Today we examine a buried-treasure legend from the 1920s, an unlikely tale that triggered a treasure hunt in Bismarck.
In 1927, a young fellow named Frederick Buhl, Jr. quit his job as a clerk in Elizabeth, New Jersey and moved to Brooklyn. 24-year-old “Freddie” Buhl had a checkered past, doing time in a reformatory for passing bad checks, and serving six months in jail for defrauding a Philadelphia hotel keeper.
In his Brooklyn rooming house, Buhl bragged to another fellow that he had been in on the “big train robbery of 1923.”
The neighbor, alarmed, informed the Brooklyn police, who brought Freddie Buhl into headquarters for questioning. Boastful Buhl had a nickname, “The Millionaire Kid,” because of his penchant for wearing stylish clothes. Under interrogation, this “undersized” young man confessed his guilt.
He said that he – and 5 co-conspirators – robbed a mail train at Alton, Illinois, in August, 1923, by tossing tear-gas into an armored rail car. “Rendered helpless by tears,” the two guards, held at gunpoint, unlocked the vault. He said the gang grabbed $300,000, jumped off the train, and drove a car to Chicago. There they split the money, then took flight to all points of the compass. Freddie said he and an accomplice, each carrying $50,000 in “hot” cash, fled to Bismarck, but were conspicuously strangers. Fearing arrest, Buhl claimed that he and his criminal-friend panicked, hiding their money “under a gravestone” in St. Mary’s Cemetery, and left town. “Buhl said he was too frightened ever to return,” and he believed “his companion never did either.”
Brooklyn police immediately contacted Bismarck’s Police Chief, Chris Martineson, to recover the cash. Chief Martineson cooperated, remembering that he had spotted a stranger in 1923, a small man named Buhl.
On this date, in 1927, a newspaper reported that Bismarck policemen, “armed with picks and shovels,” were digging in St. Mary’s Cemetery’s still-frozen soil, looking for a “$100,000 buried treasure,” supervised by local priest John Slag. The searching focused on graves from 1923, because the criminals could have hidden their treasure most easily in fresh-earth.
Alas, police found nothing, yet officers stood guard against unauthorized treasure seekers. But the story soon fizzled. Freddie Buhl retracted his train robbery tall-tale.
Nonetheless, the St. Mary’s graveyard treasure became legendary. Treasure hunters reportedly visited the Cemetery occasionally thereafter, although there was no truth to the story, and no money unearthed.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department
“Seek Buried Treasure,” Rochester [NY] Democrat & Chronicle, March 19, 1927, p. 5; “Buried Treasure Search in N.D. Cemetery Halts,” Minneapolis Tribune, March 19, 1927, p. 16; “Bismarck Drops Search for $100,000 Buried Loot,” Minneapolis Star, March 19, 1927, p. 2.
“Seek Treasure,” Brooklyn [NY] Daily Eagle, March 18, 1927, p. 3.
“Treasure Hunt Started in Local Cemetery,” Bismarck Tribune, March 18, 1927, p. 1.
“Buhl Story of Train Robbery Unknown Here,” Alton [IL] Evening Telegraph, March 18, 1927 p. 1.
“Treasure Hunt in Graveyard Lands Local Men in Jail,” Bismarck Tribune, September 8, 1934, p. 4.