Hans Jakob and the Man Who Lynched Him
Just as shocking as the events that occurred on Nov. 24, 1889, are the people responsible for the lynching of Hans Jakob Olson and the punishment they received.
Reading other articles and documents about this incident; there is no shortage of rationales as to why Hans Jakob was lynched, but there is a lack of information regarding the one person arguably most responsible for the lynching. His name was Charles Johnson.
Both the History of Trempealeau County: Curtis-Wedge & Pierce and a summary of the entire event and The lynching of Olson, 1889: The Story of a Norwegian-American Crime by Odin W. Anderson made it clear that Johnson was a key cog in the Blair-Preston community as well as Trempealeau County.
According to both sources, Johnson had served as the town of Preston representative on the Trempealeau County board several times, was the President of a Farmer’s Trading Association and the leader of the town of Preston municipal affairs at the time of the lynching. Johnson is described as a “prominent farmer, community leader and a father of five,” and the District Attorney H.A. Anderson said that “Charles Johnson was a man of acute intelligence” in a letter Anderson later wrote about the lynching and the subsequent case and trial.
Generally speaking, people like Johnson are not cast as murderers or resorting to extralegal means. People like Johnson tend to need something that scares them so much that they believe they have no other recourse.
So what about Hans Jakob Olson scared Johnson and other residents so much that they would resort to hanging him from a burr oak in the man’s own yard?
Clearly, Olson was not popular amongst the early and predominantly Norwegian and English inhabitants of the Blair-Preston area. There existed several accounts of what can be described as odd and often malicious behavior observed by Olson’s fellow residents. Olson was regarded as “extraordinarily strong and of great determination.” At the age of 51, Olson was viewed by the men in the community as a “constant threat; that they [the men] feared for the safety of their women and children at home on their isolated farms,” Odin Anderson wrote.
Anderson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Chicago professor of sociology whose own grandmother was a niece of the victim included a number of stories that his grandmother had “told many times in the home after chores were done.”
According to Anderson’s grandmother — a young girl at the time — it was on a dark night in 1876, when Andrea Anderson was 10 years old, she encountered a man with antlers on his head on the dirt road near her home in Reynolds Coulee.
The man chased her until she ran back to the house safely, but she had been frightened enough to break into a rash afterwards. Andrea believed it was Olson because she thought she recognized her uncle.
Anderson’s grandmother was married to Ole Anderson, one of the many arrested for “observing the events from a hill overlooking the victim’s farm” some 14 years later.
In addition, Andrea Anderson said that Olson was known to travel on foot, for peeking in windows and then running off, and was said to have driven his wife, Bertha Olson, from the house on a cold winter night with nothing but her bare feet. She was forced to walk nearly a mile to the home where Andrea lived with her family.
Rumors about Olson were plenty amongst people in the town of Preston, there is no doubt that Olson had previously attempted to harm — if not kill — a hardware store owner named B.K. Strand over a debt Olson had with him.
According to the History of Trempealeau County book, on June 8, 1885 Olson was convicted of setting fire to the building of B.K. Strand on Dec. 29, 1883 by loading a stump with blasting powder, afterward delivered to Mr. Strand whom would have his stove explode while he and his family were home. Thankfully, no one was killed or seriously injured. Rumor had it that Olson did not take the stump to the merchant’s woodpile personally but furnished it at the request of another person and left it at a place agreed.
Olson claimed sole responsibility and was sentenced to five years in Wisconsin state prison. He was then released in the spring of 1889 and almost immediately, upon the testimony of his wife and son, was put under bonds to serve six months in the county jail. Olson’s stint in jail ended on Nov. 22.
Accounts of what followed vary slightly depending on the source but all of them tell essentially the same story.
On Nov. 24, 1889 a group of 30 people — according to Whitehall Times reports — met after church at an abandoned farmhouse not far from Charles Johnson’s residence. Olson had been out of jail for just over 48 hours when one of his son’s arrived at Johnson’s home reporting that he needed help immediately because his father had returned from jail and was threatening to burn down the house and kill the family. This account was refuted by district attorney H.A. Anderson, as it was his belief that Johnson had always intended on killing Olson. Odin Anderson’s summary includes a great deal of contextual information to consider before truly understanding the situation these residents were a part of.
According to Anderson, a language barrier existed between the newly settled Norwegian community members and the more established members of “Yankee society.” Curtis’ Making of an American Community recalls the difficulties related
to law enforcement at the time of the lynching. Even with the Trempealeau County Sheriff’s office located seven miles away; there were no phones to report an incident, rural mail delivery had not yet been established and roads were impassable in the winter and spring even with horse and buggy. Curtis said that petty crimes were difficult to report and farms were often located one-quarter of a mile to a mile apart from one-another.
This language barrier would later be apparent to L.A. Stenholt a journalist from La Crosse who covered the proceeding trials for the four accused with Olson’s murder.
In one of his reports, Stenholt said Bertha Olson, Hans Jakob’s wife, then accused of her husband’s murder, did not understand the legal process going on around her. “She appeared to be indifferent as to whether she would spend the rest of her days in prison or in her shabby home,” Stenholt wrote.
Under the direction of Johnson, the vigilantes brought with them two ropes; a heavy rope for hanging and another smaller rope to control the hands of the “physically powerful man.”
Upon arriving at the humble log cabin located along Brekke Ridge Road where Jakob slept; Anderson wrote that four men removed Jakob from his bed wearing only a shirt and offering no resistance. When asked to leave, Olson was reported as saying; “this is my home and I will not leave until God calls me.” Olson was then strung up and let down a number of times until he was too weak to stand.
Olson was brought back inside where he was “revived,” dressed and — according to the Whitehall Times — even had a necktie put on him. Jakob was taken back outside where he was strung for a final time.
Einar Haugen wrote in The Norwegian Language in America: A Study of Bilingual Behavior that Oscar Nyen reported inspecting the tree and the branch from which Olson was hung just after the lynching and said that he “saw that the rope had been pulled up and down so many times that the bark was off.” Nyen was 18 years old at the time of the murder.
Five days after the lynching Charles Johnson was arrested by sheriff John Boynton on Nov. 29. Johnson was arraigned the same day but granted adjournment upon consultation from his attorney and was released on $10,000 bond. Three others were charged along with Johnson for the murder. The accused included Jakob’s wife and son, Bertha Olson and Ole J. Hanson, as well as his neighbor Ole Sletto.
In a 1908 letter, H.A. Anderson said that he visited Johnson’s residence on Nov. 29; Johnson was said to have told Anderson not to be “too fresh, that there were many of them; and in substance, that it would not be good form to interfere.” Anderson claimed that Johnson assured the men that if a group of 30 to 60 people were gathered, no jury could be found to convict them.
The State of Wisconsin court records show that Johnson confessed to the crime and plead guilty however was able to “muster” an impressive number of men in the area as witnesses to his good reputation and character. Six of those men were A.A. Arnold of Gale, a state senator; James L. Linderman of Osseo, Census Supervisor for the Seventh District of Wisconsin; R.A. Odell, a County Judge, clerk of court for 10 years; Peter J. Hanson of Preston, officer of the town of Preston; N.D. Comstock of Arcadia who had many hats but most notably a member of the state assembly, a senator and was also the editor for the Arcadia Leader at the time; Peter Ekern of Pigeon Falls, a chairman of the town board and state assembly. All were considered friends of Johnson.
Court records for the State of Wisconsin v. Charles Johnson do not include any of the testimonies from the aforementioned county citizens but Anderson says that “the men must have spoke well of Johnson’s past.”
The Whitehall Times recorded Johnson testifying that he believed his family was threatened by Olson: “While some of the parties who went to the Olson house on the fatal night were afraid for their own lives and others sympathized with them, my neighbors and many of the young boys went because they sympathized with me and my family, as they knew what distress we were in and they had once had occasion to witness that we had been aroused in the middle of the night surrounded by flames which consumed most of our property, including our livestock, caused by an incendiary and they were afraid they would have to witness something similar or still more terrible. But none of us had murder in our heart.”
Odin Anderson wrote “the chief motivation for the attempt to drive Olson out of the county was fear of an irrational and unpredictable man who had already been convicted of arson. Other alleged occurrences related to Olson’s night roaming were difficult to pin on him but circumstances pointed towards him, nevertheless.”
According to Anderson, the trial was both short and packed considering the number of defendants charged with murder. The four defendants charged with murder and 29 charged with rioting.
Those charged with rioting received an unspecified fine and were free to return home after payment. Only 27 were actually punished for ‘rioting’ as one of the defendants, Dick Martin, simply split out of the county. Then Peter Johnson Loga — who was reported to have brought the rope that Olson was hung with — was found hanging on March 10, 1890, a day before the trial began.
In his charge to the jury on March 14, 1890, Judge A.W. Newman said of the defendants, “Those men who were present at the place, or nearby, encouraging it to be or advising it to be done were also guilty. All evidence points to murder in the first degree.”
Judge Newman is said to have observed the mob’s purpose to drive Olson from the county as unlawful in the first place. The jury agreed with Judge Newman’s charge and all four defendants received life sentences in the Wisconsin State Prison in Waupun.
So what made Johnson, a community leader, father of five and friend of multiple notable Trempealeau County residents to do something so extralegal? It’s hard to say for certain but it seems clear that the causal factors were numerous in this case.
The town of Preston was in an odd position that no one in the county can actually relate to now.
For instance, it was common for men to travel to the northern woods of Wisconsin where they would work at the pineries for two months or more, leaving their families behind. This was something that Olson did not take part in and Anderson claims that Olson’s close neighbors “feared their women and children would be molested. One can speculate what influence the women had on their men in this matter.”
It would seem that the community leaders failed to bring the issues with Olson to the authorities located just seven miles down the road. It was Anderson’s opinion that today a person like Olson would be “regarded as mentally ill.”
“Olson did not engage in direct physical attacks on people he did not like, the arson incident notwithstanding, but struck at property and then fled,” Anderson wrote. “This behavior was too elusive for the law to deal with.”
Whatever the reasoning behind the mob’s actions, less than five years later in 1895 then Governor George W. Peck pardoned all four convicted of murder in the first degree. Anderson’s investigation into the pardons revealed little to no explanation for the governor’s actions but it seems that the presiding Judge W.A. Newman sought the pardons.
Sletto returned to his farm, Bertha and Ole J. returned to the house where the bur oak still stood and the rope marks visible on the limb. Charles Johnson also returned to Blair and opened a hardware store.
According to Anderson, there exists maybe one of several original copies of an interview with Olson’s grandson. Most of the copies were allegedly destroyed out of “the shamefulness of the event,” which is fitting given that the only line from the interview: “There are descendants of both Olson and Charles Johnson still living in the Blair area. From all appearances they settled well into the growing communities and no stigma is attached to their families. The impression is given, however, that there is no interest in reviving these events, which are regarded locally as an aberration in an otherwise stable community.”
Online records show Olson was buried in Corness Cemetery near Blair Lutheran Church, however, church officials were unable to confirm that to be true. He is rumored to have been buried in a grave that was marked with a lilac bush that has since been removed — some believe his grave is under what is now West Fourth St. near the church.
Olson’s children took the last name Hanson, which has since been passed down. His grandson, Palmer Dahl, operated Dahl’s Garage in Taylor before his death in 2000. He still has several relatives living in the area.
The location where Olson once lived and was hung outside of is currently owned by William Brandenburg.