A Shooting in Little Utah
On this date in 1897, G.B. Norton was on trial for shooting and killing a man named Shelton. It seemed like the verdict was a foregone conclusion. People who knew Norton thought it would be impossible for any verdict except murder in self-defense. People waited anxiously for the result.
One of the curious aspects of the incident was the name of the place where the crime occurred. “Little Utah” referred to an area about six miles southeast of Ludden, a small town south of Oakes in Dickey county. The area had a reputation for lawlessness with grain, cattle, and horses mysteriously disappearing. The name Little Utah came from “so many cases of divorce and exchange of wives,” a reference to the polygamy then practiced by Mormons in Utah. The shooting involved just such an incident.
The year prior to the shooting, Norton’s wife left him and moved in with John Perry, a friend of Shelton, the man Norton was now accused of killing. Perry and Shelton harassed and threatened Norton. Norton’s friends had warned him that Shelton might harm or even kill him. Shelton and Perry both made a point of going openly armed at all times.
The day before the shooting, Shelton told the mortician in Ludden that he wanted a coffin, and that in twenty-four hours either he or Norton would be lying in it. The next day Shelton went to Norton’s ranch to reclaim some of his sheep that he said strayed into Norton’s flock. Angry words were exchanged, and Norton ended up shooting Shelton.
Immediately afterward, Norton went to Oakes and turned himself in to the sheriff. He admitted that he had fired the shot that killed Shelton, but explained he had only done it in self-defense.
Twenty-five witnesses were called for the defense. They all attested to the fact that Shelton had threatened many times to kill Norton. The trial did not take long. On November 26th the jury announced the verdict: not guilty.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. In January 1898, Shelton’s friend Perry wrote in a letter to the Oakes Weekly Republican, the Norton was the aggressor. He claimed Norton had fired several shots at him. He also hinted that Norton was responsible for a fire that burned down his barn along with five tons of hay. After that, both men faded from the headlines.
Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher
Oakes Weekly Republican. “Done in Self Defense.” “Shelton Murder.” Oakes ND. 11/26/1897. Page 2.
Courier Democrat. “Done in Self Defense.” Langdon ND. 11/26/1897. Page 11.
Bismarck Tribune. “Got a Long Term.” Bismarck ND. 12/27/1900. Page 1.
Oakes Weekly Republican. “From Little Utah. Oakes ND.1/21/1898. Page 1.