In 1888 Dennis Hannifin was a colorful character with a caustic wit who was renowned throughout the Territory. It was said that a visitor to Bismarck might as well miss seeing the Missouri River rather than failing to meet Hannifin.
Hannifin was born in Kerry County, Ireland in 1835 and came to America at the age of ten. He worked on the railroad and joined the Illinois volunteers during the Civil War. When the war ended he drifted to Minnesota, again working on the railroad, but he also began a lifelong love of gambling.
Coming to Moorhead in 1872, he aligned himself with a group of adventurers like himself, and with their welcome worn thin along the Red River, they moved on west to stake a claim, speculating on where the railroad would cross the Missouri River. With his friends Dave Mullen and Jack O’Neill, Hannifin became a partner in a saloon on 4th Street in Bismarck. Each year the Legislature met, Hannifin’s group met in sarcastic spirit, organizing a squatter government, complete with officials. Dennis Hannifin became known as the Squatter Governor, and the press often sought out his advice.
In the 1870s, Bismarck was a wide-open, roaring, frontier town and a perfect fit for Hannifin. He once stated that his kind of people fled from the approach of civilization as they would from a plague. Bismarck was lawless with a frontier code. When a man was wronged he killed his enemy and, if it was a fair fight, that ended it; if not, then a friend of the deceased killed the slayer. It was a speedy and simple system of justice.
When Dave Mullen, or a member of his gang, killed a soldier of the 7th Cavalry, revenge came in the middle of the night, and Mullen passed into history. Hannifin was deeply affected by the death of his friend, and he often visited the grave to pass the time of day or to ask advice. This graveyard visit became a noted part of his eccentric behavior. Eventually, his other partner, Jack O’Neill, was also killed and, as Hannifin liked to say, they died with their boots on. The rest of the lawless crowd eventually moved on to Montana and Wyoming.
Hannifin’s flamboyant and eccentric style made him a sort of legend, and he reveled in it. A staunch supporter of President Grover Cleveland, he bet heavily on the 1888 election, asking each man if he could afford to lose his money. When Cleveland lost, Hannifin’s earlier boasting made things a little hot for him, so on this week in 1888, he temporarily located in the far west where he could “cool his heels in tide water.”
Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis
The Bismarck Tribune November 8, 1888
The Jamestown Capitol November 2, 1888