© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Robert or David Noah


Nobody knows exactly when Gus Johnson disappeared. But in early April of 1908, his neighbors became suspicious when his hired man showed up in Kenmare to sell a wagon-load of the farmer’s grain.

This young man was friendly, with exotic features, thick dark hair, and a southern accent. His name was Robert Noah, and what caught the attention of the locals was his report that Gus Johnson had gone back to Sweden because his mother died. According to Noah, the old farmer had signed the place over to him with instructions to sell everything.

On April 4th, locals snuck into Johnson's farmhouse, where they spotted a patch of fresh linoleum cut into the floor. They ripped it up and found Johnson’s body beneath a trap door. One week later, a Minot jury found Robert Noah guilty, and he was sentenced to be hanged.

On April 19th, two weeks after the murder was discovered, Ward County residents were surprised to hear the State Penitentiary was refusing to accept Noah as a prisoner. Warden Hellstrom felt it was unconstitutional to expect him to pay for the execution – he thought Minot should build the gallows and foot the bill.

By this point, Noah had already been delivered to the Bismarck prison, so the Ward County sheriff asked the warden to keep him there until the case could be tested in court. Two days later, Warden Hellstrom told the press that all of this uproar was based on false rumors, and Noah would stay in Bismarck unless the state Supreme Court ordered otherwise. He did say, however, that he would have to use private funding to hang Noah, because there were no state appropriations to cover the expenses.

In mid-September, the ND Supreme Court informed Governor Burke that county sheriffs were no longer allowed to carry out hangings, and that Warden Hellstrom would indeed have to execute Noah. A date of October 23rd was selected, and as the time drew near, the gallows were built and tested. Then, the day before the hanging, the case took an unexpected twist – the real Robert Noah showed up! Until recently, he had been serving with the Navy in the Philippines, and he now informed the warden that the condemned man was actually his brother David. The sailor hired an attorney and paid a visit to the governor. He was able to secure a stay of execution until the facts could be sorted out. There was also a question of whether the next legislature might do away with capital punishment.

The Supreme Court eventually granted the younger man a new trial – but oddly, he was again tried under Robert’s name. Meanwhile, capital punishment remained legal in North Dakota, but when Noah was again found guilty, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

Sources: Bismarck Tribune: Apr 5, 13, 17, 19, 21; Sept 12; Oct 1, 18, 19, 21, 22 1908; Jan 19; May 21, 23 1910.