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Last Illegal Execution


The last illegal execution in North Dakota happened in Schaefer on this date in 1931 when a mob seized a prisoner named Charles Bannon and lynched him a half mile from the jail.

About a year earlier, in February, people had begun to notice that they hadn’t seen the Albert Haven family around. Twenty-two year-old Bannon had just started working on the Haven farm, and when people asked him about the family, he said the Havens had gone to Oregon and that he was now renting the place. Friends thought it was strange that the family of six would just up and move without a word – and they had left behind a lot of their belongings...

By October, neighbors became suspicious when Bannon started selling off the family’s property. Bannon’s father, who had been helping his son take care of the farm, left about that time, saying that he was going to try to find the Haven family. On December 2nd, James Bannon wrote to his son from Oregon, saying he couldn’t find the family, and he advised Charles to be careful and “do what is right.”

Soon after, authorities jailed young Charles for grand larceny and realized there was more to the story. Over the next few days, Charles broke down and, through three conflicting confessions, admitted that he had killed the family nine months before. On about February 10th, the boys had been out milking cows when he and 18 year-old Daniel Haven got into a teasing match. He pointed his gun at Daniel and – he said – accidentally shot him. He got scared and then killed 14 year-old Leland, too. When their parents came out to investigate, Charles also ended up shooting them, as well as 2 month-old Mary and 2 year-old Charles.

Rumors flew, including one that Charles stabbed Mrs. Haven 15 times and then cut her in pieces in order to get her out of the house. It was also reported that the two year old was named after Bannon. It’s difficult to determine the truth, because Charles never went to trial. His confessions state that he shot Mrs. Haven outside and buried her, as well as the others, first in a haystack and then later around the farmstead. Bannon also maintained that he acted alone and that his father knew nothing about the killings. Nevertheless, authorities found James and put him in custody.

The father and son were moved to Schaefer, five miles from Watford City, the night of January 28th, arraignment would be the next morning. Sometime after midnight, approximately 75 men in masks broke into the jail and overpowered Deputy Sheriff Pete Hallan. Sheriff Thompson came out to investigate but was too late. The mob battered open Charles Bannon’s cell door, dragged him out and locked the two lawmen into a cell with the elder Bannon and another prisoner.

The plan was to lynch Bannon on the farm where the family died, but a caretaker chased them off. So they hanged him from the Cherry Creek Bridge a half mile from the jail. Mob members were never identified, but there was a move to bring back the death penalty after that. It was reasoned that friends and neighbors of the Haven family knew that Bannon couldn’t be executed, so they were forced to take matters into their own hands. The measure didn’t pass.

And Bannon’s father? He claimed he had no knowledge of the murders – just like his son had said – but he received life in prison. He was pardoned 19 years later.