In Minnesota in the 1800s, Stillwater Prison wardens were chosen not by their qualifications or experience, but as purely an appointment by the governor. Doing this, the governor could repay some political debts by appointing a staunch supporter to the very respectable position of prison warden.
This policy stopped in the late 1880s and the last gubernatorial appointee as warden was made by Gov.
Andrew McGill in February 1887. McGill appointed a Rothsay farmer from Wilkin County named Halvur G. Stordock.
Stordock was born in Illinois on Sept. 25, 1844. He lived there until 17, when he enlisted in Company G., 13th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment. He was mustered out in San Antonio, Texas, in November 1865. He married Anna Venaas of Dane County, Wis., in 1871, then the couple moved to Fergus Falls, Minn., in 1873.
In 1876, Halvor Stordock was appointed mailman on the route between St. Paul and Glyndon, Minn. He left the route two years later and built a warehouse to sell and buy wheat. On Nov. 13, 1879, he left for home and a blizzard hit the area. He got caught up in the storm, was out in the cold for several days and nearly died. His life hung by “a thread” and both his hands and feet were amputated. He recovered enough to serve one term in the Minnesota Legislature and even ran for Minnesota Secretary of State, before being appointed by Gov. McGill as Stillwater Prison warden.
Two of the three prison inspectors resigned because of Stordock’s appointment, which they correctly thought was McGill trying “to make place for some of his political friends.” Within a few months, the new warden and inspectors called for an investigation into the previous warden’s administration of the prison. Stordock’s predecessor, John A. Reed, had been warden for nearly 13 years and oversaw much expansion of the prison during his tenure.
The reasons for the investigation are “obscure” at best. By the time the governor appointed a committee to investigate the accusations, many “scandalous” charges and counter charges were made, including theft of property and an improper relationship between Reed and the prison matron. Eventually the indictments against ex-warden Reed were dismissed. In November 1887, Stordock and former matron, Sarah McNeal, were indicted by a grand jury for perjury, but those charges were dismissed.
One of the bright spots during Warden Stordock’s tenure at the prison was establishment of the prison newspaper, the Prison Mirror. With $200 raised from the convicts themselves (the notorious Younger Brothers contributed $50) the paper got its start. In its first edition, Warden Stordock says “the Prison Mirror is now before you. If it shall prove a failure then the blame must all rest on me. If it shall be a success then all the credit must be given to the boys who have done all the work. It was necessary to have my consent before the experiment could be tried, and therefore I am responsible for the venture. . . Encourage our little enterprise if you can, criticize us if you must, but please do it kindly and fairly.”
The Prison Mirror continues to be published nearly 120 years after Warden Stordock authorized the “little experiment,” and all the credit still should go to those who do the work.
The Mirror seemed to enjoy writing about the Stordock’s family. In the April 4, 1888, edition, there was a note about Henry Stordock, the warden’s oldest son, who “fell on the ice near the railroad, spraining the muscles of his left arm in a painful manner, which will necessitate his wearing it in a sling for several days.”
Three weeks later the Mirror says, “While climbing onto a shed in search of a ball, Thursday, Willie, the 5-year-old son of Warden Stordock, was precipitated to the ground, a distance of ten feet, striking on the left side of his head, and was partially stunned by the fall. It was a narrow escape from a serious if not fatal accident. He resumed his play the next day.”
And in early June 1888, “Little Miss Lillie Stordock, 4 years old, who occupied a seat on the platform beside her mother, Sunday, ‘brought the house down,’ so to speak, when in reply to the warden’s query ‘Are there any little Hamans present?’ she replied in a very audible tone, ‘Yes!’ which shows she was an attentive listener.”
In August 1889, the embattled Warden Stordock resigned. The next warden was chosen by a five-member panel board of managers which would, in the legislature’s mind, take politics out of the appointment of the prison warden. The successor was John J. Randall, a 60-year-old coal merchant from Winona.
Warden Halvor Stordock returned to his 160-acre farm in Rothsay, where he died in June 1895. His tenure was short as warden of the Stillwater Prison, but it brought about changes in the way the head of that institution was selected, and began the Prison Mirror, today the oldest continuously published prison newspaper in the country.
The Warden’s residence that the Stordocks lived in is now a museum operated by the Washington County Historical Society. Opened in 1941, the Warden’s House describes the life of the warden’s from the 1850s to the early 1910s. To learn more about Warden Stordock and life during his time, stop into the museum during their open house from 1 to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. You can call the museum for special tours at 651-439-5956 or visit www.wchsmn.org.
Brent Peterson is executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.