ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- This is a story of a heated land dispute, a deadly encounter involving a one-armed suspect, a murder trial, allegations of a buried gun, and ultimately, redemption.
It all played out on a small plot of Minnesota farmland in the southeast corner of Millerville Township back in 1888.
At the center of it was a “very unlucky man” named Henry Schecher, according to Brittany Johnson, director of the Douglas County Historical Society. At the request of the Alexandria Echo Press, she scoured through newspapers of that time, collecting information from the Alexandria Post News, Douglas County News, the Alexandria Republican and other sources to get the details of what happened.
Let’s start with Schecher.
In 1882, he was attempting to board a moving train in Evansville when he fell between the cars and his left arm was cut and crushed to pieces, according to the Alexandria Post. He was taken to Alexandria where his arm was amputated.
A few years later, Schecher got into a dispute with Christian Blatt involving a strip of property controlled by the railroad. Blatt claimed the railroad gave him permission to farm the parcel in 1886. Schecher, however, said the railroad let him farm the land to compensate him for his lost arm.
Blatt ended up sowing the land while Schecher harvested the crop of 8,000 wheat bundles. The dispute ended up in the courts.
The matter reached a head on the morning of July 16, 1888 when Schecher and his two brothers noticed Blatt mowing hay behind a team of horses. Tempers flared over who owned the property and the right to mow it.
The Schechers began mowing too, drawing closer and closer to Blatt. A Minneapolis Star Tribune account of the faceoff described it as a “19th-century game of chicken.”
From here, the details get a little muddy.
A story in the Alexandria Post on July 20, 1888 put it this way: “Reports differ so widely in regard to the general character of all parties involved that any reasonable conclusion can not be reached as regards the extent of guilt.”
Schecher claims Blatt fired a pistol at him twice so he shot back in self-defense four times.
Blatt was found on his mower about 1,000 feet away, with two bullet holes in his face, one in his abdomen and another in the back, which was believed to be the fatal shot.
This contradicted Schecher’s claim of a face-to-face encounter.
Also, no pistol was found on Blatt’s body or at the scene, according to the Douglas County News.
After an inquest, Schecher was charged in the shooting and his brothers were charged for being accessories.
During the trial, Schecher’s defense attorney introduced evidence – a blue shirt that Schecher was wearing the day of the shooting. His sister testified that she was doing laundry when she found two bullet holes in the left sleeve, where Schecher’s arm would normally be.
Prosecutors, however, pointed out that no gun had been found.
The jury sided with the prosecution and convicted Schecher of second-degree murder and sentenced him to life at Stillwater prison.
“Schecher received his sentence without moving a muscle on his face, and with the utmost indifference,” the Alexandria Post News reported on October 18, 1888.
The case was far from over, however.
Seven years later, a woman in her 60s, Louisa Kapphahn, gave a sworn statement that turned the case on its ear.
According to a 2018 Star Tribune history column about the incident, Kapphahn said she was picking potatoes when she heard the gunshots on the morning of the shooting. She said she joined the crowd that gathered around Blatt’s body where she found Blatt’s hat and a revolver with two empty chambers in a rut in the mowed field. She told two farmers in the crowd about her discovery but a bitter enemy of Schecher’s, she said, picked up the gun and buried it in a secret spot.
Kapphahn said she told the prosecutor about the gun and showed up to testify when subpoenaed, but the prosecutor sent her home, saying he knew everything to know, the column said.
It wasn’t until about five years after the trial that she learned that Schecher and his lawyer never learned about the gun.
An effort to free Schecher from prison gained momentum. Nearly 10 years after the shooting, Schecher’s lawyer, with support from the Stillwater prison warden and Gov. Knute Nelson (a former Douglas County attorney), went to St. Paul and pleaded for a pardon.
A key part of their request was that the jurors in the case signed a petition saying they would have acquitted Schecher if they had known about the gun.
On April 12, 1897, the Alexandria Republican reported the news, “Schecher is free.” The board of pardons commuted his sentence to 12 years, and allowing time for good behavior, he was discharged from prison.
The board determined that Schecher acted in self-defense to save his own life, that he believed he was in imminent danger and that Blatt was armed with a deadly weapon. The board said he did not receive a fair and impartial trial.
The Brandon Echo newspaper reported that Schecher was back home in Millerville with his parents as “a very happy man.”
Maybe he wasn’t that unlucky after all.
The rest of the story
Two postscripts to the story:
Schecher died in April 1908, about 11 years after his release, from a “complication of ailments,” the Alexandria Post News reported. This included blood poisoning and Bright’s disease or an inflammation in his kidneys. Days before he died, he was hewing logs near his home when he cut a deep gash into his ankle. He paid little attention to it and by the time he went to the hospital seeking relief, it was too late to save him.
Schecher, 44, the oldest of a family of five brothers and one sister, was buried in Kinkead Cemetery in Alexandria.
“Although having but one arm, Schecher was a good workman and did considerable chopping in the woods,” the Post reported. “On a previous occasion, he severely injured his left foot. The latest accident was but one of a series of mishaps. Henry Schecher was a well-known character in Douglas County and some years ago figured in a sensational prosecution here. He was a hard worker and industrious.”
Blatt, a Civil War veteran who farmed a homestead northwest of Lake Aaron, was buried in Edgefield Cemetery, north of Brandon.
Each Memorial Day, the Brandon American Legion Post held its traditional service, including a ceremony at the grave of veteran, according to a brochure about Edgefield Cemetery’s history written by Bud Greenquist in 2006.
Because there were no veterans buried in the Brandon Cemetery, Memorial Day services were held each year at Edgefield Cemetery, where Blatt was buried. The three-mile trip to the cemetery placed a burden on the post and citizens who wanted to attend the ceremony so the Legion sought and received legal authority to move Blatt’s remains to the Brandon Cemetery, Greenquist wrote.
Over the years, more veterans were buried near his grave.
The Echo Press thanks the Douglas County Historical Society for its invaluable help for this story. To find more information about the society and its research, call 320-762-0382, email email@example.com or visit the website https://www.dchsmn.org/.