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Schoolteacher Shooting


An unfortunate confrontation between a farmer and a rural schoolteacher was reported by the Fargo Forum on this day in 1902. The confrontation was the climax to months of disagreement between the two men, and resulted in the tragic death of the well-known schoolteacher. The fatal encounter occurred in Bottineau County, near Willow City, North Dakota, on the property of the farmer, Phelan Finnigan.

The schoolteacher, Mr. Saucer, taught classes at a rural school on the other side of Mr. Finnigan’s property. On his way to and from the school, Mr. Saucer often drove through one of Finnigan’s fields in order to avoid a large coulee that blocked the designated road. Finnigan was not pleased with this arrangement, and he repeatedly ordered the schoolteacher off of his property whenever he caught sight of Saucer crossing his field. Finnigan’s distress arose as a result of an old American law, which requires a property owner to prevent a person from crossing their property within seven years to avoid courts from declaring the crossing a highway. If the land is declared a highway, the owner is held liable for it and must maintain and pay taxes on the land. The farmer became so angry and crazed during the confrontations, that the teacher was made uneasy by his mere presence. Agitated and upset by the farmer’s displays, the teacher began to carry a small revolver with him at all times. The families of the two men in the area even began to quarrel with each other due to the dispute between them, which became common knowledge to residents of the area.

Shortly after purchasing his revolver, Saucer was confronted once again by farmer Finnigan on his way to class. Fearing for his safety, the schoolteacher drew his weapon and pointed it at the farmer. In response, Finnigan hollered to his farmhand to bring a gun. As he came running to the scene, the hired man shot at the schoolteacher, who leaped from his rig and began to run. Farmer Finnigan then grabbed the gun from the hired hand and took two shots at Saucer himself. Saucer dropped dead in mid-flight, but it was not known which of the shots actually killed the teacher. The incident was deemed a tragedy by all who knew the schoolteacher, but the farmer deemed the act necessary in order to protect his land holdings.


The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican, May 24, 1902: p.1.

Halvorson, Mark J. Curator of Collections Research, State Historical Society of North Dakota.