Imagined places and characters: Louise Erdrich’s Recasting of “The Plague of Doves”

If you have read my Murdering Indians, you know that in the middle of November, 1897, a vigilante mob of around thirty white men rode on horseback into Williamsport, the county seat of Emmons County, North Dakota. They entered the jail, took the keys to the cells from a startled deputy sheriff, seized three Dakota Indians, placed nooses around their necks, dragged them outside, and hanged them from a butcher’s beef windlass not far from the jail. The three Indians were lynched because they were thought to have murdered a white family of six earlier that year, in February, 1897.

The murder victims were Thomas and Mary Spicer, their daughter Lillie Spicer Rouse and two infant grandsons Alfred and Alvin, and Mary Spicer’s mother, Ellen Waldron. Two of the lynched Indians, Paul Holy Track and Philip Ireland, had confessed and were awaiting trial when the mob seized them. The third, Alec Coudotte, had already been tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged, but the North Dakota state supreme court had just reversed that sentence and ordered a new trial. Convinced that a new trial would not yield a conviction, the vigilantes decided to lynch.

A century later that lynching came to the attention of Ojibwe novelist Louise Erdrich. She mentioned it in passing in her 2004 short story “The Plague of Doves” (“PD”). Four years later she built her novel A Plague of Doves (PD) around an imagined version of that lynching.

There is no question that Erdrich knew about the Spicer murders and the subsequent lynching of three Dakota Indians. In her acknowledgments page at the end of The Plague of Doves, she says that “the reservation, towns, and people depicted are imagined places and characters, with these exceptions: Louis Riel, and also the name Holy Track. In 1897, at the age of thirteen, Paul Holy Track was hanged by a mob in Emmons County, North Dakota” (PD 313). Erdrich might have added Mustache Maude and Maude’s husband Ott Black as third and fourth “exceptions.”