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Scandal in Fessenden

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On this date in 1913, William McBain was arrested, following a complex series of events that stirred up much controversy in North Dakota. It all started two years earlier when William moved from his childhood home in Fessenden to Saskatoon, Canada for work. There, he fell in love with a girl named Margaret, who lived on the farm next door. Margaret held the same feelings for him, and one day ran away from home to go with William to his hometown of Fessenden.

Because William was 20 and Margaret was only 16, William’s family declared that the two were far too young to marry. Though the couple applied for marriage in North Dakota, they were rejected, the lack of parental consent hampering their efforts. Desperate, William and Margaret traveled to Minnesota where they were finally able to tie the knot. The newlyweds returned to Fessenden where they lived with William’s brother, Harry.

However, their peaceful life was disrupted a month later. Some evidence that an abortion had occurred was found in a field near Fessenden. This was considered an illegal act. Apparently, while the McBains were trying to get married, they discovered they were pregnant. Concerned about this and fearing discovery, William procured pills at the request of his wife. Police arrested William McBain and he was moved to Valley City to be tried.

However, the townspeople of Fessenden created an uproar over the arrest and petitions circulated to free the young man. They had been following the tale of the young lovers and once they heard the whole story, were outraged that the two should be separated. Newspaper reports even stated that an unknown citizen with influence wired the state pardon board about releasing William, and after such a massive response from not only the people of Fessenden, but people all over the state, the judge in Valley City returned William home on bond to be tried in a Wells County Court.

Eventually, in 1914, William was charged with infanticide in Wells County, where he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to the minimum sentence of one year in prison. The McBain love story had come to an end, however. Margaret returned to Canada, declaring that she would never again live with her husband. This story was reported in newspapers all over the state, regarded as one of the most tragic tales of its time.

Dakota Datebook by Katie David

Bismarck Weekly Tribune, Nov. 20, 1913
Jamestown Weekly Alert, Nov. 27, 1913
Wells County Free Press, Nov. 28, 1913.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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