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Was German Minnesota immigrant August Ruther a poisoner or a victim of prejudice?

Despite any direct evidence, a jury convicted Ruther of the murder of his brother-in-law after just eighty minutes of deliberations.

historic photo of august ruther
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
August Ruther, From box 128 (112.B.11.12F) of Pardon Applications to the Minnesota Board of Pardons, 1923, 1930, 1934–1949. State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
August Ruther, who served in the German army in the 1890s, was charged with poisoning his brother-in-law in Rice County in 1917. Despite any direct evidence, a jury convicted him in eighty minutes, in large part due to anti-German nativism during World War I. His sentence was commuted to time served (eighteen years) in 1936.

Ruther was born in Mehlkehmen, East Prussia, on May 16, 1876, to August Rutkowsky and Rosina Idzuns. He attended primary school and worked as a farmhand in East Prussia until the German government drafted him into the military for two years in about 1894.

After completing his military service, Ruther worked in factories in Germany and then found work as a sailor, traveling on the North, Mediterranean, and Black seas. In 1907, he sailed to New York, intending eventually to get work on a Great Lakes steamer once he learned English. For the next seven years he roamed about the eastern half of the country, working on ships and farms and in other types of manual labor.

Ruther took work husking corn in Bridgewater Township, Rice County, Minnesota, in the fall of 1914. There, he met and married Josephine Fiske, whose father had left her a farm. Josephine also had charge of her older brother, August Fiske, who did farm work but was developmentally disabled.

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August Fiske was found dead at his brother Henry’s farm on September 9, 1917; an autopsy determined that he had ingested paris green, an insecticide.

When the Rice County court next convened in November, August Ruther was indicted for first-degree murder. There was no direct evidence that Ruther had killed Fiske, but four factors weighed against him: he did not have the funds to hire a good lawyer; he was an alcoholic at a time when the United States was approaching Prohibition; he was allegedly abusive toward his wife and brother-in-law; and he was a citizen of Germany while the US was fighting World War I.

The jury convicted Ruther of Fiske’s murder on February 12, 1918, after deliberating for just 80 minutes. The mandatory sentence was life in prison without parole.

Ruther served his sentence at the Minnesota State Prison in Bayport (the city of Stillwater later grew to include the site). There he worked in the prison machine shop, where a piece of flying metal blinded him permanently in one eye in late 1919.

Throughout his trial and sentence, Ruther maintained his innocence. He filed eleven applications for clemency with the state Board of Pardons between 1920 and 1935 with the help of the warden’s office and four attorneys.

Chief Justice John P. Devaney agreed to read the transcript of Ruther’s trial—more than 500 pages long—in the fall of 1935. Afterward, the three members of the board agreed to commute Ruther’s sentence to time served, upon the condition that he not return to the Rice County area, where there was fear he might harass his former neighbors.

Ruther’s attorney, William W. Pye, took him to Chicago in late May 1936, where he worked menial jobs when he was physically able. At that time he was sixty years old and still had trouble with his injured eye.

He and Pye filed one more application for pardon in the fall of 1939. Although Ruther had been released from prison, his conviction stayed on his record and made it difficult to obtain work and impossible to gain citizenship. The Board of Pardons denied his twelfth application.

Ruther died in Chicago on August 31, 1942, at the age of sixty-six, of a heart attack. He is buried in the Elmwood Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois.

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