From the Family Archives

by wjw on July 7, 2021

So have I ever told you about the time my dad was held hostage by a gun-wielding madman?

No, I didn’t think so.

My dad was quite young at the time, under ten years of age, so perhaps his memories of the incident aren’t 100% accurate, but on the other hand it’s not the sort of thing you’d easily forget.

My dad, his parents, and his two older brothers were living at home in an isolated farm in Markham township in northern Minnesota. They were going about their ordinary day when a man with a rifle walked into the house and took them all prisoner.

My dad once told me the man’s name, but I’ve forgotten it. He was an older gay man who lived in a cabin up in the northwoods. His boyfriend left him, and either that or isolation or some other damn thing sent him around the bend. So he took my father’s family hostage in their own kitchen, stalked around for a while uttering incoherent threats, and then decided to go upstairs and take a nap.

The family fled to the general store next door, where there was a telephone. Apparently the sheriff decided he’d need help with this one, so he summoned the militia. The National Guard turned out complete with machine guns, and took up positions around the house.

If you recall the final scene of Bonnie and Clyde, you can probably guess the sort of thing they had in mind.

Nothing happened. Apparently the gunman was a heavy sleeper. The besiegers grew impatient and started firing tear gas canisters into the house. One of these started a fire in the kitchen, accidental fires being a hazard with this type of munition.

My father’s oldest brother, named Arthur but better known as Sparky for his high-spirited personality, returned to the house to put out the fire. While he was busy in the kitchen, he heard the footsteps of the intruder coming down the stair, and he ran out of the house shouting “He’s coming!”

The gunman walked out of the house, stood on the porch, and gazed in bemused wonder at the sight of the sheriff’s department and the National Guard in utter flight, abandoning their positions and fleeting across the fields in utter terror of the armed lunatic.

The madman walked unhindered across the fields and wandered into the woods. He was found the next year, apparently having died of exposure.

I wonder if any of this ever made it into any official record. The cops and militia didn’t exactly cover themselves with glory, so possibly they never wrote it up. None of the region’s online newspaper archives seem to go back that far. It’s hard for a 21st century person to understand how isolated that area was, but it’s possible that word of the adventure never reached the outside world.

I’m sure many tears were shed, if only because the farmstead had to be cleansed of the tear gas before the place became habitable. (Tear gas is not actual gas, so you can’t get rid of it by opening the windows. It’s a powder, and it settles on everything.)

Life and death on the Iron Range. At least the family survived.

Diane Green July 7, 2021 at 6:35 pm

That would make a great episode on some series.

John Appel July 8, 2021 at 4:29 pm

Life in rural areas: dull until it suddenly isn’t.

And 100% on the lingering effects of tear gas. We scouts used to drop CS grenades into tanks when their guards fell asleep on exercises, and the tang of it would linger in the vehicle for weeks or months afterwards, no matter what you did cleaning-wise. Gotta imagine it’s worse in a house.

Shash July 12, 2021 at 8:24 pm

Wow. That is scary. It sure doesn’t speak well of our Nat’l Guard at that time, but how many of Guard could they even muster in that part of the State at the time? They’d have to scramble from Duluth or Virginia.

wjw July 13, 2021 at 4:16 pm

I doubt they could mobilize very many men, not on short notice. I’d guess that the only militia they could reach would be those few that had telephones, and then only if they were home. Not many people had phones at the time.

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