A shocking murder gripped Ward County in the 1900s. The story played out over many years, with two trials, a false name and a prison escape.
R.S. Noah was hired in March of 1908 to work on Gus Johnson’s farm near Kenmare, North Dakota. A few weeks later, neighbors began to wonder about Johnson’s whereabouts after he wasn’t seen for several days. Noah said Johnson had returned to Sweden, but authorities grew suspicious when Noah and another man began selling Johnson’s grain.
A neighbor found Johnson’s body in the cellar. He had been shot in the head. On this date in 1908, newspaper readers learned that Noah and his companion had been taken to the Minot jail to avoid a lynch mob in Kenmare. Both men were charged with first-degree murder. Noah confessed to the killing and to forging contracts that allowed him to dispose of the dead man’s property.
Barely two weeks after his confession, a jury decided Noah’s punishment – death by hanging. A Minot newspaper called Noah “a moral degenerate of the worst type.” He smiled and even laughed in the courtroom. Noah’s wife divorced him and married another man on the same day that had been set for Noah’s execution. Meanwhile, Noah’s companion was acquitted.
Days before his scheduled hanging in the fall of 1908, Noah’s sailor brother came from his gunboat station in China and urged the governor to issue a reprieve on the grounds of insanity. Authorities then learned that Noah had been using his brother’s name the whole time. R.S. Noah was really D.M. Noah.
Noah’s brother filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court, successfully postponing the hanging. The court heard the appeal a year later, and ordered a new trial. A Ward County jury still convicted him, but this time, his sentenced was life in prison.
Noah worked in the prison’s print shop, and became a model prisoner. But after he was denied a pardon in 1918, he escaped with $25 raised by his fellow prisoners for Christmas goodies. Three years later he was recaptured in Kansas and returned to prison where he was placed in solitary confinement.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
The Bowbells Tribune. 1908, April 2. Page 1
The Washburn Leader. 1908, April 3. Page 6
The Bismarck Tribune. 1908, April 5. Page 6
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1908, April 9. Page 3
The Bowbells Tribune. 1908, April 9. Page 6
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1908, April 16. Page 1
The Ward County Independent. 1908, April 16. Pages 1, 9
The Bowbells Tribune. 1908, September 25. Page 1
Grand Forks Herald. 1908, October 19. Page 2
The Ward County Independent. 1908, October 22. Page 20
The Bismarck Tribune. 1908, October 23. Page 5
Grand Forks Herald. 1908, October 24. Page 6
The Wahpeton Times. 1909, January 21. Page 3
The Ward County Independent. 1909, September 2. Page 15
Grand Forks Herald. 1910, February 4. Page 2
The Ward County Independent. 1910, March 24. Page 9
The Ward County Independent. 1910, May 26. Page 23
The Bismarck Tribune. 1910, May 27. Page 3
The Ward County Independent. 1910, August 4. Page 9
Grand Forks Herald. 1911, April 26. Page 6
Grand Forks Herald. 1918, December 5. Page 3
The Ward County Independent. 1918, December 12. Page 16
The Ward County Independent. 1918, December 19. Page 9
Grand Forks Herald. 1918, December 28. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1918, December 28. Page 2
Grand Forks Herald. 1918, December 20. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1921, December 14. Page 1
Grand Forks Herald. 1922, January 5. Page 3
The Ward County Independent. 1922, November 2. Page 9
The Bismarck Tribune. 1923, December 25. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1931, November 30. Page 7
The Bismarck Tribune. 1938, November 3. Page 10