No one knows better the danger that a tense circumstance can present than police in the United States. Constantly under pressure to control people who are guaranteed rights that provide them a wide latitude of no control, the scenarios that citizens can present range from the mundane to sheer terror, even for a trained professional. With that thought, we continue to reflect on moments in the history of law enforcement we wish we could get back, the sacrifices of those that have paid the ultimate price on our behalf.
Carrington, North Dakota
Carrington is a charming small town in the east-central part of North Dakota. Like nearly every city in North Dakota, it serves as a transit hub for agribusiness for it’s portion of the State, and is draped with buildings that were built by hand in many years past. Whether it’s the churches, the Chevrolet dealership, or the Chieftain Motel and Restaurant, all the infrastructure shows yesteryear character, in well-built, designed, and aesthetic quality. These are all signs of great craftsmanship, and this is the kind of character you’ll find in Carrington. It’s the kind of place that Jim Kleinsasser, retired NFL Tight End of the Minnesota Vikings, and Larry Woiwode, North Dakota poet laureate hail from. Both men in their individual pursuits show a dedication to their craft that many will never achieve. In terms of agribusiness, Carrington is home to one of the most successful co-operative agribusinesses, Dakota Growers Pasta Company, which has since become a public traded stock.
Like most population hubs in North Dakota, the bulk of crime in the State visits places like Carrington at an otherwise unprecedented rate. Because in between each town and city in North Dakota is wide-open pasture, grain, and ranch land, that doesn’t attract the modern-day criminal. Instead, criminals in this State will travel 30 miles to 60 miles between towns, looking for opportunities. It is this kind of trend that we visit in today’s memorial.
Chief of Police Carl G. Nelson
Chief of Police Carl G. Nelson was a three-year veteran of the Carrington Police Department. On October 10th, 1915 four men in masks robbed seven men at gunpoint, at a local pool hall in the late evening. Those four men ran off in the night, and attempted to board a train around midnight, north of town. The police department was notified of the armed robbery, and the investigation began. Chief Nelson, along with Sheriff Morgan of the Foster County Sheriff’s Office, and two officers had identified that four men fitting began by going to the train stop, and boarded the train to find them. However, the four men were actually not on the train, but instead were hiding in a patch of brush near a crossing, likely knowing that the first place that police would check would be the quickest route out of town. An armed group of citizens who had been told about the robbery also went out to the train stop, but decided to take the path that led to the brush. It was there that the four robbers confronted this group, and wounding one of them in the process. The four criminals found a way back into town, and purchased a room at a boarding house. The following afternoon, one of the criminals went into a restaurant and purchased several sandwiches and an entire tin can of coffee grounds, and the restaurant owner became suspicious of the purchase, made by only one man. He contacted the police department, and Chief Nelson, Sheriff Morgan, and the two officers quickly arrived outside of the restaurant and followed the man back to the boarding house. The officers realized that the man fit the description almost perfectly of one of the robbers. The officers went into the boarding house and staged at the door of the room. Chief Nelson began to force entry, and as he pushed the door open, he was shot in the mid-section. Sheriff Morgan and the two officers exchanged fire, likely from double arm’s length distances with the three men. One of the officers shot and killed the man who shot Chief Nelson, later identified as Frank Davis, a farmhand from Oklahoma. The other identified criminal, Leonard Sweringer, was arrested. The other two criminals escaped the ordeal, where the accounts in newspapers state that 45 rounds in all were exchanged between the officers the criminals. However, some accounts of the incident state that the other two men were actually in another room during the exchange, and that may be the reason they were able to escape and not be identified in the end.
A train was specially commandeered for Chief Nelson, because his wound was extensive. The train drove a straight shot to St. Paul, Minnesota, where a surgical specialist could attend to his injury. However, on October 13th, 1915, Chief Nelson passed away from the damage done to his body.
This group of criminals were not unique to North Dakota at the time of this incident. North Dakota law enforcement was aware of over a dozen such robbery gangs that plagued their isolated farming communities, most criminals using their trade as farm hands to scout victims, not just individually, but communities as a whole. The group Chief Nelson faced was attributed to many similar robberies, that were documented from Minot, to Jamestown, the shortest distance between those two cities is 170 miles, whereby Carrington sits back half of, closer to Jamestown. It is not that surprising that a group like that of Davis would wind up in Carrington, and using that community as their ‘last stand,’ before leaving the area for good. And judging from the effort put into their criminal activity in Carrington, this was certainly the last stop on their reign of terror, before likely moving on to the State of Minnesota, which was also a trend in this era.
Chief Nelson was young to the career of law enforcement, as we stated he had only three years of service. He was also young in life, he was 25 years old when he died. He left behind a wife and child. The fact that the citizens of Carrington put money together to get a train exclusively for his transport to St. Paul says much about how they felt about Chief Nelson. While Chief Nelson died, it is this outpouring of support that should stick with us. It is these kinds of acts that we wish were always the nature of people when officers are hurt on the job. We do know that this is no longer the case. But perhaps in reflecting on the loss of Chief Nelson, we should reconsider our sense of community, and what we owe brave men and women, who are simply doing their jobs, when they are sometimes face with great peril. Surely, we can all agree, we owe it to Chief Nelson.
In memory of Chief of Police Carl G. Nelson