Sunday, September 20, 2015

Amanuensis Monday - The Death of Martin Joseph Villers

Bismarck Daily Tribune, April 4, 1904, pg 1

Martin Joseph Villers was is of those people in a family tree that adds interest to genealogy research, while at the same time you wish he wasn't there. No one wants a murderer in their family tree, but sometimes those people are there and you can't change it. Martin Joseph was convicted of doing some horrible things (see below for links to other posts), but I'm not sorry he existed. The way his wife was written of in her obituary shows that she was well-liked/respected, and they had five children together that (to my knowledge) were respectable members of society. Without this man in our family tree there would be no family tree for my husband or my children. They would never have been born.

I am fascinated by this man's story because I want to know why he did what he did. Unfortunately, the newspaper articles on both of his trials (yes there were two for two different crimes) don't do much to explain the whys. Did he do it for land the man he killed owned? Why not just buy some then? Could he not afford it? Was there a falling out between Villers and the man he killed from whom, I believe, he was renting the land? Was he just a wicked man? That last one I just don't want to believe, but it's possible. In the 1880 US Federal Census Villers' occupation was a policeman. I know that doesn't make him a good man. There have always been people that sought out positions of trust and power to abuse them. Was that why or did he used to be good and something inside him snapped? I want to believe that there was a catalyst.

He was a model prisoner when he was in jail, but he was also sick. Either way he behaved himself once he got there and that gave me hope that he might not have been all bad. It doesn't excuse the bad and being sick and well-behaved behind bars certainly didn't garner any sympathy from the public. In fact, as far as being ill went, the public thought he was faking. He proved them wrong. On April 4th, 1904 he died in prison:

"A Life Prisoner is Dead

Death of M. J. Villers, Life Prisoner at the Penitentiary, with a Gruesome Record of Crime

M. J. Villers, a life prisoner in the penitentiary from LaMoure county, died Sunday of cystitis. He has been ill for several years, in fact having come to the institution seven or eight years ago in such poor health that he was at once put under medical care.  The case of Villers was one of the most interesting from a criminal standpoint of any in the institution. He was first brought to the penitentiary in 1895 for an assault upon Mrs. August Tromner. The history of the case briefly is as Follows: In the year 1895 or thereabouts August Tromner, a farmer living in LaMoure county disappeared. No one knew of his whereabouts, although the last seen of him he was with Villers. Some time after he disappeared, Villers went to the Tromner place, assaulted Mrs. Tromner and threw her in an old well, at the same time firing the barn. He thought no doubt he had killed the woman but she managed to crawl out of the well and crawled to the neighbors stating what had been done. Villers was arrested and sentenced to nine and a half years in the penitentiary. After he had been in the institution for a year or so, a farmer, plowing in the field, saw some bones that had evidently been thrown up by a badger. Further investigation disclosed the remains of a man who had been buried in the field, but in such a state of decay that identification was impossible except for some articles which had been buried with him and which were identified by Mrs. Tromner as having belonged to her husband. Suspicion was at once directed to Villers as having killed Tromner and buried his body there and an order was obtained from the district court of that district for the return of Villers from the state penitentiary for trial. He was tried for the murder of Tromner, found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for life, being at the time of his death serving the life sentence. Villers was in his 62d year at the time of his death. A coroner's inquest will be held, as provided by law in the case of prisoners dying at the penitentiary. Villers is the second lifer to die in the past few months, the other having been Thomas Swidensky, who was convicted for the murder of Mrs. Kent at Mandan."

I can't call it an obituary. It isn't one and I had, perhaps unrealistically, hoped to find one. Even though some of his children who lived in North Dakota had visited him in jail for Thanksgiving (Bismarck Daily Tribune, 29NOV1897, pg 2) it would appear that he was brushed off eventually...or perhaps they just didn't want to draw attention to the events after he passed.

The wonderful people at the North Dakota Historical Society have helped me with information on MJ Villers previously. I contacted them recently to see if they knew if there was a cemetery on the penitentiary grounds and if not where would he have been buried. I was told that the Burleigh County, ND, Remembrance Book has him buried in St. Mary's Cemetery. I created a FindAGrave memorial for him when I got the information. They also sent me a copy of the article transcribed above (aren't they absolutely the best?!?

After creating that memorial I requested a photo. I wasn't overly hopeful. His wife, Octavia Villers nee Wagner (various spellings exist and I believe this was Americanized) is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Stutsman County and not with him. I found out in early June that there is no tombstone for him. A wonderful FindAGrave volunteer, Brian Backes, contacted the cemetery office and discovered it was unmarked. No tombstone for him. I lean more to thinking that was a family decision. He wasn't mentioned in his wife's obituary either.

No doubt he did terrible things, and I wish I had some good stories for him to be remembered by. I don't, but he will be remembered for the wonderful family that he fathered. Rest in peace, Martin.


  1. I always cringe when I run onto ancestors who did less than noble things, but I also tell myself, well they had to be someone's child/sibling/grandparent etc. Like you, I always know there is so much more than any newspaper can tell. I have found some great transcripts of trials in court records, and while they do help to fill in some of the blanks, for me, there are always more questions.

  2. Hi Cheryl!
    I am doing similar research on MJ Villers and have found a number of articles and a photograph in the Jamestown Alert of Villers. I don't see any way of contacting you other than leaving a comment. Hopefully you see this! Please feel free to email me at ghinman at