Dakota Datebook

Murder and Lynching

Thursday, December 16, 2004

It was about four o’clock in the morning, on this date in 1913, that about 60 men smashed in the doors of the Williston jail, overpowered the sheriff and dragged Cleve Culbertson from his cell.

It had begun two months earlier, on October 20th. A man calling himself Maurice (not Cleve) Culbertson showed up in Ray asking for directions to the D. T. Dillon farm, which was north of town. Culbertson reached the Dillon home at about 4 or 5 that afternoon and asked for work. Mr. Dillon told him he wasn’t hiring, but invited him to stay for supper.

After the meal, about 6 or 7 o’clock, Culbertson followed Dillon to his barn and inexplicably shot him four times. Mrs. Dillon came running out, and Culbertson killed her with a shot to the chest. Then, he went back into the house and killed their 12-year-old daughter in her bed.

Culbertson didn’t realize Mr. Dillon was still alive when he turned and walked the six miles back to Ray. Dillon managed to crawl from the barn to the road, where a neighbor discovered him. Going by an old wedding photograph, Dillon thought Culbertson might actually be Loren Marsh, Mrs. Dillon’s first husband; Marsh had abused and deserted her 12 years earlier.

Meanwhile, Culbertson registered at the hotel in Ray and went to bed. During the night, however, he snuck to the front desk, ripped the page with his signature from the hotel registry and left. The next day he was found hiding in the coal in a freight train tender. The train crew knew about the murder and handed Culbertson over to authorities in White Earth; the sheriff guarded him from a lynch mob until he could be transferred to Williston the next day.

Culbertson claimed he was in Williston at the time of the crime. But when brought before Dillon, the dying man gave a positive ID. So did his neighbors and the hotel clerk. Then, Dillon’s mother-in-law added a confusing twist, saying this man was not her daughter’s first husband. That meant Culbertson had no motive for committing the crime. His worst offenses up to this point were deserting his young wife and child in Nebraska and horse stealing in Saskatchewan.

The Williston trail was standing room only. The defense argued insanity, but Culbertson was convicted of 1st degree murder on December 12th and sentenced to life in prison. The prosecutor, Usher Burdick, saw the crowd’s angry reaction – six jailed murderers had recently been pardoned by the state, and this crowd didn’t want that to happen with Culbertson; they wanted the death penalty. Burdick warned Sheriff Erickson to move Culbertson to Bismarck that night, but it didn’t happen. Four nights later a mob used a water-main pipe to batter down the door of the jail.

The Fargo Forum reported, “Culbertson, screaming and yelling, fought desperately, but in vain. The victim of the mob was dragged from the jail. A rope was attached to his neck and he was dragged a mile through the streets behind (two autos). He begged and pleaded for mercy all the way. The auto(s) stopped at a bridge over the muddy river and Culbertson was strung up…and was riddled with bullets. The sheriff was absolutely helpless. The participants are unknown.”

Governor Hanna called for an immediate investigation, but local witnesses said they recognized none of the mob members. Emotions were at a fever pitch, and some feel Burdick acted wisely by taking his time, letting things die down, and never arresting anyone.

As for Cleve Culbertson, his motive is still a mystery.

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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