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NIAGARA, N.D. — Imagine the excitement Leo and Lottie Verkuehlen must have felt that hot June day in 1915. The young couple, parents to baby Victor, were just starting their life together. Leo, 25, set out that day to do a little work on the property he had just purchased between Niagara and Shawnee, N.D.
Leo was part of a large and hard-working German family who had come from Appleton, Wis., to the tiny town of Niagara to farm the rich soil of the Red River Valley. But on June 26, 1915, the soil Leo dug near the foundation of his new home revealed something he could never have imagined — six human skeletons, all of whom had been brutally murdered.
While the Verkuehlens and the people of Niagara (population 157) were undoubtedly horrified by what was discovered that day, sadly, they probably weren’t that surprised.
The previous owner of the home, a man named Eugene Butler, was known as an eccentric recluse. He lived alone in the modest home on the prairie and he liked it that way. He claimed all of the single women in town wanted to marry him and all of the men were out to get him. He was often spotted racing on horseback through the countryside in the middle of the night, sometimes screaming at the top of his lungs, earning him the nickname “The Midnight Rider.”
But he got a different nickname following the grisly discovery of the buried skeletons in 1915 — "The Great Plains Butcher."
Who was Eugene Butler?
Records show Eugene Butler was born in Niagara County, N.Y., in December 1848. When he was 33, Eugene and a handful of other men from the county decided to take the U.S. government up on its offer of free land on the frontier of Dakota Territory. They headed west to Grand Forks County and named their homestead town Niagara, after their hometown in New York.
In the coming years, Butler amassed more acreage and became the wealthiest farmer in the area, his estate and holdings worth an estimated $1.5 million in today’s money. But as his wealth grew, his mental health faltered. He was prone to hallucinations and paranoia. He refused to have his photo taken for fear the camera would take away his soul, and besides those midnight rides, he was seldom seen in town, and few dared to visit him at his home.
By all accounts, he was a sick man. Sadly, newspaper accounts long before the discovery of the bodies seemed to mock him for his unusual behavior.
His family back in New York became aware of his mental health problems and in 1904 had him committed to the North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown (known by most then as the “North Dakota Hospital for the Insane.”)
When Butler was admitted to the hospital and authorities packed up his belongings, they found more than $7,600 in cash, checks and gold just laying around the house. That would be like finding more than $215,000 today. He also was in possession of sizable government bonds. Authorities later said he was the wealthiest person ever admitted to the state hospital.
“Butler was a man of small stature, very gallant and fond of attending hospital dances. He fell desperately in love with one of the lady physicians and her friends joked with her considerably about Butler’s ardent devotion.”
-Dr. A.W. Guest, in a 1915 newspaper story about murder suspect Eugene Butler, who might not even remember he killed 6 people.
Once at the hospital, doctors report he only caused trouble at “isolated times,” and showed no signs of homicidal tendencies. They found he suffered hallucinations and he would ask his attendants if they heard people talking about him. A couple of weeks after the discovery of the skeletons, Dr. A.W. Guest, a physician at the hospital, described Butler (now probably medicated) as someone who hardly seemed likely to commit murder.
“Butler was a man of small stature, very gallant and fond of attending hospital dances. He fell desperately in love with one of the lady physicians and her friends joked with her considerably about Butler’s ardent devotion,” Guest said.
His final years were uneventful. He died of phlebitis in 1911 at the age of 62. His estate was split among his relatives in New York or sold.
The Verkuehlen family purchased Butler’s property in the years following Butler's death. That's when they uncovered the nightmare of what happened before Butler got medical attention.
Who were the victims?
The biggest mystery surrounding the six skeletons was their identities. Nobody in the vicinity reported anybody missing in the estimated years of the killings, anywhere from about 1884 to 1904. In the earliest days of the investigation, authorities weren’t even sure of the ages or genders of the victims.
It appears Butler took off the victim's clothes before he buried them as no clothing — not even a button — was found in the dirt. He probably burned the clothes to make it harder to identify the victims.
With no clothing or personal belongings, all investigators had to work with was the bones, which led them to believe that the victims had all been killed the same way — by a sharp object which put a hole in the left side of their skull.
Some of the victims had their legs broken so as to better fit in the shallow grave in the crawlspace under the house. It appeared that five of the victims had been killed and buried together at one time, and a lone man was killed and buried separately at another time. The coroner said that the man had a crooked nose. But that is all they had to go on as authorities started coming up with theories:
- At first, they thought the skeletons were all young males, possibly farmhands that worked and lived with Butler. This theory was given weight when a man in Long Prairie, Minn., told authorities his brother went to work for a “bachelor farmer” in Niagara and hadn’t been heard from since.
- Later reports declared it was a family of five — a husband, wife and three children and one single man. Could the family have been Butler’s relatives from out East who came to check up on him? Not likely, since all of his family members appeared to be accounted for. Would it be possible a family just happened upon Butler’s home asking for directions or shelter from a storm? Also not likely since he probably wouldn’t have even let them in the house.
- As the investigation progressed — studying the bones and talking to neighbors — authorities felt like they finally had an answer. According to a July 2 newspaper article, “Sheriff A.F. Turner and Coroner R. McLean have made a thorough investigation and are reasonably certain that the persons killed include a Negro; the last servant to have been employed by Butler, and two former housekeepers and their children.”
Neighbors told law enforcement the few times Butler spoke to them was to complain about his hired help and how they were trying to steal from him. Is that what led to the murders? Were these people really employees of Butler’s? Where did they come from? Did someone notice they were gone?
We might never know. Butler never spoke of the murdered people or admitted to killing anyone while institutionalized. He might not have even remembered doing it.
But while authorities appeared to have figured out the approximate age and genders of the skeletons, they never learned their names.
Could you help identify the victims?
Despite the crimes happening more than 100 years ago, it’s not out of the question that the victims could still be identified using remains.
“The probability is high we would be able to extract DNA because the techniques are dramatically improved now,” anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield said in a 2016 interview with WDAY-TV.
Stubblefield, then an anthropology professor at the University of North Dakota, said even the smallest piece of bone could provide some answers.
“DNA will give us the same level of specificity which population they are descended from,” Stubblefield said.
Scientists say the bigger the bone, like a skull or femur, the more useful it would be.
You might be thinking, "OK, let’s test the bones." Easier said than done.
No one knows where the bones are or if they even still exist. According to newspaper reports, when news broke in June 1915 about the discovery of the skeletons, more than 100 people went to the property and picked up a bone or two as a souvenir of the ghastly crime that was making national news — meaning the bones are not in the possession of any law enforcement department.
So is it possible that someone reading this story or listening to this podcast might have had a relative who picked up one of those bones? Could it be packed away with his or her stuff in an attic or garage somewhere?
“The icing on the cake is someone will come forward and say I’m missing a relative. Could this be my relative from the early 1900s that we know disappeared?”
- Anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield in 2016 of efforts to find and analyze bones from the Butler murders.
“If there is a story attached to that skull, you just keep it, especially the family members will maintain possession, just keep passing it down and pass the story down,” Stubblefield said.
The odds of finding an answer to the victims' identities are the highest they’ve been in decades with more people researching their ancestries and with larger DNA databases of missing people.
A 2017 story published in Time magazine and USA Today said genealogy was the second-most popular hobby in the U.S., just behind gardening. In 2020, it was estimated that about 30 million people worldwide have taken DNA tests, more than half through family history sites like Ancestry and 23andMe, opening up millions of possible ancestor or descendent matches.
“The icing on the cake is someone will come forward and say, 'I’m missing a relative. Could this be my relative from the early 1900s that we know disappeared?'” Stubblefield said.
If you've found a bone that you think might have been taken from the crime scene, email firstname.lastname@example.org for information on how it might be tested.