Story of last lynching in ND to become movie

Submitted Photo Dennis Johnson, of Watford City, is helping with the script for a movie to be filmed in McKenzie County about the last lynching in North Dakota. Johnson first published a book in 2005 about the incident in McKenzie County occurring in the early 1930s.

WATFORD CITY – Nearly 89 years ago during the early morning hours of Jan. 29, 1931, a group of vigilantes stormed the jail at Schafer, then the McKenzie County seat a few miles” east of Watford City, knocked down the door, grabbed mass murderer Charles Bannon and, in finality, hanged him at Cherry Creek bridge.

Bannon had confessed to murdering several months earlier six members of the Albert Haven family who lived north of Schafer. He had worked as a hired hand for the Havens. Bannon’s father, James, who had been arrested in connection with the murders also was in the jail at Schafer. (The elder Bannon was pardoned in 1950 and released from prison. He maintained he was innocent.)

The crowd of masked men initially took Charles Bannon to the Haven farm to hang him there but a caretaker told them to leave so they went to the bridge where Bannon was hanged.

It was the last lynching in North Dakota dating back to 1888. Eleven other lynchings had occurred in the state prior to the Bannon lynching, according to The Minot Daily News files.

McKenzie County resident Dennis E. Johnson has spent 40-some years learning about and researching the story of North Dakota’s last lynching. He’s written a book about it – “End of the Rope. The True Story of North Dakota’s Last Lynching.” Now a movie about it is being planned.

MDN File Photo The late Raymond C. Dobson, shown in 1949, covered the story for The Minot Daily News about the missing Haven family and subsequent arrest and then lynching of Charles Bannon. He also testified at the inquest following the lynching.

“It’s a movie, not a documentary,” Johnson pointed out.

Dan Bielinski, of Bismarck, founder of Canticle Productions, a theater, film and TV production company who also is director of Theater Programs at the University of Mary, is in charge of the project. The filming is expected to start in August, with release in 2022.

Johnson, who is helping with the movie script, said the main actors will probably be from New York, Los Angeles or Minneapolis. He said a number of local people will be cast as extras or for small parts.

Bielinski said casting will be in the spring in McKenzie County.

Bielinski became interested in the Bannon story after meeting Faye Jorgenson Anderson of rural Watford City, who attended a showing of one of Bielinski’s movies. She told Bielinski he should make a movie about the Bannon hanging.

Submitted Photo This is the cover of the book by Dennis Johnson about the Bannon hanging. The book is in its third printing and more than 10,000 copies have been sold.

Johnson, an attorney in Watford City who was McKenzie County state’s attorney for 31 years, wrote the initial book about the lynching published in 2005 with assistance from Brianna Bohmbach Vine, now of Montana.

For her senior year of high school Bohmbach completed a project about the Bannon lynching at the Pioneer Museum of McKenzie County in Watford City.

Johnson said the exhibit, which can be seen at the museum, includes the original rope, one or two masks from the lynch mob, personal belongings of Bannon at the time of the lynching, a poem he wrote while in jail, some photographs and some artifacts from the lynching.

The Schafer jail still stands and will be in the movie, Johnson said.

Bielinski and Johnson were planning to scout this weekend for locations in McKenzie County for the filming.

Johnson pored through countless sources about the lynching to write the book, now in its third printing. He said more than 10,000 copies of the book have been sold.

Johnson has given the book’s copyrights to the museum. All profits from the book go to the museum. A portion of the royalties from the movie will also go to the museum.

The book is available from the Pioneer Museum of McKenzie County, PO Box 126, 100 2nd Ave. SW, Watford City, ND 58854. For more information email museum@restel.com.

Johnson said he is excited about the movie because it is something entirely different from what he’s done. He said it is unique and a project focusing on North Dakota and McKenzie County history.

Johnson noted no one with the lynching group has ever been positively identified by law enforcement officials.

As a filmmaker, Bielinski said he has never done a story like this before. “It’s a powerful true story,” he added.

Minot newsman got call to come to McKenzie County

WATFORD CITY – On a night in late January 1931, the late Raymond C. Dobson of The Minot Daily News, got a phone call about something of interest happening in McKenzie County and he should get there right away.

That was the night an angry group of masked men hanged confessed murderer Charles Bannon from a bridge at Schafer in McKenzie County. It was the last lynching in North Dakota.

Dobson related in biographical information about himself on file at The Minot Daily News that he received “a telephone call from an unidentified person” the night the lynching happened. He said the person told him “if he wanted a good story he ought to come over to McKenzie County right away.”

Dobson had already been covering the story of the disappearance of the Haven family and, according to Dobson’s biographical information, he found Charles Bannon justifying their disappearance by a letter purportedly written by one of the sons, indicating the family was in Oregon. Dobson argued to Bannon that some people would believe he had written the letter – which he eventually confessed he did – and that Dobson through the newspaper could prove Bannon hadn’t. He dictated to Bannon some sentences to write in which there were words which had been misspelled in the forged letter. Bannon misspelled the words the same way and from then on the investigation got hot.

Dobson didn’t get to Schafer in time when the lynching occurred but continued to follow up on the story. Dobson also continued to write about the incident at various times during his many years with The Minot Daily News.

He was among several men who testified at the inquest in January 1931 in connection with the Bannon lynching. Bannon had confessed to killing six members of the Albert Haven family who lived on a farm near Schafer.

According to a story published in The Minot Daily News on Jan. 31, 1931, Dobson “identified two pieces of blue serge cloth, one of which had been fashioned into a mask, which he found lying on the bridge where Bannon was hanged, when he reached the spot at daylight Thursday morning.”

“James Curran, editor of the Watford City Guide, testified he was present when the body of Bannon was hauled up and placed in an undertaker’s basket. He identified the same pieces of cloth which had been shown Dobson, and said that the Minot newspaperman had turned them over to him shortly after he found them,” the story also said.

“Frontier Justice” was the way some newspapers described the hanging of Charles Bannon by a masked mob of men, Dobson described in a January 1981 story in The Minot Daily News.

Dobson held various positions during several decades at The Minot Daily News. Dobson, publisher emeritus of The Minot Daily News, died in 1991 at the age of 88.


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