On October 17, 1900, the supreme court of North Dakota upheld the conviction of one Robert H. Stewart, a resident of Sargent County, for “having fraudulently obtained money from Sargent county by means of a false, forged, and fictitious instrument. . . . This is one of a series of offenses,” writes the court, “which appear to have been committed in that county by various persons, and which are known as the ‘gopher-bounty frauds.’”
Yes, the state supreme court was ruling on a case involving the payment of bounties for gopher tails. This requires some understanding of circumstances.
Today you can drive across North Dakota, once commonly referred to as the Flickertail State, and never see a flickertail gopher, Spermophilus richardsonii. Previous generations, however, were familiar with the varmint. Kids made pocket money by killing gophers and turning in the tails for bounties paid by the county.
Some of the men in Sargent County, however, regarded this enterprise as more than kids’ stuff. They saw it as a source of significant income--only they didn’t want to do the work of actually hunting the gophers. Thus they resorted to fraud.
The Bismarck Tribune broke the story for state readers in March 1900, noting that years earlier, the Sargent county commissioners had authorized payment from the general fund of two-cent bounties, the gopher tails to be turned in to township clerks. The clerks then would issue certificates to the county auditor, authorizing payment to the bearer, and would destroy the stinky gopher tails.
After thousands of dollars had been paid out, “The number of gophers did not seem to be diminished,” reports the Tribune, “and an investigation was started.” A grand jury discerned the existence of a gopher-tail bounty ring, with fellows turning in the same tails repeatedly. Others got hold of township receipt books and forged certificates.
Most of the offenders fled the state ahead of arrest, only a few being brought to trial. Convicted of various offenses were a town clerk, Robert Morrow, and conspirators Robert, Jack, and Fred Stewart, as well as two fellows named Timmons and Ryan. Most were fined $500. Robert Stewart must have been the ringleader--he got a year in the state penitentiary.
Which he appealed. The evidence was he had presented and been paid upon a certificate reading, “County of Sargent, North Dakota. Office of Town Clerk of Harlem Township. To W. S. Baker, County Auditor: This is to certify that L. Lund has presented to me 2,250 gopher tails, which have been destroyed by me this day. . . . R. J. Morrow, Township Clerk.”
Lund was Stewart’s hired man, who swore that he “had been threatened with bodily harm if he appeared at the trial,” but he did. And the supreme court upheld the conviction of his boss.
Another conspirator, Andrew Ryan, got off. He was one who had written a bogus certificate on the Vivian township clerk’s pad, on Robert Stewart’s behalf: “This is to certify that J. A. Stewart has presented to me one thousand gopher tails, which have been destroyed by me this day . . . 12th of June, 1899.” Ryan’s counsel successfully argued that although this was forgery, it was not criminal forgery, because the certificate itself did not demand money.
Although none of these guys earned any bounty money, Ryan’s attorney definitely earned his fee, so I hope that Ryan didn’t skip town on him.