Editor’s note: Minnesota Lawyer is dipping into the Minnesota Historical Society’s archives and scooping out documents and artifacts exploring the state’s rich record of voting reforms, colorful personalities, constitutional crises, curious facial hair and more.
Convicted in a sensational murder trial of poisoning her husband so she could enjoy “illicit intercourse” with her 26-year-old nephew, Ann Bilansky was hanged to death on March 23, 1860.
Thousands swarmed to the intersection of Fifth and Cedar streets in downtown St. Paul, hoping to witness Minnesota’s first public execution. “I am willing to meet my God, but I don’t want to have a crowd see me die,” Bilansky pleaded to her hangman.
She was 40 years old, tall and slim, a capable stepmother, an eloquent writer, long-nosed, sharp-tongued and, quite possibly, innocent. For 20 minutes, her body was left swinging before the crowd.
Gov. Alexander Ramsey — who had vetoed a bill to commute Bilansky’s sentence despite a letter from the county prosecutor expressing “grave and serious doubts” over the fairness of her trial — coolly noted her death in a one-sentence diary entry. “Mrs. Anna Bilanski for the murder of her husband in March 1859 was executed,” Ramsey wrote the evening of the hanging, mistaking Bilansky’s first name and misspelling her last.
She had moved to Minnesota from Illinois just two years prior, to care for her nephew, John Walker, who was sick with typhoid fever. Soon she made the acquaintance of Stanislaus Bilansky, a dyspeptic, brooding, thrice-divorced bar owner, and within six months they were married.
Her new husband was a paranoid and violent drunk, prone to ruminations on death and jealous outbursts, and he proved less dependable than her recuperated nephew, a trained carpenter who built himself a two-room shanty in the newlyweds’ backyard. Stanislaus gave credence to rumors that his wife was not, in fact, Walker’s aunt, and he cautioned her not to spend time alone with the curly-haired young man.
Six months into their marriage, Stanislaus died in his bed after a two-week illness marked by vomiting, fever and stomach pains. His wife had been seen crying at his bedside, asking what she should do with his children.
But the day after the funeral, Lucinda Kilpatrick, a neighbor of the Bilanskys, went to the police with a scandalous tale.
She said she’d accompanied Bilanksy on a shopping trip just before Stanislaus fell ill. Bilansky had bought 10 cents worth of arsenic and made an odd remark about wanting to give her husband a pill but worrying people would suspect her if he “should drop away sudden.” Kilpatrick further claimed that, soon after Stanislaus died, Bilansky asked her to say she had purchased the poison. Kilpatrick’s story was persuasive, and police acted quickly to exhume Stanislaus’ body and arrest his widow. Rumors of a romantic motive quickly materialized, and the papers portrayed Bilansky as a blackhearted femme fatale.
The media whirlwind attracted the attention of a talented, high-profile defense attorney named John Brisbin. The Yale-educated former mayor of St. Paul agreed to take on her case and spent two months assembling a defense.
When the trial began in late May, Brisbin was able to establish significant doubts about Kilpatrick’s motives by producing love letters she’d sent to Walker. During cross-examination, Kilpatrick didn’t deny writing the letters or sending the young carpenter “presents of affection.”
Arguing that Stanislaus may have killed himself, Brisbin presented evidence of the bar owner’s sour temperament, his financial troubles (he was paying 36 percent interest on a $200 loan) and his strange, well-documented superstition that he would meet his maker in the month of March. Brisbin explained in court that Bilansky had bought the arsenic at her husband’s request; he’d asked her to sprinkle the white powder on bacon rinds and scatter it in the cellar to combat a rat infestation.
The prosecution’s case was shaky. Only one of the six chemical-analysis tests for arsenic had yielded a positive result, and a doctor who helped perform the tests came to pieces on the witness stand, admitting that he’d never before checked for the poison, that he hadn’t “applied himself particularly in chemistry” and that the tests were not “infallible in a criminal case.” Stanislaus’ personal doctor — a witness for the prosecution — testified that his patient was a hypochondriac who gorged himself on Graffenberg pills, a popular patent medicine fatal in high doses, and acknowledged that a tumbler full of liquor he drank 30 minutes before his death may have caused his demise.
Beset by weak physical evidence, the case turned on innuendo. Rosa Scharf, a housekeeper hired to tend to Stanislaus during his sickness, testified that she’d seen Bilansky and Walker exchange suggestive “glances.” More salaciously, she said that the night after the funeral she had watched the widow put on nightclothes in her bedroom while Walker prepared for bed in the adjoining barroom, the door open. Bilansky didn’t treat her husband “as I think a husband should be treated,” Scharf told the all-male jury.
Scharf was living with Kilpatrick during the trial, and Walker’s spurned lover likely influenced her outlook and testimony. After her former employer was sentenced to death, Scharf became troubled by pangs of conscience. Eventually, she visited the Kilpatricks at home and asked what would become of Bilansky. Then, Scharf returned home, swallowed a vial of potent laudanum and died.
The final act of Bilansky’s life was also tinctured with melodrama. Hours after the Supreme Court denied her appeal, she escaped from the Ramsey County jail. Squeezing through the bars of a ground-level window, she lay low for a week in the high grasses surrounding Lake Como. Walker brought her men’s clothes to wear and tried to aid in her getaway, but while walking toward St. Anthony she was recaptured and placed in solitary confinement. (A grand jury declined to indict Walker.)
“Probably no jail ever contained a criminal, either male or female, under imprisonment for a crime, who exhibited such a complete want of decency or propriety,” the Pioneer and Democrat concluded.
The media’s breathless coverage of the Bilansky trial struck the prosecutor, Isaac Heard, as corrosive to justice. He believed that skewed reporting during the trial may have prejudiced jurors, who had been allowed to return home for an extended weekend. The day before Bilansky’s execution, Heard wrote Gov. Ramsey a strongly worded letter expressing his “grave and serious doubts as to whether the defendant has had a fair trial.”
But the letter had no effect. Ramsey was a cautious and calculating schemer, and his outlook on Bilansky’s case appears guided by two facts incidental to her guilt or innocence:
1) The governor’s younger brother, Justus, had served on her jury.
2) Both of Bilansky’s lead attorneys — Brisbin and her appellate counsel, the former territorial Gov. Willis Gorman — were prominent Democrats.
The Republican governor was loathe to embarrass his brother by overruling the jury’s verdict, and he likely worried a commutation would make him look weak politically.
Ramsey would be swayed neither by Heard’s letter, nor by a late petition from Brisbin claiming he’d found proof Stanislaus had once attempted suicide by poison. “The approaching execution of Mrs. Bilansky subjects me to much annoyance on the part of persons asking her commutation,” Ramsey wrote callously in his diary.
Other members of his party, however, had qualms about sending to the gallows a woman who might not have received a fair trial, and the Republican-controlled state Legislature passed a bill commuting her death sentence.
But Ramsey vetoed the bill and, in a strident act of self-justification, he spun this baseless yarn of Gothic villainy:
“She procured poison and then administered it; not in such quantities as at once to destroy life, but little by little, that no suspicion might arise. She sat by the bedside of her husband, not to foster, but to slay. She watched without emotion the tortures she had caused, and, by and by, administered no healing medicine, no cooling draught, but ever, under a guise of love and tender care, renewed the cup of death.”
Ann Bilansky is buried in Calvary Cemetery, her grave unmarked. She remains the only woman ever legally executed in Minnesota.