With his father making claims that he was foully murdered, and the county authorities supporting the accidental theory, Jesse Ray Armstrong lies dead at the home of his parents in Sleepy Eye as the result of a terrible tragedy which occurred late last Saturday afternoon in the township of Lake Hanska. A bullet from a large caliber rifle went crashing through his brain. It killed him instantly, but the exact manner in which it was fired will probably never be known.
Physicians of repute who have examined the corpse declare that the fatal missile struck the boy above the eye, indicating an accident; but on the other hand the undertaker who embalmed the body gives as his opinion that the ball entered the back of the head, a circumstance which would prelude all possibility of accident or suicide and point only to murder. Motive for this seems lacking but to sift the evidence supporting the widely conflicting theories, a coroner's jury has been impanelled and an inquest was held at 9 o'clock yesterday morning in Sleepy Eye.
In several respects the case is one of the strangest that has ever come under the observation of the Brown county authorities. The boy who was killed was 17 years of age and a son of Mr. and Mrs. C. E. Armstrong, formerly residents of the town of Albin but who lately removed to Sleepy Eye. He has not been living with his parents, but had been employed by his brother, Wm. Armstrong, also of Albin.
On the day of the tragedy he went to the home of his uncle, A.W. Chute, whose farm lies five miles west of the village of Hanska, but found only his younger cousins at home; Mr. and Mrs. Chute being absent in Madelia, their eldest daughter having spent the day in Hanska, while their son Edgar, aged 17, was out hunting. There were at home: Roy, aged 15; Alvin, 13; Charley, 11, and Hester, 9.
Ray Armstrong appeared at the Chute home about 4 o'clock Saturday afterrnoon, he having arranged with Roy Chute to go to a dance in Hanska that evening. He came upon his cousins, Roy, Alvin and Charley, in the corn field, where they had been husking corn. They had finished loading the wagon and he went with them to the barn, where he assisted in transferring the horses to a buggy, while Roy went indoors to wash and dress. When the team was in readiness he drove to the front of the house, left the animals in charge of Charley and went upstairs with Roy, remaining until the latter had nearly finished dressing.
He then descended to the first floor and, passing Alvin and the little girl, Hester, in the kitchen, went out into a short hallway and picked up the rifle, a 44-calibre Winchester. As he did so, Alvin warned him to be careful but he made no reply and stepped into an adjoining bed room. A moment later, when it must have been about 4:20, the report was heard and when the children ran to the door they saw him lying upon the floor with the blood spurting from a wound in his face. The elder boy, Roy, called out: "Ray, are you dead; did you shoot yourself?" and when no reply was received the children scattered to the nearest neighbors and gave the alarm.
Of the latter Albert Schmeising was one of the first to reach the scene. He drove to Hanska, telephoned to Armstrong's parents and notified Dr. D. F. Wood, deputy coroner, who went out to the Chute farm and viewed the the remains. Upon examination he learned that the ball entered Armstrong's head just above the right eye and found egress back of the left ear. Its course was downward and after leaving the skull it struck the frame of a mirror in a bureau and dropped down upon the board of that piece of furniture. Armstrong lay before the bureau face upward, partially on his left side and with his arms outstretched. His right foot was slightly beneath the dresser and the rifle rested across his knees. Beside him, on the floor, was his cap, and a comb lay between his feet.
The supposition at that time was that the youth had carried the rifle into the bedroom and, not knowing that it contained a cartridge, had thrown the only one in the magazine into the barrel. Then, it was thought, he leaned the gun against the bureau and started to comb his hair. While thus engaged the weapon slipped, was discharged and the boy killed. Basing his verdict upon this version, upon the nature of the wound and upon the stories of the Chute children, Dr. Wood decided that the deceased met his death accidentally; but when the boy's father arrived that gentleman took a decidedly different view of the situation.
As soon as the circumstances was explained to him, he announced his conviction that his son had been murdered. The fact that the body faced the bureau seemed to indicate to him that the shot could not have come from the front. He gave expression to the belief that the youth had been standing before the mirror combing his hair when someone treacherously came up behind him and killed him from the doorway.
He maintained that the bullet entered the back of the head, and pointed to the fact that the scar on the mirror frame was in a direct line with the door. The partly closed door strengthened his theory, he said, and he accounted for the gun lying across the knees by asserting that it was placed there by the murderer after the deed was committed. While he did not make any direct accusations, he insinuated that there was a motive for the slaughter in the fact that one of the older Chute boys and his son had had trouble in the past.
Peter Majewski, the Sleepy Eye undertaker who embalmed the corpse, added to the chain of murder clues by stating his belief that the bullet was fired from the rear.
Sunday morning the remains were taken to Sleepy Eye and at 4 o'clock that afternoon Coroner L.A. Fritsche of this city, was notified. Monday morning that officer and Sheriff Wm. J. Julius went to Sleepy Eye, where an examination of the body was made. Later, they drove out to the Chute farm to pursue their investigation and spent the entire day questioning and cross-examining all of the persons having the slightest connection with the case.
They found that the rifle had been used in the morning and that it contained but one cartridge when Armstrong was killed. This might have remained in the gun after it as used, although the Chute boys declared that it was their custom to remove the cartridges when entering the house.
The gun was an old one, purchased from a neighbor, and the officers learned that it was very easily discharged. Sheriff Julius tested the weapon and he discovered that when the hammer was pulled back a slight jar on the butt would release it and discharge a load without touching the trigger. It appeared that Armstrong spent most of his spare time at the Chute home and that he rarely let a visit pass without handling or toying with the weapon.
Armstrong, they were informed, was on the best of terms with all of the Chute boys and, regarding the testimony of the children, the officers were not long in learning that they corroborated each other in every particular. They were unanimous in the statement that Armstrong was alone in the room when the shooting occurred and accounted for themselves by swearing that Charley was with the team, Alvin and Hester in the kitchen and Roy above stairs. They told stories which did not conflict in the slightest but Alvin disposed of the idea that Armstrong had been combing his hair by informing the officers that he remembered having dropped the comb found on the floor before his cousin entered the bedroom.
Then the officers discovered a very plausible explanation of the affair. They decided that Armstrong must have been facing the door when he was killed. Their idea is that he raised the gun with the muzzle pointing toward his head to look up the barrel and, in extending one of his arms along the barrel (as would naturally be done under the circumstances), he touched the trigger ever so slightly and the hammer fell, disharging the cartridge and killing him instantly. The shock of the explosion, they believe, caused him to turn almost completely around and as the gun slipped from his nerveless grasp, it fell across his knees. Holding the gun above his head explains the downward course of the bullet and the mark on the dresser also corresponds.
When the shooting was thus accounted for to the father he would have none of the theory and insisted that his original deducement was the correct solution. Out of deference to his wishes, Coroner Fritsche ordered an inquest for the following day.
Eight witnesses, the four Chute children, Albert Schmeising, Marcus Frederickson, Dr. D.F. Wood and Dr. J. W. B. Wellcome, Jr. were examined and after listening to their testimony, the jurors brought in a verdict that the deceased "came to his death by accidental shooting with a gun in his own hands".
Ray Armstrong's untimely end very naturally recalls the extremely gruesome history of the farm upon which he was killed. Within a hundred paces of the room in which he was shot, the original owner of the farm, Thomas Chute was found cold in death on the morning of August 27, 1899. His body lay beneath his horses' feet and although it has never been proven that his life was not trampled out, there has remained a suspicion that he met with foul play. When discovered, a deep gash in the neck of the corpse seemed to point to murder, and Deidrich Rodewald, a man in the employ of Chute and who is said to have hoped to profit by the latter's death, was placed under arrest, charged with the crime. At his hearing in Sleepy Eye, he was bound over to the grand jury but that body failed to return an indictment, and a second arrest and examination resulted in the same manner. The crime, if such there was, was never ferreted out and the culprit is still unpunished.
Another skeleton in the family closet of the Chutes is the alleged elopement of Ocie Ella Chute with her sister's husband, accounts of which appeared in the papers of this city more than a year ago. In 1876, so the story goes, the girl went to Waseca to visit her sister and became infatuated with her brother-in-law. An elopement was planned and carried out and in spite of the pursuit of the girl's father, the couple disappeared completely. They were not heard of again for twenty-six years, but on May 8, 1902, a woman giving her name as Ocie Ella Wood and claiming to live at Hayward, Wisconsin [may instead be Hayward, CA] appeared in New Ulm and put forward a claim for her share of the estate of Thomas Chute. She proved her identity, stating that she went from this state to California, and although the courts had formerly declared her dead, the other heirs consented to a division and she received her portion of the property.