Dedicated to the memory of Dennis Edward Johnson, who sadly passed away on
Thanksgiving, November 25, 2021.
Following this the abridged story, which was published in the December 2021 North Dakota Hall of Fame Volume 25 Issue 6 Cowboy Chronicle, is a longer, more detailed and personal account of the End of the Rope story. What Charles Bannon did had a huge impact on those not even born at the time, something Dennis Johnson and I discussed on a number of occasions.
In many ways 1930 McKenzie County was still the frontier. One of the last places settled on the Plains and surrounded on three sides by water, it was remote. The telephone had arrived but was not commonplace. One could go for weeks, even months without knowing what was happening even at the neighboring farm.
Two families in early McKenzie County would become horrifically intertwined. The Havens arrived in 1918 and established their farm within a few miles of Schafer, then the county seat, along Cherry Creek. They were well regarded and for the times considered “prosperous”. James Bannon was granted a land patent in 1920. By this time the good land was mostly gone and he and his family which included young Charles, barely eked out a living.
Charles Bannon found a job with the Haven family and was the last person to see any of them alive. It became clear the last time a family member had been seen, was February 9, 1930. Almost a year later their mail, collecting at the post office, was becoming a nuisance. Uncharacteristically, seed loan payments were not being met and Minnesota relatives had not heard from the family in months. When Sheriff C. A. Jacobson began investigating he found Bannon living and working at the Haven farm. Others in the community had engaged with Bannon at the Haven place, with no sighting of a family member.
Suspicion focused on Bannon. Initially he denied any wrong doing, but then made three separate confessions and revealed the location of the bodies. Bannon had murdered the entire family; Albert, his wife Lulia, and their children, Daniel, Leland, Charles and Mary, just two months old. He buried their bodies, some dismembered, in their own farmyard. He took their lives and then continued with his own, coldly and ghoulishly living and working on their farm.
Shocked and outraged the community’s palpable horror increased with each revelation. Bannon, housed in the Williams County jail for his safety, was brought back to McKenzie County for a court appearance. Even though there was a preponderance of evidence and a confession, there was worry he might not be convicted with the possibility crucial evidence would not be allowed at trial. These crimes were monstrous, but the death penalty was not an option in North Dakota, being effectively abolished in 1915. With no mortuary facilities the Haven’s recovered bodies were kept at the town livery stable. The smell that wafted out enraged the community. The community also believed Bannon murdered three children of another family he had worked for and burnt their house.
On a dark January night, before Bannon could be returned to Williston, men from all over the county converged in Schafer just past midnight. A large representation of the community arrived with 75-100 men in numerous vehicles. A masked mob broke down the steel jail door. After a brief stop at the Haven farm, Brannon’s life was ended on Cherry Creek Bridge. His hands were bound and with a noose around his neck and the end tied to the bridge; he was pulled onto the railing. Refusing the order to jump Bannon was pushed off.
Killing a man without due process is also murder. Governor George Shafer, himself from McKenzie County, called the lynching “shameful.” The State’s Attorney General sent a special investigator to probe the incident. The lynching was well organized and disciplined, the investigation was unproductive. To this day the identities of the men involved are not publicly known. Families, friends, and descendants, have kept the secret for almost a century. Ironically, if the men responsible had been identified they would have been charged with the same offense as Bannon, premeditated murder.
From coast to coast newspapers ran stories with provocative headlines such as “Lynching: Truth Hard to Come By”, “No Judge or Jury” and “Justice and the Missing Family.” Generations heard the story told in whispers from parents and grandparents. Dennis Johnson, who served McKenzie County for 31 years as States Attorney, is one of those who grew up hearing the story. His love of local history and fascination with the Bannon case led to forty years of meticulous research and the compelling book, End of the Rope: The True Story of North Dakota’s Last Lynching.
Johnson continued to learn new details about the story which continues to touch lives; lives of McKenzie County residents, descendants of the Havens, and those who stumble across the story, including Daniel Bielinski. He received his MFA in acting from the Columbia University Graduate School of Acting, and has worked in film, television, New York and regional theater. In 2015, he was offered the opportunity to lead the Theater Department at the University of Mary. Making his home in North Dakota he came to know the beauty and history of the state finding stories he felt needed to be told. These stories celebrated the culture, land and values of the people of North Dakota; stories of sacrifice, faith and perseverance.
In 2018 Bielinski founded Canticle Productions, a film, television, and theater production company. Bielinski has numerous projects in post-production and more in development, and a stage production that toured the state, Voices of Dakota Prairie. The name Canticle Productions was his wife’s idea; canticle means song of praise. Bielinski’s stories are multi-dimensional, gritty, thoughtful and entertaining. At a screening in Watford City of his first short film, The Badlands Girl, Bielinski met a woman who grew up hearing Bannon’s story. He immediately knew this story should be told on film. Bielinski met with Johnson, who helped write the screenplay and is a consultant for the film.
Told through the lens of the sheriff and his emotional journey, filming was in Bismarck and Watford City during the summer of 2021. Bielinski hopes all his films, including End of the Rope, will not only entertain, but also inspire people to learn more about the history and the stories that make up the character of North Dakota and its people.
The End of the Rope; Unabridged
She wasn’t even born when it happened, but like for so many in this community tucked away in western North Dakota, the story had a profound effect on her. She remembers as a young child hearing her parents quietly but earnestly talking in the kitchen about it. Even though the incident occurred almost a decade before this conversation, the little girl felt like it had just happened. A family of six, including four children, had been murdered and buried in their own farmyard by a young man who lived and worked in their community. She had bristled at the mention of murdered children. When they saw her peeking in and listening, they shooed her away, but she had heard enough; enough to be frightened of being home alone for virtually all her life. The evil deeds of a young man in their midst took up a permanent place in her psyche.
Fear was felt community wide. Children were afraid and parents were afraid for their children. Their world had been shattered and they now knew all too well that men such as this existed, even in 1930 western North Dakota. A century later in our modern and jaded society we would be still shocked by a crime such as this – imagine how this would feel to this close knit and isolated rural community in those long ago days!
McKenzie County North Dakota in 1930 was remote and in many ways was still the frontier. The County was established in 1883, but not officially organized by the North Dakota State assembly until 1905. While it was the largest county by landmass, its population was sparse with less than 10,000 people over its 2861 square miles. McKenzie County was one of the last places to be settled on the Plains; getting in and out of the county was a challenge. It was known as the “Island Empire” because it was surrounded on three sides by water with the Missouri, Little Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.
The adjacent “badlands” was also an obstacle. The only way in from most directions was by railroad or ferry. Roads in the county were few, and bridges for foot and vehicle traffic to cross were just beginning to be built. The telephone had arrived but was not commonplace. While there was organized government and law enforcement, calling for help was impossible, and even if you could the distances could not be navigated quickly. The harsh winters made travel even more difficult, if not impossible. Neighbors would always be willingly to help but due to the remoteness and isolation much time could go by with no way of knowing what was happening at even the next farm over.
In the early 1900’s there was an influx of homesteaders into western North Dakota. The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 made it easier for those trying to make a living on land that was difficult to irrigate by promising an additional 160 acres. The Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916 promised more land for ranching. Life was hard in this area, but the resources and opportunities were abundant. However, by the late 1920’s and early thirties life was becoming nearly impossible for some. Economic repercussions of the stock market crash, drought and the “dirty thirties” were descending on North Dakota. Many lost everything and would have to abandon their homes and belongings, disappearing often without notice. In addition, neighbors and small towns were far apart. One could go for weeks, even months without seeing another person or family. This life of solitude was normal. However, there were trips into town for business and occasions when neighbors would gather. Eventually it would be noticed if someone was no longer around.
Around 1920 two families arrived in McKenzie County who would become intertwined a horrific way. The Haven family arrived in Schafer which was then the McKenzie County seat in October 1918. They established their farm within a few miles of town. In July 1920, James Bannon was granted a land patent in McKenzie County. By this time however, the good land was mostly gone and he and his family which included young Charles, barely eked out a living.
Even without the drought or economic issues of the time, it would have been difficult to produce much on this marginal land. In 1930 the land the Bannon’s lived on had been sold for non-payment of taxes. At this time Mrs. Bannon was living away from the home and worked as a rural schoolteacher. Charles was poorly educated and interacted little with the community, but in stories related later he was shown to be a thief who was angry, bitter and had a disdain for authority. The Haven family was well regarded, held no debt and owned land near Cherry Creek which provided water for irrigation and livestock. They were considered for the times to be “prosperous.”
Young Charles Bannon found a job with the Haven family. He was also the last person to see any of the family alive. Through multiple interviews it became clear the last time anyone interacted with or saw a member of the Haven family was on February 9, 1930. Almost a year later their mail which had been collecting at the post office was becoming a nuisance. Payments on seed loans were not being met which was an anomaly. Relatives from Minnesota were becoming concerned because they had not heard from any of the family in many months. This was uncharacteristic. McKenzie County Sheriff, C. A. Jacobson began investigating. He found Charles Bannon living and working at the Haven farm. Others in the community had contacts with Charles and his father at the Haven place, with no sighting of a Haven family member as early as February 10. At the time this was not suspicious, Charles Bannon was employed by the Havens.
Eventually suspicion focused on Bannon and he was interrogated by the authorities. This resulted in initially denials and then three separate confessions, each with a different a scenario to the murders. It also resulted in the location of the Havens bodies finally revealed. A plot to confuse and cover up the murders was concocted by Charles and his father, who was later convicted of being an accessory to murder. In the end it was determined that Charles Bannon had murdered the entire family; Albert and his wife Lulia, and their four children, Daniel, Leland, Charles and Mary, just two months old. Bannon buried their bodies, some dismembered, in their own farmyard. He took their lives and then continued with his own, coldly and ghoulishly living and working on their farm.
The community was shocked and outraged. Their horror was palpable, and as each revelation came out it only increased. At first Charles Bannon was housed in the Williams County jail in Williston. When it came time for a court appearance he was taken back to McKenzie County where the crimes were committed. It was thought that he would be sent back to Williston once his court date was over. Even though he had confessed to the crime, led authorities to the bodies, and there was a preponderance of circumstantial evidence, the community was worried he might not be convicted, or face any kind of justice. Many aspects of the investigation, of attaining evidence, and the confessions were problematic. While understandable due to the urgency of the investigation and heinousness of the case, there was a very real possibility crucial evidence would not be allowed in at trial. Most certainly there would have been a change of venue.
These crimes were particularly monstrous, but the community knew the death penalty was not an option. North Dakota abolished the death penalty in 1915 except for treason and murder committed by an inmate already serving a life sentence. In addition, while it could not be “proven,” it was widely believed that Bannon had murdered the three children of another local family and burned their house. He had also worked as their hired man. Both of these families were well thought of, hardworking and valued members of the community. Children had been heartlessly killed. The Haven’s recovered bodies were kept at the livery stable in town. There were no mortuary facilities, and the smell of the bodies that wafted out further enraged the community. So, on a dark winter night, before Bannon could be taken back to Williston, men from all over the county converged on the small jail in Schafer. It was just past midnight on January 29, 1931. This was not a small number of vigilantes.
This was a large representation of the community. Witnesses said that anywhere from 75-100 men in numerous vehicles come together in town. A masked mob broke down the steel jail door and took Bannon. A deputy tried to stop the mob, but to no avail. He could not call for help from nearby Watford City because the phone lines had been cut. With a stop first at the Haven farm, Charles Brannon’s life was ended when he was hung over the side of the Cherry Creek Bridge. The stop at the Haven farm was brief. The local resident who had been assigned to take care of the farm after Bannon was arrested convinced them to take their business elsewhere. Local lore tells of Bannnon’s hands bound and then with a noose around his neck and the other end tied to the bridge, he was pulled up on to the railing. Bannon refused the order to jump; he was not going to give the crowd this out, and was then pushed off. The post mortem said he died of a “fractured neck”.
Of course, killing a man without due process and trial is also murder. The Governor, George Shafer, who was from McKenzie County and whose pioneering family Schafer was named for, called the lynching “shameful.” The State’s Attorney General sent a special investigator to probe the incident and determine who committed the crime. By 1931 the sensibilities of many were offended by this brand of vigilante justice and they decried “mob rule.” While it was clear the lynching was well organized and disciplined, the investigation came to a dead end. To this day the identities of the men involved are not publicly known.
The men themselves, their families, friends and descendants have kept the secret for almost a century. Clearly this was the community banding together to protect their own when it seemed no one else could. The identities of the men involved were of course known by some. This many men and vehicles heading toward and descending on the small town of Schafer could not have gone unnoticed. Neither could the breaking down of the jail door and the subsequent commotion as Bannon was taken away. This was a huge secret to be kept by this many people. The unspoken vow of silence was never broken, even by those who did not participate in the events. Ironically, if the men responsible had been identified they would have been charged with the same offense as Bannon, premeditated murder, and would have faced the same penalty. Whether or not one felt what happened to Charles Bannon was justified, no one was going to come out and admit to the crime or tell if they knew; there is no statute of limitations on murder.
No matter where you stood, this was a dark time in McKenzie County history. McKenzie County became known across the country through newspaper stories from coast to coast with provocative headlines such as “Lynching: Truth Hard to Come By”, “No Judge or Jury” and “Justice and the Missing Family.” This story remained part of the fabric of McKenzie County.
The generations that followed heard the story from parents and grandparents. Often these stories were told with such detail that they only could have come from one who participated or had firsthand knowledge of someone who did. Dennis Edward Johnson is one of those who grew up hearing the story of Charles Bannon and his lynching. The story was told in “hushed tones” for decades. Both sets of Johnson’s grandparents homesteaded in McKenzie County. He went to school in Watford City and then Grand Forks. He became the States Attorney for McKenzie County and served in that capacity for 31 years. Johnson’s love of local history and fascination with the Bannon story led to forty years of meticulous research and the writing of the absorbing and compelling book, End of the Rope: The True Story of North Dakotas Last Lynching, now in its third printing. (Third but not last; he is still learning of new details and hearing stories from those days which will be included in future printings.)
The story continues to touch lives; lives of McKenzie County residents, lives of the many relatives and descendants of the Haven family, and those who stumble across the book or an article about the incident. (The book can be bought or ordered from The Pioneer Museum in Watford City.)
One of these is Daniel Bielinski, founder of Canticle Productions a theater, film and TV production company. Bielinski grew up in Wisconsin. He went to school in New York and received his MFA in acting from the Columbia University Graduate School of Acting. He has worked in film, television, New York Theater and regional theater. He had a role in the acclaimed HBO series, The Leftovers. After a number of years living and working in New York, in 2015, Daniel was given the opportunity to lead the Theater Department at the University of Mary. He jumped at the chance. He and his family were ready to leave New York. As he made his home in North Dakota and came to know the beauty and history of the state, he found many stories that needed to be told. He found stories that were personal to him and where he was in his life. He found stories that celebrate the culture, land and values of the people of North Dakota; stories of sacrifice, faith and perseverance. The more he dug into the history the more opportunities for great stories were found.
In 2018 he founded Canticle Productions and wrote, starred in and produced the short film Badlands Girl. He found there was little infrastructure for filmmaking and he quickly filled the void. Just six short years after arriving in North Dakota Bielinski has numerous projects in post-production and more in development for theater, television and film. He has a stage production that is currently touring the state to great acclaim, Voices of Dakota Prairie. The name Canticle Productions was his wife’s idea. She is a sacred musician and the canticle is a song of praise. Bieliski faith is part of who he is and permeates his work. That does not mean his work is one dimensional or “preachy.” It does mean it revolves around themes that are important to him. His faith and life as a husband and father shape everything he does. Bielinski’s stories are gritty, thoughtful and entertaining. They are real. Bielinski notes, “Canticle Productions is built around telling North Dakota stories. And there are so many great ones in North Dakota’s relatively short recorded history.”
At the screening of his short film The Badlands Girl in Watford City, Bielinski met a woman who had also grown up hearing the story. She sent him an article about it and he immediately felt this was a story that needed to be told on film. He went to Watford City and met with Dennis Johnson who helped write the screenplay and is a consultant for the film. The story has many nuances and facets. One of the first things that needed to be done was to decide what lens the story would be told through. It is the viewpoint of the sheriff and his emotional journey that will bring this story to life. End of the Rope is now in post-production.
Filming was done in Bismarck and the Watford City area this past summer. Outside of Watford City the exterior town of 1930 Schafer was recreated. It has been dismantled and will be stored until it is reassembled in Watford City for the premiere of the film. Many other locations were used in McKenzie County, including the Cartwright – Fairview Lift Bridge. Sets were built in a local warehouse for some of the interior scenes. The movie is set to be released in the fall of 2022. Bielinski hopes all his films, including End of the Rope, will not only entertain, but also inspire people to learn more about the history and the stories that make up the character of North Dakota and its people.
It has been over eight decades since the little girl overheard that whispered story. She is now in her mid-80’s and has had lived a full and good life. After all this time, the memory of the Haven Family and Charles Bannon story is still clear and vivid to her. Some things remain in our hearts and minds for a lifetime. The impact of these crimes on an entire community remains and will not be forgotten, nor should it be.