The Scandalous Tale Of Yankton’s Adel Pettersen

Earlier this week, I took part in a cemetery walk at the Yankton Cemetery that was arranged by the Yankton Community Library and the Dakota Territorial Museum.

I was one of five historical figures featured during the event — a man by the name of Adel “Shorty” Pettersen.

His story is one of scandal and mystery.

Below is the script I wrote up for the event (based on information provided in a Bob — and Phyllis — Karolevitz column), and I thought you might enjoy this interesting bit of local history.

———

0625-CemeteryWalkGravestone

Photo by Kelly Hertz

Ladies and gentlemen, I appreciate you visiting what is now my home tonight.

I must admit that I stand before you ashamed of myself, and I wonder what my wife, Louisa, thinks of me. She is a forgiving woman to lie here next to me after what I did to her and our children.

Now, you’re curious what I did, and don’t blame you. Let me tell you my shameful story.
The year was 1899. I was 35 years old and, I can say quite proudly, I was the treasurer for Yankton County.

I loved serving the citizens of the county and I like to think I got along with most everyone, but …

I don’t know if bankers have caused any problems in your time, but in my time we had some bankers that were downright bullies.

That was the case with Birney and Ossian Woolley. They owned Yankton Savings Bank on the corner of Third and Douglas.

They were Republicans, while I was a Populist who believed that the unfair banking practices of bankers were the source of much of the economic hardship faced by Americans during my time.

I had run into my own economic hardship, and the Woolleys saw that they had me in a corner.

They convinced me to deposit county funds into their bank in return for their assistance. My friends warned me that an arrangement with those two would lead to my demise. I didn’t know at the time how right they were.

In November of 1899, it became apparent what was occurring. The Woolleys had taken approximately $8,600 in county funds — of the county’s $32,000 treasury — as their own and left me with no credit for the deposits I had made.

When the deception became too much to conceal, the Woolleys said they would place blame on me. And I wasn’t completely innocent …

I panicked in the worst way.

I gathered what money I could in a few days time and told my wife I would be taking a train to Gayville to collect on a bill. I never returned.

I thought perhaps I could improve my fortunes elsewhere and send for my family when I was in a position to provide for them again.

I went to Kansas City and bought new clothes, hoping they would help me become the new man I aimed to be. From there I went to St. Louis. It is there that my memory becomes blurred.

I will state this for you bluntly: My body was pulled from the Mississippi River by two ferry boat deck hands. I had been found floating face down, and my clothes were not yet soaked through. The paper in my pockets was still dry!

A coroner’s jury in St. Louis could not determine the cause of my death. Sadly, neither can I.

As for the Woolleys, the county demanded its money. When they failed to provide it, word spread like wildfire and there was a run on the bank. Within 24 hours, Yankton Savings Bank went out of business and the brothers left town.

State’s attorney A. H. Orvis, a Republican friend of the two brothers, refused to investigate how the county’s money was stolen and what led to my death. Those last months of my life remained a mystery to friends and family alike.

My body was returned to Yankton December 26, 1899, on the dawn of a new century — a century I fully expected to see. It was some consolation  to see so many friends and family turn out for my funeral services despite the mess in which I’d left things.

Louisa married again, but she was kind enough to place herself next to me. A kinder soul I have never known.

And that is that — my admittedly unsatisfying tale of woe. I wish I could tell it with more certainty.

Was I murdered? (Did I mention I was a drinker and a gambler?) Did I somehow drown without getting my clothes wet? That would have been quite a feat!

Fair questions, all, but questions that I cannot answer. And it seems the more questions I ask, the more deafening the silence.

———

The Sioux Falls Press stated about the case: “The county deposits were placed in the Republican bank, although Petterson’s political friends warned him that he would probably be disgraced in consequence of his associations. The people of Yankton County do not believe that Petterson [his name was spelled with an ‘o’ in newspaper accounts] got any considerable part of the defaulting money. The current opinion is that the officers of the bank acquired an undue influence over him and by some hocus pocus arrangement obtained deposits from him for which he was not given credit …

“The conclusion of the Yankton people is that the Yankton savings Bank, having skinned Petterson, menaced him with an indictment and thus drove him away to avoid its own exposure [while] those who drove him to the grave still walk with high head and haughty mein.”

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