter ostensively signed by the governor of South Dakota, revoking the requisition and the proceedings were immediately halted, which meant, in essence, that Armstrong was exonerated and was to be set free. But the sharp eye of Sheriff Shannon noticed that the letter which was supposed to have come from the governor did not bear the official seal of the state.
Smelling a rat, the sheriff presumed the letter to be a forgery and proceeded to arrest Armstrong, and, with him in custody, boarded the train for the long ride home to Jefferson. When the train made a brief stop at Brookings, somehow Armstrong was able to rally a group of men at the station and, with their help, he managed to escape.
There was nothing for the sheriff to do but leave for home empty handed. Where he had originally envisioned a triumphant arrival at home, now he had nothing to look forward to except a humbling arrival with the results of a failed mission to offer the people. Again Armstrong was free. It looked like he had escaped into the wilds of the West never to return. What a sad situation for an earnest lawman. And to make matters even worse, before he, the sheriff, had traveled many miles toward home he, himself, was arrested and taken into custody on the charge of trying to kidnap a prisoner. As Jimmy Durante would often say a half-century later, “what a revolting development that was!”
So the sheriff did the only thing he could do at a point like this; he took an adjournment, posted bail, and arrived home April 9, embarrassed, chagrinned, explaining over and over that he had handled the prisoner as he did because the governor’s letter had not had the state seal attached. But, Oh! the shame of it! He had left on a mission to bring back a criminal, but now there was a warrant out for his, the sheriff’s, arrest. The law enforcer had now become the criminal.
And so it was that on a
balmy spring evening,
Before we arrived in the state of South Dakota, we were apprised of the fact that the judge before whom the habeas corpus were had, was angry and intended to have Mr. Shannon arrested for contempt of court if he was cleared on the charge of kidnapping. Now what were we to do?
It didn’t take us long to come up with a plan and put it into action. Sheriff Shannon left the train in Lake Benton, on the border of the state of Minnesota, safe from any action by that judge but close enough to be within telephone range of me if that became necessary. Then I proceeded to Brookings where I learned, from examining the docket of justice, that jurisdiction had been lost and I so informed the local district attorney. Then to make the matter appear all right on the record, Armstrong, when he came before the court on the day set for the hearing, was persuaded to withdraw the complaint and Sheriff Shannon was discharged.
The sheriff was waiting for me at Lake Benton and we immediately resumed our journey home with Sheriff Shannon a free man!
And so was the swindler, Armstrong. Did we attempt to get him to make restitution for his crime? Maybe we should have, but both Sheriff Shannon and I kept hearing the voice of
Aesop saying: LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE.