Thursday, April 7, 2016

On This Date in Minnesota History: April 7


April 7, 1869 Sometime between 6 and 7 this morning, James Armstrong heard a commotion coming from the direction of his neighbor James B. Gray’s Oakdale, Minn., farm. Armstrong walked towards the Gray farm, and held back when he saw James Gray sitting on the steps of his granary alternately whistling and screaming while holding a rope in his hands. Instead of confronting Gray, Armstrong ran to the house of Gray’s father and told him something had happened at his son James’ house. The father, E. G. Gray and another son, Henry, proceeded in haste to the Gray farm. The father ran through the fields, while the brother and Armstrong took the road; the father reached the James B. Gray farm first.

Entering his son’s house, the father found his four grandchildren, James’ children— Margaret, nearly 10; James B., Jr., 8; David, 5, and Nellie Jane, 2-1/2—dead on the floor. They were lined up in order of age—the oldest child closest to the bed and the youngest closest to the door—and covered with a quilt; their necks slashed so severely, their heads were nearly decapitated.

Diagram of where the bodies were discovered1

E. G. Gray left the house in search of his daughter-in-law, only to find his son walking towards him, the rope still in his hands. Luckily, Armstrong and Henry arrived at that time; it took all three of them to contain the crazed man and securely tie him up. They asked him where his wife Alice was, and he responded, “I killed them all with an axe, and they are gone to heaven. Oh, hang me! Hang me!” He finally told them his wife was in the granary. Fearing the worst, the men found Alice Gray face down on the granary floor, in a pool of blood, covered by a quilt. The family dog had also been murdered.

James was loaded into a wagon and taken by his brother Maxwell and neighbor Armstrong to the Ramsey County jail in St. Paul for his own safety, rather than to the Washington County jail in Stillwater. Other neighbors hurried off to contact the coroner and local authorities about the terrible tragedy.

The murderer sat quietly on the ride to St. Paul, but on arriving at the county jail, it took several men to drag him to his cell. His eyes were rolling in frenzy and he struggled violently even after being laid upon a mat in the cell. James refused to stay down, and several times tried to hurt himself by beating his head against the sides of his cell.

James’s mattress was moved to the upper end of the jail’s south corridor. A strap fastened around his waist attached to a ring fastened to the floor. Two other rings placed at the foot of the mattress for his feet, and one on each side for his hands.

During one of James more lucid moments, he told authorities he had not felt well for several days, and that early the day of the murder, he was uneasy about one of his cows; he said he had been up and down several times to check on her.

“Just before daylight I went out again and my wife went with me. On arriving at the yard, I found the cow had a calf, but it was dead, and another was sick that I thought would die. (This existed only in his disordered mind, as no dead calf or sick cow was found on his property.) When I found this, I thought I was coming to poverty—that I was sick and would die soon, and all my family would be left destitute, and I thought it would be better to send them to heaven at once.”

It was learned from his family that approximately 13 years ago, James Gray had gone deaf after experiencing a severe cold. His hearing had gotten better over the years, but he still experienced occasional melancholy due to his health. Last Friday, April 3, James’ wife and brothers noticed that James seemed unusually nervous and anxious. On Saturday, his brothers drove with him to St. Paul to unload his grist, and while they were there, took him to visit Dr. Willey, who gave James some medicine, which he took daily thereafter, including, it is believed, the morning of the murder.

Sample medicine bottle from the mid-1800s2

On April 14, 1896, a Washington County probate judge wrote to the Hospital for the Insane in St. Peter, Minn., that James. B. Gray had been examined and determined to be insane, and therefore the hospital was required to take him. Gray entered the hospital on April 16, 1869.

St. Peter Hospital for the Insane3

St. Peter records show that for about a month after being admitted to the hospital, Gray was confined in a strong crib with sedative treatments. He was occasionally excitable, but became quiet and was allowed to be dressed and out of his cell, walking the hall. Under tonic remedies, he rapidly regained in general health.

His patient log for Aug. 2, 1869, notes that he has been quiet and assists attendants about the hall and about the premises. He is no longer taking medication.

On March 1, 1870, it was noted that he had been at work every day, and showed no symptoms of relapse.

June 1, 1870, his patient log says he continues to work every day. Staff would like to “send him home, but friends and family are afraid of him.”

Gray was eventually discharged as recovered on Dec. 1, 1871, and retained as an employee. He’d been in the hospital for 2 years and 7-1/2 months. Obviously he couldn’t go back to Washington County; for whatever reason, he decided to stay in Nicollet County.

By the 1880 Census, James B. Gray was farming in Lake Prairie, remarried and had a son.

Nicollet County Map4

He died Dec. 8, 1896, in Lake Prairie of consumption (tuberculosis), leaving behind his wife and three children—two sons and one daughter. His obituary in the St. Peter Free Press listed his name as James T. Gray and said “He came to this state and county some thirty years ago, the most of which were spent on his farm in Lake Prairie where he died.”

Did anyone in Lake Prairie know about his past? Was the James T. Gray a typo, or is that the name he went by in the second half of his life?

While the newspapers of the time put much of the blame for his insanity on his despair over his deafness, in hindsight, I wonder if the medicine the doctor gave him was the cause. Back in the day, many medicines contained opiates, including laudanum and cocaine. Could that be what set him off?

St. Paul Dispatch; "Horrible Affair. A
n Insane Man Murders His Wife and Four Children. The Terrible Scene Presented. His Capture and Confinement."; April 7, 1869; p. 4.

St. Paul Dispatch: "The Great Tragedy. Coroner's Inquest Yesterday. Theory of the Manner of the Murder. Condition of the Maniac Today. Funeral of Victims at St. Mary's Church."; April 8, 1869; p. 4.

1St. Paul Daily Pioneer; "A Bloody Tragedy. A Man Kills His Wife and His Four Children. Lays Them Out on the Floor. Ghastly and Dreadful Sight. The Coroner's Inquest and Verdict. Murderer Arrested and in Jail."; April 8, 1869; p. 4.

St. Paul Daily Pioneer; "The Maniac Murder. Condition of the Murderer. His Appearance and Actions in Jail. He is Visited by His Relatives. Funeral of His Victims Today. At St. Mary's Church, East Ninth St."; April 9, 1869; p. 4.

Photo taken by Pamela J. Erickson. Released into the public domain April 7, 2016, as long as acknowledgement included.




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