Dakota Datebook

Fairy Tale Not True

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Did you know you can find a person just by Googling a phone number? That you can find an address without talking to anyone’s relatives? That the Internet has closely tied the world together?

Well, in 1914, this wasn’t the case. People lost touch for one reason or another; people moved away, or mail got lost, or something else happened. So, one of the best ways to find somebody was to publish their name in the newspaper, seeking anyone who might have details on their whereabouts.

That’s probably why, in 1914, just such an article published in the Grand Forks Herald, and another in the Devils Lake Journal, caused quite the stir. This article was looking for the whereabouts of Gilman Nordhaugen, and stated that he was heir to $200,000, money left to him after his mother’s recent death. Nordhaugen was a linotype operator formerly of Devils Lake, presumed to be in Canada.

The newspaper ad described him in this way: “He is smooth-faced, ruddy complexion and of a quiet, retiring temperament … of short, stocky build, having lost most of his hair in a serious fire which nearly cost him his life.”

He sounded like a character from a book or a movie, but he was real, and his old-time friends began to seek him in earnest. They wrote to the papers, revealing that he wasn’t in Canada, that he had gone to Minnesota, and that he was still looking for work. Another letter proved that he had been visiting a good friend just within the last year. North Dakotans eagerly read on as each day brought more news of the missing man.

On this date, the Herald published the end to the search: Gilman was found! Actually, he had never been lost. In fact, it was Nordhougen’s own brother, Carl, who revealed that Gilman was living in Sioux City, Iowa. “This is all a mistake,” Carl told the newspapers; “Either they are looking for another man, or else the whole thing is a big hoax.”

A hoax that started in Devils Lake, and spread throughout the newspapers of North Dakota. In fact, every article published different and clashing facts about the man, changing his given name and his location, and never saying, never knowing, exactly who was looking for him.

But at least they found him.

By Sarah Walker

Devils Lake Journal, December 4, 1914, p.2
Grand Forks Daily Herald, Saturday Morning, December 5, 1914
Grand Forks Daily Herald, Sunday Morning, December 6, 1914
Grand Forks Daily Herald, Wednesday Morning, December 9, 1914
Devils Lake Journal, Wednesday Evening, Dec. 9, 1914
Grand Forks Daily Herald, Thursday Morning, December 10, 1914

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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