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Democracy in America

There Will Be No Public Hangings in This North Dakota Town

There Will Be No Public Hangings in This North Dakota Town
State Historical Society of North Dakota

Doug Ellison thought he had come up with a good idea. He would erect a gallows on his property in Medora, North Dakota – where he has served as mayor since 2008 – and then pretend to hang himself in front of a throng of tourists.

Ellison has since laid his idea down gently, like a fizzing bomb, and walked briskly in the opposite direction. “I've been accused of contributing to moral decay,” he says. “That was not my intent.”

Word of the fake hanging in Medora spread across the globe more wantonly than a firenado in a grain factory. The mayor of a community of about 100 – plus 200,000 nature-loving visitors annually – was suddenly appearing in newspapers from the U.K. to Barbados. The concept, for those who haven't kept abreast of this story: Ellison, a scholar of North Dakota history, would dress up as a ruffian from the 1800s and shoot down some hapless sucker on the street. A jury would try and sentence him to hang.

Ellison might then recite the final statement of one of the Old West's deadlier gunfighters, like Bill Longley or Tom Horn, before the executioner sent him swinging to his doom.

“Then once I'm brought down and people see I'm alive and fine, I would've taken some questions,” Ellison says.

People who personally contacted him about the faux hanging, the mayor says, have been largely supportive. But a vocal minority have not cottoned to what they assume is a celebration of homicide. Here's a sampling of cheesed-off commenters under the HuffPo story about Medora:

  • Who is going to insure this extremely classless idea?
  • Tourist attraction (?) or symptom of significant mental illness?
  • That's disgusting! When one considers there are still people hangt in Iran today, I can't believe someone would watch this for entertainment.
  • Yeah, pretty tasteless. There are better ways to promote tourism, particularly with the disclaimer that "it is perfectly safe". I can see it now when he is flailing and kicking around on the end of the rope and everyone is standing there laughing nervously because they think it is an act - all part of the show. Oooops, is he dead or what?

First of all, counters Ellison, he was never at risk of bodily harm. He was going to use a  Hollywood-quality trick noose with a body harness and safety mechanism that detaches should anything malfunction. And secondly, he says, critics are missing the point that this was supposed to be a “Western theatrical production.”

Medora has quite a blood-streaked history, as chronicled in the local award-winning production, “Recollections of Murder and Mayhem in Medora.” The town's founder, Marquis de Mores, was a foul-mouthed French duelist who went to trial in the Dakota Badlands for murder. (He was acquitted, but later killed by Tuaregs.) There followed several fatal shootings, and the townsfolk also strung up effigies of an entire jury that had issued an unpopular verdict. Oddly enough, no one is known to have actually died by hanging in Medora.

“It was a Wild West town and it did have violence back in 1800s,” the mayor says.

But the haters have won, for now. Ellison recently withdrew his application for a gallows from the local zoning board, not wanting to stain Medora's reputation as a family-friendly vacation spot. He says he has no plans to pursue a hanging, at least until the hubbub dies down, which rankles him given all the violence kids are exposed to nowadays.

The Hunger Games, this movie, it's about kids killing each other,” he says. “At least my plan was to have a moral lesson: Crime does not pay.”

Below, read a letter that mayor Ellison scripted for his local newspaper explaining why he's dropped the hanging idea.

March 25, 2012

In the past several days, a story based on a concept of mine has spread through the media from coast to coast and border to border. It is an application I made to the Medora Planning and Zoning Commission to construct a replica Old West gallows on my property on which to stage “hangings.” The wide interest, and divisive opinions, engendered by this proposal have surprised me. An old song by Waylon Jennings comes to mind: “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit Has Done Got Out of Hand.”

Lost in the clamor, for the most part, is my original and stated intent of the application – an historically accurate, educational lesson in frontier justice, with an emphasis on justice.

I have spent almost literally my entire life studying, writing about, reenacting, and interpreting western history. It is how I make my living. Like it or not, violence was an integral part of our frontier experience. The Marquis de Mores, founder of Medora, killed a man in a gunfight a few weeks after arriving in the Little Missouri badlands in 1883. The Marquis was tried and acquitted of the killing in 1885. This violent event is an important part of our town’s heritage. An award-winning museum drama, Recollections of Murder and Mayhem in Medora, deals tastefully and accurately with this incident every weekend throughout the summer. The iconic photo of Medora’s “Hanging Tree” from 1896, replete with numerous “dead bodies,” is a result of the brutal murder of Ed Severson. The past two summers have also seen an immensely popular “Wild West Shootout” held regularly at Medora. It is escapism, and is enjoyed by children of all ages. Perhaps an “Old West hanging” would not be appropriate for everyone to witness. That would be a decision left to individuals and parents. Medora has many attractions, and they have varied appeal for different people of different ages.

To me, staging an “Old West hanging” would be no worse or more harmful than watching a magician carve up a girl on stage, or seeing a knife-thrower in action. All are illusions meant to simulate danger; and the “hanging” would carry with it a moral lesson, that serious crime carries serious consequence. The proposed “hanging” scenario would clearly be the result of an outlaw having put himself in that position by his own actions.

I am not prepared to label the idea an ill-conceived notion, for I remain convinced that, if presented as envisioned, it would be an educational and interpretive prism into our past. In fact, the majority of people who have talked with me personally have expressed their support. Nevertheless, if even a minority of visitors finds such an option offensive, I owe it to my hometown to remove the potential irritant. Thus, I will be withdrawing my application for the gallows.

As a final thought, people have many things to think about and talk about. Because of this story, people all over the country were suddenly thinking and talking about Medora and southwest North Dakota. I believe that is a good problem for us to have. Perhaps some people who had never heard of Medora will stop in to see what all the fuss was about.

Douglas Ellison
Mayor, City of Medora

Top image of Medora's hanging tree from the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Don't freak out, they're just dummies.

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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