Schafer Jail, a Mass Murderer, and a Vigilante Lynch Mob
The events of 1930 could be considered a textbook example of “hard times” anywhere in America. The stock market crashed near the end of 1929 and ushered-in the Great Depression. Unemployment skyrocketed along with the price of imported goods. North Dakota and other rural states endured unprecedented drought that would eventually lead to the Dust Bowl. In the midst of these events, it wasn’t uncommon for families to pack up as many of their belongings as they could carry and move to greener pastures, leaving their homes and farms behind. Even so, the residents of the tiny community of Schafer, North Dakota and nearby Watford City found it odd when, in the spring of 1930, the six members of the Haven family stopped showing up in town.
Albert Haven, with his wife, Lulia, and four children, teenagers Daniel and Leland, plus Charles (2), and Mary (2 mos), farmed and kept livestock at a farm north of Schafer, and were considered successful and well-off, but in February of 1930, people began to notice they had not seen the family in awhile, and strangers had taken up residence at the Haven farm. Charles Bannon, a 21-year-old Watford City man who had worked as a farmhand for the Havens, along with his father James F. Bannon, told townspeople that they were renting the farm from the Havens and managing the affairs of the farming operation while the family headed out west in search of prosperity. The story seemed suspicious. The Havens had left without informing anyone of their plans, and without saying goodbye.
For much of 1930, suspicions mounted. The authorities met with Charles Bannon, who recounted his story. The Havens moved to Oregon, and intended to stay for some time.
On November 15, 1930, The Bismarck Tribune ran their first story about the Havens, McKenzie County Family of Six Is Believed Missing. An excerpt from the story:
McKenzie County authorities today launched an investigation into the disappearance of an entire family of six, missing since last February 10. Relatives fear the family has met with foul play.
It was surely a shock to readers, but a confirmation of rumor. The story continues:
A number of relatives live in Oregon and Washington, and none of them know anything of the whereabouts of the family, they have advised authorities.
Three days later, the authorities’ suspicions were surely elevated when they got a court order to examine the Havens family’s safe deposit box and found stocks, bonds, and insurance policies of substantial value left behind. Investigators also discovered a federal farm loan payment had been missed.
In a move intended to incarcerate Bannon for further questioning, police arrested him just after Thanksgiving, 1930, on a charge of embezzlement when he tried to sell four of the Havens’ hogs. On December 1st, The Bismarck Tribune ran a front page story under the headline Bannon is Arrested in Missing Family Case. It read, in-part:
Sheriff C.A. Jacobson said today that he intends this week to make a search of the Shafer vicinity in an effort to determine whether the family has met foul play.
Bannon says he took the family to Williston last February 10, so that they could go to the west coast. He exhibits a letter bearing the date of Feb. 17 and signed Daniel Haven, a son, saying they were at Colton, Oregon, and would stay there for some time. At Colton, the family has never been heard of.
Under questioning, Charles Bannon produced a letter purportedly written by Daniel Haven and claimed it had been mailed from Oregon. The envelope was conveniently missing. However, an astute staff reporter from the Minot Daily News noted the letter alleged to have been written by Daniel Haven contained a litany of spelling errors, with words like arrived, personal, property, and machinery, all misspelled. The reporter asked suspect Charles Bannon to spell the words, and he misspelled them all in remarkably similar fashion. When authorities further checked Bannon’s story, the postmaster at Colton, Oregon reported that no family named Haven had ever received mail there, and the return address listed on the letter was for a post office box that did not exist.
On further questioning, Bannon insisted that Mrs. Haven was in poor mental health, and that the family’s departure was partly due to her illness. Bannon claimed the family feared Mrs. Haven would be confined to an asylum and instead chose to flee. The investigation proceeded quickly, however, and in the ensuing several weeks, Bannon’s story unraveled with a series of revelations.
On December 3, 1930, the Bismarck Tribune reported “records at the railroad station at Williston do not show that any family the size of Haven’s left that city by train on Feb. 10.” Nevertheless, Bannon testified on his own behalf soon after, and repeated his story despite the contradicting facts. He also denied knowing the whereabouts of his father, James Bannon, who had not been seen in about six weeks, other than a vague contention that he might be somewhere in Portland, Oregon.
Although he had first denied knowing anything about the whereabouts of the Haven family, his story changed when a closed-door conference was called during his preliminary hearing on the embezzlement charge. The Bismarck Tribune reported on December 11th:
State’s Attorney J.S. Taylor, of McKenzie County, this afternoon said that Charles Bannon, who is being given a preliminary hearing here on charges of embezzlement in connection with the disappearance of the six members of the A.E Haven family, claims that Mrs. Haven killed her three months old daughter before the family disappeared.
It was alleged by Bannon, according to Taylor, that the child was buried in a refuse heap on the Haven farm near Schafer. Searching parties immediately left for the farm.
Mother, Clergyman Present
Bannon is alleged to have made the statement at a conference of his attorney, A.J. Knox, his mother, and a clergyman, according to Taylor. The State’s Attorney was not present at the conference.
It was reportedly at the strong urging of his mother that Bannon finally began to come clean.
The next day, the truth came out in a flood. The body of the Haven infant was found right where Bannon said it would be, and under withering questioning, Bannon revealed the locations of the remaining members of the Haven family. Their remains were found buried on the farm, some dismembered and covered in lime (Bannon had exhumed and reburied Mrs. Havens’ body after killing her, and her torso would not be discovered until May of 1931).
Bannon was immediately transported to the more secure county jail in Williston, partly out of fear that, when word got out, vigilantes might take justice into their own hands.
Charles’ father, James Bannon, was found in Oregon and incarcerated with his son in North Dakota soon after.
Charles’ story changed several times over the ensuing days, and he tried to claim that the Havens were murdered by a stranger who had been angered when the Havens had rebuffed his offer to buy their farm, but all evidence pointed to Charles as the culprit. When the authorities informed Bannon that tensions were running high in McKenzie County, he told them he’d had a nightmare in which he saw an angry mob outside his jail window, intent on hanging him, and begged not to be returned to the Schafer jail. Bannon even claimed he was haunted by the apparitions of the Haven family he had murdered, and felt relieved to get the truth off his chest.
In the third week of January, 1931, Bannon’s nightmare came true. He and his father were transferred back to the Schafer jail in preparation for trial.
In the frigid, early morning hours of Thursday, January 29th, a crowd of 80 men, some masked and armed, drove to the Schafer jail in a caravan of at least 16 cars and two trucks.
Charles and James Bannon no doubt heard the arrival of the mob that had come for them — the sound of car doors closing and angry men shouting — but from inside the jail, they could only imagine what was going on outside the barred windows high on the wall.
The Bismarck Tribune revealed the happenings of the night in a series of stories over the ensuing months. The mob used huge timbers to batter down the front door of the jail and tied Deputy Sheriff Peter S. Hallan to his chair. Sheriff F.A. Thompson, awakened by the commotion, was also bound when he arrived to investigate the ruckus. The lynch mob argued with Deputy Sheriff Hallan in an attempt to acquire the keys to Charles Bannon’s cell, but the lawman would not reveal their location. The Tribune reported:
Leaders argued with Deputy Hallan for some time in an endeavor to get keys for the cells. Hallan, however, refused to say where they were and the leaders left. They returned within a few moments, however, and using the timbers again smashed down a steel door to reach young Bannon.
Charles Bannon pleaded with the mob to spare the life of his father, James, and the mob promised that he would be given his day in court, and left him behind at the Schafer jail, with another prisoner, Fred Maike, who was incarcerated for stealing wheat.
Charles Bannon was spirited away to the scene of the crime in an attempt to elicit a fully-accurate confession once and for all, with the intention that, once he had bared his soul, he would be lynched, but the guardian who had been appointed to safeguard the Haven farm had his wife and six children living with him. He wanted no part of the vigilantes’ plans and ordered them off the property.
The lynch mob returned with Bannon to the steel truss bridge over Cherry Creek, about a half mile east of the Schafer jail, put a noose around his neck, and pushed him off the bridge. He dropped about twenty feet before the rope snapped tight and his neck was broken.
In the aftermath of the Bannon lynching, Mrs. Bannon, a schoolteacher from Fairview who had lost her job when her son confessed to the killings, swore vengeance on the men who had lynched her son. The authorities made multiple inquiries to determine the identities of the men in the lynch mob, to no avail. The Sheriff and his Deputy said they did not recognize any of the men in the mob. North Dakota Governor George F. Schafer called the lynching a “shameful act” and ordered a probe into the affair, but in the end, none of the lynch mob were ever identified and no charges were ever brought. There was even an unsuccessful attempt to restore the death penalty, which had been abolished in North Dakota in 1915.
James Bannon and Fred Maike were immediately returned to the jail in Williston for their own safety, but Bannon was eventually transferred to Minot, and later tried in Crosby, North Dakota, where he was convicted of complicity in the murder of the Havens and sentenced to life in prison. An appeal for a new trial was later denied.
Charles Bannon was the last person to ever be lynched by a vigilante mob in North Dakota. Today, there are relics of this infamous chapter in North Dakota history scattered among the museums in Alexander and Watford City, including the rope with which Bannon was hanged, and the door to the jail cell where he was confined. You can also read more about the Schafer affair in this story by our friend Sabrina Hornung of the High Plains Reader, in a book by local historian Dennis Johnson, End of the Rope, and in this piece written by Lauren Donovan of the Bismarck Tribune in 2005.
What do you know about the Schafer affair? Please leave a comment.
Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media