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A Story That’s Never Been Told

 

Watford City, a remarkable town in transition, possesses a peculiar institution in its Long X Trading Post Visitor Center, which opened in 2004. As the name indicates, it provides information for visitors, as well as housing the exhibits of the Pioneer Museum of McKenzie County. It also is the location of the Watford City Community Benefit Association, which operates a package liquor operation for charity. The liquor store generates traffic for the museum exhibits.

 

Of which the most popular is devoted to the last lynching in North Dakota, the hanging of Charles Bannon on January 29, 1931. This is a fairly gruesome exhibit, but in some ways it humanizes a 22-year-old man who was the confessed murderer of a farm family of six, including an infant.

 

The Haven family, Albert and Lulia and their children, lived on a farm just north of the seat of McKenzie County, the town of Schafer. Schafer eventually lost the county seat to Watford City, which stands five miles to the west. Schafer today is a ghost town along Cherry Creek. The site has some interesting heritage buildings, including log structures, along with the well-preserved stone jailhouse from which Bannon was taken on the night of his demise.

 

The Havens were well-off, and Bannon was working as their hired hand. One morning in the middle of the milking he started shooting family members with a rifle, killing all of them and concealing the bodies. After this he just remained in residence on the farm, telling people he had rented it, and the Havens had gone to Oregon. Eventually his father, James Bannon, joined him on the farm.

 

Suspicions were aroused when the Bannons commenced selling off the Havens’ possessions. This led to an arrest for larcency, the discovery of human remains on the property, and charges of murder.

 

Young Bannon made three confessions, none of which make much sense. His story was that he got into an argument with the Haven boys, shot one of them, and then went on to kill everyone. It seems to me that train of events would have led Bannon to head for the hills in flight, rather than remaining in residence. I suspect his actions were not random, but rather derived from a calculated plan to get hold of a nice farm.

 

For his actions Bannon was taken from the jail by a large party of men and hanged from the bridge over Cherry Creek. His father was not lynched, but went on to serve a prison term. I have visited the jail in which the Bannons were held, and it is well-built, but the parties to the lynching were determined. None of them was ever charged for the lynching.

 

I have reflected, too, on the personal items of Charles Bannon and the artifacts of his lynching on exhibit in Watford City—the very rope with which he was hung, the death hood, a mask worn by one of the lynch party. A little notebook exhibits some written lines said to be a poem written by Bannon, but they are not. Bannon was not that literate. They are, rather, lines from “The Prisoner’s Song,” a mournful composition popularized by Vernon Dalhart. Dalhart sang, and Bannon wrote,

 

Oh please meet me tonight in the moonlight

Meet me tonight all alone

For I have a sad story to tell you

It’s a story that’s never been told

 

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