Jesse James and Ernest Hemingway

The faded yellow house, it’s weathered paint cracked and peeling sat far back on the lot  next to a small Methodist church in the town of about five-hundred people, and four additional churches.  The wide front porch was nearly obscured by bushes grown tall with neglect and the lawn was ready for haying.  I parted the greenery of the bushes, made my way up the front steps and knocked on the door. 

“Harumph”, I heard from within, which for expediency I interpreted to mean, “come in.”  I opened the door and entered a kitchen, sparsely furnished but surprisingly clean and orderly.


“In here,” a voice I deemed to be male said.  I proceeded to an archway leading from the corner of the kitchen to another room where I thought the voice had come from.  My mission was to apprehend the man and have him in court for a mental hearing at two that afternoon.  It was 10 a. m. now.  I hadn’t gotten many particulars on the guy other than he was kind of a nut and forty-five years old. 

I stepped through the archway.

“Far enough,” said a man standing near the far end of the room with his back to the wall.   I didn’t heed his advice and walked a few steps further.  The man, about five foot ten, wearing a long black waistcoat, a white shirt and brown tweed trousers crouched slightly, with his wrists bent back at an angle near his hips and spread his fingers wide apart.    

“I’m Jesse James,” he said.  “When I count three we draw and shoot.”  His eyes were steely and I noticed a bulge in his waistcoat near his right hip.  I stopped my advance. 

“Damn,” I said to myself, “I’ve done it again, gotten careless and got myself in big trouble.” 

“Wait a minute,” I said while mentally kicking myself for not even remembering  his first name.  “I don’t have a weapon. (Which I didn’t)  I’ll have to go get one if we’re going to have a shoot out.”  I turned toward the archway. 


“Don’t move or I draw,” the man said and began parting his waistcoat with his right hand.  I knew I couldn’t make it to the archway if he had a gun.  I was in the middle of the room with no place to go, but perhaps to my grave. I decided the closer I could get to him the better off I’d be.  I was six feet from him when he drew.   I managed to grab his wrist before he fired from the twelve-inch green candle he’d had in his pants pocket.  Jesse and I got on quite well on the way to the jailhouse, where I put him away to wait his hearing.  Helen and I were polishing off the last of the Swedish meatballs and gravy from our noon meal, when a knock on the dumb-waiter summoned me to the jail, where, by now, Jesse had transformed himself into seafarer.  He’d stopped  up the floor drain in the washroom and turned on the water faucets.  The sink was overflowing and he leaned on a mop handle swaying to the wash of imaginary waves in a stormy  sea.

“Avast ye lubbers, man the mainsail,” he commanded.  I found it necessary to place the old sailor in a private cell, without plumbing, pending his hearing. 

Later that afternoon after leaving my man who had reverted to being Jesse again, off at the Rochester State Hospital I decided I deserved a bit of stress relief.  I chose the Pinnacle Room of the Kahler Hotel which overlooked the Mayo medical complex and Rochester’s  southwestern horizon for my relaxation. 

A sheriff’s duties brings him in contact with many characters, and some of his colleagues are a match for even the most unusual of them.  One of these, Willis Fraier the sheriff of Dodge County, a snoose chewing, whiskey drinking, curmudgeon’s curmudgeon called to me as I came in through the doorway into the Pinnacle Room.

“Neil, come on over, sit down I’ll buy you a drink,” Willis intoned in a voice tarnished by drink.  He sat, slouched, in a corner booth accompanied by a white bearded companion, both appearing as if they’d been imbibing for some time.  I slid into the booth beside Willis, across from the bearded man. 

“Shake hands with my friend Ernie,” Willis said.

“Pleased to meet you Ernie, I’m Neil Haugerud,” I said extending my hand across the table to shake.  There was surprising strength in Ernie’s hand, but his voice was weak and words slurred as he repeated my name.


“I met Ernie here at lunch,” Willis said.  I glanced at the clock behind the bar.  It was five o’clock. I had my drink and found the conversation at a level which would have made more sense perhaps if I’d been drinking with the boys since noon. Willis asked if I knew where there might be some women and Ernie seemed to be talking to himself as well as me about trout fishing.  I had a second drink and listened for another twenty minutes, during which time, in order to make conversation, I asked.  “What’s your last name Ernie?”

“Hemingway,” he said. 

“Ya, right, Ernie,” I replied.   

How fitting for my day I thought.  I bring Jesse James to the state hospital and have happy hour with Ernest Hemingway.  It gave me a chuckle as I bid my colleague and new-found friend goodby.

The following day, after dinner, in the comfort of our living room I scanned the evening paper while simultaneously watching television.  My attention became more focused on the paper when I saw an article, along with a picture which resembled Ernie, Willis’s friend.  The article went on to explain that Ernest Hemingway while being cared for by St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester and had been observed downtown occasionally when excused from care.                  

This story took place in early May of 1961.  Ernest Hemingway was admitted to Mayo and reportedly hospitalized and treated for depression at St. Mary’s hospital in Rochester on April 25th 1961.  He took his own life at Ketchum Idaho on July 2nd 1961.


1 Comment

Filed under Jailhouse Stories

One response to “Jesse James and Ernest Hemingway

  1. Kay Laging

    I like your relating of the happenstance meeting Neil….I wondered about that time that Hemmingway spent in Rochester. You make it sound…as interesting as it must have been, that’s for sure. The Rochester rumor mill was very active about his stay at that time, but everyone was very convinced much may have been left out…! Thanks for sharing. Kay L.

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