I am sure that convicts, even dying ones, tell lies all the time. I do not think that sets them too far apart from the rest of humanity. Truthfulness may not be our strongest virtue. Researching things as frequently and as in detail as I often do has also made it obvious that there are all kinds of false leads, apocryphal stories, urban legends and misreported facts about every imaginable historical event. So, some random journal entry about a generally insignificant criminal’s death is not exactly a eureka moment. I have always given a little extra weight to “dying utterances” though and it did seem likely from the info in the journal that Leo probably knew his time was up when he pulled that guard in close for those last words. It struck me as interesting and worth a second look so I dove in and, well, that was a long time ago. The story that unfolded from my research is truly an interesting one, a hidden tale of Minneapolis and the surrounding area that includes all of the usual trigger words; criminals, murder, deceit, gangsters and explosions. It also includes things that will give you more hope, things such as bravery, courage, forgiveness and redemption. And I definitely found out that Leo Humbert was not as insignificant as he seemed to be at first. For now, let’s step back into time a ways and onto the baseball field in New Munich, Minnesota on July 6th, 1910.
It was, and still is, a very small town, although between 1900 and 1910 it had gone through one of its two large population booms. A forty percent increase had left New Munich with one hundred and ninety residents by 1910 and that growth would continue for another decade, ending in 1920 when the population was three hundred and twenty five. Since that time, things have pretty much stayed the same. The Hombert’s (for that was Leo’s last name at birth) had been in the area for awhile by the time this growth started, having moved to the area in 1891 after getting married in Ohio. The patriarch, Benjamin Hombert, a man with sloping shoulders, blue eyes and thick brown hair, was a farmer and occasionally picked up extra work as a day laborer. He and his wife Lizzie produced a large family of four girls and four boys, of whom Leo was the third youngest of all, and the most junior boy.
As a child Leo was wiry and “all angles and edges” as his mother wrote in her diary several times, and he had the sharp features which he would carry with him through most of his life. They all helped their father on the farm and the family was generally known as honest and hard-working. The Hombert’s took good care of their children and seven of them became solid parts of the Stearns County community. Leo, however, would do little to ever repay or appreciate the nurturing and safety they provided.
Ben Hombert’s great passion, other than his family, was baseball and he played on the local team, a collection of energetic and scrappy men, all much younger than him. The team was known for getting into fights on the field, although Leo’s father never participated and was know as “Softy” because of it. He played mostly in the outfield and could still catch up to a fly ball pretty well although his arm was “not the force it used to be,” as he would say. Ben encouraged his children to come and watch his games and practices, hoping to give them insight into his own love of baseball. He had not been greatly successful in this though, and although his daughter Olivia though it was a grand game, Ben had hoped one of his son’s might pick up the sport and play alongside him. Leo seemed to be his last chance for this and he often would take the boy, protesting or not, along with him. It probably was not the best way to encourage a youngster to like something, and young Leo would usually misbehave in some way as his father was on the field. This usually amounted to pranks or general mischief but this particular day would mark what could later be identified as the beginning of a long criminal career for Leo Hombert.
It was a Wednesday, their usual practice day, and the team was trying to get in a practice session before the rain, which was threatening in the eastern sky, started to fall in earnest. A game was coming up against a good Saint Cloud club and every man on the team wanted to beat them. Light, intermittent showers had been falling throughout the day but there was a break in the weather around two p.m. Although on many occasions only a few of the players made it, this session was fully attended as the local newspaper was sending a photographer to take the team’s picture.
Whether they would admit it or not, all of the men were looking forward to cutting that page out of the edition in which it appeared, or buying a few extra copies to keep around and show off. There were not many opportunities for celebrity in New Munich.
The team manager was Charlie Amsden, a man born in Sauk Centre who had moved over to New Munich to work in a bank owned by his brother Michael, who was also the owner of the local baseball club. While Michael was tall and imposing, Charlie had been crippled by an accident in his early teens and years of limited mobility had left him frail and thin. He often looked like he was wearing clothing that was several sizes too big, usually because he just could not find items to fit his very thin frame. The move to New Munich though had seemed to energize him and his brother had purchased a top of the line wheelchair for Charlie. After that he was often seen zipping down the aptly named Main Street of the town and the residents liked his quick smile and dry sense of humor, especially when he applied it to himself. He also had taken on the task of managing his brother’s baseball club and found great enjoyment in the camaraderie of the team. As they were all assembled that day, circled around their proud owner in front of the chicken wire outfield fence of the field, Leo began his life of crime with a crippled man as his victim.
…to be continued