Grand Forks County ax murderer became Dakota Territory's first legal execution in 1885
Nineteen-year-old farmhand George Miller maintained his innocence all the way to the gallows after he was convicted of murdering an Inkster, N.D., farmer's wife and 11-year-old son in 1885.
In 10 just months, 19-year-old George Miller would be dead. But on the night of Jan. 24, 1885, when the thermometer dipped to 30 below, he was pounding across the dark prairie on a team of horses en route to Grand Forks, in what was then Dakota Territory and now is in northeast North Dakota.
He arrived at the Northwestern Hotel in Grand Forks at daybreak, and promptly asked hotel staff to put his horses in the stable and prepare him breakfast. He had business in town, but he didn’t intend to stay long enough to risk anyone recognizing the team of horses, or the small overcoat in his sled-box that belonged to the boy he had murdered the night before.
It would be several days before the bodies were discovered at the Snell farmstead in Inkster, 36 miles northwest of Grand Forks.
The prosperous 320-acre farm belonged to the Rev. C. Y. Snell, a former minister at the Baptist Church of Grand Forks. When the summer work on the farm was done, he sent three of his children to Grand Forks for school. On Jan. 16, Snell left home to travel to Mayville for missionary work, leaving Abbie Snell and their 11-year-old son Herbie at home with Miller, a hired farmhand of "quiet demeanor" who was "mild, child-like and bland," according to Herald coverage at the time.
In late January, when neighbors became worried that there seemed to be no activity at the farm, they went to check on the Snell family, and found that their livestock hadn’t been fed in nearly a week. Inside, it was clear the home had been robbed, and Abbie and Herbie were dead, with a bed sheet placed over their bodies and the ax that had been used to kill them stashed under a bed.
According to Herald coverage at the time, Miller hadn't realized Snell had taken much of the family's money with him to Mayville, and Miller likely thought he would find much more wealth in the trunk the reverend kept next to his bed. What Miller actually found in the family's trunk was mostly family keepsakes and the children's savings.
The Herald spared no detail of the grisly crime at the time.
“Oh rueful scene!” one Oct. 31, 1885, Herald article read. “The demon had done his worst! Have not the details of that heartless butchery been told again and again? Why not draw the veil upon the foul deed? The ghastly corpses of the innocent and unsuspecting sleepers - mother and son, hurled into eternity in a moment while taking the repose of the righteous, as found there by neighbors a week after the tragedy - divulged the heartlessness of the assassin whoever he might be, and the thorough depravity of the soul that could impel the ruthless ax to deeds of death.”
At the Northwestern Hotel, Miller told the hotel clerk he planned to meet his brother at the train station and travel to Winnipeg. He also asked to exchange several gold pieces, but the clerk didn’t have any change. When he finished his breakfast, he left without paying and made his way to a local clothing store.
At the Chicago Clothing House, Miller used Snell's gold pieces and a roll of bills to purchase a buffalo overcoat, a black suitcase and a bright red pocketbook, but he was caught off-guard by the clerk's suspicious questioning of his wealth. He told the clerk that he had recently sold a team of horses for $275 and he planned to travel to Turtle Mountain.
His last stop in Grand Forks was to the barber, where he cropped his hair short and shaved his face. He also asked the barber about trains from Grand Forks to Crookston, but there weren't any running on Sundays.
Instead, Miller walked to the train station, bought a train ticket, showed his distinctive new red pocketbook to the ticket agent and caught the next train to Fargo, where he spent several days spending time with "women of loose character" and having his picture taken before moving on to Brainerd, where he enjoyed the company of more women until he realized his money was nearly all gone.
While he was there, he stayed with a local man - identified in the Herald only as McLaren - and asked him about going into business together, or doing chores to earn some money.
By then, the bodies of Abbie and Herbie Snell had been discovered. When the clerk of the Northwestern Hotel made a statement about the gold pieces to local media, the clerk at the clothing store who had sold Miller his disguise immediately contacted law enforcement with his description.
When Miller heard the news, he fled to Anoka, but was trailed out of Brainerd by McLaren, who the Herald described as an old detective. According to the Herald, McLaren realized immediately his houseguest must be the accused murderer from Inkster after reading the man's description in the newspaper.
After arriving in Anoka, McLaren learned which hotel Miller was staying in, according to the Herald, and waited one morning for Miller to come down for breakfast. When he heard him coming down the stairs, McLaren approached him from behind with his pistol drawn and placed him under arrest.
The Herald reported that under pressure from McLaren, Miller confessed to committing the crime alone.
"McLaren said to him, 'Now you may as well tell all about it. I can tell you of a place in the forests where you will never be found, if you get away at the next station,'" the Herald reported. "Miller then told his first story about how he was crazed with drink after being (chided) by Mrs. Snell, and killed her and the boy, and after getting over his stupor, and seeing what he had done, he stole the money and tried to get away."
The calls for execution came immediately. After Miller had been booked into the Grand Forks jail, Rev. Snell and Rev. J. T. Davis sat with him for an interview, when Miller reiterated the story that he had killed Abbie and Herbie Snell while he was drunk.
But soon his story changed.
Miller went to trial before a jury in August, where he claimed that the one who had actually wielded the ax was Henry Rutherford, another farmhand who worked for the Snells.
Miller met Rutherford in the Snells' wheat fields, and the pair frequently worked together, Miller claimed. He said one night after drinking in Inkster, Rutherford asked him how much money he estimated the Snells kept in their farmhouse. Miller said he figured it was close to $900.
Miller claimed murdering the family for their money was Rutherford's idea. Miller said he protested, and suggested they wait until they could go to Inkster for chloroform first, but Rutherford was afraid they would be caught.
"Nothing more was said about it for two days," Miller said in a written confession days before his execution. "Coming from town I rode with him; he asked me what I thought about what he had talked about; I told him it was not right to kill them for a little money."
The night of the murders, Miller said Rutherford knocked on his door and asked him if he was ready to join him for the killings. Miller claimed that he told Rutherford that if he wanted to, to go ahead, but he wouldn't be joining him. He said Rutherford then gave him a fake mustache to wear, and Miller went to get his coat and mittens while Rutherford committed the murders. Afterward, he said Rutherford rushed out and told Miller to run, because he had killed the two Snells.
He said Rutherford gave him his share of the money, instructed him to flee to South America, and the two men went their separate ways.
This new version of events was not taken seriously by anybody, and Rutherford immediately denied any involvement. Witness testimony during the trial "fully and completely exonerated" Rutherford, according to the Herald, and Miller was sentenced to death in September. He would become the first legal execution in Dakota Territory.
Grand Forks County was a fairly quiet place to be in the 1880s, and the Snell murders shocked the community and the nation, being reported as far away as in the New York Times, said Mark Halvorson, the curator of collections for the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
"There weren't that many executions in North Dakota, you know," he said "This is not Florida, this is not Alabama, for God’s sake, this is North Dakota. Virtually every one of these cases ... are fairly heinous crimes. Sort of an anomaly. People basically worked and went to church."
Miller's last days were "uneventful," as described by the Herald - he seemed carefree and spoke openly about his impending execution.
He was led up to the gallows at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 30, where he gave his final statement to a crowd of onlookers, including Rutherford.
"Gentlemen: I am accused of the crime of murder which I did not commit," he said, according to the Herald. "I have not committed murder. I was in company with the party and gave my consent, but gentlemen, I never committed the murder myself."
"Now gentlemen, every word that I have told you is true," he continued after reiterating his version of events. "Now as dear as that family was to me, I never could have consented to murder them as I was used there as their son. I was always treated well; they thought the world of me and I did of them but by the hands of another man’s deed I am to be hung and I am going to my grave and I am thankful that I can trust in God and feel that my sins have been pardoned."