Dakota Datebook

Bones in the Basement

Friday, June 11, 2004

It was reported on this date in 1895 that the town of Forman had “been thrown into a fever of excitement over the finding of a number of human bones and teeth in the cellar of a vacant house…”

A man named John C. Birch and his family had last occupied the house. Six years before the bones were discovered, Birch went into the harness business with a man named Martin Haggem. Haggem was the person who financed the venture, and he boarded with the Birch family during his stay in Forman.

Nothing was known about Mr. Haggem’s past, and nobody knew if he had relatives. What was known was that after about six months, he was abruptly absent. Birch and his wife explained that Haggem had gone back to his home in Norway.

Birch continued running his business, and Haggem wasn’t heard from again until a person in Bowen Township reported getting a letter from him – sent from Norway. It wasn’t reported how the bones in the cellar came to be discovered, but it was quickly surmised that they belonged to Haggem and that the letter from Norway was forged.

Upon investigation, no transfer of the business from Haggem to Birch could be found at the Register’s Office. Haggem also hadn’t paid his taxes on a nice quarter of land he owned in White Stone Hill township – in fact, the land had been sold by the state to cover back taxes.

An article in the Milton Globe pointed the finger of guilt at Birch by reporting, “Some time after Haggem’s disappearance, Birch was arrested on a charge of rape on his 15 year-old stepdaughter, but after an exciting trail he was acquitted. The feeling against him at the close of the trial,” the article continued, “was so strong, however, that he left town and is now understood to be working in Grand Forks.”

The bones were examined by doctors and “pronounced human beyond a doubt…” The article proceeded with a fine example of yellow journalism when it stated, “(the bones) are unquestionably those of Birch’s former partner.”

While there was strong local sentiment in favor of prosecuting Birch, State’s Attorney Lockerby stated there wasn’t enough evidence to issue a warrant, let alone gain a grand jury indictment or conviction. The outcome of further investigations is unknown.

Bones again made the news in June 1919 when a brief story out of Minot reported, “A recent sale of unclaimed packages here brought a local newspaper man the gruesome surprise of finding a human skeleton in the box which he purchased ‘sight, unseen’.” Unfortunately – or fortunately, if you prefer – there was no “rest of the story” for this one.

On a much lighter note, a 1914 Hansboro News article stated, “A sneak thief entered the Larson restaurant last evening and appropriated some blankets from one of the rooms.

Mrs. Larson missed the articles and made a search for them. She found them in a nearby barn neatly tucked around the thief, and gently removing the blankets, left the man to shiver in the damp night air.”

Proof that there’s a way to settle disputes that doesn’t lead to unidentified bones…

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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