written by Merry Helm
June 10, 2019 — About this time in 1949, North Dakotans were learning that a man doing time for forgery in a Michigan prison had confessed to killing two people in North Dakota four years earlier. One of his victims was shot in a beauty salon in Jamestown, and the other was a previously unreported murder of a man named James Woods.
In his confession, 29-year-old Denver native John Crockard said that he and his partner, Jimmie Woods, used to run drugs into North Dakota from Canada. On September 19, 1945, they were traveling through Jamestown when Crockard learned that Woods had gotten friendly with a hairdresser named Margaret Roeszler.
Crockard said, “Jimmie had told her everything about the bank robbery and the narcotics and how hot we were in this business. Her idea was to straighten us both up …”
Crockard said the whole thing put him “on the edge” and that he went into a lavatory and shot up while deciding what to do. He then went to the beauty parlor where she worked, saying he planned to take her along with them — but then he became “all jumbled and mixed up.” Instead, he shot and killed her.
Crockard said he was too “hopped up” to remember her name or whether he used his own .32 or Jimmie’s .38. When asked how many shots he fired, he answered, “I don’t know. I was excited — it could have been sixty or could have been one.”
He said found his way back to the car and left town. He had given Jimmie some drops that had knocked him out, and he thought it was maybe near dark when he stopped outside Jamestown city limits and stabbed Woods to death. He then headed east toward Valley City. When he came upon some road construction along the way, he stopped, but he couldn’t say where, between Jamestown and Fargo, that was. He said that dirt and gravel had been built up and was ready to be paved. He found a shallow depression in the roadbed and buried Woods, the guns, and knife.
Crockard headed for Fargo after that and checked into a hotel, but he couldn’t remember what it was called or where it was located. While he was there, he overheard some railroad men discussing the Jamestown event and learned that Margaret had died. At some point, he sold the car. Then he chose a name out of the phone book and started forging checks for everything from clothes to a house! He said he next traveled to Bismarck, where he tried to get caught. And he was. He served a year there, and then was sentenced to 18 months in Fargo for the checks he bounced there; a year later, he was handed over to Michigan authorities.
Crockard confessed to all this in 1949 — he said he had found the Lord and needed to get it all off his chest. Stutsman County officials interviewed him on June 7, and details were published in the Fargo Forum on the June 28. Five days later, the Forum reported that Crockard was suspected of making it all up. Almost nothing checked out. Crockard couldn’t remember Margaret Roeszler’s name, what brand of gun he had owned, or what kind of car he and Jimmie drove. Nor could he account for where or when he sold the car — not to mention what happened to Jimmie’s blood. When asked what Jimmie looked like, he said, “I think he had dark hair and thin long arms.”
The detectives on the case were fans of pulp fiction, and in a surprising twist, they discovered a recent Dick Tracy story that possibly inspired Crockard’s story: the bad guys had to get rid of a dead body, and a character named Rod told Gravel Gertie, “The roadbed is all prepared for the cement. They will pour first thing in the morning.” And they buried the body in the roadbed.
Bones in the Basement
written by Merry Helm
June 11, 2019 — It was reported on this date in 1895 that the town of Forman had “been thrown into a fever of excitement over the finding of a number of human bones and teeth in the cellar of a vacant house …”
A man named John C. Birch and his family had last occupied the house. Six years before the bones were discovered, Birch went into the harness business with a man named Martin Haggem. Haggem was the person who financed the venture, and he boarded with the Birch family during his stay in Forman.
Nothing was known about Mr. Haggem’s past, and nobody knew if he had relatives. What was known was that after about six months, he was abruptly absent. Birch and his wife explained that Haggem had gone back to his home in Norway.
Birch continued running his business, and Haggem wasn’t heard from again until a person in Bowen Township reported getting a letter from him — sent from Norway. It wasn’t reported how the bones in the cellar came to be discovered, but it was quickly surmised that they belonged to Haggem and that the letter from Norway was forged.
Upon investigation, no transfer of the business from Haggem to Birch could be found at the register’s office.
Haggem also hadn’t paid his taxes on a nice quarter of land he owned in White Stone Hill township — in fact, the land had been sold by the state to cover back taxes.
An article in the Milton Globe pointed the finger of guilt at Birch by reporting, “Some time after Haggem’s disappearance, Birch was arrested on a charge of rape on his 15-year-old stepdaughter, but after an exciting trial he was acquitted. The feeling against him at the close of the trial,” the article continued, “was so strong, however, that he left town and is now understood to be working in Grand Forks.”
The bones were examined by doctors and “pronounced human beyond a doubt …” The article proceeded with a fine example of yellow journalism when it stated, “(the bones) are unquestionably those of Birch’s former partner.”
While there was strong local sentiment in favor of prosecuting Birch, State’s Attorney Lockerby stated there wasn’t enough evidence to issue a warrant, let alone gain a grand jury indictment or conviction. The outcome of further investigations is unknown.
Bones again made the news in June 1919 when a brief story out of Minot reported, “A recent sale of unclaimed packages here brought a local newspaper man the gruesome surprise of finding a human skeleton in the box which he purchased ‘sight, unseen’.” Unfortunately — or fortunately, if you prefer — there was no “rest of the story” for this one.
On a much lighter note, a 1914 Hansboro News article stated, “A sneak thief entered the Larson restaurant last evening and appropriated some blankets from one of the rooms.
Mrs. Larson missed the articles and made a search for them. She found them in a nearby barn neatly tucked around the thief, and gently removing the blankets, left the man to shiver in the damp night air.”
Proof that there’s a way to settle disputes that doesn’t lead to unidentified bones…
written by Merry Helm
June 14, 2019 — Today is Flag Day, a holiday that’s not overly observed but which, nonetheless, has an interesting story. The United States flew its first flag — called the Grand Union — on January 1, 1776. It had 13 alternating red and white stripes, and in the canton — that’s the box in the upper left hand corner —there weren’t stars but, instead, the British Union Jack.
Controversy surrounds upholsterer Betsy Ross’s participation in the making of the flag. She was reported to have created the first flag the following May, an assertion made by her grandson, William J. Canby, in 1870 — that’s 94 years later! Despite rigorous research, Canby’s declaration has never been proven, but Betsy Ross has become legendary. In actuality, it wasn’t until the following year that the Union Jack was replaced by 13 stars representing the thirteen states that existed at that time.
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted its flag resolution, which read, “Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
It wasn’t until 1912 that the “Stars and Stripes” or “Old Glory” was standardized. Our current flag is one of the most complicated in the world, needing 64 pieces of fabric to make to create the 13 stripes (the original states), plus 50 stars (our current number of states) on a blue background.
There were few public ceremonies honoring the flag until June 14, 1877, the centennial of the adoption of a national flag. While the flag was flown from every government building that day, schools had displayed American flags long before this. In 1890, North Dakota and New Jersey were the first two states to pass a law requiring their schools to fly the flag every day.
North Dakota’s state flag took shape in 1898 when North Dakota volunteer guardsmen fought in the Spanish American and Philippine American Wars. On March 3, 1911, legislation specifically required that the state flag conform to the colors, form and size of the regimental flag carried by the North Dakota infantry during those wars, except the state name was to be placed on the scroll below the eagle. The background color is royal blue. The original flag is on display at the North Dakota Heritage Center, where it can be viewed 360 days out of the year
A State Flag Commission, created in 1951, concluded that the flag designated in 1911 was inappropriate and recommended it be replaced by a design by Clell Gannon of Bismarck. The design for the new flag would have been green and gold, with a sunset and a sheaf of wheat.
That suggestion was turned down, but the proposition is reminiscent to our second state flag — sometimes referred to as the Governor’s Flag. The Century Code states: “The colors of yellow, gold and green are indicative of the great agricultural state of North Dakota and has particular reference to ripening grain and the abundant grazing areas. The Indian arrowhead forms the shield of the coat of arms and symbolizes the ‘Sioux State.’ The three stars denote the trinity of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. Each star in the bend is given the heraldic value of thirteen, which signifies the thirteen original colonies of the United States, and the cumulative numerical value of the three stars indicates that North Dakota was the thirty-ninth state admitted to the Union … The blue and gold wreath in the crest reflects the history of the territory as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The crest, which shall constitute the military crest of the state of North Dakota, is a motif taken from the state seal and to the Sioux Indian tribes signifies mighty warriors.”
“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.