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The time a ND governor was convicted of a felony, refused to leave office and declared martial law

The front page of The Forum as it appeared on July 18, 1934.1 / 2
A June 15, 1975 excerpt from Agnes Geelan's biography of William Langer, "The Dakota Maverick," printed in The Forum2 / 2

Imagine for a moment that you’re Earle Sarles, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard, on July 17, 1934.

The governor, William “Wild Bill” Langer, had declared martial law and was using the National Guard to, in effect, rule North Dakota by force. Langer barricaded himself in his office at the Capitol Building after the state’s supreme court upheld a decision that would remove him from office. He simply refused to leave office.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Ole Olson declared himself governor as a result of the ruling and was ordering the National Guard to rescind Langer’s declaration. It was arguably one of the most dramatic moments in the state’s history, and a fateful one for Sarles.

The headlines that played out on that day’s Forum front page are nothing short of extraordinary: “Ousted Governor Defies Court in Fight For Office,” “N.D. Guard Goes With Olson; Mob Rumors Shake Bismarck,” “U.S. Army May Be Requested To Take Hand Ere Day Ends,” “An Editorial: No Civil War for North Dakota.”

William Langer, from a 1953 biography in The Forum.

Some background, from a biography published in the Forum on June 15, 1975: Langer was – and remains – one of the most controversial figures in the state’s history. Born near Casselton, ND., in 1886, Langer attended the University of North Dakota and studied law at Columbia University before returning to the state to practice law and enter politics. He was bold, charismatic and a skilled orator who fashioned himself as a man of the people.

In 1932, as the state’s agricultural economy buckled under the weight of the Great Depression, Langer was nominated by the Nonpartisan League (NPL) for the office of governor. Vowing to stick it to the Minneapolis grain outfits, the railroads and big banks, Langer was elected and assumed office in 1933.

Shortly thereafter, it was discovered that Langer engineered a scheme to funnel money from state and federal employee paychecks into a bank account controlled by the NPL, and in early 1934, 15 months after taking office, Langer was indicted on charges of conspiracy to violate an act of Congress, a felony. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and fined $10,000 before Judge Andrew A. Miller, called a longtime political enemy in a May 18, 1967 profile of Langer written for The Forum by historian Elwyn B. Robinson.

That didn’t do much for Langer’s popularity among voters, though. Ten days after his conviction, primary voters went to the polls and handed him a decisive victory. As the campaign season continued, Langer appealed his conviction and assumed he could keep office. It came to a head in July, 1934, when the state Supreme Court ruled that Langer needed to go and Olson assumed the role.

Still, Langer refused to leave office. Crowds took to the street chanting "We want Langer," Robinson wrote. After the declaration of martial law, much rested on who Sarles recognized as governor and from whom he would take orders. Ultimately, Sarles went with Olson, and with the National Guard out of his corner, Langer finally gave up the governorship.

That incident was not the last of Wild Bill Langer, though. His conviction was later reversed and in December of 1935, a federal jury acquitted him and his associates of all charges. In 1936, he was re-elected governor and, four years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Note: A previous version of this article noted that Langer had barricaded himself in the governor's mansion. Johnathan Campbell, site manager at the Former Governor's Mansion Historical Site in Bismarck, told us that Langer had, in fact, barricaded himself in his office in the Capitol Building. He did refuse to leave the governor's mansion, Campbell wrote, and lived there with his family throughout what would have been the rest of his term.

Kris Kerzman

Kris Kerzman is a digital content producer for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He's also a dad, a board game enthusiast, and a sucker for an Oxford comma. He can be reached at (701) 241-5466 or kkerzman@forumcomm.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kriskerzman.

(701) 241-5466
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