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Sleep-talking Killer


During the early half of the twentieth century, migrant farm workers often spent the summer traveling north from Oklahoma to North Dakota, participating in the harvest of the nation’s breadbasket as part of the Great Wheat Belt migration. Many of the workers ‘rode the rails,’ traveling illegally between destinations as hobos, by hopping train cars. Because of this, many of the workers saw much of the country, and the men often spent their evenings sharing stories of the places they’d been and the people they’d met. One such worker, however, shared a chilling story one night near Brocket, North Dakota that only his fellow bunk-mate could hear.

Lester Nathaniel Cash, a 31-year old transient harvest worker from Missouri, had hired on to work at the Oliver Stene farm in August of 1947. Stene’s farm, located in Ramsey County, North Dakota, hired several temporary men each fall to help bring in the summer crops. Cash was hired on as a thresher and he lived with the rest of the farm’s hired men in bunkhouse.

Although quiet and reserved, Cash proved a good worker and got along with the others. However, one evening Cash began talking in his sleep, and his bunk-mate could hear every word. The Missouri thresher began telling the detailed story of how he killed a man in Sioux City, Iowa, four years earlier. Alarmed, and not exactly happy to be sleeping with a killer, the bunk-mate told his employer, Oliver Stene. Wary of alerting the authorities without additional proof, Stene told the threshers to keep an eye on Cash, and he also made sure his family members kept their distance from the possible murderer. Cash soon became aware of the additional scrutiny, however, and confronted Stene. Stene explained how Cash had been overheard while sleep-talking, and Cash flew into a fury, threatening to kill the other threshers, starting with the eavesdropping bunk-mate. Stene alerted the sheriff, and Cash was arrested on this date in 1947 and taken to Devils Lake, where he quickly earned the moniker “the Killer.” Despite the nickname, however, no link was ever made by the FBI between Cash and any Iowa murder.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job


Norris, Jim. North for the Harvest: Mexican Workers, Growers, and the Sugar Beet Industry. (Dakota Death Trip blog posted by D. Dahlsad, The Bismarck Tribune, August 29, 1947).