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Flashback Friday: 160 years ago this week, the only woman ever to be executed in Minnesota was put to death

Charlie Wiese
Updated: March 27, 2020 04:31 PM
Created: March 26, 2020 07:50 PM

On March 23, 1860, two years after Minnesota was given statehood, 40-year-old Ann Bilansky was put to death by hanging.

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Bilansky was walked out of her cell at the Ramsey County Jail in St. Paul to a makeshift gallows erected in Court House Square, at the corner of Fifth and Cedar streets. She would become the first white person and only woman ever executed by the state of Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

According to "Justice In Heaven: The Trial of Ann Bilansky" by Matthew Cecil, the events that led to the end of Bilansky's life began just over one year earlier. Stanislaus Bilansky, Ann's husband, came down with a stomach ailment that would take his life on March 11, 1859, after being ill for two weeks. A coroner's jury originally ruled Stanislaus' death to be natural as he was a known drinker.

Soon after his burial, a witness to the coroner's jury revisited her testimony. One of Bilansky's neighbors, Lucinda Kilpatrick, recalled a trip with Ann where Ann bought arsenic, supposedly at the request of Stanislaus, as their home on East Seventh Street in St. Paul was infested with rats. After this testimony, Stanislaus' body was exhumed and a post-mortem exam was performed. The results of this exam appeared to show a single crystal which under a microscope resembled arsenic.

Stanislaus' death was ruled as death by arsenic and a grand jury indicted Ann on the charge of murder.

The trial began in May of that year, John Brisbin represented to defense and Ramsey County District Attorney Isaac Heard represented the state.

Heard's prosecution centered around the testimonies of Kilpatrick and their housekeeper Rosa Scharf. Kilpatrick alleged that Ann Bilansky was having an illicit affair with her cousin, John Walker, who lived in a shanty on the Bilansky's property. She stated in her testimony that Stanislaus told her that he "didn't like" the relationship between Ann and Walker. She also claimed that Ann had not shown grief at Stanislaus' funeral. Scharf backed up Kilpatrick's assertion, alleging that Ann had undressed in front of Walker. The prosecution hoped that all of this in conjunction with the fact that Ann had bought arsenic before Stanislaus' death would be enough for a conviction.

In Brisbin's cross-examination and defense, he attempted to discredit the key witnesses and prove that the Bilansky household was infested with rats, showing that Ann had good reason to purchase arsenic. When questioning Kilpatrick, Brisbin alleged that it was in fact she that was having an affair with Walker. Brisbin produced items that he alleged were gifts from Kilpatrick to Walker. When questioned if these were in facts gifts she'd given Walker, Kilpatrick refused to answer. When asked directly whether she had a relationship with Walker, Kilpatrick answered: "Our friendly terms were broken up over a month ago." Stanislaus' 10-year-old son from a previous marriage was next called to the stand where he testified that the household was overrun with rats.

Chemical analysis was also brought up during the trial, the prosecution brought forward Dr. William H. Morton, who led the postmortem.  Morton stated that the stomach had arsenic sufficient to kill within 30 minutes. The defense would later use this in their case as Stanislaus died over a two-week period, not 30 minutes. The defense also asserted that only one of six arsenic tests came back positive, and that test was not conclusive as it was.

The jury took five hours of deliberation to come back with a guilty verdict. The defense would immediately present motions to request a new trial, these however fell short.

Many citizens agreed that the trial was unfair, as the chief defense attorney had fallen ill during the trial and Kilpatrick refused to answer certain questions. The day before the execution, chief prosecutor Heard even wrote a petition urging commutation of the death sentence. He wrote that he had "grave and serious doubts as to whether the defendant has had a fair trial." One of the prime witnesses, Scharf, died by suicide shortly before Ann was hung.

Governor Ramsey denied pleas for commutation and Bilansky was hung on March 23, 1860. As she stepped up to the gallows she declared "I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice. I die for the good of my soul, and not for murder."

For more information regarding the Bilansky case you can read the chapter at the link here.


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