Wrongly convicted?

The widow Ann Bilansky was hanged in St. Paul for allegedly poisoning her husband in 1859

This was the view from the roof of the courthouse in St. Paul in 1857, two years before Ann Bilansky was accused of murdering her husband. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
This was the view from the roof of the courthouse in St. Paul in 1857, two years before Ann Bilansky was accused of murdering her husband. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

On March 23, 1860, Ann Bilansky was hanged in St. Paul for the murder of her husband.

It was the first-ever legal execution after Minnesota gained statehood in 1858. (Bilansky was, indeed, the first and only woman ever executed in Minnesota.)

However, today — some 150 years later — questions still remain about whether she was guilty.

A widow, originally from North Carolina, she first moved to St. Paul in April 1858 to be with her nephew, John Walker, who was sick with typhoid in Minnesota.

In September, she married Stanislaus Bilansky, a Polish settler, whose wife had divorced him a few years earlier. He had a reputation for being a drinker who was abusive, melancholy and often ill.

Bilansky took charge of the household and Bilansky’s three young children, and her nephew eventually moved into a two-room shanty behind the Bilansky home.

Dead, buried, exhumed

In late February 1859, Stanislaus became sick with a fever and vomiting.

A doctor who visited during his illness later testified that Stanislaus “did not seem then to be in any danger.”

Stanislaus died on March 11 and was quickly buried.

On the night of March 12, however, a neighbor — Lucinda Kilpatrick — told police she remembered Bilansky buying 10 cents worth of arsenic a few weeks before, supposedly to rid the house of rats. Stanislaus’ body was exhumed, and testing found a trace of something that resembled arsenic.

Bilansky was arrested for murder, accused of poisoning her husband.

At Bilansky’s trial, John Brisbin, a Yale-educated lawyer who’d served in the state House of Representatives and as mayor of St. Paul, represented Bilansky. Prosecutor Isaac Heard argued that Bilansky had murdered her husband because she was having an affair with Walker, who Heard claimed wasn’t actually her nephew.

‘Improper’ relationship?

Kilpatrick was a star witness. She testified that, along with purchasing arsenic, Bilansky had made comments about her husband suddenly dying while he was ill. She also claimed that Stanislaus disapproved of his wife’s relationship with her nephew and that Bilansky hadn’t seemed grief-stricken at the funeral.

On cross-examination, Brisbin argued that Kilpatrick herself had an improper relationship with Walker, and she refused to answer questions about it.

When a doctor testified that Stanislaus’ stomach had inflammation indicating arsenic poisoning, he admitted under questioning that it could also be caused by alcohol abuse or chronic illness. The defense also pointed out that only one out of six chemical tests done indicated the presence of arsenic.

Appeals, pleas denied

Despite this mixed evidence and testimony, the jury convicted Bilansky of murder.

An appeal for a new trial went to the state Supreme Court, but it was eventually denied. After learning her appeal was denied, Bilansky escaped the Ramsey County jail on July 25, squeezing through a window when her jailer left her unattended.

She hid near Lake Como and eventually got word to Walker to help her. They were caught about a week later a few miles from St. Anthony. In December, a judge sentenced her to death.

Bilansky’s case was a leading story in St. Paul’s Pioneer and Democrat for many months, but the paper often focused on the more sensational details. By early 1860, the newspaper applauded the decision to execute her: “There is no doubt of her guilt, and we can conceive of no sufficient reason why the law should not be allowed to take its course, or why anyone should desire for a commutation of the sentence.”

But many people did campaign for her sentence to be changed to life in prison. Bilansky’s new attorney, Willis Gorman, Minnesota’s former territorial governor, petitioned Gov. Alexander Ramsey, pointing out irregularities in her trial.

Even Heard, the prosecutor, wrote his own plea: He had “grave and serious doubts as to whether the defendant has had a fair trial,” including the fact that the jury hadn’t been sequestered.

The state legislature also made several attempts to help Bilansky’s case, including introducing bills to ban capital punishment and the execution of women. In March 1860, it passed a bill commuting Bilansky’s sentence to life in prison, but Ramsey vetoed the effort.

Justice ‘in heaven’

It’s not entirely clear why Ramsey was so unreceptive, but his brother, Justus, was a member of the jury that convicted Bilansky; and her two attorneys, Brisbin and Gorman, were Democrat politicians, at odds with Ramsey’s own politics.

On March 23, officials attempted to make Bilansky’s hanging private by building a fence around the gallows at Fifth and Cedar in St. Paul.

A hundred or so people crowded inside the fence, and thousands more viewed the proceedings from roofs, windows and on top of carriages.

Bilansky prayed for five minutes and then spoke, professing her innocence, “Your courts of justice are not courts of justice — but I will yet get justice in heaven.”

After she was hanged, Bilansky was buried in an unmarked grave.

Today, it’s still not clear whether Bilansky was actually guilty, especially given the conflicting evidence of her case and the unorthodox methods used during her trial.

The Pioneer and Democrat, however, remained utterly convinced of her guilt until the end, publishing a jailhouse interview with Bilansky the day after her execution, where it editorialized, “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.”

Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.

Attend an event

Learn more about Ann Bilansky and her case during Ramsey After Dark: Crime and Justice on March 24 at the historic Alexander Ramsey House in St. Paul.

Ramsey After Dark is a monthly program that explores the darker side of Minnesota’s past, with topics from mental illness to superstitions.

See mnhs.org for more information.