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Hobos, Trains and Guns


At about this time in 1902, railroad workers in the state had been going through a tough time with hobos riding the rails. On September 22nd, the Fargo Forum reported a story under the heading, “Another Brakeman Shot.” The incident had happened the previous Saturday night aboard a Northern Pacific stock train heading east. A number of hobos climbed onto the top of the train at Casselton, but they weren’t discovered until the train was underway. A crewmember went to a brakeman named Wilson for help, but by then, the hobos had disappeared.

Wilson returned to the engine, but soon after, a strange man began climbing in over the tender. The Forum article read, “After a few strong oaths, applied to Wilson, the stranger remarked, ‘you are the man I am after’ and then took a shot at Wilson, but the bullet went wide and only made a wound at the side of his face. The fireman jumped at the assailant and held him until Stearns, the engineer disarmed the shooter.”

Officer Costello took the hobo into custody when they reached Fargo. He gave his name as Arthur B. Miller, and, in addition to his revolver, he had money and a gold watch on him. He was charged with shooting with intent to kill and riding on a train without a ticket.

Three days later, the Harvey Herald reported that a hobo named John Burns shot Evan Williams while they and several other men were inside a boxcar near the depot. Burns said he would shoot any man for $10. Playing along, Williams dug a 10-dollar bill from his pocket. Burns pulled out a gun, demanded the money, and when Williams refused, Burns shot him in the gut.

Crewmembers on a freight train, pulling out of the yard, heard the shot. They caught Burns before he could get away, and he and three witnesses were handed over to Constable McGlenn, who took them to Fessenden. Williams was taken to a doctor to have his bullet cut out.

Another shooting took place early that morning on an NP freight train heading east. At sun-up, brakeman Tom Blewett found a hobo on top of one of the cars and asked him where he was going. The man told him, “Casselton,” and when Blewett asked him why he was trying to get a free ride, the hobo pulled a gun and shot him. Blewett was hit in the foot, but he made it back to the engine. The train was slowing down at a point where a Great Northern line crossed the NP tracks, so conductor Will Percival disengaged from the train and rushed Blewett to Casselton.

A Casselton constable boarded Percival’s engine, and they steamed back to the rest of the train. By then, the hobo had headed north on foot along the Great Northern tracks. The men found an engine that could travel those tracks, and after 3 or 4 miles, they caught the shooter, who gave his name as Charles Smith of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

There was considerable hostility toward Smith, because he was black. You see, the hobo problem had started five weeks earlier when a hobo – who also happened to be black – shot a brakeman named Fred Stevens. Stevens had spotted five hobos on board as the train passed through Bismarck. He threw them off, and when they hit the ground, one pulled a gun and shot him in the thigh. The train stopped, backed up, and Stevens received immediate medical help; the injury was very serious, however, and a week later, on August 22nd, he died.

The shooter was named Grover Griffin, but he went by the name of Governor. On this date in 1902, he was sitting in a Bismarck jail awaiting trial for murder.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm