Saturday, December 19, 2015

On This Date in Minnesota History: December 19

December 19, 1905 – County Attorney Al J. Smith outlined the state’s theory of the Stella Brennan murder case in his opening statement this afternoon.

The state believes Stella Brennan’s dislike for her husband’s children was the motive for their murder; she was jealous of them and they were a continual source of annoyance. The Brennans’ divorce in April 1905 in Chicago was blamed on the children. She came to Minneapolis and remarried James Brennan with the understanding that he would dispose of the children. After a few weeks, she realized that the father was not going to send the children away, and she decided to get rid of them herself.

Brennan Children - Elizabeth, Tommy, Alice and Arthur
Minnesota Historical Society File Photo

The state also contends that the defendant bought cartridges for her husband’s revolver, which was the one used to shoot the children. She had told Tommy that they were all likely to be killed by a robber. She did not believe there was anyone sleeping in the store beneath the Brennans’ rooms, and on the night of Nov. 4, she put the smaller boy and the two girls in one bed. Tommy, who was his father’s favorite and for whom she had the least aversion, she put to bed on the couch with his clothes on. The state believes that she intended to spare Tommy’s life.

According to the state’s theory, her original plan was to kill the three sleeping children, then wake Tommy with cries of burglary, and with him hurry to the fire station to get her husband. The first part of her plan was carried out, but Tommy was awakened by the shots, and when she rushed to his couch, he sat up. She thought he knew of her crime, and in self-protection she told him to look for burglars, and when he turned his head she fired the shot that was intended to put him where he could never tell on her. Then she shot herself—whether for a defense or with the intention of wiping out the whole family is uncertain.

County Attorney Smith also reviewed the timeline of that tragic morning; from when everyone went to bed Friday evening, to around 1:30 AM Saturday, when shots were fired killing Lizzie, Alice and Arthur Brennan and wounding their brother Tommy and their stepmother Stella Brennan.  Smith described the powder burns surrounding the children’s wounds, indicating they were shot at close range, not through a window as their stepmother had originally claimed.

He described the tumultuous relationship Stella Brennan had with her four stepchildren; how from the time of James and Stella’s marriage until their separation and final divorce, there had been constant trouble between husband and wife over the children; that she had threatened to leave him unless he sent the children away, and that at one time, under false pretenses, they did put the children away in a Catholic orphan asylum in Chicago, and that she made the statement, not once, but many times, that if he did not put the children away, she would.

Stella Brennan in court1

The media and the public were fascinated by the defendant: a young, attractive woman who allegedly murdered her stepchildren was difficult to fathom. Every bench and chair in the third floor courtroom was filled. Much attention was focused on what the defendant wore to court—a black dress and veil (in mourning for her dead stepchildren?)—and her calm and cold   demeanor; she was described by reporters in terms that we would consider more sexist and tabloid-like than newsworthy today: 

“Most of the time the pretty defendant sat with her cheek resting on her shapely white hand, her elbow on the trial table, and her wide-eyed gaze fixed upon the county attorney.”

“Her color increased ever so slightly and there was the merest suggestion of moisture in the blue-gray eyes.”

Minneapolis Journal; “Outlines State’s Murder Theory. County Attorney Al. J. Smith Makes Opening Address. Says State Will Show That There Was no Man on the Roof or in the Room and That Mrs. Brennan Murdered Children Because of Her Jealous Hatred of Them.”; Dec. 20, 1905; p. 15.

Minneapolis Tribune; “Five Jurors. Lawyers Succeed in Securing Half of Jury in the Brennan Murder Case. Prejudice Against Death Stops Many. New Panel of One Hundred Men Is Drawn in Attempt to Complete Jury. Woman Tried For Her Life Is Not Nervous. Mrs. Brennan Chats With Matron and Reporters and Expects To Be Acquitted.”; Dec. 19, 1905; p. 6.

1Minneapolis Journal; Dec 19, 1905; p. 1.     

Murder of three Brennan children while they slept; oldest son and stepmother shot; see Nov. 4, 2015 blog

Stella Brennan indicted by coroner’s jury for murder of stepdaughter; see Nov. 9, 2015 blog

Stella Brennan indicted by Hennepin County grand jury for murder of her three stepchildren; see Nov. 21, 2015 blog

Stella Brennan spends Christmas in hospital room of the Hennepin County Jail; see Dec. 25, 2015 blog

Stella Brennan Found Guilty; sentenced to the State penitentiary for life; admits she is in a family way; see Dec. 30, 2015 blog

Daughter is born to Stella Brennan in Stillwater State Prison; see July 26,2016 blog


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