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Bismarck Fur Company Fire

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In 1928, a literal bang welcomed in the new year in Bismarck, albeit a little more than a week late. A sharp early morning explosion at the Bismarck Fur Company was followed by a fire. The business on 5th Street was on the ground floor of the Annex Hotel building. While the fire was not expected to spread beyond the store, more than 50 people were forced to flee to the streets in the wee hours hours due to the heavy smoke filling their rooms.

Damage to the building was minimal, but the fur store was gutted. The stock and fixtures were a total loss, estimated at four thousand to ten thousand dollars by the proprietor, A. P. Knoethe. Insurance was expected to cover about 80 percent of the damage. “The plate glass front of the store room was blown to bits” by the explosion, but most of the damage came from the fire.

The speed at which the flames spread made fire chief Harry Thompson suspicious. After discovering an electric plate, with the “current still turned on,” he concluded that the fire was no accident. He shared his suspicions with the fire marshal, and they investigated further, showing up at Knothe’s house. Though they had no search warrant, they were giving permission to look around. They went through a trap door to the attic and found a box containing furs above the kitchen.

As reported on this date, Knothe confessed to his crime—he had suffered huge financial losses while in the fur business in Duluth, Minnesota and was hoping the insurance money and the furs he claimed as lost would allow him to ward off bankruptcy.

The fire was indeed planned; Knothe had “sprinkled a gallon of gasoline over the stock and fixtures, then started an electric fan to vaporize the fluid and then switched on the current” in that incriminating electric plate … boom!

Dakota Datebook by Sarah Walker


The Bismarck Tribune, January 9, 1928, p1

The Bismarck Tribune, January 12, 1928, p1

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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