The Strange Tale of the Midnight Rider: Serial Killer Eugene Butler
In the early 1900s, residents near the tiny town of Niagara, in the new state of North Dakota, began to hear strange noises in the night. The sound of galloping hooves punctuated the quiet countryside. It was Farmer Eugene Butler again, who had recently started riding his horses late at night, yelling at the top of his lungs. It was strange behavior from a man who was known to be a wealthy, successful farmer, if somewhat reclusive.
The townsfolk had no idea that, in the coming years, the story of Eugene Butler would get much stranger.
On February 4th, 1904, the Jamestown Weekly Alert republished a story that ran a few days earlier in the Grand Forks Herald:
From brooding over the hallucination that all the widows and old maids in the country wanted to marry him, Farmer Eugene Butler became insane and was committed to the insane hospital at Jamestown. Butler is about 40 years of age and has lived by himself for years on a farm at Shawnee. He is probably the wealthiest man who has ever been committed to an asylum from this county, his property being valued at from $40,000 to $50,000. In addition to the hallucination that all the women have designs on him–owing probably to its being a leap year–Butler claims that men are in the habit of coming to his home during the night, forcing him to get up and dress and take long walks and horseback rides.
In hindsight, there are a couple of clarifications that should be made to the Herald story. Butler’s home was reported as being in a tiny railroad stop known as “Shawnee,” but today we know he lived in Niagara, about 6 miles to the northwest. Second, Butler was actually 54 years old at the time, not 40. At any rate, Eugene Butler was deemed insane and committed to the State Hospital in 1904.
Butler lived an apparently uneventful 8 years in the State Hospital in Jamestown, but in November of 1911, two weeks after his death on October 22nd, 1911, Butler’s name again appeared in the paper, this time the Saturday, November 4th issue of the Bismarck Tribune. The story, “Filing of Petition Recalls Old Case,” details the appointment of Butler’s former attorney as the administrator for his estate and concludes that his estate would be divided between two brothers, a nephew and a niece. We’re also offered a further glimpse into Butler’s story:
Butler came to Grand Forks County in 1880 with a number of others, from New York State. He picked out three quarters of a section of land near Larimore and started in to farming. He rapidly improved the land and built a substantial home. He was accounted a moderately well fixed farmer. In spite of the fact that he had made many friends, he continued to live alone on the farm, doing all the work about the house.
About ten years ago he was noticed to have changed considerably and at times at night would ride his horses at breakneck speed about the country. Those who are familiar with the case state that he lost his mind through his hermit habits. He gradually became worse and was brought here and taken before the insanity board.
By 1915, Butler had been dead for years and many had no doubt nearly forgotten about the strange man who had occupied the now-vacant farmhouse on the edge of Niagara, but on June 27th, 1915, the Bismarck Daily Tribune’s headline announced a horrifying discovery in large type:
SIX BODIES WITH SKULLS CRUSHED ARE FOUND AT NIAGARA, N.D.
Are Believed To Have Been the Victims of Eugene Butler, an Insane Patient
Beneath the terrible headline, other details were disclosed in successively smaller fonts. “Gruesome Find by Workmen in Old Basement. Bodies Are Those of Men Who Worked for Butler on His Farm. Accused Man Died at Jamestown in 1913. Victims Dropped Into Basement by Cleverly Made Trap Door.” The story read:
Workmen excavating under a house occupied until a few years ago by Eugene Butler, who died in 1913 in state insane asylum, unearthed the remains of six men. It is believed by the authorities they were murdered by Butler while employed by him as farm hands. The skulls of each had been crushed. The bodies had been dropped into the basement through a cleverly constructed trap door.
An added note near the end of the story added specifics from Butler’s doctor while he was at Jamestown:
REMEMBERS BUTLER. Dr. Hotchkiss over the telephone last evening said that he remembered Butler but that there was little about his case to distinguish him from the other insane patients. He showed great surprise when he learned of the gruesome find in the former home of Butler.
Again there is a detail in the story that should be clarified. Butler actually died in 1911, not 1913, and the belief that Butler killed six individuals in separate acts would later be called into question. In a story from the Bismarck Daily Tribune, July 1st, 1915, the new theory became clear:
BELIEVED BUTLER MURDERED FAMILY
Again, details were added through subheadings in successively smaller type. “Examination of skeletons indicate five crimes were committed at once. Bodies had been stripped of clothing. No one in neighborhood can throw light on gruesome tragedy.” The story continues:
Five murders at one time, when he wiped out an entire family, and one at a later date when he slew a male adult, are the crimes laid at the door of Eugene Butler, the recluse farmer of Niagara, whose death in the asylum for the insane at Jamestown four years ago effectively draws a curtain before one of the most mysterious cases ever brought to light in the northwest.
Examination of six skeletons found under the Butler home near Shawnee, this county, shows that five of the murders were committed at one time when a man, a woman, and three children were slain. At some later date one man was killed.
Bodies of the five members of the family were buried in a single hole, while that of the other victim was buried about ten feet from them.
The horrible record of the crime was unearthed by a workman engaged in excavating for a basement under the former Butler home. He first unearthed the body of the lone victim, which had been concealed under about three feet of dirt, under the middle of the Butler home. The body had been dropped to its place of concealment through a hole cut in the floor.
Buried from the Outside. The five bodies were buried in a hole that was dug from the outside of the house, under the foundation. The hole into which these bodies were dumped was sloping in nature, and while time may have rotted the bones there are indications that in order to hide his crime, Butler was compelled to break the legs of at least two of his victims.
The foundation wall where the bodies had been buried was disturbed after its construction, which was about 20 years ago. That fact limits the period within which the murders occurred. In order to bury the victims, the three bottom stones of the foundation wall were loosened. In refilling the hole, black dirt was thrown in, and the manner in which the burial place was dug, indicated by the marked lines of distinction between the black dirt used as a covering and the red clay subsoil.
Clothing Removed. There is absolutely no trace of clothing of any kind. The dirt about the skeletons was carefully examined for trace of buttons, shoes, etc… but nothing was found, indicating that the bodies had been buried nude — their clothes probably destroyed by fire, thus effectively destroying the possibility of identification at this time.
Examination of the skull of the single victim, and probably the most recent murder victim, indicates that the man had a crooked nose, the nasal bone being bent slightly toward the left.
Each Killed in the Same Manner. That some sharp instrument was used in killing the members of the family, also is indicated. There is a sharp and clearly defined hole in the left side of the skull of each. The skull of the single victim is similarly marked.
The authorities had apparently determined that the original theory, six transient farm laborers killed one at a time, was incorrect, and that a family of five was killed first, followed by one individual. Neighbors, however, did not remember a family of five ever visiting the farm, and nobody ever reported a family of five missing. One theory was that perhaps five of Eugene’s family members came to visit and he dispatched them before anyone had seen them at the farm. The passage of time between the murders and the discovery of their bodies further hindered any identification of the victims.
On July 22, 1915, The Valley City Times Record published a story about a possible identity for one of the victims. Leo Urbanski, a wealthy businessman and former saloon keeper from Minnesota, wondered whether his brother might be the single male victim whose remains were found at Butler’s farm, and asked his attorney to send a letter to States Attorney O.B Burtness:
“I have been requested to make inquiry concerning one John Urbanski who disappeared near Niagara, N.D. in 1902. The last heard from him was a letter received by his brother stating that he was working for a bachelor near Niagara. The post mark showed that the letter had been mailed at Larimore.”
“John Urbanski was a young man about five feet seven inches in height, weight 145 pounds, light hair (almost white) and light complexion.”
“He was sometimes called John Miller and such may have been the name he was called when working near Niagara.”
In the century since Butler’s crimes were revealed, little progress has been made and the victims have never been positively identified. There have been a number of theories proposed. The age and gender of the victims has been disputed with some claiming they were all male. Others have speculated that they were all housekeepers on the Butler farm.
In the age of DNA, some identification of the victims should be possible, right? A story from the Ward County Independent on September 2, 1915 said the bones of the victims were held in Grand Forks at the Office of Sheriff Art Turner, but WDAY TV/Fargo reported in 2016 that, upon hearing of the crime, townspeople flooded to the Butler home and looted the bones of the victims. The whereabouts of the bones are unknown today. Unless someone comes forward with the remains, no DNA analysis is possible. In a further blow to the investigation, the original case files, if they ever existed, are missing, possibly destroyed or lost over the years. The Butler home was razed, and today a workshop owned by an area family stands on the site.
Who were the victims of Eugene Butler? We might never know. Really, our only hope for resolution at this point is in the slim chance that someone still alive can provide a break in the case. Perhaps someone reading this might have their memory jogged, maybe they found some bones in a box in their attic, or remember a story told by their parents or grandparents that could provide a break in the case of the midnight rider, Eugene Butler.
See also: The Wolf Family Murders
See also: Niagara, North Dakota