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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: The victim broke off their engagement
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: December 24, 1902
Date of arrest: Same day (suicide attempt)
Date of birth: ???
Victim profile: Minnie Ensminger (his sweetheart)
Method of murder: Shooting (.44 caliber Colt)
Location: Baker County, Oregon, USA
Status: Executed by hanging on January 22, 1904

First Public Hanging

Pleasant Armstrong

The only legal hanging in Baker County was an emotional one involving a young man who murdered his sweetheart after she broke off their engagement. Pleasant Armstrong was hanged on Jan. 22, 1904 following several appeals that took the case all the way to the state Supreme Court. The hanging came more than a year after Armstrong killed Minnie Ensminger on Christmas Day in 1902.

Armstrong had been keeping company with the young school teacher, who was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Ensminger, a prominent, well-to-do family in Baker County. The family did not approve of the relationship and asked their daughter to stop seeing Armstrong.

Minnie Ensminger took the advice of her parents and broke off the relationship, something that angered Armstrong. He continued to pursue her, but the young woman ignored his attempts at getting her back. He finally sent her a strange letter, but she thought nothing of it. A week before she was gunned down, Armstrong wrote:

"Dear Minnie, I hate to tell you, but you have to talk to me. Let me know when it will be. Let me know before the 25th. Don't forget.

Ples Armstrong"

On Christmas Eve, Minnie attended a dance at a nearby farm, along with dozens of others from the county. Armstrong, a violinist, was at the dance to play his instrument. He played for the dancers for a while, breaking strings on his violin and playing poorly, obviously upset about something.

At 10 p.m., he set his violin aside and left the dance hall, entering a side room where he laid down on a couch. He remained theire for several hours and appeared despondent, although he claimed he had a headache. At about 1 a.m., the party was breaking up and the Ensmingers were ready to start home. One of Minnie' s younger sisters went to Armstrong to help him with his coat. He then left the house ahead of the family.

Armstrong apparently was waiting outside for the Ensminger family when they headed out of the house for their sleigh, which was to take them on the six-mile trip home. As the family walked down the path to their sleigh, Armstrong jumped out at his former sweetheart and fired twice at her point-blank. Both shots hit her and she fell to the ground with a shriek. Armstrong then turned the gun, a .44 caliber Colt that had been purchased by a friend, on himself and fired at his own head. The bullet found a mark and he sank to the ground with blood flowing from his head.

Several people ran to Minnie and carried her back into the house. A doctor was summoned while those attending the critically-wounded woman stayed with her. Armstrong's wounds were superficial and he was treated and then carefully guarded.

Minnie Ensminger was later moved to her home and a watch was set up to see if the young woman would live or die. If she died, there already was talk of a getting a lynch mob together to take care of Armstrong, who had been taken to the jail in Baker City.

The young, popular schoolteacher died three days after she was gunned down. Armstrong pretended to be crazy for several days after the killing but later settled clown and talked freely of the passion crime he had committed.

It took a while to bring the case to trial, which frustrated the county residents. In March 1903, a lynch mob was organized because of the inaction in the case. The residents decided to take the law into their own hands, but Baker County Sheriff Harvey Kimbell Brown, with the help of his deputies, was able to calm the crowd and talked them out of the lyching. Armstrong was hidden away somewhere in the county courthouse and later moved to Portland for safe keeping.

The trial, which was one of the most interesting in the history of the county, finally began on March 23, 1903. An attempt was made to get a change of venue because of the emotional aspects of the trial. The request was denied. Selecting a jury proved to be tough because it was hard to find anyone who did not have an opinion on the case already. The jury of 12 men was complete on March 26, 1903, three days after the trial began.

The Prosecuting Attorney was able to prove easily that "Armstrong deliberately shot the young woman without cause."

Armstrong took the stand in his own defense, weeping freely as he talked about his early life and the night that he shot the young school teacher. "I was at the residence of Joseph Henner on December 24, 1902. I went to play the violin. I played until about 9:30. I went outdoors then on the lounge to lay down. I saw Miss Ensminger there that night. I saw her after she left the house.

"Mr. Caster came and said they were ready to go home. I went out, then came back for the overcoat. Then I went out into the kitchen and Miss Blanche Ensminger gave me the overcoat.

"The girls went out a little ahead. I stopped to tell Minnie goodbye. She turned away. I turned to kill myself, saying "Goodbye, Minnie." I don't know what made me shoot at Minnie, but I did. I had contemplated taking my own life, but surely not hers. I bought the pistol on the 16th of December."

Armstrong was presented the letter he had supposedly written to Minnie and admitted that he had, indeed, sent the letter.

"In another letter, Minnie asked me to write that letter," he told the jury. "I received that letter at the Maxwell Mine. The letter said, as I remember, that I had wrote her. This was an answer. She was sorry that she had not wrote sooner. She said we have got to keep the promise we made in Baker City and we cannot get married on Christmas nor yet in the world...

"People had objected to us getting married but she would die before she would go back on me or that she would be dead before she would go back on me. She invited me, in a small enclosed envelope, to visit her. I burned the letters up. She invited me to take dinner with her on New Year's Day."

Armstrong refused to say what was on the slip of paper with the invitation. He went on to tell the jury that when Minnie left the Christmas Eve party, she was a few feet in front of her sisters. He said he does not know why he fired on her.

The jury was out all night deliberating the case. At 1:30 p.m. the next day, which was Saturday, the jury brought in a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. The time for sentencing the killer was set for 10 a.m. on the following Tuesday.

Armstrong was sentenced to death, with the time of execution set for May 8, 1903.

The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling of the lower court. The appeals delayed the execution until Jan. 22, 1904, two years after the murder.

The day before his death, Armstrong was visited by three brothers and he told them he welcomed the execution. He appeared to be in good spirits as he waited for the death sentence to be carried out.

Shortly before 7 a.m. on Jan. 22, Armstrong was dead. The neck of the criminal was broken instantly and doctors witnessing the execution pronounced him dead eight minutes after the trap was sprung and he was left hanging.

Oregon Sheriffs - Baker County



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