On this date in 1917, many of the state’s young men were in military camps around the state, having been mobilized through the draft or as members of the National Guard. Consequently, an increase in crime was seen as the absence of so many young men made it harder for the citizenry to counter criminal behavior. Small bands of criminals, “yeggs” as they were commonly called, used the opportunity to extort and plunder farmers and communities. Especially vulnerable were the older, rural couples isolated on the farms, with their sons off to war. Criminals found it easy, under the guise of needing travel information or temporary shelter, to gain entrance to the homes. Once they subdued the occupants with ropes or other devices, the robbers were free to search the premises at leisure, leaving plenty of time to vacate the vicinity before their crime was discovered.
Travelers also fell victim. Two men were robbed on a train near Leeds and forced to jump from the rail car. Other travelers were stopped, beaten senseless, and robbed.
Grand Forks Police Chief J. W. Lowe stated that there were more bad-men in the region than there had been for years. He stated that extreme vigilance was needed since North Dakota appeared to have become a clearing house for undesirables. While some events were believed to be spontaneous robberies, others appeared to be the work of organized gangs. A department store in Foxholm was robbed of twenty-eight pairs of shoes. In Edmore a hardware store was entered, and revolvers, flashlights, and watches were taken.
With such roving bands, few communities were safe. Most crimes occurred under the cover of darkness and many were committed along the railroad lines, which offered an easy means of escape.
Meanwhile professional “yeggs” robbed Post Offices and banks using explosives to open safes, and bootleggers met less resistance in plying their trade.
As advocated by Smith Stimmel and J. W. Arnold of the Dakota Patriotic Squadron, the need for a home guard was becoming apparent. In Devils Lake, a consignment of 45 caliber rifles was received from the federal government to arm the home guard members. The small community of Hanna boasted of a unit of sixty men. The town of Milton deputized all the men of that community and nearby farmers.
It was a time when vigilante justice filled a law-enforcement void – reminiscent of the frontier days.
Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis
The Bismarck Tribune, September 28, 1917
Grand Forks Herald, September 19, 1917
Devils Lake World and Inter-Ocean, September 6, 1917
Ward County Independent, September 20, 1917
Ibid, September 23, 1917