Minnesota Gov. John A. Johnson was a man of firsts — the first native Minnesotan elected to the office, the first to serve a full term in the new Capitol building, and unfortunately, the first to die in office.
His death came on Sept. 21, 1909, at Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester, despite the best efforts of his close friends, Drs. Will and Charlie Mayo. It cut short the career of a popular, 48-year-old politician who was considered to be a potential presidential candidate.
Johnson was born July 28, 1861, on a farm near St. Peter. Both of his parents were Swedish immigrants. He started working at age 13, and eventually became a journalist, editing the local newspaper.
After serving in the Legislature, he was elected governor as a Democrat in 1904, and was re-elected in 1906 and 1908. Johnson had sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1980, but lost out to William Jennings Bryan. He was widely expected to make another try for the presidency in 1912.
But even in 1908, Johnson was expressing worries about his health. He had suffered appendicitis in 1897, which was often fatal in those days, and had undergone two subsequent operations. His intestinal issues lingered.
Finally, in September 1909, Johnson made plans to return to Rochester for further surgery. On Monday, Sept. 13, as Johnson and his wife, Nora, boarded the train in St. Paul, the governor cheerfully told reporters he looked forward to catching up on reading while recuperating in Rochester.
Johnson, though, was a terribly sick man. On the way to Rochester, he suffered severe abdominal pain after lunch on the train. In Rochester, Johnson lodged Monday night at the home of a local friend, and on Tuesday evening, he was admitted to Saint Marys.
At 8:30 the next morning, Dr. Will, with Dr. Charlie in a consulting role, performed surgery on Johnson. During the two-hour operation, the doctors found Johnson’s intestinal tract compromised by abscesses and adhesions. Afterward, Dr. Will reported that it was an extremely complicated surgery, but it was hoped the governor would recover.
Later that evening, Johnson was found in distress with no pulse. The crisis passed, and he rallied. For the next day or so, Johnson’s condition appeared to be improving. However, he had another bad spell Friday night, and over the weekend, he was still unable to take in nourishment. Johnson managed some broth Monday morning, but was growing weaker, and his pulse continued to fluctuate.
By Monday night, it became obvious Johnson was in grave danger. Previously upbeat dispatches from the hospital turned somber. Finally, Johnson died at 3:25 a.m. Tuesday.
Later that day, his body was carried to a special train parked at the Great Western Railroad Station in Rochester. The train, bedecked in bunting, was surrounded by local mourners as the casket was placed on board for the trip back to St. Paul.
The funeral service for Johnson was held Sept. 26 at the Metropolitan Theatre in Minneapolis. The body was then transported to St. Peter, where thousands of Minnesotans watched the funeral procession wind its way to Greenhill Cemetery.
It was only two weeks since Johnson, upbeat and hopeful, had boarded the train to Rochester.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.