North Dakota Lynchings
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
On this date in 1882, even before it became a state, North Dakota experienced its first known lynching. Unfortunately, it was not to be the last. Perhaps even more unfortunate is what eventually happened to the mobs of vigilantes who perpetrated these crimes.
The scene was the city jailhouse in Grand Forks, ND. Locked up behind those bars was Charles Thurber, a black man accused of assaulting a young immigrant girl by the name of Minnie Traska. After fleeing that crime, some say he assaulted another woman. That was apparently enough evidence for the mob of 2000 that gathered that day outside the jail. Clearly not interested in a long drawn-out court hearing, the mob wanted justice served up frontier style.
After breaking into the jail, the mob dragged Thurber out to a railroad bridge that spanned the Red River. Within minutes, his lifeless body was hanging by the neck; the luckless victim of North Dakota’s first known lynching. Details seem sketchy in this violent drama. One of the accusers later changed her story. This of course threw light on the idea that Thurber’s lynching was not criminally motivated, but racially motivated.
In less than two years, another lynching took place at Six Mile Coulee, northwest of Washburn in McLean County. A passing stagecoach discovered Jack O’Neil’s body hanging from a telegraph pole, with his own lariat around his neck. Speculation of the hanging ranged from accident to suicide. This speculation died down when a local newspaper reported that he was found with his boots off and his hands tied behind his back.
The very next year, Louis Olson, also known as Louis Gunderson, was lynched in Olga, Cavalier County’s largest city. Olson was said to have murdered Susan McEwen at her homestead shack by Rosa Lake. Before the four special constables could take Olson to the county jail in Pembina, a crowd of angry Rosa Lake folks showed up. This mob of supposed justice-seekers somehow managed to pull Olsen from his constable escorts and, with rope in hand, headed to a nearby grove of trees.
In 1888 Lee Elmer was lynched in Wahpeton. Mr. Elmer, a deputy sheriff at the time, was accused of killing the county jail’s maid.
During the twenty-five years between 1888 and 1913, North Dakota was witness to seven more brutal lynchings. North Dakota’s last lynching took place on January 29, 1931 in Schafer, North Dakota, the former county seat of McKenzie County . Charles Bannon, a twenty-two-year-old farm hand, admitted to murdering the family he worked for. His body was hanged off a highway bridge over Cherry Creek by a vigilante group of eighty masked men.
And what ever happened to the vigilantes who made up these criminal mobs? Interestingly, in our state’s history, no one associated with a lynch mob was ever apprehended or punished.
Written by David Siefert
Vyzralek, Frank E., “Murder In Masquerade: A Commentary on Lynching and Mob Violence in North Dakota’s Past, 1882-1931”. Lysengren, Janet Daley and Rathke, Ann M., Editors, “The Centennial Anthology of North Dakota History; Journal of the Great Plains”, State Historical Society of North Dakota, North Dakota Heritage Center, Bismarck, ND 58505, 1996. pg. 72-83.