Belhammer Saves Child
written by Merry Helm
May 31, 2019 — Gordon Keeney was aboard the steamboat Dakota when he witnessed a dramatic rescue attempt by a burly German immigrant. Seventy-six years later, Keeney’s written account was published in the Fargo Forum.
In 1874, the Dakota was steaming north down the Red River with a maximum load of 175 Canadian, Scotch, British and Irish passengers.
Because of the crowded conditions below, Keeney wrapped himself in his buffalo robe and spent his time in the open air of the hurricane deck.
Sprawled on that deck, forward of the stern, were between 10 and 15 prisoners in shackles and handcuffs who were being transported to Pembina for trial on offenses ranging from larceny to murder.
A U.S. Marshal had given strict orders to shoot any prisoners who tried to escape.
Keeney wrote, “Yet a cheerful, story-telling, card-playing bunch of irresponsible humanity they were, with one exception, Charles Belhammer.
This man, who lay on his blanket next to the low railing … some 20 feet above the … water, was partly, if not entirely, a victim of circumstances.
Stranded in mid-winter at Fort Seward when the (NP) railroad ceased to operate west of Fargo, he had been unable to work to keep his wife and young child from want.”
Keeney explained that Belhammer couldn’t find transportation back to Fargo, and when he ran out of supplies, he appealed for food at the post. He was denied. Finally, he broke into the commissary and stole some food and clothing. When he was found out, he was jailed in Fargo.
On this date, two days into the journey, the call for breakfast had just sounded as the boat was negotiating a rough patch through the Goose River rapids.
Children would grab hold of overhanging tree branches and let themselves be dragged across the deck toward the prisoners.
Suddenly, a Mrs. White cried that her nine-year-old child had fallen overboard.
Keeney heard Belhammer tell his guard, “…don’t shoot, Ollie,” and he threw himself over the railing into the river. A bullet splintered the rail as he dropped out of sight.
The only thing keeping the little girl afloat was air trapped beneath her skirts. Keeney wrote, “Belhammer was striking out sideways with his hands, which were held close together by the handcuffs.
He seemed to hold his own against the current, for the child drifted towards him, and just as (she) sank out of sight, Belhammer let himself under.
When he came up,” Keeney continued, “he had the child in his hands, and with a backward fling he threw (her) across his right shoulder, holding on by taking a firm grip of (her) dress band with his teeth.”
Belhammer started toward the boat, which was sputtering to reverse direction.
The girl panicked, and because of his shackles, Belhammer lost his balance and both went under.
When Belhammer surfaced again, he had only a swatch of the girl’s dress clenched in his teeth. The girl was gone. He tried to wrench free of his cuffs but only drew blood.
Then he spotted the girl’s arm shoot out of the muddy water, and the passengers spotted his leg irons as he dove down.
The crowd had given them up for dead when Belhammer suddenly resurfaced with the little girl.
Again clutching her dress with his teeth, he struck out downstream toward a rescue boat that had been dispatched.
Back on board, the ship’s blacksmith was called to remove Belhammer’s handcuffs, and a fellow passenger, Federal Judge Barnes, summarily declared the prisoner innocent of all charges.
Belhammer’s name was reported in many different fashions, with his last name spelled Belhammer, Belheimer, Belhymer and Billhymer.
Newspaper accounts also reported his first name as Charles, Victor or George.
There also exists an alternate cause for Belhammer’s arrest, which states that Belhammer surprised a man who was rifling through his duffle bag.
He clubbed the man and was arrested for murder.
This version isn’t supported by newspaper accounts.
written by Merry Helm
June 3, 2019 — A bizarre incident was reported to have happened on this day by the Fargo Forum in 1914. The incident concerneAd Mr. A. G. Freeberg of Moorhead, who was spending the evening attending a social gathering at a friend’s home. When the hour came to depart, Mr. Freeberg left with a large group of guests. The group hurried to catch a streetcar that was pulling away, and Mr. Freeberg was left behind. The elderly man ran to catch the car, but to no avail; the Forum reported the next morning that the man’s body had been found in the street by his searching wife. Coroners ruled his death to be a “…direct result of excitement caused in running to catch a street car.”
written by Merry Helm
June 4, 2019 — A prisoner of the Jamestown State Hospital made a surprising statement on this day in 1936. Charles Marratto, the convicted murderer of Fargo grocer Peter Stewart, confessed to feigning insanity in hopes of a transfer from the penitentiary at Bismarck to the institution in Jamestown. The convict believed that an escape from the hospital would be easier than from the prison, but was upset to discover that the hospital personnel watched him even more closely than the prison guards. Marratto made his confession to Dr. J. Carr, the superintendent at Jamestown, in hopes of a return transfer to Bismarck. The twenty-nine-year-old inmate had become a model prisoner in the few weeks that he had spent in the hospital, but added in his statement that he missed the 25¢ that he was paid for his work each day in the penitentiary.
John James Audubon, American Artist
written by Cathy A. Langemo
June 5, 2019 — On June 5, 1843, John James Audubon first entered what is now North Dakota.
Born April 26, 1785, Audubon was an American artist and ornithologist with a particular interest in birds, mammals, plants and other nature subjects. He was the dominant U.S. wildlife artist for over 50 years.
The son of a French sea captain and a Creole mother, he was born in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (now Haiti). He grew up and studied art in Nantes, France, and, at age 18, he was sent to America to avoid conscription in Napoleon’s army and to manage family farm property in Pennsylvania.
He lived on the family-owned estate near Philadelphia, where he hunted, studied and sketched birds. While there, he conducted the first known bird-banding experiments in North America, learning that the birds return to the same nesting sites each year. His real passion was painting wildlife in watercolor, especially birds.
Audubon married Lucy Bakewell and had two sons, who eventually became his assistants, and two daughters, who died in infancy. He operated a variety of businesses to support his family, but they all failed and, in 1819, he was sent to debtors’ prison briefly. He then returned to his art.
The family settled in Cincinnati in 1820, where Audubon worked as a taxidermist. Unhappy with that occupation, he decided to travel the Mississippi in search of bird specimens. Accompanied by an assistant, a gun and art supplies, Audubon appeared to be a seasoned frontiersman, rather than a businessman. He embraced the life of an explorer and naturalist.
From 1822-1824, Audubon created an impressive collection of bird drawings. He then traveled to Philadelphia to find support for his bird project. Unable to find a publisher in the U.S., he sailed to England in 1827 with his partially completed collection. The American Woodsman was an overnight success there.
The next year, he published his first volume of Birds of America, a collection of 435 colored plates. The first edition was known as the “elephant folio” because it was so big. It remains the standard against which 20th and 21st century bird artists measure their work. The fourth volume was completed in 1838.
Audubon traveled out West to the upper Missouri River and the Dakotas in 1843 for his final work, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which he worked on with his friend, John Bachman. While in the Dakotas, Audubon encountered many mammal species that were new to him—mink, porcupine, badger, 13-lined ground squirrel, elk, bighorn sheep and many more.
Audubon and Bachman completed the first volume in 1845. Two more were completed before Audubon became ill and could no longer work.
Though there is an organization named after him, Audubon was not involved in it. The connection was George Bird Grinnell, a noted anthropologist and one of the founders of the Audubon Society in 1886. He was tutored by Audubon’s widow, Lucy. The name was based on Audubon’s reputation and the organization’s early work to protect birds and their habitats.
Audubon died on January 27, 1851, and is buried in New York City.
Gust Thompson, POW
written by Merry Helm
June 6, 2019 — America entered the European theater of WWII at Normandy, France, on D-Day, 62 years ago today. Among those who parachuted in behind enemy lines that morning was 18-year-old Gust Thompson, who looked like a young Tony Curtis. Gust grew up in Selz, the son of a Greek immigrant named Harry, and a German-Russian named Martha. The family had so much trouble with Harry’s Greek surname, Tsoutias, they ended up changing it to Thompson.
Gust was in F Co, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. In the hours and days following his drop into Normandy, he remembered feeling overwhelmingly alone. The paratroopers were dropped in a scattered pattern, many of them far from their intended target, and it was some time before Gust managed to hook up with his company. Armed only with an M-1 rifle when he jumped, he later said he would have vastly preferred a shotgun.
During the first few weeks in Normandy, the Americans fought German troops from hedgerow to hedgerow. When the Germans pushed his unit from their positions, chaos and urgency forced them leave some of their wounded behind. They came back as soon as possible, but by then, each of their comrades had been shot in the back of the head. After that, Gust said, they gave quarter to nobody.
During the post D-Day buildup, Gust became attached to another Division, moving inland to fill gaps and enlarge the beachhead. Although he later couldn’t remember what the unit was, he did remember he was captured near the town of Mortain—just as his former unit, the 82nd Airborne, was ironically pulled off the line and sent back to England.
Gust was on seven-man patrol when they ran into the enemy before dawn.
A firefight ensued, and they were running out of ammunition. As they tried to get back to American lines, they ran right into another German unit. Gust said the enemy soldiers literally came right up out of the ground. Gust and the others dropped their weapons, but three of the seven patrol members were executed on the spot. Luckily for Gust, a German officer intervened, and the remaining four were taken prisoner.
Gust was sent to Stalag 7B, near Memingen, where the POWs’ main goal was to find enough food to stay alive.
Fortunately, Gust knew how to speak German, because of his mother, and his command of the language helped him survive the next fourteen months. He was put to work in a cheese factory, but unfortunately, the job didn’t gain him much food. In fact, his weight had dropped from 170 to 82 pounds when they awoke, one morning, to find the Nazis had fled. As the prisoners walked out the gates, Gust found an older soldier who surrendered his pistol to him. Gust said there they walked into the next town and “we just took anything we wanted.”
After the war, Thompson took up farming near Othello, WA. He passed away on June 3rd, 2004—almost exactly 60 years after parachuting into France.
written by Jayme Job
June 7, 2019 — Bismarck reported to area papers that the city was entertaining a distinguished guest on this day in 1911. The guest was Second Lieutenant Calvin Pearl Titus, who had earned fame as the first soldier to scale the walls of Peking, China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
The Boxer Rebellion was a Chinese reaction to foreign intervention in China during the second half of the nineteenth-century. Several countries, including Germany, France, Great Britain, Japan, Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the United States, had economical and social interests in China at this time. A social group arose in China that opposed foreign presence in the country and stirred anti-foreign and anti-Christian resentment among China’s rural and industrial populations.
The group called themselves the “Righteous Harmonious Fists”, but its members were referred to as ‘boxers’ by foreigners. The boxers soon began an intense campaign of violence against foreigners and Chinese Christians within the country, but China’s Imperial Court failed to take a stand against the faction.
China’s leaders feared that a stand against the popular group would initiate an overthrow of the government. Meanwhile, the foreign powers were compelled to take action to protect their citizens within China. The majority of persecuted Christians and foreign missionaries had congregated in the capital city of Peking. Telegraphs began arriving from the city asking their home-countries for help. The allies, including the United States, deployed troops to the city to save the trapped citizens. Among those deployed was 21-year old Calvin Pearl Titus of the America Army’s Fourteenth Infantry.
After a long siege, the foreign powers were able to take the city of Peking on August 14, 1900. Lieutenant Titus was the first soldier to make it over the walls of the city, amid a storm of Chinese fire.
He was later presented a medal of honor in 1902 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Titus was also appointed to West Point Military Academy for his actions, where he remained until his graduation in 1905.
Lieutenant Titus was in Bismarck on this day in 1911 to act as assistant instructor for the North Dakota National Guard training sessions at Fort Lincoln.
The capital city was proud to entertain such a distinguished soldier. The lieutenant remained in the city for nearly a week before returning to his station at Fort William Henry Harrison north of Helena, Montana.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.