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News & Views of Phillips Since 1976
Thursday February 22nd 2024

A Forgotten Scandal

from the series Tales from Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery…

Number 219

By SUE HUNTER WEIR

Sometimes stories take a disturbing turn. This one started out as a biographical sketch of Sumner Cutter who was described in his obituary, published in the Minneapolis Tribune on April 14, 1902, as “one of the most prominent members of the older generation of [Minneapolis’] contractors.” His friends described him as a “man of quiet, steady disposition and never addicted to displays of violent temper.” He was credited with having built several of the city’s early flour mills and having helped dam the falls in the river. But, according to several newspaper stories published in 1864, there’s a darker side to his story.*
On February 24, 1864, Cutter shot and killed George Littlefield, the man who he believed was having an affair with his wife. The story was a major scandal. There was no mystery, no question that Cutter shot Littlefield.

Sumner Cutter, his wife Pamelia, their 11-tear-old daughter Ida, and two of their adult children are buried in the family plot. Pamelia’s parents Stephen M. and Elizabeth Allen are also buried
there. CREDIT: Tim McCall


A few months earlier, Cutter had been out-of-town working in the pineries (pine forests) when he received a letter from a friend informing him that his wife was “undoubtedly guilty of improper intimacy” with Littlefield, who was boarding in the Cutters’ home. Cutter walked home, a distance of 150 miles. When he arrived, he and Littlefield exchanged “hard words,” and Cutter threw his wife out of the house. He gave her $75 to return to her family back East. Instead, she moved into a hotel in St. Paul, leaving the couple’s three young children with her husband.


Around seven in the morning on February 24, 1864, Cutter and a friend were walking down the street when they encountered Littlefield. Cutter called out, “There comes the black-hearted villain.” He pulled a gun out of his coat. Littlefield begged him not to shoot but Cutter fired a single shot. Littlefield ran about 40 paces before he collapsed and died.


Cutter went looking for a constable in order to turn himself in but couldn’t find one. He went to a friend’s house where he was arrested about two hours later. According to police and several witnesses, Cutter was “stupefied,” so weak that they thought he might have taken poison. He was, they said, suffering from “nervous prostration and extreme mental excitement.”

The marker for Sumner Cutter who was involved in what was perhaps Minneapolis’ greatest
scandal in 1864. He was 32 years old at the time but was considered one of the city’s most
prominent builders. He died in 1902, aged 70. CREDIT: Tim McCall


Following a coroner’s inquest, a grand jury indicted Cutter on a charge of first-degree murder. His trial began in May. The stakes were high since if he had been found guilty, he would have faced the death penalty.


The press was relatively sympathetic, characterizing his motive as “some fancied code of honor.” They were much less sympathetic to his wife who they described as “not particularly attractive,” and a woman whose eyes had a “cold glitter in repose [that] is cruel and animal.”


The jury found Cutter not guilty by reason of insanity. He was ordered to remain in custody of the sheriff “until the question of his present insanity was determined.” And that is more or less where that chapter of his life ended. His marriage and career survived the scandal. The following year he and his wife had a fourth child, and in 1869, a fifth. His career as a contractor flourished, and in 1885-86, he was elected to the Minneapolis City Council. The story that scandalized Minneapolis in 1864 was all but forgotten.
Cutter died on April 13, 1902, at the age of 70, from peritonitis following an operation. His wife, Pamelia, died June 17, 1913, at the age of 82. She was buried next to her husband, their eleven-year-old daughter Ida who died in 1867, and two of their adult children. Their graves are located in Lot 31, Block B.

*If you’d like to read the original press coverage, you can do so for free. Go to the Minnesota Historical Society’s website (mnhs.org) and look under research to find their selection of on-line newspapers. Search on Cutter (actually “Littlefield” will give you fewer hits) in February-March and May 1864.

Sue Hunter Weir is chair of Friends of the Cemetery, an organization dedicated to preserving and maintaining Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery. She has lived in Phillips for almost 50 years and loves living in such a historic community.

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