Plains Folk

Strange Episodes


If I don’t have any really scary stories to tell this year for Halloween, how about just some really strange episodes from the prairies? I’ve got a few of those, beginning with one that has some teeth in it.

Molars, more precisely, pulled from the jaw of the hardy Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen. He was a member of the first expedition ever to spend a winter in Antarctica, in 1898. He led the first expedition ever successfully to navigate the Northwest Passage, in 1903; and he led the first expedition to reach the South Pole, in 1911.

Nevertheless, according to my current issue of the Sons of Norway magazine, during a lecture date in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1927, Amundsen was immobilized by a toothache, and so he had two molars pulled by a local dentist, Dr. Albert Hallenberg. Hallenberg later donated the two teeth to the archives of Concordia College, Moorhead, where they can be examined in the college archives yet today.

Famous people perhaps should take their teeth with them when they are pulled, but famous and dead people don’t have much choice about what becomes of their remains. For instance, William Clarke Quantrill, the bloody bushwacker who burned the town of Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863, and massacred a couple hundred defenseless citizens. Quantrill died in a skirmish in Kentucky and was buried there. When his mother later came to retrieve the remains, a fellow who was supposed to be helping her, named William Scott, made off with the skull, plus some shinbones and armbones.

The somewhat shady director of the Kansas State Historical Society, Bill Connelley, got involved with some unseemly traffic, buying the armbones of Quantrill from Scott’s widow, then attempting to trade them for other artifacts, such as Wild Bill Hickok’s revolver. He finally gave the bones to the Kansas State Historical Society.

Meanwhile, some teenagers in Scott’s home town of Dover, Ohio, got hold of the skull and used it for fraternity rituals, until eventually the item was acquired by the local historical society. The Dover group buried the skull, while the bones from Kansas were acquired by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Missouri and buried in Higginsville.

This all may be a little creepy, but it was taken seriously by the parties involved. On the other hand, sometimes inadvertent gestures can have ghoulish effect. Recently I had opportunity to visit the Donner Memorial State Park, near Truckee, California. Now, by all accounts the infamous Donner Party had easy traveling and a fine time crossing the plains. It was their late start and some bad choices that brought them to tragedy, and cannibalism, over there in the Sierras.

Anyway, examining the big rock and memorial plaque on the site of Murphy’s cabin at the Donner site, it was my erstwhile companion who noticed that the final name listed among the deceased of the party was a poor fellow named—Charles Burger. I mean, who are you going to eat first?

Worse yet is the arrangement of artifacts, personal items from the Donner Party, in the park museum. There, in a glass case, perched among the other, innocuous objects, prominently displayed, is a crystalline set of salt and pepper shakers.

Have a creepy and safe Halloween, everybody.

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