Tuesday, July 5, 2016

On This Date in Minnesota History: July 5

July 5, 1938 – Around 8 a.m., Bill Groteke, custodian of the Freeborn County Courthouse, climbed the stairs to the top of the tower to fix the striking apparatus of the clock. When he poked his head through “the small trap door to the clock area,”1 to his horror, he was looking into the decomposing face of a man, his mouth and eyes wide open, hanging “from a half inch rope some five feet in length”2.

Groteke quickly climbed back down the ladder and notified Sheriff Helmer Myre, who then notified the coroner, Dr. D. S. Branham.

Freeborn County Courthouse, Albert Lea, Minn.6

According to the sheriff, the rope around his neck was a perfect hangman’s noose. “A small ladder had been placed besides the body. It was quite evident that the man had climbed onto the ladder, placed the noose about his neck and then stepped off into space.”2

“It took nearly two hours to get the body from where it was hanging to the ground. During the process, hundreds of people gathered in cars along South Broadway and on the lawn to watch the gruesome operations.”2

Sheriff Myre took fingerprints, and with the man’s description—approximately 35 years of age and five feet, seven inches tall; brown hair with a reddish tinge and quite long; wearing a fine grey double breasted suit with a light pin stripes and a practically new black rain coat—sent them to Washington by airmail.

Identification was made even more difficult by the fact that the man was badly decomposed to the point where his skin had turned entirely black. Also, “the man had taken great care to keep his identity secret, having cut all the labels and laundry marks from his clothes before killing himself. Even the name of the company that manufactured his glasses was cut from his glasses case in his coat pocket.”1

However, at least six people identified the body as that of George “Red” Russell, a saxophone player with the Ray Keyes traveling orchestra, only two day later to find that Russell was in Waterloo, Ia., with Jimmie Smith’s orchestra.3, 4

The body was also potentially thought to be that of William Webber of Fairmont, Minn., but fingerprints taken did not match those of Webber’s prints on file at the State Bureau of Criminal Identification.5

To this day, the identity of the Freeborn County Courthouse "hangman" remains a mystery.1



The Evening Tribune; “Body of Strange Man Found Hanging in Court House Clock Tower”: Albert Lea, Minn.; July 5, 1938; p. 2.

New Ulm Daily Journal; “Dead Man At Albert Lea Is Musician”; July 6, 1938; p. 1.

New Ulm Daily Journal; “Claim Albert Lea Suicide Still Alive”; July 8, 1938; p. 1

New Ulm Daily Journal; “Body In Albert Lea Tower Still Unidentified Today”; July 11, 1938; p. 1.


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