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A look back at lynching in Forks

Dateline: Grand Forks, Dakota Territory, Oct. 24, 1882. A man was in the city jail, accused of - and allegedly having confessed to - the rape of two women. The victims lived on homesteads near Norton, a community that later changed its name to Th...

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Dateline: Grand Forks, Dakota Territory, Oct. 24, 1882.

A man was in the city jail, accused of - and allegedly having confessed to - the rape of two women.

The victims lived on homesteads near Norton, a community that later changed its name to Thompson.

The accused man's name was Charles Thurber. He earlier had been released from the Wisconsin State Prison, where he'd served two terms for rape. He was black, in the days when blacks were seldom seen in the area.

Charles should have had a trial. But he never got the chance. Territorial law did not include the death penalty. So Grand Forks area residents made their own law.


They lynched him.

Neighbors recently retold the story of another lynching in North Dakota, that of accused murderer Charles Bannon in 1931 near Watford City.

That brought the story of Charles Thurber to John Hoff 's mind. John, of Appleton, Minn., sent newspaper clippings telling of the grim event, which occurred 123 years ago today.

It's a story that is not one of Dakota Territory's finer moments.

A group of men, outraged over the attack on the women, made a "weak attempt" to take Charles from the jail, the Grand Forks Daily Herald said, but were unsuccessful.

Later a larger mob, estimated at 2,000 men, went to the jail, fought with the officers "in which many bruises were inflicted on both sides," the Herald said, and pulled Charles out.

They hauled him to a Manitoba Railroad bridge and put a rope around his neck. The husband of one of the rape victims adjusted the noose.

At 4 p.m., he was hanged.


Twenty-four hours later, undertaker O.M. Thomas drove Charles' body, in a plain pine casket, on a wagon to the cemetery. Not even a curious spectator followed.

The next day, The Herald said, "Last night was the most quiet evening Grand Forks has had for a long time. Everybody appeared to be tired out after the hanging and went home early to rest."

Such an abhorrent act would not be tolerated today, no matter how heinous the crime, such as rape, was. But in 1882 ... well, consider the reports from various newspapers at the time.

The Herald: "It was decided that no inquest be held. No one demanded it and no one wanted it. Directly or indirectly, almost the entire town was implicated.

"There being not the slightest pretension to secrecy, no investigation as to the means of this death was necessary. It is understood that he fell off the bridge and was hurt."

The Minneapolis Journal: "The people of Grand Forks acted with great forbearance, as well as resolution and firmness, in that matter."

The Moorhead Enterprise: "The species of criminality indulged in by this two-legged brute is becoming each day more common and the only way to strike terror in the hearts of those similarly inclined is to fix the fact in their minds that, after the capture, they will be left to adorn the nearest tree."

The Herald again: "The Herald deprecates mob violence. It is a dangerous precedent for any community to set as every infraction of law has a tendency to weaken its force after time.


"But it seems in the economy of human law, as in the law of nature, that the cyclone and tornado which scatter death and destruction in their path purify the atmosphere; so the whirlwind of human passion and vengeance which notify the constituted authorities that they must see to the rigid and impartial enforcement of the laws may have its beneficial uses."

The Herald: "President (James J.) Hill of the Manitoba road ... when told that the bridge had been used to such good purpose, said he was glad of it and only wished that he had attended the entertainment."

The Moorhead News: "(The) lynching was a fine work of justice."

The Herald printed and sold about a thousand extra copies of the issue reporting the lynching. A man named J.H. Snyder, the Herald reported, "made a good thing" out of the noose. He appropriated it, cut it into small sections, and sold them for 10 cents each. "They went off like hot cakes," the newspaper said, "and he realized several dollars."

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, N.D. 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail

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