More About Drop Him Till He Dies

Most families have a skeleton rattling in the wardrobe, but when John Egan looked into his family closet he found a whole Greek chorus wailing a hundred-year-old tragedy.

Egan, a prize-winning writer for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader for 34 years, was 50 before he discovered the story his parents had kept from him. And what a story it was: domestic violence, murder, a sensational trial, and a man hanged three times for a crime he might not have committed.

Egan devoted some 13 years to digging up details of the story. Now his book about the case, Drop Him Till He Dies, tells the true tale of his great-grandfather Thomas Egan, an Irish immigrant homesteader in Dakota Territory, who found himself the prime suspect in the death of his wife Mary.

Thomas Egan was hanged in 1882 in Sioux Falls. The execution was by all accounts one of the most bungled in history. Only after three attempts was Thomas finally declared dead.

But the story refused to end. Persistent rumors circulated about Thomas Egan's stepdaughter, who had married into a family Egan considered his enemy. Had she been somehow involved in the circumstances that led up to the killing?

Then came not one, but two deathbed confessions, separated by decades, not to mention the revelation by an attorney who insisted that Thomas had confessed to the murder.

Who was telling the truth?

Most legal and historical authorities now agree that Thomas Egan was innocent. On August 21, 1993, proclaimed Thomas Egan Day by Governor Walter D. Miller, the Minnehaha County Historical Society dedicated near the site of the hanging a plaque exonerating Egan.

In Drop Him Till He Dies, John Egan is thorough in providing the background of the story, including Thomas Egan's trek west, his marriage, his wife's independent nature, their plans for divorce, and damning testimony from Egan's own sons that their father physically and verbally abused their mother. The author likewise details the causes of the feud between Thomas Egan and his neighbors the Van Horns, whom he accused of poisoning his sons' minds against him.

The painstaking account sifts through trial transcripts, newspaper reports, and recollections of contemporaries of Thomas Egan to suggest how frontier justice might have misfired.

In the end it is left to the reader to decide the truth of the matter. Drop Him Till He Dies contains photos and maps to help recreate events.

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