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Tuesday December 12th 2017

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Julius Edward Johnson: His $140.00 Pocket Change remains a mystery

The $140 in the pocket of Julius Edward Johnson was more than enough to cover the cost of his burial.  Graves sold for fewer than $10 and a plain box would not have cost even that much. His money bought him a place in the cemetery that is about as far from the Potters Field as it is possible to get.  He is buried in Lot 3, Block 3, in the 12th grave from the north, near the 29th Street overpass over the Midtown Greenway.

By Sue Hunter Weir

It’s hard to disappear these days—not impossible—but very difficult. That was not always the case. Before we had all of the various forms of identification that we have now, to say nothing of fingerprints and DNA, people were more or less who they said they were. People could pull up stakes, move to a new town and start over. They could also simply get lost—no one who knew them knew where they were when they died so they were buried as strangers.

There are two men buried in the cemetery who were assigned names by the county coroner. Newspaper accounts about the circumstances surrounding their deaths referred to these men simply as strangers. They are different from the 32 unknown men buried in the Potters Field, though. The difference is that these two men had significant amounts of money in their pockets when they died and that was enough to keep them from being buried in the cemetery’s paupers’ section.

In the early part of the 20th century, when bodies were found and went unclaimed by family or friends, they became the property of the county coroner. In the case of these two men the coroner at the time made what might be considered heroic efforts to locate the men’s friends and families to take charge of their remains and make funeral arrangements. Despite his efforts, the coroner did not succeed and wound up making his best guess as to what the stranger’s name might be and arranging for the stranger’s burial.

The first stranger, whose name most likely was Edward Johnson or perhaps Julius Edward Johnson although possibly neither, collapsed in a clothing store on Washington Avenue on October 6, 1900. He was conscious long enough to tell the store’s clerks that he was registered in a local lodging house; before he could say more he lapsed into a coma. He was taken to Swedish Hospital where he died from a cerebral hemorrhage eleven days later.

When he was found he was carrying his “first papers,” his application to become a naturalized American citizen. He had filed the papers in Lewis and Clark County, Montana two and a-half years earlier. Since there was a five-year residency requirement to apply for citizenship, he had probably come to the United States in the early 1890s. If the papers were his, and there is little reason to think that they weren’t, his name was Julius Edward Johnson; he was 28 years old and had come from Sweden. For some reason, the doctor who signed his death certificate dropped the name Julius and recorded the stranger’s name as Edward Johnson.

Mr. Johnson had come to Minneapolis from Montana only a week or two before he became ill, but no one in Minneapolis appears to have known why, or at least no one who might have known him came forward. Perhaps he had family here and they didn’t read or hear about the coroner’s search or perhaps he came here by himself to take care of, or start, a business. Maybe it was for some different reason altogether.

What is striking about his story is the amount of money that Mr. Johnson was carrying when he died. One hundred and forty dollars in 1900 is equivalent to $4,000 today. That didn’t mean that he was wealthy but it was certainly enough to meet his needs. How did a man who had arrived in the United States fairly recently accumulate that much money? We’ll never know for sure but it’s fun to speculate.

One possibility is that he struck gold. The area around Helena, Montana, the county seat of Lewis and Clark County, was at the geographic heart of the state’s gold rush that began when four men found gold in Last Chances Gulch in 1864. At that point the race was on and Helena, initially named Crabtown, grew by leaps and bounds. It was exactly the kind of place where an adventurous immigrant with an eye toward making his fortune might head.

Another possibility is that he was one of the town’s merchants, or perhaps a lodging house owner, someone who provided goods and services to other men who were panning for gold. Whatever it was that he was doing there, he succeeded at it.

So Mr. Johnson’s mystery is less about who he was than why he was here and why no one who cared about him stepped forward to claim him. It seems likely that there was someone–in Sweden, Montana or somewhere else– waiting to hear from him.

His $140 was more than enough to cover the cost of his burial. Graves sold for fewer than $10 and a plain box would not have cost even that much. His money bought him a place in the cemetery that is about as far from the Potters Field as it is possible to get. He is buried in Lot 3, Block 3, in the 12th grave from the north, near the 29th Street overpass over the Midtown Greenway.

Next month’s story will be about “Mr. Lee,” who either committed suicide or was murdered. He may have been a killer or he may have been a victim. Whichever version of his story is true, he was most definitely a stranger.

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