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Three Lives Lost Over $20

Tales from Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery

189th in a series

By SUE HUNTER WEIR

The St. Paul Globe characterized it as a story that began and ended in a graveyard. It was the murder of Thomas Tollefson, a streetcar conductor, on the night of July 26, 1887. Tollefson’s murder was, as many crimes are, senseless and poorly planned. When all was said and done, three men died–one man murdered and two men hanged for having killed him. The two murderers netted a total of $20 (worth a little more than $430 in today’s currency).

1880-1886. Horse-drawn streetcar, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Tollefson was a 28-year-old Norwegian immigrant who earned his living driving the Cedar Avenue streetcar line. He and Christina Nelson were married on February 10, 1887, a little more than five months before he was murdered. Tollefson was described as “a handsome fellow, and as brave and as generous as a man can be.”

The night that Tollefson was killed there was a big fire downtown and streetcars were running a couple of hours behind schedule. Tollefson’s 10 o’clock car didn’t reach its last stop at Cedar Avenue and Lake Street until midnight. Ten minutes earlier another streetcar driver, whose car had been derailed by planks obstructing the lines, warned Tollefson that he might run into trouble. Outside of the cemetery’s gates Tollefson encountered Tim, Henry, and Peter Barrett. Tim and Peter were both armed, and it was Tim who shot Tollefson twice, once in the thigh and once in the chest. Tollefson died instantly. The three brothers spent an hour wandering in the cemetery before going to their sister’s house and hiding the cashbox containing the stolen money in a hole they dug in the basement.

The Globe’s reporter described the Barrett family as a “peculiar one,” which didn’t quite capture the extent of their lawlessness. Before the murder at least two of the Barretts had served time in prison. At the time of the investigation, Henry was in jail for operating a “blind pig” (selling liquor without a license). Tim was also in jail, arrested for having committed a number of armed holdups near Minnehaha Falls. Peter, who was only 16, had fled to their mother’s home in Omaha, Nebraska.

While he was sitting in jail serving his sentence, Henry “Reddy” Barrett offered to tell what he knew about the robbery and murder. It’s not clear why he did so, but it appears to have been a combination of a guilty conscience and fear that harm would be done to him or, more importantly, to his wife. He fully understood that his brothers were likely to hang and that it was possible that he would, too, even though he claimed that he had little to do with the crime.

Detectives were dispatched to Omaha to bring Peter back. The grand jury indicted Peter and Tim Barrett for first-degree murder on December 6, 1887. The two were tried separately. Tim was tried first. His trial lasted 16 days and was attended by so many curiosity seekers that the courtroom was almost “crowded to suffocation.” Peter’s trial lasted 21 days. Their attorneys’ strategy primarily consisted of trying to discredit their brother Henry’s testimony as a “most damnable conspiracy.” That strategy failed. In each case the jury deliberated for only two hours before finding the defendants guilty of first-degree murder. Henry was never charged.

Tim and Peter were sentenced to hang on July 12, 1888, but they were granted a stay of execution while they appealed their cases to the State Supreme Court. Their appeal was denied and the governor refused to grant clemency. The two men were hanged on March 22, 1889. Timothy Barrett was 25 years old. Peter was 18. Their mother arranged to have her sons buried in Omaha.

Thomas Tollefson was buried in Layman’s Cemetery on July 28, 1887, but was among the thousands of people disinterred during the late 19-teens and early 19-twenties. He was moved to Hillside Cemetery on September 30, 1921. His widow, Christina, married Morris Lansberry, a widower with three children, three days before the Barrett brothers were hanged. She and her new husband had hoped to attend the hanging but were turned away “as no ladies were permitted to witness it.”

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