Filicide in Adams
Today’s story is a sad one involving multiple filicide – the killing of a child by his or her parent. Filicide is usually committed by fathers, who are reported to most often target sons under the age of ten. But men do not have a monopoly on this crime. In recent history, two high-profile filicides by mothers have rocked the nation: in 1995, when Susan Smith killed her two sons in South Carolina, and in 2001, when Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub in Houston. Yates was struggling with psychotic depression following the birth of her fifth child.
Both of these cases gained widespread attention, as did a case reported at about this time in 1897. The tragedy took place on a farm near the town of Adams in northeast North Dakota. A story in the Park River Gazette read: “Thursday morning, Jacob Jerry Payer, a Bohemian farmer...came to town with a load of grain to sell, quarreling bitterly with his wife before his departure from home because he would not promise to return home the same night. He remained here over night, and yesterday morning, a messenger came in from his farm bearing the startling intelligence that Mrs. Payer had killed herself and her four children.”
The story explained that Jacob Payer had asked his father, who lived nearby, to take care of his farm chores until he got back. “The old gentleman,” the story said, “went to the house yesterday morning and knocked on the door but received no answer. After waiting a short time, he entered, but no one was moving. He began to look around for the inmates, and upon opening the bedroom door, a startling sight met his eyes. There, upon the bed lay the dead bodies of his four grandchildren, and across the foot of the bed was the body of their mother, also cold in death.”
The reporter quickly came to his own conclusions, saying, “The only reason that can be assigned for the terrible deed is that the woman must have become insane. She was a woman of fierce and ungovernable temper, and revengeful disposition. She had at various times previous to this, made threats of suicide and even of murder, and it is thought that the quarrel between herself and her husband prior to his departure had rankled in her mind until she lost her reason and determined to end her own life and that of her children at the same time.”
The reporter gave no reasons why Mrs. Payer may have been such an angry wife. There was no mention of whether Mr. Payer could prove that his family was alive when he left the farm the day before. It was accepted that the blame lay with her and that her actions the night before had been cold, methodical and decisive.
Mrs. Payer gave each child strychnine from a bottle kept for killing gophers. The couple had two girls and two boys; they were between the ages of two and seven. “A bottle (of the poison),” the article said, “partially emptied, lay near by and showed conclusively by what means the five lives were ended.”
Each of the children was freshly washed and dressed in his or her best clothes before being laid out, side by side, at the head of the bed. “This work,” continued the article, “as was evident from the surroundings, was done after the children’s death, and after this was done, she had taken the portion of the drug reserved for herself, and lying down across the bed had calmly awaited death, which of course, must have come very quickly...
“The event is one of the most terrible that has occurred in the history of the state,” the story ended, “and it has greatly shocked the entire community.”
Today, we’re bringing you a variety of stories from around the state in the fall of 1914. Here’s a bit of trivia from a Towner County newspaper: “For every five square miles of plowing you travel 2,500 miles. That’s equal to a single furrow all the way around the earth. Getting enough wheat for a loaf of bread requires a furrow fifty feet long.”
Back in the days of plowing with horses, it was said a man could plow a furrow one mile long by noon. Then he’d turn around and plow a furrow next to it in time to be home for supper. And we think we’ve got it bad!
Turning our attention to the 1914 hunting season, the editor of the Milton Globe, E.L. Peterson, also happened to be a Game Warden that year. A newspaper article stated, “Mr. Peterson is a game warden and is taking a respite from his newspaper duties to keep a ‘weather’ eye on ‘sooners’...To make it more hazardous for those who do not obey the law, Mr. Peterson states that he will change territory with other game wardens occasionally so that the sly violator who thinks he has left the neighborhood may be unexpectedly nabbed by a strange warden. Mr. Peterson (states that) those who stop and shoot from an automobile will be arrested and if you have a game bird in your auto you can’t get off with the excuse that you ran over it with your machine...You must hunt on your own land if you have no license and the law does not allow you even the adjoining highway for hunting ground.”
Up in Towner County, a story ran, “Someone stole a coat belonging to Steve Williams which had been left hanging in the barn back of the meat market. Mr. Williams’ hunting license and other papers were in the pocket of the coat and he misses these more than the coat, which was an old one used when hunting.”
A story out of Rock Lake said that George Shireman, an eye doctor from Saskatchewan, traveled to Rock Lake, late in the summer of 1914, to look after his farming interests there. On his way back to his farm in Canada, he decided to go hunting for prairie chickens with a friend – also a doctor. A chicken flew up from some brush and Mr. Shireman’s companion shot at it. He hit the chicken, but he also hit Dr. Shireman, who was on the other side of the bushes. In a tragic ironic twist, the optician lost his right eye in the accident.
Up in Starkweather, Dr. W. J. Brownlee was walking down the street carrying a gun he had loaned to a friend during hunting season, 1914. As a thank-you, the friend had given Brownlee some prairie chickens he shot. Game Warden W.E. McCull spotted Brownlee and demanded to see his hunting license. Brownlee told him the circumstances, but said if the warden would like to accompany him, he had a license at home. McCull refused and told Brownlee to hand over his gun and chickens. Brownlee turned around and asked McCull to show him his credentials, which McCull happened to have left behind at his house, that day, too. In the argument that followed, McCull hit Dr. Brownlee, and the doctor sued the warden for assault and battery.
Also in Towner County, a story came out, reading, “Everett Lawler had an exciting experience while hunting chickens Tuesday. When he pulled the trigger of the gun to bring down a stray hen, the magazine exploded and Everett narrowly escaped without a scratch. The magazine of the gun was full of shells and it is probable that every one of these exploded. The force of the explosion was so great that the magazine has not come down yet.”
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm