The St. Paul Sunday Globe called the trial in Ignatius Donnelly's libel suit against the St. Paul Pioneer Press "the most notable libel suit in the legal annals of the state." Indeed it was --and still is.
The suit was grounded on the republication by the Pioneer Press on February 16, 1891 of a letter first published on May 4, 1880. William S. King ostensibly wrote the original letter to supply Donnelly with a sample of his handwriting to compare to that of the author of an anonymous letter offering a $5,000 bribe to Representative William M. Springer, chairman of a committee investigating the election in 1878 of William D. Washburn to the House of Representatives, which Donnelly had contested. In this letter King accused Donnelly of a host of illegal acts. Because these charges libeled Donnelly, the burden of proving their accuracy fell on the P.P.
At the time Donnelly, who had written several novels, was attempting to restart his political career. The Pioneer Press loathed Donnelly.
The case was tried over five days in Hennepin County District Court. Needless to say, it was difficult for jurors to follow because the critical events in the case occurred eleven years earlier. Readers today of accounts of this trial will also be confused.
All the metropolitan dailies covered the case. Reports from the Minneapolis Tribune of the events of each day of the trial follow.
Reactions of many state newspapers to the verdict and account of a suit by defense counsel against the P.P. over attorneys' fees are also posted.
Appendix: The report of the last day of the trial--testimony, summations and jury instructions--from the St. Paul Sunday Globe, October 25, 1891 is posted in the Appendix. Candidly the Globe's accounts of the closing arguments of Charles E. Flandrau, defense counsel, and Cy Wellington, Donnelly's lawyer, are more vivid and better written than the Tribune's. For example, here is the Globe's account of Wellington's summation:
"Mr. Wellington's closing address renewed the claim that has often been made for him, that he is a man of eloquence and logic. He held the vast audience transfixed. There was never a more attentive assemblage, and it would have been painful were it not for his occasional relaxation influenced by the keen satire of the orator. . . . [T]he jury sat spell-bound as the volume of eloquence rolled from the master's lips without hesitation, and superficially without effort. For three hours he forged a chain of logical conclusions that seemed unassailable strong enough to test the storm of the attacks of a multitude of statesmen."