Bullhead Murders: The Day a Fish Bootlegger Killed 3 Wardens

Bullhead Murders: The Day a Fish Bootlegger Killed 3 Wardens

No one will ever know for certain why a commercial bullhead fisherman killed three game wardens with his 12-gauge shotgun on July 12, 1940, in Waterville, Minnesota.

Bryant Baumgardner, 54, left eternal speculation by walking off and propping his autoloader against a nearby fence. Without a word, Baumgardner then pressed his chest to the shotgun’s muzzle and took his own life.

As Baumgardner lay dying, five fish cleaners he employed fled to summon police and spread the news. Baumgardner and his victims were dead when police arrived at the killer’s home and fish market on Lake Sakatah, 65 miles south of Minneapolis. Before investigators could assess the murder scene and question eyewitnesses, they had to order a gathering throng of gawking townsfolk—estimated at several hundred by the Mankato Press—to step back from the carnage.

The wardens died quickly where they fell. The investigators learned that Baumgardner first shot Marcus Emerson Whipps, 45, the top-ranking warden at the scene. The blast shattered his chest, knocking him back 15 feet and killing him instantly, according to newspaper reports cited by James M. Keller in his 2012 book, “Tragedy on Fish Row: The Waterville Shootings.”

Baumgardner then shot Adolf Melvin Holt, 55, in the chest, killing him instantly, too. As the third warden, Dudley P. Brady, 50, turned to run, Baumgardner swung his shotgun and fired a load into Brady’s back, dropping him on the spot.

Ed Vail, one of Baumgardner’s fish cleaners, told reporter Woody Schermann that night: “It all happened so quick that I just sat there on a box and watched it all and never batted an eye. I looked right into Brady’s face when he was dying and watched his expression change. I couldn’t think of anything. But it kind of gets to you later as you think about it.”

Only Whipps was armed, but it appears no one knew he was carrying a loaded pistol until police inspected his body, which fell in the Baumgardners’ flower garden. Minnesota game wardens of that era often didn’t carry firearms or wear their uniforms when afield because policymakers thought guns and uniforms weren’t necessary for such work. Pat Znajda, a 16-year veteran of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ warden force, said the bullhead murders spurred the state to issue wardens green uniforms and .38-caliber revolvers in March 1941.

Bullheads? When anglers today learn of the bullhead murders, the deadliest incident in the history of Minnesota’s warden force, they often ask a one-word question: “Bullheads?”

Yes, bullheads, little cousin to the fabled catfish, or “a Class D catfish,” according to the late great sportswriter Red Smith of the Milwaukee Sentinel and New York Times. Few anglers today target bullheads, but these homely fish were a staple in the Midwest from the late 1800s through the 1970s because they flourished in waters polluted by sewers, mink farms, chicken and livestock processors, and other largely unregulated waste producers.

In fact, state fisheries staff often trapped bullheads in lakes teeming with them and released those of harvestable size into ponds open to public fishing. The former Minnesota Fish Commission, forerunner to today’s Minnesota DNR, conducted its bullhead netting and restocking program from about 1916 through the late 1960s.

Of the three bullhead species—black, brown, and yellow—black bullheads are especially hardy and tolerant of degraded water. They usually increase water turbidity further by rooting up vegetation while feeding. This species was so abundant in waterways around Waterville that the town long ago dubbed itself the “Bullhead Capital of the World.” In fact, the Waterville Chamber of Commerce still holds a weekend “Bullhead Days” celebration in June each year featuring rides, bingo, fireworks, a fishing contest, and a softball tournament.

Scott Mackenthun, a fisheries biologist with the Minnesota DNR, said black bullhead abundance has declined statewide the past 40 years after the Clean Water Act took effect in 1972. As with many American waterways, south-central Minnesota lakes and rivers have slowly cleared since then. Their rejuvenation helped restore aquatic vegetation, which increased the water’s oxygen levels and regenerated thriving populations of bluegills, crappies, walleyes, yellow perch, white bass, largemouth bass, and northern pike.

Mackenthun said creel surveys illustrate those changes in the fishery and fishing pressure. A 1984 survey of the Upper Cannon River showed 54% of anglers targeted bullheads. Next on the anglers’ lists at 22% was “anything that would bite.” Only 12.5% targeted crappies. Nearly 30 years later, a 2012 survey on lakes Tetonka, Cannon, and Upper and Lower Sakatah found only 0.1% of anglers targeted bullheads, with most preferring panfish and gamefish.

Likewise, anglers from Iowa and other states quit flocking to southern Minnesota for bullheads. Nearly 33% of anglers interviewed for the 1984 creel survey were nonresidents. That number fell to 10% in the 2012 creel survey.

The Bullhead Economy The bullhead’s boom years from the late 1800s through the mid-to-late 1960s helped communities through the Great Depression. Even though bullheads have sharp spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins that spiked unskilled handlers, the tasty fish supported a robust sport and commercial fishery in rural Minnesota.

Many families targeted bullheads for Sunday after-church outings in spring and summer. Meanwhile, commercial operators seined bullheads from the same waters and bought those caught by cane-pole anglers who fished worms beneath corks. Fish markets provided jobs for fish cleaners and packers, who filled wooden barrels with iced bullhead meat and shipped it by truck and train to Chicago, Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Des Moines, and other cities. Tons of bullhead guts, skins, and heads became food for the region’s mink ranches.

In “Tragedy on Fish Row,” Keller said the Waterville area was called the “bullhead district,” and lakes Tetonka, Sakatah, and Lower Sakatah generated untold thousands of pounds of bullheads for entrepreneurs like Baumgardner, who set up his barn as a fish-cleaning and packing station. Baumgardner was considered a big operator, and folks in Waterville described him as a fair, smart, decent, dawn-to-dusk working man who attended the Methodist church each Sunday. Folks also described him as a skilled wingshot and marksman who had served as a gunner’s mate in the Navy.

Baumgardner also rented boats from his business on the southwest shoreline of Sakatah Lake. And when folks brought him bullheads, he paid 5 cents per pound for cleaned fish and 3 cents per pound for uncleaned. He bought bullheads from casual anglers and money-hungry locals, as well as nearly 40 families who helped staff his fish market.

Unfortunately, conservation wardens suspected Baumgartner was dodging the state’s harvest and possession regulations on bullheads. A 1939 revision in rough-fish regulations put a 50-fish possession limit on bullheads, which irritated fish dealers and many anglers who questioned why no other rough fish—including gar, carp, suckers, gar, eelpout, sheepshead, and whitefish—had no limit. Even catfish were unregulated and, like all other rough fish, could be bought and sold in any quantity. The bullhead possession limit also had loopholes: It didn’t apply to Lake Traverse near Minnesota’s border with North and South Dakota, or lakes near Canada, which complicated enforcement.

Bullhead Bootleggers Besides, times were tough, and people were scratching for every nickel. The Minnesota Conservation Department, however, believed “bullhead bootleggers” were threatening the resource. In 1940, Conservation Commissioner W.L. Strunk told citizens, “When you get ready to help us clean out the racketeers who are robbing your lakes, we’ll talk.”

In Spring 1940 the agency stationed conservation wardens along busy roads and railways at Minnesota’s border to inspect bullhead shipments and try to trace their origins. Wardens dispatched to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Sioux City, Iowa, reported large quantities of Minnesota bullheads at local fish markets, but couldn’t get anyone to produce bills or invoices to pinpoint their suppliers.

Warden Whipps was responsible for the Waterville area, a point of emphasis in the agency’s months-long investigation. Whipps and Baumgardner had clashed in the past over his bullhead operations because Whipps wanted to know how and where Baumgardner obtained so many bullheads so regularly.

To help Whipps, the Conservation Department sent wardens Holt and Brady to visit Baumgardner’s operation at midafternoon July 12, 1940. They planned to inspect Baumgardner’s license and facilities and review his sales and purchases records. Baumgardner reportedly resented the strangers’ arrival and ordered them off his property when they couldn’t produce a search warrant.

Baumgardner resumed working and helped four employees load barrels of iced bullhead meat onto a truck to meet the 5 p.m. train then drove the shipment to the station. In his absence, Holt and Brady returned with Whipps around 5:30 p.m. and waited for Baumgardner to come back. Baumgardner grew angry after returning, and angrier still as the questioning intensified.

The Mankato Press reported the next day that wardens entered the barn at one point to watch the men cleaning fish, and followed Baumgardner up into the loft, where Vail heard them arguing. Vail told the Mankato Press: “We thought they were looking for nets. When they came down I heard ‘Bum’ (Baumgardner) say to the big fellow (Warden Holt), ‘What are you going to do, take those fish?’ The warden said ‘yes.’”

Investigators later found about 1,000 pounds of bullheads in the barn, including 300 pounds of cleaned and packaged meat.

Warden Holt asked if Baumgardner had a commercial fishing license and he reportedly said, “You’re darn right I’ve got a license, and I’ll get it.” He then left the barn and headed for his house.

Four Shots and Deaths When Baumgardner returned, he was carrying his 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun. Warden Brady reportedly said, “There’s no use getting smart with that thing.”

Baumgardner replied, “I’ll show you whether I’ll get smart or not,” and shouldered the gun. He quickly shot Whipps 20 feet away, and seconds later shot Holt and Brady. Vail told the Mankato Press that Baumgardner then walked out of sight around a nearby shed and shot himself 10 seconds later.

When Keller interviewed Linden Vail, Ed Vail’s son, 70 years later, he recalled the tragic scene vividly at age 82. Linden Vail had rowed up to the fish market as the three wardens questioned Baumgardner, and said he and his father were preparing to leave because the situation was growing tense. Baumgardner encouraged them to keep working. “No, don’t worry,” he said. “They won’t bother you.”

Minutes later Linden Vail witnessed the murders. “I can still see the blood gushing out of Holt’s back,” he told Keller in 2010.

When he and his father fled, they ran past Baumgardner as he lay dying.

“Baumgardner was moaning and groaning as we hurried by,” Linden Vail said.

Meanwhile, Baumgardner’s wife and 5-year-old son were in Minneapolis/St. Paul visiting relatives. When Esther Baumgardner and their son, Earl, returned around 8 p.m., they were surprised and confused to find reporters, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and a large crowd at their home. When learning what happened just two hours earlier, “Mrs. Baumgardner was prostrated, necessitating a physician’s care,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported the next day.

Even though residents described Baumgardner to reporters as quiet, honest, and respected, a headline writer at the Mantorville Express described him as a “crazed killer” in the newspaper’s July 18, 1940, edition.

Baumgardner’s funeral three days after the murders attracted a “host of friends and associates,” including the Masonic Brothers as pallbearers and a contingent of Veterans of Foreign Wars as his honor guard. The Waterville Advance newspaper on July 17 said that support bore “mute testimony to the high ideals of brotherhood and freedom which were his always.”

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Conservation Department wasted no time with its investigation, pulling in wardens from surrounding counties to interview everyone who sold bullheads to Baumgardner. They learned, however, that Whipps had documented little of his months-long investigation of Baumgardner, and took most of that information to the grave.

Conclusion Mackenthun said Minnesota’s days as a bullhead empire are long gone, but it will never disappear. Black bullheads remain common in shallow, turbid lakes that suffer winter kills, but bullheads of eating size can be tough to catch. They’re also a popular bait for some anglers who target flathead catfish and trophy walleyes.

For those seeking bullheads for the frying pan, Mackenthun suggests a nightcrawler on a No. 2 hook. Fish shallow, turbid lakes in spring and early summer when water temperatures surpass 50 degrees.

Despite heavy lobbying and letter-writing by angry fishermen from the “bullhead district,” Minnesota didn’t change the bullhead possession limit until 1961 when it was raised to 100. The scene around Baumgardner’s fish market has also changed. The state built a bridge across the western end of Lake Sakatah, making the former Baumgardner property part of what’s now Sakatah Bay. Baumgardner’s barn/fish station was torn down, but his house remains.

Keller wrote that the lake still attracts fishermen, and resorts still dot its shoreline, making it resemble a newspaper report from 81 years before: “Every summer the people of Waterville entertain thousands of summer tourists who come there to enjoy the exceptional beauty of its lakes and homely hospitality.”

The Minnesota DNR unveiled a memorial to the three slain conservation wardens in June 2011 in nearby New Ulm.

Feature image left to right: Warden Brady, Warden Whipps, and Warden Holt.*

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