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Peter Bannigan Gets Away


On this day in 1876, a soldier lay dead, and a saloonkeeper was arrested for murder. Bismarck was, at this point, as wild as any town on the frontier – one surveyor described it as “17 saloons and 13 other buildings.” This latest incident was another in a long line of too many shootings for too many years, and come hell or high water, Bismarck wanted a stop to it.

One of the saloon owners was Peter Bannigan, who was comfortably married and didn’t like undo attention. On Christmas night, he went to a dinner party and then went out for a cigar. When he went back to his saloon, a group of soldiers was there celebrating.

What happened next is not entirely clear. The Tribune reported that Bannigan provoked a quarrel with Private John Massingale, saying Massingale was “... one of the best soldiers in the company, quiet and inoffensive. No man could quarrel with him unless they were wholly to blame.”

Bannigan’s side of the story painted a much different picture. He said that Private Massingale came in and started saying he could lick anyone in the place for a ten-dollar bill. When Bannigan tried to settle the soldier down, Massingale felt he’d found himself a taker and hit Bannigan in the head. By the time the fight was over, Massingale had three bullets in him.

Bannigan's trial began on a Monday, during which a key witness admitted he had lied. But the judge and jury weren’t in the mood for the truth. On Tuesday, Bannigan was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. The judge gave a stern lecture on the evils of saloons, telling Bannigan that when you have “vicious and disreputable persons being called together in such places as you have been conducting,” murder was bound to happen.

Bannigan’s lawyers filed an appeal, and the sheriff built a gallows... and Bannigan planned his jailbreak. One evening he walked out of the jail, found an Indian pony, and headed east for Minnesota. It was the dead of winter, and along the way, he ended up joining two other fugitives. They had to sleep in the open, and all suffered from frostbite and exposure.

Eleven days later, they reached Glyndon, Minnesota, where they checked into a hotel owned by an old acquaintance of Bannigan. After resting two days, they headed northeast to Red Lake, but the snow was too deep, and they checked into the Audubon Hotel. At 2 a.m., there was a knock at the door and, minutes later, Bannigan found himself facing three gun barrels.

Back in Bismarck, he revealed how he escaped. The sheriff had left the key in the cell door, and he made an impression of it in a piece of soap; then, using an oyster can, he made a facsimile of it. But he never had to use it. He struck a deal with the jailer, paying him $200. “He was trembling,” Bannigan said. “I asked him if he could not unlock the door and leave the keys on the table.” The jailer did as asked, and went into the office. Bannigan picked the locks of his shackles with a knife and simply walked out the door into the night.

While waiting for the Territorial Supreme Court to act on his appeal, Bannigan spent the next couple years in jail. He ended up getting another trial, and this time, it was a fair one. The jury found him not guilty. Bannigan left Bismarck, and never looked back.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

Source: Tales of Dakota Territory, by Wayne Fanebust, published by Mariah Publishing, Sioux Falls, SD