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George SITTS





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery - Escape - To avoid arrest
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: December 12, 1945 / January 24, 1946
Date of arrest: February 5, 1946
Date of birth: 1913
Victims profile: Erik Johansson (liquor store clerk) / Special Agent Tom Matthews of the State Bureau of Investigation and Sheriff Dave Malcolm of Butte County
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Minnesota/South Dakota, USA
Status: Status: Executed by electrocution in South Dakota on April 8, 1947

George Sitts, 33 was executed by the State of South Dakota on April 8, 1947 for the murder of state Bureau of Investigation special agent Tom Matthews who was attempting to arrest Sitts on a fugitive warrant from Minnesota.

He was the only person to die in South Dakota's electric chair, and it would be a little over 60 years until the next time South Dakota would carry out an execution - Elijah Page via lethal injection on July 11, 2007.

Sitts, who escaped from prison while serving a life sentence for murder, also shot and killed Butte County Sheriff Dave Malcom near Spearfish, on January 24, 1946. Sitts was convicted in Minnesota for the 1945 murder of a liquor store clerk during a botched robbery.

After spending three weeks sawing on the bars of his cell in the Minneapolis city jail, Sitts and three other men broke out the day before Sitts was scheduled to be transferred to a state prison.

After the slayings of Matthews and Malcom, Sitts fled to Wyoming, where he was arrested on February 5, 1946 and returned to South Dakota. Sitts was tried first for the murder of Matthews and after his conviction and death sentence in March 1946, the state opted not to try him for Malcom's murder.

South Dakota introduced the electric chair as the manner of execution in 1939 and Sitts was the fourth man sentenced to die in the chair. The three previous sentences, however, were commuted to life in prison.

Sitts's final words were a wry joke to the 41 official witnesses.

"This is the first time authorities helped me escape prison," he said right before the four shocks surged through his body at 12:15 a.m.

Special Agent Matthews name is inscribed on Panel 34 of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial located on Judiciary Square, Washington, D.C. Sheriff Malcolm's name is inscribed on Panel 53.


  • "Testimony Completed in Sitts Murder Trial," Associated Press, March 20, 1946.

  • "Chair Closes Criminal Career," Associated Press, April 8, 1947.

  • "Prisoner Faces Murder Charge," United Press, February 7, 1946.


Timeline of George Sitts: From escape to execution

August 28, 2006

Wednesday, Dec. 12, 1945 - George Sidney Sitts shoots to death Erik Johansson during the robbery of a liquor store in Minneapolis. Sitts is later captured and receives a life sentence in a Minneapolis prison.

Sunday, Jan. 20, 1946 - While awaiting transfer to Stillwater State Prison, Sitts and three other men escape from Hennepin County Jail.

Tuesday, Jan. 22, 1946 - Sitts steals a 1937 black Buick sedan bearing Minnesota license number 119-804.

Wednesday, Jan. 23, 1946 - Sitts drives to Brookings and leaves a gas station without paying for gas. The attendant reports a new Minnesota license number of 117-804.

Sitts drives away without paying for gas in Kimball, Highmore and Blunt.

Thursday, Jan. 24, 1946 - Sitts drives off without paying for gas at Sulphur, 30 miles east of Newell on U.S. Highway 212. Station owner Carl Settle attempts to stop Sitts by jumping onto the running board of the Buick, but Settle lets go. Settle reports to Butte County Sheriff Dave Malcolm that the license number on the car was 109-409

6 p.m. - Sitts stops at a gas station in Belle Fourche and leaves without paying for gas. Sitts buys a quart of oil and gets directions to Sheridan, Wyo. Station owner John Sigman calls Malcolm.

Malcolm calls DCI agent Tom Matthews in Spearfish and requests a meeting at the intersection of U.S. Highway 85 and U.S. Highway 14.

7 p.m. - Earl Cook, a Sundance, Wyo., truck driver, sees three cars with lights on facing south. One car is beside the other, and the other is in front. The third car pulls ahead of the other two to allow Cook's truck to pass. Cook passes the vehicles and hears gunshots. Cook stops the truck, gets out and sees a man shoot a person on the ground, then get in a car and drive away.

Law officers organize a five-state manhunt.

Friday, Jan. 25, 1946 - Lawmen find Sitts' Buick abandoned on the Crook City cutoff road south of Spearfish.

Sitts hides out in the attic of an abandoned stone schoolhouse. Law officers search the school, but they do not discover Sitts.

Law officers remove road blocks east of Spearfish and concentrate the search for Sitts in Wyoming.

Police notice a hitchhiker on the road between Deadwood and Spearfish.

They level weapons at the man and approach him from every angle. The suspect turned out to be a very nervous Spearfish motorist whose automobile had broken down up the road.

Sunday, Jan. 27 - A large blue car roars into Spearfish and speeds through town, alarming officers. The driver is stopped but not held.

Funeral services for Matthews are held in Spearfish.

State, county and federal authorities pour into Spearfish. Newspaper reports say the town resembles a "virtual armed camp."

Pilot Clyde Ice gives air support to the search from the Spearfish airport.

Monday, Jan. 28 - Sitts walks to Deadwood and breaks into the basement of a house through an unlocked door.

The house is owned by Ross Dunn, Deadwood's former chief of police.

He survives for a week on canned goods in the family's basement.

Arpan farmer Elmer Conner is named Butte County sheriff. Funeral services for Malcolm are held in Belle Fourche.

Officers go to Chadron, Neb., to check a the report that a man matching Sitts' description jumped from a train there.

Sheridan, Wyo., police detain a man bearing Sitts' resemblance.

Tuesday, Jan. 29 - Officers set up a roadblock at Deadwood, forcing every car to stop and search the vehicles for occupants. Ray Torret, Spearfish, runs the roadblock en route home from his job at the Homestake Mine. Officers fire on the vehicle, believing it to be Sitts. Torret said he didn't know it was a roadblock.

Northern Black Hills residents report every bit of information that might produce a lead for police.

Wednesday, Jan. 30 - Sheridan, Wyo., police announce the man they detained on Monday is not Sitts.

Searchers check every isolated shack and cabin in the Spearfish-Deadwood area, checking to see if Sitts is holed up in one.

Thursday, Jan. 31 - Chief investigator Les Price announces: "We have no idea where this man is."

The Rapid City Journal and the Black Hills and Badlands Association start a fund drive for a reward for Sitts' capture.

Feb. 4, 1946 - Sitts leaves the Dunn house.

Leonard Ronneberg reports being kidnapped by Sitts and forced to drive to Beulah, Wyo. Sitts releases Ronneberg west of Beulah, stealing his 1939 Chrysler car.

Lawrence County deputies arrest two Minneapolis men for intoxication. Neither man's fingerprints match those of Sitts.

Witnesses see a Chrysler speed through Whitewood. Police believe it could be Sitts until they later learn the car carried two men.

Tuesday, Feb. 6, 1946 - Sitts is captured near Lysite, Wyo., after mistaking law officers for ranchers.

Feb. 11, 1946 - The Lawrence County Commission approves extra pay for two special deputies who will be assigned for continuous guard outside Sitts' cell in Lawrence County Jail. They appoint Ross Dunn and Jack McArdle to guard the jail.

March 18, 1946 - Sitts is put on trial in Lawrence County for the murder of Tom Matthews.

March 22, 1946 - A jury finds Sitts guilty of murder.

March 30, 1946 - Judge Charles Hayes sentences Sitts to die in the electric chair.

April 8, 1947 - 12:15 p.m. - Sitts is executed at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. DCI Agent Floyd Short, a personal friend of the two slain officers, flips the switch.


Sinister Sitts Dies: Defiant to the End

Mickelson Victorious Over Sitts the Slayer; Last Words a Taunt to Executioner

By Shawn Werner -

In all my experience, this is the first time authorities helped me escape prison,” uttered to the 42 witnesses present as authorities were strapping George Sitts into an electric chair. The lever was pulled sending 2300 volts of current shooting through his vital organs. The lever was dropped three more times, effectively snuffing the life from his body at the time of 12:15 a.m.

Perhaps some context is necessary to fully appreciate Sitts’ odd sense of humor, but the fact of the matter was that he had once used a file to saw his way out from behind bars while serving a life sentence.

It is interesting that a child once regarded among his schoolmates as the most likely to be successful ended up in Ol’ Sparky. Townspeople would regard him as quiet, studious and well-mannered. As a child he would hurry home after school to do chores for his grandmother.

Sitts was born in 1914 in LeRoy, Minnesota. The small farming community of 724 people was located on the Iowa border, fifty miles south of Rochester. The rural lifestyle likely contributed to the young man’s earnest interest in reading. Among the top of his reading list were novellas that depicted romantic yarns of frontier exploits and criminal deeds. The raucous tales planted the seeds for adventure in the young man that would grow into macabre vines that strangled his future. He learned to handle firearms just like the heroes in his stories, cultivating a deadly aim. He also learned how to use his fists, and acquired the ambition to become a boxer.

Boxing captivated America in the 1920’s when Sitts was a young man. People would fire up the vacuum tubes in their radios and excitedly listen to the cracks and grunts of two wiry young men long off the boxcar driving clenched fists into one another for a shot at money and fame.

Inspired by his idol Jack Dempsey, Sitts entered the boxing ring himself in venues around the country. Known as “Kid Kramer,” he traded blows in places like St. Paul, Sioux City and even the emerging metropolis, San Francisco. Though he never had the honor of slinging a championship belt around his waist, his broken, flattened nose would forever attest to his courage and willingness to step into the ring.

At the tender young age of 19, Sitts was able to attract the eyes of the law by receiving stolen property and carrying a concealed weapon. After his conviction he spent 90 days in jail in Iowa. The time he spent locked up did little to deter his devious ways and just three years later he found himself serving a 10 year sentence for burglary. Being a handsome, charismatic young man he was able to impress the parole board and was once again a free man in 1941.

His freedom lasted about as long as his temper and he was jailed the very next year for a parole violation. Over the next three years, while incarcerated, Sitts made plans to try and live an honest life. When he was released he made his way towards Portland, Oregon, where jobs were plentiful in 1944 with the economy being stimulated by the war effort.

Sitts’ trail goes somewhat cold after that, but it was known that he had wooed a young lady and gotten married, but like all the good things in his life it wasn’t destined to last. He later told a reporter that he’d separated from his wife shortly after getting hitched.

Around 1945 the calculating Sitts made his way back to Minneapolis. His intentions were to meet up with a girl that had been captivating his attentions. He arrived to find nothing but the news that she had moved to Texas. His passion for her, along with his romantic notions of outlaws culled from dime store novels, he decided the best route of action to finance his trek southward would be to rob someone.

It was the perfect plan; get in and out quick and rendezvous with his sweetheart in the Lone Star State. Unfortunately for Sitts, things didn’t go nearly as planned and he ended up killing a liquor store clerk named Erik Johansson.

Though Sitts immediately fled the scene he was arrested only 60 miles outside of town. Sitts pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, most likely knowing that his rough and tumble past would not likely play well with jurors. The presiding judge saw fit to hand down a life sentence for Sitts’ cooperation and he was transferred to the Hennepin County Jail while awaiting transfer to the Stillwater State Prison.

Enlisting the help of three fellow inmates and a hacksaw blade he managed to acquire, Sitts made the best of his time over the next three weeks and managed to cut through two of the bars that confined him to his cell. He somehow managed to free himself only a day before he was scheduled for his transfer to prison. His accomplices were a pair of auto thieves and a forger. His accomplices got a taste of Sitts’ past life as a boxer when he socked a radio dispatcher on his way out of jail.

Two days after busting loose Sitts stole a car and headed towards the Black Hills. Sightings of the killer were reported in Madelia, a small town southwest of the Twin Cities, but he never turned up there. A stolen car in Sioux Falls also carried Sitts’ scent. Despite roadblocks being set up and national attention given to the case the convicts managed to elude the officers. Except for 19-year-old Robert Morris that is, one of Sitts’ fellow jailbreakers who managed to get caught shortly after the escape.

Sitts zigzagged over South Dakota, getting gasoline where he could find it. Then a Newell area rancher reported his gun being stolen, signifying Sitts’ arrival in the western half of South Dakota.

Only 38 miles from Newell, on Jan. 24, 1946, Special Agent Tom Matthews of the State Bureau of Investigation and Sheriff Dave Malcolm of Butte County were manning a roadblock on the north edge of Spearfish in Lawrence County.

The officers were watching for a green 1940 Ford coach carrying an armed man. The suspect was described over the police stations as being armed, six foot three, with dark hair and had been unshaven for about a week.

Sure enough, a vehicle matching the description was spotted speeding and was subsequently pulled over. The car came to a halt, and Sitts emerged from the driver side door. Not prepared to return to a life of imprisonment, Sitts opened fire on the two men with his pistol. As they lay dying on the road he systematically put a bullet into their heads. After taking their money and weapons he made his way near Deadwood. Setting up camp in an abandoned schoolhouse, he burned his shoes to avoid dying from hypothermia.

You can only stay in one place so long before succumbing to hunger and cold, and after wrapping his feet in burlap Sitts headed into Deadwood to find a place to stay and a bite to eat. The first house he found belonged to a former Deadwood police chief named Ross Dunn. Sitts hid in the cellar while Dunn spent the days scouring the Hills for the murderer. After a week of staying, Sitts took a pair of shoes and fled.

In February Leonard Ronneberg, who operated a local filling station, got inside of his car to find Sitts waiting for him in the backseat. Sitts demanded that Ronneburg drive to Wyoming, and the pair stopped at a filling station in Beulah, Wyoming. Sitts handed the man $10 and ordered him out of the car. It didn’t take long before Ronneberg alerted the authorities and nearly three dozen patrol cars scoured the roadways in Wyoming to bring the man to justice.

Sitts made it 370 miles from Deadwood before getting stuck in the snow when two plainclothes sheriffs approached him and asked if he needed any help. Sitts later said that if he had known they were lawmen he would have shot it out, but as it was they arrested him without a struggle.

After murdering the two lawmen, Sitts had managed to evade the police for 11 days before getting caught once again. The prosecutor in the trial was none other than George T. Mickelson who would later go on to become governor of South Dakota. The jury returned the guilty verdict of murdering Matthews in less than three hours. The judge handed down a sentence of death, making a trial for the murder of Malcolm unnecessary.

One year and eight days would be all that Sitts would have to wait in prison for his sentence to be carried out. His final requests consisted of wanting a cake of soap and clean shirt. He then sat down to a meal of chow mien, tea, bread and butter, ice cream and cake.

Outside the room where the electric chair waited, handmade by prisoners, the snow gently fell over the South Dakota prairie. Sitts would be the first and last person in South Dakota to die on the electric chair. The do-it-yourself aesthetic of the chair was evident in the electrode that was attached to his head was a football helmet purchased the day before for $3.55. Sitts then uttered his famous remark to the prison officials before the current was released and he drew his final breath. South Dakota would not execute another prisoner until 2007.

The Chair

Like the guillotine in France, the electric chair was initially developed as a humane alternative to hanging. While many people ended their lives dangling at the end of the rope as they were supposed to, sometimes the neck would not snap, and the victims would strangle. Other times people would be decapitated or the rope would snap. After a particularly bloody hanging, the state of New York established a committee to develop a more humane system of execution.

Alfred P. Southwick had gotten the idea of using electricity as a method of execution after watching an inebriated man die after touching a live terminal on a generator. Southwick was a dentist, and being accompanied to performing procedures with patients being in chairs, his device appeared in the form of an “electric chair.”

Thomas Edison then hired Harold P. Brown to invent the electric chair as we know it today. Brown based his design off Edison rival Nikolai Tesla’s alternating current in order to garner public favor for Edison’s direct current. Brown and Edison even publicly electrocuted many animals, including a circus elephant named Topsy, to prove that Tesla’s alternating current was more dangerous and therefore better for electrocutions. Everything from stray cats and dogs to unwanted farm animals were slaughtered in Edison’s propaganda campaign. In reality, very high currents of around 10 amperes were planned for the device, making the difference in lethality between the two currents marginal at best. The campaign worked, and legislation passed dictating that alternating current be used in electrocutions.

The first man to be executed was William Kemmler, a man who had murdered his wife with a hatchet. George Westinghouse, owner of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, tried to back Kemmler’s appeal that electrocution was cruel and unusual punishment to protect his company’s interests. Westinghouse Corporation used and promoted alternating current. Thanks to Edison’s endorsement for the state, the appeal was lost.

On August 6, 1890, Kemmler was strapped into the chair. He was then zapped with 1,000 volts of electricity for 17 seconds. Kemmler was declared dead, but witnesses noticed he was still breathing. Sure enough, when doctors examined him they found out he was still alive and Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka called out “Have the current turned on again, quick, no delay!”

Kemmler was then zapped with 2,000 volts, causing blood vessels under the skin to rupture and bleed and his body actually caught fire. The execution would go on to take eight minutes, prompting many disgusted witnesses to leave the room.

Westinghouse later commented that “They would have done better using an axe.”

Use of the electric chair has severely declined in modern times due to legislators seeking more humane forms of capital punishment. Still, some states offer the chair as an alternative to lethal injection, but inmates must specifically request a date with “Old Sparky.”

Outlaw Tales

“From deadwood to Aberdeen, Vermillion to Belle Fourche, the frontier towns of South Dakota were populated by some of the toughest and most dangerous characters in the West. Chief Two Sticks led a starving band of rebels on a desperate path of destruction. Bud Steven’s murder of a cattle king’s son rang a death knell for an entire town. And bank robbers Stelle and Bennie Dickinson did their best to become South Dakota’s very own Bonnie and Clyde... Through these astonishing true stories, Outlaw Tales of South Dakota introduces you to a state you thought you knew – and a West wilder than you’ve ever imagined.”



George Sitts, center, being escorted by Sheriff J. O. Twiford, left and Deputy Sheriff C.R. Dillavou, right. Photo courtesy of Johnny Sumner, Ed Furois and Black Hills Studios.



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