It was October 14th 1915 and The Pierce County Tribune (PCT) headline read AWFUL CRIME NEAR THIS CITY. The sub-headline was just as glaring. MAN AND BOY MURDERED IN COLD BLOOD – ROBBERY THE MOTIVE. This week marks the 100-year anniversary of the double murder, which is still unsolved. But is it?
Before we explore that possibility; here is the story in Rugby of the two murdered individuals one to believed to be a man the other a boy. As the PCT put in their story at the time the two were ‘Struck down by a fiend who had evidently planned the murder before hand, two young men-or rather a man and a boy-were killed about a mile west of town sometime between September 18th and Monday, October 11th, and the bodies were discovered shortly after noon Tuesday, after the straw stack in which they had been hidden had been set on fire by a hired man who is employed on the Dominik Dukscjerer farm, where the tragedy evidently occurred. The straw pile is close to the highway and just south of the Great Northern railway track. When the farm hands who were plowing came close to the stack they decided to set fire to it and after firing the big stack, Mr. Burkharsmeier went southeast several rods ( a rod is 5.5 yards) to light a pile of straw where the engine had stood during the threshing. On returning to his team he passed directly by the place where the bodies, which by this time had become exposed by reason of the light covering of straw which had been thrown over them, having burned off.’ The bodies were never identified
The article went on to read that after the discovery it was immediately relayed to the person in charge, who then notified the Rugby police. Officer Frank Richardson, Mr. Roush and J. N. Page were the first to arrive at the scene, followed shortly thereafter by State’s Attorney Senn and Coroner Bjornestad.
Examination of the bodies started immediately. The back portion of their heads had been “smashed to a pulp” by a blow from a heavy car coupling pin, and the instrument of death had been found in the ashes a few inches from where the bodies lay. The bodies had been found lying close to each other, facing up. Because of the trauma to the back of the skull, it was surmised that the killer had deliberately placed the bodies under the pile of hay to dispose of the bodies and aid in his or her escape.
The initial reasoning for the horrific murder was robbery, but upon closer inspection of the bodies, $4.72 was found in a small purse with a metal frame inside the larger man’s pocket. According to inflation, $4.72 in 1915 would equal $111.37 today. In 1915, the median income was $687 per year if you were a male, which equals roughly $13 per week. So while $4.72 might not seem like a lot, it would take two to three days of hard work to earn that much. So was robbery really the motive or something more sinister? Could this possibly be the work of a serial killer?
Because the bodies had been burned, and no paper, jewelry or other means of learning the names or initials were discovered, police were unable to identify the two men. The taller man had to have been about five feet nine inches, while the other was probably not over five feet four inches. Judging from the patches of skin not discolored by fire, their complexion was light and there was a noticeable resemblance in the two. Their hair was of a reddish or sandy color.
A few days later on October 15, 1915, the Times-Record in Valley City, ND published an article identifying the murder victims. The article states “It is believed here as a result of the investigation conducted by the Sheriff and State’s Attorney, that the two murder victims found at a burned straw stack west of the city were James Lackerbein and Gordon Totion.
No one likes an unsolved mystery even in 1915 so there were many other theories about what happened to these unfortunate souls and who this man and boy may be, but, none took hold. A Mrs. Wm. Brandvold believed that the victims were her son and husband but the officials discounted this theory, unless you believed that the men were going under assumed names, which was not likely and dismissed. The PCT reported, “The men have been traced and identified, through the places at which they have worked and checks cashed here. It is believed that they had been offered jobs in the country north of here and were decoyed west of the city on the theory that it was the best place to catch on trains. The straw stack where they were found is only a few rods from the railway track.”
To this day they lie in unmarked graves in the Persilla Watts cemetery in Rugby unvisited, with their murders going un-avenged. But a new theory has surfaced and we will explore the possibilities of a possible serial killer that found his prey in Ward County and the Jamestown area. Stay tuned for the next edition of The Pierce County Tribune.
This article and the subsequent article could not of been realized without the help of local Historian Dale Niewoehner, Pierce County recorder and amateur sleuth Lori Miron, Jordan Wright and Rob St. Michel who suggested we write about the story; thank you to all.
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