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Plains Folk

Well-Dressed Strangers in a Hobo Camp

William Law was not a sterling citizen, but he had friends. A butcher by trade, and having fallen in with bad--meaning, hard-drinking--company in Fargo, he moved down to Mayville and took work in a slaughterhouse outside town. He kept a rifle to shoot animals for slaughter.

Once again unsavory company got William Law into trouble. Two hobos from a nearby camp, names Murphy and Kelley, would hang around when Law killed animals, help him out a bit, and beg cuts of meat for their camp. Sometimes Law gave them a ride to town in his wagon, and even loaned them his rifle.

Then at 1:00am on 3 September 1893 Constable Even Paulson, a popular young Norwegian immigrant, interrupted a burglary in progress at a Mayville business and was shot to death with Law’s rifle. Authorities swiftly took Kelley and Law into custody; Murphy had gotten out of town. Law said he was asleep in his room above the butcher shop when the crime happened, but no one vouched for his alibi. Both men charged were convicted and sent up to the state pen for life.

William Law’s larger circle of friends, however, included his fellow members of the Knights of Pythias Lodge, who worked for his release from the pen as a model prisoner. Thus he served only thirteen years. One argument in favor of clemency was that Law had fallen under the influence of hobos, tramps from a camp the city ought to have cleaned out, thus preventing such bad influence. As explained in previous Plains Folk essays, the proposition of hobos as sinister characters who enticed naive citizens, especially boys, into degraded lives was prevalent in prairie towns.

In 1904 there was the story of two boys, Percy Stark and Joseph McMullin, who ran away from a Catholic orphanage in Fargo. A police officer named McLain in Casselton subsequently took them into custody. The boys told McLain they had walked from Fargo and taken up residence with some hobos, who fed them. The boys said they would rather stay with the hobos than go back to the nuns, and they would run away again first chance they got.

This news from Casselton was more entertaining than alarming, whereas in 1901, folks in Cass County were incensed at the murder of businessman Charles Melquist, a meat dealer. He had ridden his bicycle into the countryside to buy chickens and never returned. Police went immediately to the usual suspects and found papers and receipts from Melquist at a hobo camp on the Sheyenne, west of Fargo. Police arrested four suspects--but all had good alibis, and the murder remained unsolved.

In March 1913 a hobo named William McGiannis was playing poker with another named Parked Sieeman in a camp near Egeland when McGiannis, a white man from Kentucky, shot and killed Sieeman, a black man. Taken into custody, McGiannis said he did not understand what all the fuss was about.

That fall two “well dressed strangers” in a camp near Lakota fell out over the cooking of some eggs. After some midday drinking, the unhappy diner shot the cook dead with a .44 revolver, then shot himself, although not fatally. The murdered man was rumored to be from a rich family in Arizona.

About the same time a young woman of Eldridge was found in an impaired state at a hobo camp near Windsor. She said she had been chloroformed and been forced to take a little white pill.

All such incidents were sure to get newspaper play, so long as they contained the word “hobo.” Cropping up in columns, they appeared random, and inspired hard reprisals by local law--but in fact there were patterns to the events, as a forthcoming essay will reveal.

-Tom Isern

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