Photo courtesy Perkins County CourthousePhoto courtesy Perkins County CourthousePhoto courtesy Perkins County Courthouse

The last hanging

About fifteen years ago while visiting the family burial plot, I noticed the Fox cement markers placed there by Ernie Gottschalk. The people buried there are Mrs. Ellen Fox, a widow, a child who died in infancy, and 15 year old Mildred Fox. I remembered  hearing stories as a  young boy about the Fox murders. I  wanted to find out more about this tragedy. 
I discovered that Ellen and Mildred had been brutally murdered in their 12X14 sod house six miles southeast of Bixby by Joe Rickman, nicknamed Mulatto because of his darker skin tone. He lived one-half north  from the Fox home. 
Joe wanted to marry Mildred even though he was almost twenty-five  years older than she. Her mother was vehemently opposed. He could not read or write and was extremely unkempt. Joe was a talkative individual who told people that he planned on marrying Mildred and blamed her mother for not allowing the union. 
Mrs. Fox had said to several people that she was afraid of Joe. Ellen did work for neighbors and did what was needed to hold her claim. Although expressing concerns about Joe, everyone knew she never locked the door. 
In the morning of  September 28, 1913, two men looking for some  horses noticed the smoke from the Fox house. When they rode up to the smoldering home, they did not see the Fox women. They set out to look for them but started to wonder if the bodies were in the debris.  One left to notify the coroner and neighbors. The other stayed and saw one of the bodies lying on the metal frame of a bed and waited for  officers from the Bison State Attorney and the sheriff. 
Joe Rickman was the number one suspect. He immediately denied his involvement and became quiet, which the  investigators found odd based on his propensity to talk. He then later admitted that late at night he went to the Fox home with the intention of murdering both women while admitting he wanted to marry Mildred. 
When he arrived at the house, he opened the unlocked door and grabbed the axe he knew was always kept behind the door. He stated that he killed the mother first and then the daughter with neither waking up. He then started the house on fire with the attempt to cover up his crime. 
This led to the last legal hanging in South Dakota which took place at the Perkins County Courthouse in December of 1913. Perkins county from 1910 to 1913 was rife with murder. In 1910 Anton Hanson murdered his brother in a drunken brawl. In 1911 Arthur Lowry shot his neighbor because of a girl.  Then in 1912 W.B Johnson killed a man in another drunken brawl.  Perkins County was a wild and wooly place. 
In the previous mentioned murders perpetrators only received jail time. Because of the gruesome murders of these two innocent women, the public put pressure on Judge Dillman to enact a harsher punishment. 
Judge Dillman said at the sentencing, “There is a wave of crime over the country.  I don’t know but it seems to me the way to stop that is, when you have the person who is guilty of the crime to mete out to him swift and relentless justice, and as hard as this duty is for me to perform, the judgment of this court will be that upon Wednesday, the third day of December, 1913, in the County of Perkins, in accordance with the law as provided that you be hanged by the neck until dead.”
There was no stay of execution.  It is said that he moved quickly to the gallows. His body was donated to the medical school in Vermillion. 
This hanging was the first in Perkins County and the last legal hanging in South Dakota.  
This information was taken from a journal at the Perkins County Courthouse. The photos are from the Courthouse as well.

The Pioneer Review

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Philip, SD 57567
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