Durand Once Had Reputation As 'Hanging Town'

By Louise Miller...Special to the St. Paul Pioneer Press

DURAND WIS. - Eighty- two years ago, (this was written in 1963) two murders were committed here, causing one of the largest manhunts in the northwest, and eventually making this town one of the most talked about and ridiculed communities in the country. Durand was branded "Hanging town - the town ruled by mob violence."

Two brothers, one twenty-five years old and the other thirty, were responsible. Ed and Lon Maxwell (alias Williams) filled page after page in newspapers and history books with the results of their lives of crime.

The Williams Brothers, as they were known in this area, came from a small town in Arkansas. Their father, John, moved his family to Illinois shortly after the civil war, because of the dangers of the war feuds. Shooting and violence were everywhere. Ed, the oldest of the two brothers, had fallen under the influence of the Quantrells, the Youngers, and the James brothers. Shown how to make "easy" money early in life, Ed convinced Lon that crime was the only way to get ahead.

At first the Williams brothers specialized in horse theft only and operated in five states, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska and Montana. Although they cooperated and visited often with the James brothers, they never were definitely part of the gang. Experts in horse stealing, the Williams operated alone.

They quickly learned to stuff whiskey up the nostrils of stolen horses to keep them from whinnying and used other tricks to elude their pursuers. After stealing horses from one place, they often would double back and steal more horses from the same place.

Rewards were offered for the brothers, but because of the natural cunning of the eldest brother and the wide territory in which they operated, they managed to stay one step ahead of the posse.

Many citizens feared them because of the tales of daring which preceded them, as well as demonstrations of their skill with pistols.

The Williams brothers found a lucrative territory in Minnesota for horse stealing, especially in St. Paul. Warrant after warrant was issued for their arrest, and even Pinkerton detectives were hired to trace them. Soon they were wanted for armed robbery as well as for horse stealing.

Tiring of being 'on the dodge' they decided to stop at a hotel in Minnesota for a week of rest and fun. Dancing and drinking occupied so much of their time that they relaxed their watchfulness and Lon was arrested. Ed escaped, but was captured later in Illinois. Ed was sentenced to five years at Joliet, and Lon was sentenced to three years.

When Lon was released he was determined to go straight. He was always the weaker of the two brothers. Ed, domineering and reckless, had managed to keep Lon outside the law in spite of the younger man's reluctance. After his release from prison, however, Lon got a job in Knapp, Wisconsin as a clerk in a general store.

He was a likable and handsome young man. He fell in love with a local girl and married her. They lived with her parents, the William Thompson, until the Thompsons moved to Arkansaw, Wis. Lon and his wife remained on her parent's farm in Knapp.

Shortly afterward, Lon obtained work at the local pinery. He had only worked there a short time when he cut his foot severely with an axe.

Deeply attached to his beautiful young wife, he worried about his inability to work and their rising debts. Things looked hopeless.

WHISTLE IN THE NIGHT

A sharp whistle in the dead of night announced the arrival of Ed. After being released from prison, Ed had quickly replenished his finances through thefts. Learning of Lon's debts, Ed gave him money, reminding Lon that there was plenty of easy money for him, too. Lon said he wanted no part of it.

Ed left the couple, but would return from time to time with stolen horses which he would leave at their farm. Lon would turn them loose as soon as Ed was gone.

Feeling that it would be easier on her husband, Lon's wife decided to go and visit her parents at Arkansaw for a while. At their parting, Lon expressed his fear that he should never see her alive again.

About this time, the law learned of Williams's' whereabouts and they had to leave Knapp. The law suspected that Lon had taken part in Ed's crimes so it was easy for Ed to convince him that he may as well take part and derive the financial benefits.

Descriptions of the Williamses were distributed throughout a five state area. The price on their heads rose still higher. Then came the events which led to the climax of their careers.

Under sheriff Miletus Knight of Durand had received a description of the Williams. They were not strangers to this area, for their activities had carried them here more than once. They also were reported to have many friends, for both had likable personalities, Knight decided to search the Thompson residence at nearby Arkansaw for the brothers. The search so upset Lon's wife that she died in childbirth shortly afterward.

BLIND RAGE

When Ed and Lon showed up at the Thompson home two weeks later, Lon was grief stricken to learn that his wife was dead. While standing by her grave he flew into a rage and tried to kill Ed, blaming him for her death. Ed overpowered him and in turn convinced him that it wasn't he, but Under sheriff Knight, who was responsible. Swearing to revenge his wife's death, Lon set out with Ed to find Knight.

Late Sunday afternoon, July 10, they came to the banks of the Chippewa river. Frank Goodrich ferried them across and Lon asked Goodrich where Knight could be found. After landing, Goodrich quickly spread the alarm that the Williams were in town and were armed with rifles.

Two brothers, Deputy Milton Coleman of Menomonie, who was here on business and Deputy Charles Coleman of Durand, volunteered to go after the Williams Brothers. Armed with shotguns they made their way out to where hwy. 10 and hwy. 85 merge. Spotting the Williams hiding in the underbrush, Milton Coleman raised his shotgun, declaring them prisoners. Before he finished his sentence he was killed by Lon, while Ed winged Charles Coleman. Raising himself on one elbow, Charles fired back hitting Lon in the arm, then fell dead as two bullets from Ed's rifle passed through his body. The brothers then stole a boat, slipped across the river and into the woods.

Posses were organized quickly. Dunn County sent volunteers. More than 500 people searched the Eau Galle woods. Finally the Ludington Guard were ordered out by Gov. William E. Smith. "These outlaws must be captured if it takes all the militia of the state," Smith said.

POSSES ELUDED

The brothers were seen several times in the Eau Galle woods, but due to the thick underbrush they eluded the posse each time. It was also believed that friends in the area helped them escape, or at least fed them. Many people believed that the Williamses were really not guilty of any serious crime, but had been framed.

The search lasted for more than a month. A reward of $1,700 was now offered for their capture. They escaped to Illinois where they killed the sheriff of Pike County while resisting arrest. Again they escaped.

On Nov. 8 they were captured near Grand Island, Neb. The German farmer saw a description of the wanted men in a newspaper and notified Sheriff Killian.

The sheriff and two deputies arrived at the farmer's home the next morning, also posing as goose hunters. They spoke German. They asked the Williamses where they were from and learned that they knew little of their supposed home of Hastings, MO.

The sheriff was positive of their identity, when he spotted Lon's missing toe when he was putting his boots on. At the breakfast table Lon was uneasy, so he got up and went outside. The lawmen seized Ed, but he yelled a warning to Lon. Lon tried to help his brother but was shot at, so he gave up the rescue attempt and ran.

The banks of the Chippewa were lined with hundreds of people when Ed calmly stepped from the skiff that brought him back to Durand for trial. On Nov. 19, when he was to have his preliminary examination, people started gathering around noon outside the courthouse. Several inches of snow covered the ground and the weather was cold. The crowd grew; farmers, lumberjacks, townspeople, women and children. Approximately 500 people milled through the courtyard. They waited for two hours before Ed appeared before judge W. B. Dyer.

CALM STATEMENT

The crowd uttered threats as he entered the courtroom, but Ed seemed unconcerned. He pleaded not guilty and waived examination, but made the following statement:

"We killed the Coleman boys in self defense, but didn't know them from Adam. We were sitting in the grove up town and we saw them pass us. They had guns with them and looked around as if searching for something. We knew they were after us. We kept a sharp lookout. When they passed us they started to run.

We climbed over the fence and followed them up the road, thinking we were surrounded and caught in a trap. We had not gone but a short distance, before we met them and the one nearest the fence (Milton Coleman) fired first, his shot hitting Lon in the face and arm. Charley fired at me, and I at him a second later, and he fell to my bullet, but got on his knee and fired again.

Lon had shot the other one before that and both were down. We turned and ran."

All this was delivered in a conversation tone, as if it were a recital if an every day event.

Before he finished speaking, the crowd pressed forward and a dozen men in lumberjack clothes grabbed him, throwing a noose around his neck. The crowd dragged him from the room, down the stairs, and out the door.

"Hang him! Choke him! Burn him!" the crowd yelled in turn. The rope was thrown over the limb of a tree by the side of the courthouse, and many willing hands pulled the rope taut. The figure swung back and forth in the afternoon breeze, hands still handcuffed and heavy shackles still dangling from his legs.

A noisy crowd of a moment ago was silent. Slowly it dispersed.

Although Durand was severely criticized by newspapers throughout the country, it was obvious that the actual residents had little to do with the hanging. A small group of lumbermen had arrived in town the preceding day and had been overheard talking of the possibility of hanging Ed.

What was their concern as strangers to the community? Possibly justified anger over a public crime, or was it something else? Obviously the people had been aware of the hanging threat but did not take part in it, nor did they attempt to stop it.

Ed Williams was later described as one of the most hardened and dangerous criminals of his time. Yet these men were said to have had friends throughout the five states which they operated in, all claiming that they were guilty perhaps of robbery not of murder.

Ed was buried here in Potter's field of the Durand cemetery. Lon had escaped. Nothing was heard of him again, although years later a skeleton found near his old Nebraska haunts was believed to be that of the younger Williams brother.


Click here for a map of the areas covered.

Click here to view Charles Coleman's grave site.

Click here to view the County Courthouse as it appears today.

Click here for an incident that happened to Charles Coleman in the Civil War.


The information and pictures are from

the book "They Died at Their Posts".

This page was created by: Joey Brantner

|History of Durand| |Back to top| |Back to DHS homepage|