Chris Knutsen: Years of Decision

by Jean Cammon Findlay, as part of The Knutsen Archives

    Chapter 1. A "Miserable Scamp"
    Chapter 2. The "Fresh Fish"
    Chapter 3.
    Chapter 4. Mason to Manufacturer

Chapter 1. A "Miserable Scamp"

An unfortunate event in the early life of Chris Cammon (Knutsen) took place the day after his twentieth birthday, on June 25, 1882. It was on this day that he entered the Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater, where he was sentenced to eight months at hard labor "as punishment for the crime of entering an office with intent to commit larceny."

On a cold, dark Friday night, February 10, 1882, the partly cloudy sky was dimly lit by a waning quarter moon. Two furtive figures crept into the E. B. Carney lumber office in the village (population 1200) of Sauk Centre, MN, pried open the till–and found it empty. Note 1

The next day John Carney, owner of the lumberyard (which was named after his wife Elizabeth) swore out a warrant for the arrest of John Cammon (aka Chris). The warrant itself also summoned John Carney as well as a J.W. Parker to appear as material witnesses in the complaint. By 10:00 A.M. Constable H.S. Doty had his quarry in custody. John Cammon was brought before the justice of the peace, Lewis L. West, the charge was read, the witnesses made their statements, and the defendant stated he had committed the offence and had no defense to make. He was found guilty and "that he be held to answer therefore at the next general term of the District Court to be held in the county, in the sum of 300 dollars."

"John Cammon," reads the document, "not offering sufficient bail, he is committed to the common jail of this county."

The Sauk Centre Herald reported the crime, not very objectively, in its Friday, Feb. 17, edition. "Suspicion fastened upon a worthless fellow, John Cammon, who has been hanging around town for several days," the editor wrote.

"He admitted that he and his pal had been laying [sic] for a chance to hold someone up for a stake for some days and nights, but failed to find a promising subject sufficiently intoxicated to tempt them to show their prowess."

The article concluded, "He is a miserable scamp and deserves all the law will allow." Note 2

The prosecution witness called against Chris was J.W. Parker. In the 1880 census there was only one J. Parker, John, aged 60, a hotel keeper. Possibly Chris was staying at his hotel and J.W. Parker would know how long Chris had been in town, when he was in–or out–of his room, and possibly who he was hanging out with. John Carney, 60, lumber-dealer, and his wife Elizabeth, 50, keeping house, were there as were Henry S. Doty, 42, Deputy Sheriff, and Lewis L. West, 59, a carpenter who was most likely an elected Justice of the Peace. All of these people were older and established in the community–certainly older than Chris’ father who was 47 at this time. Thus, in describing Chris as a "miserable scamp," the newspaper report was probably reflecting the establishment attitude.

And what of that second person, "his pal?" There is no second person cited in the court documents, only the one reference in the newspaper article. When I first learned of Chris’ prison record and saw the reference to an accomplice, I assumed an older man had led Chris astray. But perhaps the accomplice was still a juvenile and therefore dealt with separately and certainly anonymously. There are a few boys in the census who could fit this qualification, but too many to say definitively which one. My suspicion falls upon Charles Parker who would have been 16 in 1882 and whose father was William Parker, a carpenter. Note 3

When the District Court of the Seventh Judicial District convened on June 14, 1882, in Saint Cloud, the county seat of Stearns County, John Cammon was indicted by the grand jury for the crime of breaking and entering an office with intent to commit burglary. When asked how he pleaded, Chris replied, "that he is guilty of the offense charged except the breaking." I’m pleased to see that after four months in the county jail, he still had some spirit! Note 4

The page devoted to Chris’ commitment record is short. It lists his name, his crime, the term of his sentence, and the following information which includes the only written physical description we have.

  • Nativity–Norway
  • Resided in state–18 years [sic: should be 16]
  • Age–20
  • Height–5 feet 10 inches
  • Hair–brown
  • Eyes–Grey
  • Complexion–Fair
  • Occupation–Carpenter
  • Single; Temperate; cannot read or write; Uses tobacco; No deposits [i.e. no personal effects such as money, jewelry, trinkets, or tobacco]

The record also shows he was discharged on January 12, 1883, which was the expiration of his sentence less the full amount of time (40 days) allowed by law–five days for each month of good conduct.

From the catalogue of offenses disqualifying prisoners from "good conduct," we can presume that Chris did not fight, swear, quarrel, steal, trade, shirk, spit, stare, talk or communicate in any way with other prisoners, put his hands in his pockets, deface property, throw away food, or laugh or joke, and was not loud, mischievous, slovenly, inattentive, disobedient, insolent, impertinent, and that he arose promptly in the morning, kept his clothes and cell tidy, and his place in line. Note 5

Chapter 2. The "Fresh Fish"

In prison parlance, the newcomer is called a "fresh fish." There is so much to learn, so many rules (the first of which is silence), so many routines, so much to accept and remember on that first day as he is introduced to this daunting world.

Prison must have been terrifying for Chris. He grew up in a large, close, and with nine children, almost certainly noisy family. Uncles, aunts, and cousins lived nearby and their names appear frequently as witnesses to vital events such as marriages, baptisms, deed transfers and homestead proofs. Now, here he was, as a consequence of a moment’s poor judgment, entering a severely regimented, isolated, and controlled life, incarcerated with the likes of Cole Younger of the infamous James-Younger Gang. Note 6

Chris was probably accompanied from the Stearns County Jail to the old Territorial Prison on North Main Street in Stillwater by the sheriff of Stearns County (I doubt he was considered a high flight risk, so he would not have been handcuffed) and turned over to Deputy Warden Abe Hall who would deliver him to his cell and the officer known as the Captain of the Cellhouse. This person would search Chris, take away his coat, hat, and vest, escort him to the bathroom for a bath, and issue him a "second grade" uniform, a black and gray checked suit and cap.

All entering prisoners were classified second grade and from there one could either earn first grade status or be punished by demotion to third grade. As a second grade, prisoners’ privileges would include being permitted to write one letter every two weeks, get a weekly ration of tobacco, and to receive visitors once a month. Second grade prisoners had their own separate dining room, as did first grade, but the food, while plain, plentiful, and wholesome, was not as varied (such as butter and relishes included) as first grade. First and second grades could both wear their hair long enough to comb, but facial hair was not allowed. 

A visit to the barber for a shave and haircut followed the bath. Next, Chris would go to work, having been assigned either to the twine factory, the shoe factory, the tailor shop, or the repair shop. The main purpose of the repair shop was the upkeep of the prison, and it employed tinners, plumbers, painters, machinists, and carpenters. Given that Chris declared carpentry as his profession at his commitment, the repair shop was probably his work assignment.

Chris’ first meal in the dining room must have been rife with opportunities for error. Since talking was strictly forbidden, he had to learn the signs for asking for food, such as raising his right hand for bread, his spoon for soup, his cup for coffee, and so on. Then it was back to work.

At the close of the first day, Chris, along with the other prisoners, would be marched to the cells and told to stand with his right hand on his cell door until the evening count was verified by the deputy warden. Then he could face up to his new home.

The meagerly furnished cell was five by seven with whitewashed walls and an iron floor. I can imagine Chris on that first night, and many nights thereafter, confronting in every way his lack of liberty and, when he wasn’t overwhelmed by loneliness and despair, determining that his stay would be as short as possible. I have no doubt that given his good conduct dismissal in January, he earned first degree status at the earliest opportunity, which would have been on December 21, 1882. Note 7

The routine was always the same: arise, tidy cell, breakfast, work, dinner, work, head count, supper in the cell, free time in the cell, lights out. Once a week there would be a shower and a change of underclothes, and outdoor exercise. On Sunday, in addition to the chance to attend chapel, letter writing materials were provided (if permitted, and even so, Chris could not write), and tobacco was issued.

While Chris was in prison, the family life went on. It is impossible to know if Chris had visitors or when he learned family news. His next youngest sister, Hansine, married an artist named Arthur Russell Hurtt in October 1882 in Saint Paul. Note 8

The other news was sadder. Chris’ cousin Ole, brother to Anna whom he married in 1888, died at age 28 on January 15, 1883. Different causes were reported in the paper and on his death certificate, but the most likely cause was pneumonia. Chris was discharged from prison a week later. It is possible he went to Montevideo, MN, where this part of the family lived, to visit and offer condolences on his way home to Milnor, (North) Dakota.

Chapter 3. Released!

About two months before being discharged, Chris began to get ready. If he wished to grow a beard, he could. He visited the tailor department which repaired his clothes and shoes and, in addition, fitted and sewed a new suit and overcoat.

On the final day, Chris was notified in the morning that he would be released and taken to the tailor shop to put on his new suit and given his personal belongings from his cell. He was then escorted to the deputy warden’s office who gave him his discharge papers and $25.00. Note 9 The warden invited him into his office to say goodbye and wish him good luck. He was probably ready to leave about 9:00 A.M.

When the prison gate closed behind him, Chris looked like any other clean, well-pressed citizen, and once he reached Minneapolis where he boarded the train for North Dakota, unless he mentioned it himself, no one would ever know how he had spent the last eight months.

In the local papers that served the Cammon residential area in North Dakota, there was no mention of Chris’ misfortune, either at the time he was arrested or sentenced. When he was discharged, here was no note in the social column that the Cammon son had returned to the family home from Minnesota. Chris appears to have quietly gone about the business of setting himself up in a trade and earning an honest living.

Chapter 4. Mason to Manufacturer > > >

Note 1.  I had to look up an online almanac to find the moon phase for Feb. 10, 1882, and I finally found a good source for what the weather generally was that night. There was probably snow on the ground and the temperature hovered somewhere between four and 15 degrees. I also spent a lot of time reading the 1880 federal census for Sauk Centre, and I actually counted the population–there were exactly 1,201 people.

Note 2.  It is not known what Chris was doing in Sauk Centre, a town about 70 miles northwest of the Twin Cities on the road to Fargo and most famous now as the birthplace of Sinclair Lewis (in 1885) who disguised it as Gopher Prairie, the setting for his novel, Main Street. Although Chris had lived in Northfield, 40 miles south of Minneapolis, from 1866 to 1879, he was now a citizen of Dakota Territory (later North Dakota), where his father had moved the family and settled on a homestead June 11, 1879. The 1880 federal census shows Chris and all his siblings residing where his parents homesteaded in Township 132, Range 52 (now called Wyndmere Township) of Richland County.
A reading of the Sauk Centre 1880 federal census does not reveal any familiar names of family or friends, and for that matter, precious few inhabitants of Norwegian descent. Instead, I looked for clues in the court documents themselves.

Note 3.  In the 1880 census I noted, however, that William Parker and the hotel-keeper John Parker do not share the same birthplace, nor the same parental birthplaces, so they are not brothers. They could, of course, be cousins or some other collateral relation, or their last names could just be a coincidence. More research is needed.

Note 4The actual charge read “...did break and enter in the night time an office to wit the lumber office of E. B. Carney, not adjoining to or occupied with a dwelling house, with intent to commit the crime of larceny.” In order to provide a perspective on this crime, for which Chris received an eight month sentence, we can contrast it with a similar one committed on August 25, 1881, by George Cowell who was also indicted by the Stearns County Grand Jury on June 14, 1882. He “...(did) feloniously and burglariously break and enter the dwelling house occupied by and the property of the said Dr. A.G. Gilman situated in said City of St. Cloud, by taking out and removing the screen of one of the windows thereof with intent to steal take and carry away from said Dwelling House divers goods and chattels therein, to wit one Gold Watch and Chain of the value of One Hundred and Seventy Five Dollars...” Cowell pled guilty and was sentenced to five years at the state prison at Stillwater. Chris was lucky he did not enter an "occupied dwelling."  It is interesting that the indictment is against John Cammon, but in the subsequent documents for pleading and sentencing, "John" is crossed out and "Chris" is written in above that name. The page in the Stillwater Prison record lists him as Chris Cammon.

Note 5.  Heilbron, W.C. Convict Life at the Minnesota State Prison, Stillwater, Minnesota. Valley History Press, Stillwater, MN, 1909.

Note 6.  On September 7, 1876, Jesse and Frank James, Cole, Bob, and Jim Younger, Clell Miller, William Stiles (aka Bill Chadwell), and Charlie Pitts (aka Sam Wells) rode into Northfield and attempted to rob the First National Bank on Main Street. In the subsequent tumult Clell Miller was killed. The Gang separated and rode separate ways, and in a shoot-out with the posse several weeks later, Charlie Pitts was killed. The Younger brothers were captured and tried at Faribault (county seat of Rice County where Northfield is located) and sentenced to 25 years in the Stillwater State Prison. Bob Younger died there in 1889, and Jim and Cole–who was reputedly a model prisoner--were pardoned in 1901; Jim committed suicide in 1902 and Cole died in 1916. The James boys escaped to Missouri where Jesse was murdered by a former gang member, Robert Ford, in 1882. Frank died of a heart attack in 1916.
At the time of the robbery, Chris’ family lived at what is now 903 Division in Northfield; First National Bank was five blocks north at what is presently 408 Division. Ironically, Chris probably shared first degree status with Cole Younger during Chris' last month in prison, but as prisoners were not allowed to converse, Chris could hardly have told Cole of the excitement about the Northfield Raid from his point of view.

Note 7.  At the rate of a maximum nine points per month, Chris would have accumulated 54 good conduct points. Fifty were required for first grade.

Note 8.  Thereafter Hansine became known as Winnie, probably renamed by her husband for whom this name was a favorite.
The precise date of their marriage is not totally confirmed. Arthur and Winnie applied for a wedding license in Saint Paul on October 25, 1882, but the license was never returned or a marriage recorded. Winnie and Arthur did have a marriage performed 21 years later in New York City on November 13, 1903, and this ceremony was officially recorded. When Margaret Cammon Pelton, Chris’ niece, remarked to her granddaughter Linda Cameron that there was some scandal attached to the family, there are other candidates than Chris to whom scandal could be applied, and this is one example.

Note 9.  I was curious to know just how far Chris's $25.00 would go as he made his way home to Milnor, North Dakota, from Minneapolis. According to the website I found for "How Much Is That Worth Today," he had the equivalent of about $450, specifically, $454.68 in the year 2003 had the same "purchase power" as $25.00 in the year 1883.

Citation: John J. McCusker, "Comparing the Purchasing Power of Money in the United States (or Colonies) from 1665 to Any Other Year Including the Present" Economic History Services, 2004, URL :

If you enjoyed this article, or found it useful for research, please consider supporting so that this information will be available for others like you and to future generations. Thanks!


To "Vignettes"


[Biographical] [Instruments] [Historical Photos]
Credits] [FAQ] [Bibliography] [Updates] [Links] [Contact]
Home (Knutsen Archives)] [Home (

All Site Contents Copyright © Gregg Miner, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005,2006. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright and Fair Use of material and use of images: See Copyright and Fair Use policy.