How a Dakota Territory Governor's pardon ignited a feud between two members of the same party

Former Dakota Territory Gov. Michael McCormack was only in office for nine days, but his decision to pardon a man found guilty of second degree manslaughter proved influential.

Curt Eriksmoen online column signature
Photo by Michael Vosburg, Forum Photo Editor. Artwork by Troy Becker.

According to court records, North Dakota is one of 13 states that grants the fewest pardons for prisoners in state penitentiaries. Up until Gov. Doug Burgum began approving pardons for low-level marijuana possession, North Dakota governors only granted pardons about once per year. One of the most controversial pardons occurred in 1887 in Dakota Territory. It involved the son of a very wealthy Fargo man who shot and killed a man in Menoken. The man who pardoned him was Michael McCormack, who served as acting governor for only nine days.

Inforum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of Grand Forks politician Michael McCormack.

McCormack was one of the most important leaders in the social, commercial and political development of Grand Forks in the first quarter-century of the city’s existence. He began his Grand Forks residency as a steamboat captain and soon became heavily involved in all aspects of this rapidly growing community. After serving three terms as mayor of Grand Forks (1882 to 1884), he decided to become an active member of the Democratic Party in Dakota Territorial politics. In 1884, McCormack was elected as a delegate to the Chicago Democratic Convention. After the convention nominated Grover Cleveland for the presidency, McCormack was appointed to be a member of the committee to notify Cleveland of his nomination.

Michael McCormack
Contributed / Digital Horizons

When Cleveland was elected U.S. President, he appointed McCormack as secretary of Dakota Territory and, as the new secretary, McCormack took charge of his office on Dec. 10, 1885. According to microfilm records from the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the territorial secretary “provided commissions, seals and information to notaries public. He also received copies of articles of incorporation and provided information on the process of incorporation in the territory. The secretary responded to requests for copies of laws and information on existing law, and provided information on territorial officers, election returns, insurance policies,and statistical data.” He also was to serve as governor in the absence of the governor. Dakota Territory did not have a lieutenant governor.

The latter duty came into play for McCormack when the Dakota Territorial Legislature convened on Jan. 11, 1887, and no governor had been appointed. Gilbert Pierce, a Republican, had been serving as governor and President Cleveland did not accept his resignation until Feb. 1. Cleveland then appointed Louis K. Church, a Democrat, who was a justice on the Dakota Territorial Supreme Court, to be the new governor. The U.S. Senate, which was controlled by the Republicans, slow-walked Church’s confirmation.

Meanwhile, Dakota Territory needed a governor to sign into law or veto bills passed by the legislature and McCormack assumed the role of the governor on Feb. 2. According to Prairie Public, while in office, he “signed a number of bills, vetoed a bill and even pardoned a man by the name of Thomas Magill of Fargo who had been convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to three years in the penitentiary.” On Feb. 10, Church was confirmed by the Senate and the next day he became governor of Dakota Territory. McCormack then reassumed his duties as secretary of Dakota Territory.


Louis K. Church, seen in this picture from 1880 to 1889, was the governor of the Dakota Territory from 1887 to 1889. His tenure immediately followed Gov. Michael McCormack's nine-day stint in the post.
Contributed / Digital Horizons

Gov. Church sent a letter to President Cleveland complaining about McCormack’s pardon of Magill, stating that Magill had been imprisoned “for murder.” He wrote that a pardon request had earlier been presented to Gov. Pierce, but Pierce had declined the request. Since Cleveland did not appear to take any action against McCormack, Church sent another letter to the President where he criticized the secretary more severely. He wrote that McCormack is “an uneducated, illiterate man who does not know much.” Church added that McCormack is in sympathy with people in the Democratic Party who are “a curse to our party.” Church was particularly disturbed that McCormack “did not honorably support” Church’s leadership. I have not found any evidence that Cleveland ever took any action against McCormack.

Who was Thomas Magill and why was his pardon so controversial? At the time of the shooting on Oct. 21, 1884, Magill was 24-years-old, the oldest son of Samuel G. Magill, a Union officer in the Civil War who made a fortune in the lumber industry in Clinton, Iowa. In 1879, Samuel became a partner with George S. Barnes in Glyndon, Minnesota, where they built and purchased grain elevators along the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR) tracks in Minnesota.

In 1881, Samuel and Thomas Magill moved to Fargo and started the real estate firm Magill and Son and began purchasing land along the NPRR tracks in Dakota Territory. In 1882, Magill and Barnes sold their 55 Minnesota grain facilities to the Pillsbury flour company and Barnes purchased a 4,000-acre bonanza farm near Glyndon. Barnesville, Minnesota is named in honor of George Barnes.

Samuel and Thomas Magill decided to use much of their money in purchasing land in Dakota Territory. One of their land purchases was the Clarke farm, 12 miles east of Bismarck, on which they platted a town site and in 1883 named the town Menoken. In 1884, the Magills decided to expand that farm and were negotiating with Leonard Lucas, who owned a farm adjacent to Menoken. Lucas had a blacksmith shop on his farm and employed Melville Bessey as his blacksmith.

In October 1884, the Magills traveled to Menoken to complete the purchase of that farm. While they were there, Thomas decided to go goose hunting on the Lucas farm. He loaded his shotgun and went to the blacksmith shop to get goose decoys and ask permission to use Lucas's horse and buggy. Bessey was working in the shop when Thomas asked to use the horse and buggy. Bessey refused his request and Thomas told him that when they take possession of the land Bessey would need to leave and find work elsewhere.

At the trial on Oct. 2, 1885, Thomas Magill testified that Bessey raised the sledgehammer he had in his hand and said, “I’ll knock your g-d d—n brains out.” Thomas raised his shotgun and pulled the trigger. The shot to Beesey’s head knocked him down and he died a short time later. Thomas then dashed off a telegram to Burleigh County Deputy Sheriff L. N. Griffin that said, “I have shot and possibly killed Bessey, the blacksmith. Come to Menoken as I want to deliver myself up to the authorities.” Thomas was arrested and placed in the Bismarck jail awaiting trial.

Going into the trial, there were two very different opinions held about the Magills. In the Fargo area, they were considered to be “well-liked and highly admired.” In the area around Menoken, they were considered snobbish. One of the witnesses called them “aristocratic and they didn’t go much on aristocracy.” The trial was held in Bismarck, 12 miles west of Menoken and, of the 22 jury members, only four jurors lived east of Menoken. The jury found Thomas Magill guilty of “manslaughter in the second degree” and Judge William H. Francis sentenced him to “three years and one month of hard labor in the Bismarck penitentiary.” It appears that the primary factor leading to Magill’s conviction was the fact that he took a loaded shotgun into the blacksmith shop.

Soon after Magill went to prison, a group consisting of the district attorney, judge, sheriff and prison warden filed petitions requesting his release. Pierce denied their requests. Then, in early February 1887, after Magill had been incarcerated for one year and four months, he was pardoned by McCormack, the acting governor.


McCormack remained as secretary of Dakota Territory despite Church's protestations and was replaced in March 1889 by Luther Richardson, a Grand Forks real estate dealer who was a strong Republican. Richardson was named as McCormack’s replacement by President Benjamin Harrison, who defeated Cleveland in the 1888 election. McCormack returned to Grand Forks and with North Dakota becoming a new state on Nov. 2, 1889, he ran for the office of state senator in the legislature and was elected. In 1897, McCormack moved to St. Paul where he died on Nov. 15, 1922.

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at or calling 701-793-8508.
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