Updated: Apr 4, 2022
By Cecelia McKeig
In 1902, Beltrami County decided it was time to knuckle down on some
of the crimes occurring in the area. The County Attorney prosecuted the
cases successfully and the court dealt out some harsh sentences to the
perpetrators. The Bemidji Pioneer reported that “Joe Look got one year
in the penitentiary for breaking open the warehouse of the Markham
Hotel in the nighttime and stealing seven turkeys. William Oliver
pleaded guilty to taking another man's suit of clothes, and, being under
age, will probably get a sentence in the state reformatory.” Witnesses
were sometimes reluctant or scared to testify. The Pioneer reported, “In
the case against Sam Austin (Big Sam) accused of stealing $10 from the
pocket of J. P. Erickson, the chief witness for the state proved stubborn,
frightened, and unwilling on the stand, and was so indefinite in his
memory of what he had seen that the jury brought in a verdict of not
In the case against Sam Austin (Big Sam) accused of stealing $10 from the pocket of J. P. Erickson, the chief witness for the state proved stubborn, frightened, and unwilling on the stand...
The Night in Question
On the night of Feb 25. 1902, three men got into a bunco card game and
were accused of swindling M. O. Linda out of a substantial sum of
According to the indictment, Martin Nelson, Thomas Smith, and
Theodore Wilson “did feloniously conspire together and aid and assist
one another for the purpose of, and so conspiring together and aiding
and assisting one another, did by means and use of two decks of
common playing cards and by the device of a certain sleight of hand and
deceit and trickery in the manipulation of the same in the game known
as the Big Mitt Game, fraudulently and wrongfully obtain from M. O.
Linda, who was then and there the true owner of same, a certain
certificate of deposit issued to him, made out by the First National Bank
bearing date Feb 25, 1902, and payable on demand in the sum of $200,
which said certificate of deposit the said Martin Nelson, Thomas Smith
and Theodore Wilson having wrongfully and feloniously convert to their
...and so conspiring together and aiding and assisting one another, did by means and use of two decks of common playing cards and by the device of a certain sleight of hand and deceit and trickery...
Playing their Hand in Court
Charles Scrutchin was appointed as counsel for the defendants and
challenged the indictment by pointing out that more than one offense
was charged in the indictment-- the offense of conspiracy and the
offense of swindling, and that the same is not allowed by statute. The
case however went forward and the three were arraigned March 12,
When the case came before the Judge on April 3, 1902, the evidence as
to the exact "hand" held and played by Linda was not clear enough in
the Judge's opinion to warrant the case in going to the jury.
However, Martin Nelson, Theodore Wilson, and J. E. Johnson were also
indicted for swindling John Pogue, the local livery man, and robbing O.
A Technicality Adds Insult to Injury
The upshot of Martin Nelson’s activities was that on April 17, 1902.
Sheriff Bailey took Martin Nelson to Crookston where he was confined.
About this time, the government reiterated its requirements for
homesteading in Beltrami and Itasca County because of the loose
methods adopted by many homesteaders in holding claims. “The law
governing the taking up of homestead claims is very clear. It requires
that application must be made in good faith; that, after the Inceptive
right is vested in the settler by his preliminary filings, he must, within
six months after such entry, establish actual residence in a house on the
land and must also cultivate the land continuously for a period of five
years. If a man has a family, he is expected to move them to his claim. If
he votes in any other place, it invalidates his title…. The government
holds that non-compliance with the conditions and requirements
invalidates title to the land and leaves the claim subject to cancellation.”
The government holds that non-compliance with the conditions and requirements invalidates title to the land and leaves the claim subject to cancellation.
This crime had long lasting consequences for Martin Nelson because he
also lost his homestead due to the fact that it was “abandoned.” In a
publication filed Jan 1903, it was alleged that “the said Martin Nelson
has wholly abandoned said land for more than twelve months last past,
and next prior to the date herein: that there is a small log shanty, no
doors or windows, and that the land is Otherwise in its natural state, that
the said alleged absence from the said land was not due to his
employment in the army, navy or marine corps of the United States as a
private soldier, officer, seaman or marine during the war with Spain or
during any other war in which the United States may be engaged.” He
was ordered to appear at Grygla on Mar 17, 1903 – which of course, he
was unable to do, and he lost his homestead entry.