Dakota Datebook

Hero Turns Outlaw

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

If you’re a regular listener of our program, you’ve heard a number of stories related to the ND 164th Infantry Regiment. Today’s story is about a veteran of the 164th who, like others, came home a war hero. But unlike others, Verne Miller took a drastically wrong turn. In fact, he became one of the most notorious figures in gangland history.

Miller’s military records state he was born in Kimball, SD in June 1892, but he was actually born ‘95 or ‘96. When his parents later divorced, Verne went to live with his uncle in Brule County, SD. Clarendon Miller was a county commissioner, county treasurer and sheriff.

Verne left his uncle’s farm after finishing fourth grade. As a teenager he lived in Minot where, in 1916, he convinced a recruiter he was 21, so he could enlist in the National Guard. The doctor who examined him noted he was missing the tip of his left middle finger and that he had a “grazing bullet wound” on the side of his head.

Over next several years, Miller was called up to serve along the Mexican border during the time of Pancho Villa and then again during World War I, where he was gassed, twice wounded and, according to Miller, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for bravery. He was honorably discharged as a Color Sergeant in 1919.

Miller was warmly welcomed as a war hero. He helped found an American Legion Post and became an active member of the Kiwanis in Huron, SD. He fished and boxed, but because of lung-damage from the Great War, he could only contend in one or two-round fights.

Miller got a job as a patrolman and preformed efficiently. In August of that year, he broke up a con scheme by tailing the suspects and working with police in Rochester, MN.
A few months later, national prohibition went into effect. Miller resigned the following May, saying he was disgusted with Police Chief Johnson, who was later found guilty of helping local gang members pull off burglaries. Meanwhile, Miller was running for Beadle County Sheriff, but won by only 11 votes after it was whispered he was helping out the same gang.

In early 1921, County Sheriff Miller busted at least ten stills. In fact, he was so proficient, county officials began using moonshine as anti-freeze.

A few months later, a young harvest worker was shot and killed by members of the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as Wobblies. Miller organized a manhunt and went undercover as a traveling hobo. While he arrested one man for attempted murder, he never officially brought a killer to justice. When he took an abrupt trip to the SD Badlands, locals assumed their sheriff had dealt out his own form of justice.

Miller’s reputation began to change after that. He was regarded as good but trigger-happy. He even fired warning shots at speeding cars. Yet, he was enthusiastically re-elected. When, in 1922, Justice Hatfield accused some of Miller’s buddies of running a moonshine operation with the sheriff’s blessing, Miller immediately raided the still and arrested its operators.

The following month, his wife, Mildred was visiting a sick aunt in Rochester, when she herself got sick. Miller went to her bedside and, a few days later, wired his office to say Mildred was getting out of the hospital, that he was going to Washington for a few days to get treated for his gas-damaged lungs. But it wasn’t true. His deputies soon realized the sheriff had embezzled some $6,000 from the county’s bank account. Tune in tomorrow for part two.

Sources:
Official roster of ND Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines. 1931.
Verne Miller Time Line. SD Public Broadcasting. <http://www.sdpb.org/radio/oto/VerneMiller/timeline.asp>

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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