Worthington's N.A. Call, and a grisly tale from winter 1897Editor’s note: The following article was originally published in the Nobles County Historical Society newsletter. It appears here with the author’s permission.
By: Justin Stevenson, Special to the Daily Globe, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — In 1897, Massachusetts newspaperman Herbert Haines decided to pursue a dream. He would head to Alaska’s Klondike region with a team of fellow risk-takers and make a fortune in gold. He was following a siren song that would be the ruin of thousands. In an interview conducted before he left, he remarked, “We mean to dig gold or die.” These words proved eerily prescient.
Before striking out for the far north, Haines’ group headed to Seattle to buy the outfits and supplies needed for the brutal Alaskan winter. Among these men was Worthington’s own N.A. Call. Call was married with three children and owned a 500-acre farm outside of Worthington. Friends believed that his trip north would be a smashing success.
On their way to Seattle, the group met “Doc” Tanner, a ranch hand returning from the Montana cattle ranges. Tanner was “about forty, strong built, robust, the picture of health,” and “physically well adapted…to brave the perils and dangers certain to be encountered en route to the new Eldorado.” He had fallen on hard times financially, but he commanded a great knowledge of the outdoors and by the time the group reached Seattle, his “western simplicity and unpretentious manner” earned him the respect of the group. They agreed to outfit him for the trip and then departed on a steamer for Alaska.
Tanner quickly overstayed his welcome. He became obstreperous and overbearing after arriving in Alaska, and began causing great turmoil within the group. On the night of New Years’ Day 1898, the men met without Tanner to discuss his fate. It was suggested that they rid themselves of Tanner — “let him take his share of the outfit and shift for himself.” Being cast out at this time of the winter could very well mean death, but the other men agreed that it was the only acceptable course of action. It was then that Tanner, having overheard the group’s conversation, opened the flap of their tent, a revolver in his free hand.
“Boys, I overheard your talk about me,” Tanner said. “I’m here for business.” With that, he fired two shots in rapid succession, hitting Call and W.A. Lee (of Lowell, MA) in the chest, killing them instantly. The concussion from the second shot extinguished the candle, causing Tanner to miss his third shot. He fled to nearby brush but was soon surrounded. One man cried out, “You’d better surrender your gun,” to which Tanner responded, “If you say so, boys, I’ll do it.” He gave up his gun willingly and was apprehended.
A tribunal was formed that night, and after hours of deliberation it was unanimously decided that Tanner was to be hanged. Upon hearing the verdict, Tanner’s hope was that they “not tantalize him by stringing him up and letting him down again before he was dead.” The next morning, Jan. 2, 1898, Tanner was led through the driven snow to the place of his hanging. He remained cool to the end, remarking jauntily, “Boys, string me up if you like, but remember you are hanging the steadiest man with a six-shooter that ever came out of Montana. You say it’s all right to hang me, and I guess it is. I’m only sorry I didn’t get the rest of ’em.” Showing a steely reserve that elicited admiration from the men, Tanner calmly allowed the rope to be tied around his neck, and was thus hanged. He was buried face down.
The lynching was the first in Alaska and caused a great stir. Men returning to Seattle relayed the story to the next waves of prospectors, adding to the allure and mystery of the Klondike Gold Rush. Back in Worthington though, the effect was tragic. Financially, the Call family fell into dire straits, and the emotional shock of her husband’s death pushed Mrs. Call to the brink. After her attempt to commit suicide by ingesting strychnine was foiled by her daughter, Mrs. Call was judged “mentally unsound … and committed to the asylum at St. Peter.”
A month later, the story reappeared in Kansas’ Hutchinson News. The mysterious identity of “Doc” Tanner — nobody knew who he was or where he had originally come from — caused some to believe he was Hutchinson’s own Doc Phelan, who had gone west some years before and donned the surname “Tanner.” The author conceded that this was unlikely, since Phelan was mild-mannered and nothing like the quarrelsome cowboy, but some accounts support this theory. Recent research has suggested that Tanner was not villainous, but rather bullied into drudge work and misled by the mining company’s false advertising. Whether Tanner was a trigger-happy cowboy or a man fighting to survive will never be known.