McKenzie County lynching

A mob broke into the McKenzie County jail, upper left, at Schafer on Jan. 29, 1931, seized Charles Bannon and hanged him. At that time Schafer was the county seat. The bridge over Cherry creek, lower left, where Bannon went to his death in the noose dangling from the railing. A closer view of the noose is seen to the right of the bridge. Charles Bannon's cell, upper right, with a broken lock and hasp. The men,lower right, are Sheriff Sivert Thompson, left, and Deputy Peter Hallan, both of whom were overpowered by members of the mob.

This story was originally published in The Bismarck Tribune on November 5, 2005.

WATFORD CITY - They were hard working family men and one cold January night in 1931, they committed murder.

The 70 or so men who took the law and a life into their own hands are most likely dead and buried now. They've joined in death the same man around whose neck they looped a hangman's noose and pushed off Cherry Creek bridge near Watford City.

The dead man swung, his neck snapped apart, a deep purplish rope burn under his chin.

He was Charles Bannon, and he has the ignoble legacy of having been the last person lynched in North Dakota.

No names of the lynching party ever publicly surfaced. No one ever confessed his part to the authorities the governor sent to McKenzie County in 1931 to investigate the lynching, or anytime in later years.

In the eyes of the law, they were as guilty of murder as the man they killed, and the statute of limitations for murder never runs out.

Who they were will always be McKenzie County's darkest secret.

As years go by, men and women who were children listening in their beds when their fathers or older brothers went off into the darkness that night will be gone, too. The secret will be lost to time, like white mist on a dark night curling into nothingness.

There remains a fascination with the story of Charles Bannon, a story so awful it caused good men to cross a moral barrier few humans pass over. The story is well told in the museum in Watford City, located in the new Long X Trading Post visitor center.

It is also well told in a small book written by Dennis Johnson, who combines a private practice with his work as McKenzie County state's attorney.

Johnson's book "End of the Rope" enjoys brisk sales in the museum. The lynching exhibit piques visitors' interest in the book. On display is the original hemp rope used to hang Bannon, a heavy black stocking cap supposedly pulled down over his head and a black mask worn by one of the lynching party.

It is a ghastly collection - ghastly like the murders Bannon committed.

In his book, Johnson doesn't ponder the morality of the lynching. He doesn't ask readers to decide whether then, in those hardscrabble times and circumstances, it was right or wrong in the eyes of God, or their own humanity.

It was done. And it was considered deserved, in light of the savage butchery Bannon committed and a desire to mete out justice in a state with no death penalty and fairly primitive law and legal systems back then, Johnson said.

One wonders if the lynch mob members were troubled, or if the blood on their hands weighed heavy on their hearts the remainder of their lives.

They were farm and ranchmen and they raised good McKenzie County sons and daughters.

If they couldn't sleep well every Jan. 29 as long as they lived, no one knows, at least who's ever said.

Right or wrong? "I'd have to think about that," Johnson said. "It's a question we've never really asked ourselves."

Readers who don't know the story, based here on Johnson's book, can draw their own conclusion.

Murdered family

Albert and Lulia Haven farmed about six miles northeast of Watford City. In the '30s, they were more properly described to be living about a mile north of Schafer, the slowly fading county seat of McKenzie County, where the jailhouse was located and other county buildings had been situated.

Today, the stone jailhouse is all that remains at Schafer from those years. Had the railroad not intervened in the town's importance by locating closer to Watford City, it would have a lovely town site still today in the half-mile wide valley of Cherry Creek with rolling hills on either side.

The Havens were considered good farmers. They were also considered prosperous by the standards of the Dirty Thirties, though old black-and-white photographs lend a grim countenance to the plain wooden buildings and dirt yard at the Haven farm.

When events unfolded, Albert was 50, Lulia was 39. They had four children: Daniel, 18, Leland 14, Charles, 2, and Mary, 2 months.

The Havens had farmed near Schafer for about 10 years.

It was realized around the community that none of the family had been seen since Feb. 9, 1930.

The postmaster complained the family's mail was piling up and becoming a nuisance. Seed loan payments weren't being made. Albert Haven's insurance lapsed after 15 years of regular payments. The family's relatives from Wanamingo, Minn., told local authorities they hadn't heard from the Havens, who had regularly communicated until then.

McKenzie County Sheriff C. A. Jacobson went out to the farm to have a look around. He encountered Charles Bannon, reportedly a hired hand.

Bannon said he was taking care of the place and told the sheriff the Havens had pulled stakes and left for Colton, Ore., an act not unheard of in the Depression era.

The sheriff followed up. A telegram from the Colton postmaster denied any Havens were living thereabouts.

Bannon also said he'd taken the Havens to the Williston train station, but the ticket master could remember nothing that clarified that, either.

It wasn't until Dec. 12, 1930 - 10 months after the Havens had last been seen - that Charles Bannon was arrested for larceny, when it was discovered he had sold hogs and taken all the grain, straw and hay from the Haven farm. He was living in the Havens' house.

Sheriff Jacobson walked through the house and discovered the family's warm winter coats and caps and mittens, children's toys and personal belongings.

"I was conscious of grim forebodings as I walked through those rooms filled with the dusty, silent evidence of their former occupants," the sheriff commented.

The sheriff took Bannon to jail at Williston, fearing for the arrested man's safety as talk of foul play swirled around the small town and countryside.

The following day, Bannon met with his mother, Ella Bannon, a local schoolteacher, attorney A. J. Knox and a minister.

He confessed to them that Mrs. Haven had gone insane and killed her entire family, except for Charles, the 2-year-old. He drew a map showing where he'd helped her bury the bodies. He said she paid him $100 to take her to the train station.

Authorities went out to the Haven farm and started digging in a manure pile, where parts of small Charles Haven's decomposed body were found.

In a nearby straw pile, the authorities uncovered the overall-clad bodies of a man and a youth, and the body of a boy dressed in a suit and Sunday shoes - Albert, Daniel and Leland Haven.

Knox exclaimed there was something else at the bottom of the straw pile.

With a wide-tined fork, the sheriff uncovered the tiny legs of Mary Haven, and then a shocking surprise, the gray hair of Lulia Haven.

Charles Bannon had lied, again.

Some of the remains of Lulia and Charles Haven were later found in a nearby wolf den, where they'd been dragged by horseback.

Bannon changed his story once more, and then finally confessed to having killed Daniel by accident and the rest of the family because he was scared.

Based on letters found in Charles Bannon's possession, his father, James, was accused of complicity and extradited from Oregon to North Dakota.

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Prairie justice

Charles Bannon was brought from the Williston jail to the Schafer jail for a court appearance since the murder charges were in McKenzie County.

Locals were convinced he would be taken back to Williston and possibly never convicted.

On Jan. 29, 1931, sometime after midnight, Bannon was reading in a small cage-like cell in the jail. James Bannon and wheat thief Fred Makie were both sleeping.

Outside, in the bone-chilling January night, men from around McKenzie County began to converge on Schafer, driving slope-backed coupes and old model pickups down hard dirt roads to get there.

Someone cut the telephone wire into Schafer.

The deputy wouldn't let them in the jail, so the men, at an estimated 70 to 75 in number, pounded and broke down the steel door.

Lovella Assen, the 24-year-old county clerk, was in a house across from the jail playing cards.

The man of the house told the women to lock the doors, not look out, and stay put until he returned.

"The sound of the timbers beating against the door was the most terrible sound I ever heard," Assen said.

Makie, the wheat thief, said that during the long and thunderous pounding, James Bannon stood leaning, grasping the edge of his bed for support.

Charles Bannon remained seated cross-legged on his bunk, head down, looking straight toward the jail door.

Neither Bannon spoke. When the men broke through they locked the sheriff, the deputy, Fred Makie and James Bannon in the jail and took Charles Bannon out into the night.

Their first destination with the accused murder was a mile north to the Haven farm. They wanted the truth once and for all, they said.

However, C.E. Evanson, executor of the property, stood them off with a rifle.

They backtracked to the bridge over Cherry Creek. They tied Bannon's hands behind his back, tied the hangman's noose around his neck and the other end to the bridge railing. The men lifted him to the railing and yelled at him to jump.

Charles Bannon's last words, it's said, were "You boys started this, you will have to finish this."

He was still gently swaying at the end of the rope when Watford City Police Chief Hans Nelson found him at 2:30 a.m.

"It was a cold, misty night. The body was hanging from the bridge, just barely turning in that cold grisly night," the chief said.

After the lynching

Johnson said based on all the stories he's heard over the years and his own research, he believes there were three primary reasons the men of McKenzie County were riled to blood lust.

The first was the smell of the Hovens' bodies, stored in the local livery station in Watford City for lack of mortuary facilities.

The second was that while murder was heinous enough, Bannon had killed children, one a toddler, one a fragile tiny baby.

The third was that an unnamed earlier date the three young daughters of a rural Watford City family were found huddled together dead in a burned house by their parents who'd been to a movie in town.

Charles Bannon had been the family's hired man, and it was suspected he'd tried to steal money from the cellar, but had been interrupted by the girls.

Johnson said nothing he's heard over the years makes him think people in the community second-guessed whether the lynching was the right action.

"It was fairly well understood that he got what he deserved," he said.

By today's legal standards, so many parts of the investigation were mishandled that Bannon might never have been convicted.

Johnson said Bannon was never read his rights or informed of his right to an attorney during questioning.

Then, his own attorney handed over his confession, helped authorities find the bodies and implored the accused "to tell the truth."

Johnson said it's possible a jury would have acquitted Bannon, though James Bannon was convicted of the murders and spent 19 years in prison.

He was released from prison in 1950 because of terminal illness and died shortly thereafter.

Gov. George Shafer called the lynching "shameful" and ordered an immediate investigation, conducted by the attorney general, adjutant general and the head of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Attorney General James Morris concluded that the lynching was well planned in advance and that "three or more leaders kept the mob organized and under control."

No mob member was ever identified, even by Sheriff Sivert Thompson.

Locals said the sheriff was "wise" to not have been able to recognize the four men whose masks he tore off when he was subdued at the jail.

The state investigation did not turn up the name of even one of the lynch group members.

Shortly after the lynching, a bill to revive capital punishment for murder in North Dakota was introduced in the Legislature. The Senate rejected it 28 to 21.

The men who lynched Charles Bannon settled into the background of ranch and farm life in McKenzie County.

They never organized again, and never had been part of any secret organization or club.

They rose up, finding courage in their numbers, to take justice into their own hands and probably out of a desire to protect their own families in the event the system would fail them.

They also committed murder by lynching, for the last time in North Dakota's history.

Johnson said to understand their act, one has to understand the fear and the outrage of the day.

"They didn't see themselves as murderers," he said.

"I don't think they felt remorse, since no one's guilt ever caused them to step forward and confess."

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Reach Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.