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St. Paul’s first murderer: Edward Phelan (probably)

On September 27, 1839, Dakota boys found a body washed up under Dayton’s Bluff, near Carver’s Cave (Wakan Tipi).

The village of St. Paul, 1844. Etching by Charles William Post.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The first murder to reach the courts of what would become Minnesota took place during the early infancy of St. Paul, in the late summer of 1839. Though both victim and main suspect were quickly identified, the case was never solved.

On September 27, 1839, Dakota boys found a body washed up under Dayton’s Bluff, near Carver’s Cave (Wakan Tipi). The victim had been beaten to death, almost every face bone smashed. An official party, summoned from Fort Snelling, recognized only the gray hair and distinctive long nose; they belonged to Army sergeant John Hays. Suspicion quickly centered on his cabin-mate and business partner, Edward Phelan.

Hays and Phelan were both Irishmen — Hays from Waterford, Phelan from Derry. They had met in the U.S. Army at Fort Snelling. Hays, born around 1800, was slight and well-liked. Phelan, eleven years younger and a muscular private, stood over six feet tall and cultivated a reputation for violence.

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When the Treaty of 1837 opened the land just across the Mississippi from Fort Snelling to (legal) white immigration, Hays and Phelan made a deal. When Phelan’s enlistment expired, he would make two land claims, one for him and one for Hays, and build a shelter. Hays would supply the money and join Phelan when Hays’s army term ended.

Phelan left the army on June 8, 1838. He duly claimed two land parcels in what later became downtown St. Paul, along the Mississippi from the foot of Eagle Street to the Robert Street Bridge. Only Pierre Parrant, the famous Pig’s Eye, who occupied a shanty near Fountain Cave, has an earlier claim to be the first resident of St. Paul. Hays joined Phelan on April 25, 1839. The two men took up farming.

On September 8, Phelan reported to his neighbors Benjamin and Genevieve Gervais that he had not seen Hays since he had ferried him across the Mississippi in his canoe the day before. Hays, said Phelan, believed someone from the Dakota village Kaposia, a few miles downriver, had stolen a calf of his, and Hays wanted to pursue the thief. Two search parties followed Hays’s supposed path to Kaposia but found no trace of him. When Hays turned up murdered three weeks later, all eyes turned to Phelan.

At that time, the future St. Paul consisted of perhaps twenty dwellings scattered between Hidden Falls on the west and Carver’s Cave on the east. The nearest law resided at Mendota, in the person of justice of the peace Henry Sibley. Sibley ordered Phelan arrested, then turned the case over to Joseph R. Brown. Brown represented the proper legal authority: Crawford County, Wisconsin Territory, the western point of which contained the future St. Paul.

Brown held a hearing on November 1, 1839. The dozen witnesses mostly contradicted Phelan’s tale. Hays’s missing calf, never stolen, had soon returned. Four men had seen Phelan in his canoe at the time he said he ferried Hays across the river; all agreed that Phelan was alone.

Observers had noticed a great quantity of blood and some strands of gray hair in trampled vegetation near the Hays–Phelan cabin. The only evidence supporting the story that Hays had gone off and been murdered by someone else, possibly Indians, came from Phelan, and his versions of the tale had varied. On November 3, Brown concluded that Phelan had likely committed the murder. He sent him to jail in Prairie du Chien, the seat then of Crawford County, to await a grand jury and likely trial.

In the spring or summer of 1840, Phelan returned to his cabin and his disputatious life. In 1848, his neighbors elected him a delegate to the Minnesota Territorial Convention. In 1850, a grand jury indicted him for perjury. Rather than face charges, Phelan took off for the goldfields of California. He never got there; companions murdered him along the way.

It remains unknown what happened to Phelan after he arrived at the jail in Prairie du Chien. Though the evidence against him was powerful, the grand jury may have declined to indict him, or he may have been acquitted at trial. All court records of his case have been lost. The namesake of St. Paul’s Lake Phalen, Phalen Creek, Phalen Boulevard, and Payne-Phalen neighborhood was almost certainly the city’s first murderer.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.