Listen to Tracy Briggs narrate this story:
FARGO — Whatever you call it — "a lynch mob," "mob rule" or "vigilante justice" — the gathering of loud, angry, pitchfork-wielding people taking the law into their own hands was a significant and worrisome trend in the United States from the late 1800s to the early 1960s.
According to the NAACP, most lynchings, defined by Merriam-Webster as “to be put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission,” took place in the southern United States because of racial tension in the years following the Civil War. In fact, close to 73% of the more than 4,700 lynchings on record from 1882 to 1968 involved a black victim.
However, citizens of North Dakota were neither isolated nor innocent from demanding justice outside the court of law, and victims here crossed racial and ethnic boundaries.
Reports indicate that at least 12 people were killed by lynching in the state from 1882 to 1931.
Some historians note that in the 1880s a group of angry cattle owners from Montana known as “the stranglers” were known to ride into North Dakota and lynch cattle rustlers here, but there is no record of how many they might have lynched, so they are not included in the official numbers.
The majority of the recorded victims of North Dakota lynchings were white men, at least one was a black man and three of those killed were Native Americans. The reasons behind the lynchings were varied, and the reaction to the lynchings, after the fact, ranged from laughter to outrage.
Here are five of North Dakota’s wildest, weirdest and most infamous lynchings.
First lynching brings disturbing reaction
African American Charles Thurber became the state’s first victim of lynching on Oct. 24, 1882. Thurber was accused of raping two white females; one of them was reportedly the wife of a prominent railroad executive and the other was described as a 14-year-old “Norwegian servant girl.”
He was dragged from his jail cell by a mob, beaten and hanged from a railroad bridge before he had a chance to have a fair trial. Many prominent people and businesses of the time were believed to have been involved in his death. Details later emerged that Thurber might have been innocent, with reports that the servant girl recanted her story.
What is equally disturbing is how some community members responded to the lynching. One employee of The Daily Herald newspaper opted to use lighthearted verses as headlines for the paper’s many lynching stories including:
“Thurber, the rapest [sic] fell off the bridge and was hurt, while Mr. Thomas covered him up with Red River dirt.”
According to a 1931 Fargo Forum story recapping the history of lynchings in the state, one general store even made light of the lynching in the newspaper the next day with an advertisement which supposedly quoted the hanged man’s last words as, “I have but one regret. I am sorry that I could not live another day to attend the great price-saving sale of Rosenthal’s store.”
“I have but one regret. I am sorry that I could not live another day to attend the great price-saving sale of Rosenthal’s store.”
— Newspaper advertisement for a Grand Forks store published the day after the hanging of Charles Thurber
In the fall of 2020, some citizens of Grand Forks attempted to right past wrongs by putting up a memorial plaque for Thurber near the railroad bridge where he was killed. A scholarship was also set up in his name.
The unexpected suspect
According to that same 1931 Fargo Forum story, another unusual lynching in the 1800s involved a former Cass County Deputy Sheriff in Wahpeton. But he was not trying to stop the mob from going after the suspect, he was the suspect. According to the paper, “the deputy was cast from a span [of a Red River Bridge] by a mob after attacking a Richland county woman.”
North Dakota mass lynching makes national news
Three Native American men — Philip Ireland, Alex Caudatte and Paul Holytrack — were the victims of the deadliest lynching in the state’s history. They were accused of killing a family of six in the now defunct town of Winona, located in Emmons County in the south central part of the state.
The three men were in jail in another defunct town, Williamsport, when about 40 men rode in on horseback and forced deputies to remove the men from their jail cells. The mob then hanged the three men from a meat rack outside the courthouse.
The death toll for the day could have easily risen higher when the mob started going after two accomplices to the crime. But the mob dissipated after one of its leaders died after accidentally drinking ammonia. The story was big enough news to make the front page of The New York Times on Nov. 15, 1897.
Hanging wasn’t enough
In 1912, a mob hanged a man named George Baker who was accused of killing his wife and his father-in-law in Kidder County, east of Bismarck.
But the mob wasn’t just content to hang Baker from a post in a Steele stockyard. After he was already dead, they took out their guns and riddled his body with bullets.
The famous lynching of Charles Bannon
The most extensively documented lynching in the state was also the last to happen here. Charles Bannon was hanged on Jan. 29, 1931, in Schafer, not far from Watford City. Bannon was accused of killing six members of the Haven family of McKenzie County: Albert, 50; Lulia, 39; Daniel, 18; Leland, 14; Charles, 2; and Mary, 2 months old.
Bannon had been working as a farmhand for the family. Throughout the summer of 1930, Bannon and his father James were seen working the Haven family land. He told neighbors that the family had left and rented the property to him, but by October of 1930 the neighbors became suspicious when the Bannons began selling off the Haven’s property.
Neighbors also realized no one had actually seen any members of the family since February. By January of 1931, Charles Bannon confessed to killing the entire family. He said it started when he accidentally shot the oldest son, Daniel. After that, he said, he got scared and killed everyone else.
Bannon was awaiting trial in the Mckenzie county jail along with his father James, who was accused of being an accomplice, when a mob "battered their way” into the building.
According to a story that evening in the Fargo Forum, James Bannon watched in horror as the mob dragged his son away. Charles is said to have pleaded, “For God’s sake, save my dad! Don’t take him!”
The story went on to quote an officer as hearing someone in the mob say, “We don’t want the old man. He may not be guilty!” before they carried the young Bannon off to the Cherry Creek Bridge.
According to a full account of the lynching on the website of The Supreme Court of North Dakota, “The new high bridge had been built in the summer of 1930. Bannon was pushed over the side of the bridge with the noose still around his neck.”
According to a Bismarck Tribune report from the day, the mob used a half-inch rope, with one end tied to a bridge railing and the other tied in a standard hangman's knot by someone with "expert knowledge."
Unlike community behavior during the first lynching in 1882, by 1931 North Dakota’s leaders and many citizens were intolerant of mob rule and demanded accountability.
However, no member of the lynch mob was ever arrested. James Bannon was eventually found guilty for his role in the murders and entered the North Dakota State Penitentiary in June of 1931. He was paroled in 1950 at the age of 76. He continued to maintain his innocence.