Halloween 2020 Four True Tales of South Dakota Terror

There are hundreds of ghost towns and forgotten settlements in South Dakota.  Some of these abandoned structures still stand as silent monuments to the ambitions of men long dead.  A few are now grassy fields with perhaps, only a graveyard to mark the name of a community long dead and buried with its deceased residents.  Each of these places once thronged with noises of life and generated thousands of stories, the byproduct of the dramas of life on a frontier.  Those stories are for another time.  For it is October, and the grass is browning, the crops drying, and the earth is slowly dying.  A ghost story is in order.  But which ghost story?  South Dakota has so many. 

In this episode, four documented stories of strangeness and tragedy.  The gruesome death of a mysterious foreign woman and subsequent haunting make her the first ghost report ever recorded in Deadwood. The Sisseton tell a tale of a valley where the earth bleeds and cries. A lady card shark plays her final hand. Still, she doesn’t seem to know it yet, and a man on the frontier kills his treacherous business partner, five years after his own death. 

A special thank you to the Siouxland Libraries of Sioux Falls.

Also to Betty Jean Mertens and the Kennebec Public Library.

And Pioneer Historian Lonis Wendt of Vivian.

Voice Actors:  Levi Hansen, Brett Stolz, Malia Lukomski, and Adam Wells

Produced and Written by Robert Mehling

Before we get started a little business this month, If you like the podcast please tell your friends about this podcast. If you really really like us, consider supporting us on Patreon and getting access to sweet behind the scenes show notes, photos, and more. I also want to give a big shout out to Peter Pischke and his podcast The Happy Warrior Podcast. If you like a political podcast you should check out his show, that’s the Happy Warrior Podcast available on all major podcast platforms. Also a great big shout out to the Dave Holly Hour Podcast, I had a great time being interviewed by Dave about this podcast, and if you’re interested in what’s going on in my world personally or how this podcast evolved from its previous incarnation into this version you should check it out. If you like this show you’ll like Dave Holly’s show. He covers the art and theater scene as well as local comedy and local businesses there’s a lot of great interviews. It's definitely a lot like the old Sioux Empire podcast. If you like that format, you’ll love the Dave Holly show because it’s like that with more polish. Daves years of experience in radio really shine through in his show. It’s a great program. Give it a listen. A special thank you to the Siouxland Libraries of Sioux Falls. Also to Betty Jean Mertens and the Kennebec Public Library. And Pioneer Historian Lonis Wendt of Vivian. *** Body So this month in honor of Halloween, I present you with four stories that explore the dark and unexplained side of South Dakota. I tried to pick some tales that weren’t as commonly told and in fact I’m pretty sure our last tale was lost to history, even to local historians… Until now. For our first tale let's go back to before European settlement. Let’s tell the tale of a land where the flesh of ancestors bleeds up from the ground. Strange lights and rumors of disappearances haunt this place known to the Dakota as Sica. Literally Evil. The Legend of Sica Hollow by: Wambdi Wicasa “There is a place that today is called Sica Hollow. It is deep and dark, and long memories live there. Few people, except the Sisseton, know its entrance, and these people keep its story a secret. Once it was a shelter for many camps. Quiet smokes rose up to the prairie. North Wind tried every opening into the Hollow, but the great trees held back his white breath. Deer and antelope slipped into the folds of the Hollow. They found open water and salt, when all the earth above was hard with ice. Great tipis lay under buffalo robes, and the old men sat every day in their meeting houses. Their bones were warm, and their pipes prayed to Ate, who had blessed them. But a stranger came from the west into the Hollow. His bow was broken and his moccasins were worn. He had no family. He made a sign to say his name was Hand. He was not fall, and his eyes were thin. The young girls looked at him, and something told them to be afraid. He ate much, and did not show thanks. He laughed under his breath at the old men, and no one saw him pray. He did not smile like good men do, nor did he tell stories. The old women said he should be sent away. But it was cold outside the Hollow, and thick ice covered the Big Stone Lake. The old men said he would go when it was warm. After several moons the great light in the sky, the Sun, began to move back to the north. Earth began to open and let out her young. Young braves quit their winter games and crept out of the Hollow to search for fresh meat and for the eggs of water birds that flew at night from the south. Hand was older and slyer, and he showed the young boys many tricks. He hid like a lynx in the grass. His eye drew the game to him. He was proud and laughed at the mistakes of the young men. Around the prairie camp fire, when the old men could not hear, he said, "Why do you follow the old ways? What little glory do you have? In the dark of the night I can bring you to big kills that will make you warriors, feared by everyone. You will be great chiefs and wear scalps at your belts. Not the tails of rabbits. Will you listen to me, and keep my secrets away from the council fires?" It was spring, and the young braves' hearts were beating for the beautiful maidens hidden in their mothers' tipis. A great kill would prove manhood, and the maidens would surrender to marriage. "Listen, then, to me and prepare your war clubs. Soon the Valley trail will be dusty with camps moving north to the Lakes of Rice. If you follow me, you will strike many coups, and you will have many eagle feathers in your hair. You will be men, not old skeletons who sit and dream in the lodges." This talk stirred the blood of the youths, and they made war clubs and waited. Every dawn they watched the Valley in order to make their first kill. And it was easy. The people of the HoIlow had a always been good. The Camps who passed them sent signals of friendship and slept safe on the open earth. Now no more. Hand had taught the boys to strike. Travelers woke to wail over their dead. They ran for their lives into the tall grass, holding their hands over the mouths of the little ones. Blood ran everywhere. It fell into the River, and even today this River is called Red. The horror spread into the Hollow. Children ran for fear when they saw the dripping scalps. Women and girls spat on the tracks where the boys walked. The old men called for a Council and for the Medicine Man. "How can we make up for what our Sons have done? How can we wash our Hollow from this crime? What will be our Sacrifice? We want our Hollow to be as it was long ago. Wicasa Wakan listened to the old men. He went to his own lodge to listen to Wakantanka. He sat with his whistle and rattle and burning sweetgrass. He did not sleep, but his eyes were closed. He waited for Thunderer to bring him a message. And Hand did not sleep. He and his killers lit a big fire in the middle of the camp. They leaped and killed again and again. They bragged and shouted to the girls, "Lift up the tipi walls and follow us out into the grass. Your children will have our blood in them and everyone will tremble when they call out." But the camp listened only to the Holy Man and prayed with him. An evil had come into their Peace, and only Thunderer could cleanse it from them. A wind stirred . The whistle and rattle in the lodge stilled. Ate, Father, had heard his people. He had accepted their sacrifice. His messenger was coming. Through the smoke holes women saw the dark wings of Thunderer. A flash and then another come from his eyes. Sudden fear touched the shoulders of Hand. He crouched and shook like a water reed. Madness took him, but he could not escape. He ran and ran, but the wings of Thunderer beat him back into the flood that rained from the cloud. Vines reached out for him and took him by his ankles. The water rose to his screaming mouth and to his gaping eyes. He was too evil to cry for mercy, and the talons of Thunderer ripped out his sight, so he would never see the Happy Hunting Ground. Wakantanka did not take all the sacrifice offered to him by his people in the Hollow. Most sat in their tipis and went to God with a prayer. But one was saved. By her father she was called Fawn. When the Wicasa Wakan had began his prayer Fawn slipped into the door of her mother's tipi. Her hair was black as a raven and long. With a bone she began to comb it and oil it. She set it into two braids and tied the ends with a bit of ermine. From her bundle she drew her tassel dress and high white moccasins. Her Medicine was calling her to flee the rising water. Up and up the steep slope she flew. The water rose higher behind her. All the world was covered. On the top of the highest hill she stood bright and smooth-skinned in the sun light. She was alone, the only one of her tribe not touched by man or by the evil that Hand had brought to her people. She began her song, and the Great Spirit behind the Sun listened: "I am grieved for the evil that my brothers did. Your beautiful land is destroyed. I stand alone with you. Let me sing my song, before I join my sisters. You were good to us before evil entered our Peace. Now I grieve. I ask your kindness. And make this ground, where I stand, holy again. Remember this little spot and send your love here. From this ground make a new people and they will worship you always. Now I go to you." Her song and her great grief made Fawn drop to the ground and she slept. The eye of Wakantanka saw her, and he sent a white cloud to cover her. She slept many days, and the cloud covered her. She could not feel it, but from the cloud new life stirred in her. She felt no pain either, but a motion awakened her. It was a child hungry for her milk. A tall brave looked down on her and touched her face. Below her the Hollow was clean and bright again. Only the memory lingers--Sica Hollow. Some day even this bad name will be changed and be forgotten. Gentle smokes will rise again. It will be called by its old name -- Mokoce Waste. (Good Land)” Levi Hanson Located just northeast corner of South Dakota near Sisseton, Sica Hollow State Park is full of both eerie stories and autumn colors. A quick Internet search and you will find accounts of how the area was “haunted” and the scene for “the disappearance of several people in the 1970s.” Further online investigation brought up articles claiming “a Bigfoot-type” creature lives at the park, and that the streams “are red with the blood and flesh of ancestors.” The main foot trail is the Trail of the Spirits. At just over one mile in length, it’s an easy walk for all ages. The trail follows Roy Creek, and some of the springs that flow into it, while showcasing many of the 200 plant species that grow here. Since it’s in the low part of the hollow and under a canopy of trees (maples, oaks, ironwoods, elms, and basswoods, among others), the trail is always shady and cool. Going off of the trials presents the risk of bubbling bogs that can function similar to quicksand. This may be the source of some of the stories of people disappearing but a surface level investigation of missing persons records and newspaper databases didn’t actually turn up any missing persons. Another explanation for the missing people reports could be the park’s steep drop offs and ravines. Sica Hollow is an unexpected hilly and wooded area surrounded otherwise by prairie and plains, a phenomenon caused by receding glaciers some 20,000 years ago. When you enter the park from Highway 10, you are essentially starting at the highest point and driving down to the lower part of the hollow. Here there are lookout points, like the one around the turn in the road known as Dead Man’s Curve, where you can park and look down into the tree-filled ravines. Some parts are so deep you can barely see the bottom, and according to locals, you can also see “stuff that has been left behind from homes that were there, and cars that have gone over the ravine that they’ve never been able to pull out.” In their book, The South Dakota Road Guide to Haunted Places, authors Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk describe how park officials also use the bogs to explain other strange occurrences at Sica Hollow. The book says, “Moans, groans, and screams heard in the forest are rationalized as sounds of trapped gases escaping from the muddy bogs.” The water at the park can also have a reddish tint, but it’s caused by iron deposits, not blood. Signage along the Trail of the Spirits states, “It is believed that during the winter, air is trapped in the bog which borders the creek. As the snow melts and the ground thaws, the gradually released air makes a sound compared to that made when one blows air over the top of an uncapped bottle.” “Sica” is said to literally mean “evil” or “bad.” There are a lot of Dakota narratives about the area, and before it was a state park, it was tribal land. Groups of families lived in Sica Hollow for a long time, though these families who did live here have all now either passed away or moved elsewhere. One of the first settlers to live in Sica Hollow was a Frenchman, Robert Roi, and he and members of his family are buried in the park’s Roy Cemetery, which is over 100 years old. This cemetery, along with another called St. Benedict Cemetery, is near the multi-use trail system at the park. All of this combined with red bogs, deep ravines, and thick woods is the stuff scary folklore is made of, but to see if any of the myths are really true, you’ll have to experience Sica Hollow for yourself. China Doll Murder Each August the town of Deadwood in South Dakota’s Black Hills holds its Days of ’76 Parade in which a beautiful young girl is chosen to ride on a float down Main Street as that year’s China Doll. While the former gold-mining boomtown keeps that name alive, hardly anyone today knows about the original China Doll and her fate. It’s a gory story, befitting Deadwood’s violent past. Deadwood in 1877 was a place of hustle and bustle, its unpaved streets clogged with thousands of people. A mysterious Chinese woman named Di Lee was among them. No one knows where she came from. But she no doubt attracted attention from passers-by. Old-timers claimed this early Black Hills pioneer was the most beautiful woman in Deadwood, and sometime in the 20th century they nicknamed her the “China Doll” or “Yellow Doll.” Unfortunately, no documented photograph of this striking woman exists. She was reportedly single and wealthy, though as far as anyone knew, she was not a prostitute. Someone cut short her life in a horrific act of murder. Legend has it she was hacked to pieces and later haunted her home as a ghost. Authorities never apprehended her murderer(s). Of the many Chinese who came to North America, especially during the various gold rushes, few are remembered today. But the name China Doll lives on, even if one can only imagine her face. In her time, women of any nationality who did not sell their services to men were a rarity in Deadwood. Thus her story raises interesting questions. Why did she come to Deadwood in the first place? What circumstances led to her murder? And, of course, the biggest question in any murder mystery: Who done it? Unfortunately, no information has surfaced on what business Di Lee pursued, but she did own three lots with houses on Sherman Street, Deadwood’s main street at the time. At the very least she likely earned income from two of those properties while living on the third. Given her holdings, Di Lee almost certainly arrived in town already wealthy, but like virtually everyone else who ventured to that remote community, she was there to make more money. The murder of Wild Bill Hickok on August 2, 1876, is the crime most people associate with Deadwood, and plenty of eyewitnesses saw Jack McCall pull the trigger. The murder of Di Lee, the China Doll, ranks as perhaps the most notorious unsolved crime in a place that had little law and order. Di Lee (who also appears in sources as Di Gee and Di Hee) was one of the first Chinese to come to Deadwood in 1876. How long she had been in North America is unknown. What is known is that she was young, attractive, unmarried and able to afford those three well-furnished houses on Sherman Street. It seems clear she was no servant, and there is no evidence she was any kind of soiled dove or for that matter involved in the thriving opium trade in Deadwood. The mystery woman did not live long enough to put down solid roots in the community, if that was her intention. She was murdered on November 27, 1877. In the most likely scenario, two people entered Di Lee’s home (with perhaps a third person standing guard outside). One intruder stabbed her with a small knife. The other smashed in the front of her skull with the blunt end of a hatchet. A bloody print on the face of the corpse suggested one of the intruders had placed a left hand over Di Lee’s mouth to stifle her screams. Blood was splattered on the walls of her room, and the furnishings were in disorder. Was greed the motive? Authorities were uncertain she had even been robbed. They had the China Doll’s body removed and taken to the rear of a shanty in Chinatown. According to The Black Hills Daily Times, her face and clothing were clotted with blood, presenting “a disgusting spectacle.” Later accounts of the crime that claimed the victim was “chopped to bits” were exaggerations. At an inquest the next morning several people spoke up about what they might or might not have seen, but none of the information shed light on the murder. Deadwood’s acting coroner, Dr. Charles W. Meyer, examined Di Lee’s corpse and found a small wound 2 inches below the sternum and about 1 inch in depth made by a blade similar to a pocketknife. This wound was not severe enough to cause death. There were two fractures to the frontal skull apparently caused by the blunt end of a hatchet. The coroner’s jury decided the unknown assailants had murdered Di Lee by blows to the head. On November 29 the Chinese community held an elaborate funeral for the China Doll. Typically, attendees at such funerals wore white or brightly colored clothing, a band played cymbals and drums, people tossed firecrackers and colored pieces of paper, and mourners set aflame perfumed paper, incense and colored candles placed around the body. Di Lee’s countrymen likely buried her in Ingleside, Deadwood’s original cemetery, although her plot may have been in the newly opened Mount Moriah Cemetery. A few years later, to make room for housing, officials disinterred all identifiable bodies at Ingleside, including that of Hickok, and moved them to Mount Moriah. There is no record of Di Lee’s gravesite. Perhaps the Chinese community wanted her burial location kept secret. The mystery of the China Doll’s life continued with her death, but apparently she did have at least one relative living in Deadwood. The November 30 Black Hills Daily Times stated that Hong Lee claimed “kinship” to Di Lee, and that Dr. Meyer ordered her three lots with houses on Sherman Street, along with “considerable personal property,” transferred to Hong Lee. This caused a bit of a stir in the non-Chinese community among those who thought that the probate judge—not the acting coroner—should determine ownership. Meanwhile, the two big questions lingered: Who murdered Di Lee? What was the motive? The Chinese would not cooperate with Deadwood authorities. Lawmen produced several suspects, but no one would testify against them. In its December 22, 1877, issue the newspaper reported on a ghostly encounter at the murder scene: From the Daily press and Dakotan January 4th, 1878: “When the body of murdered Di Hee was found, the gaping wound in the head where the hatchet had been deeply buried told the manner of her death. The blood-spattered walls, the confusion in the apartment, the attitude of the body, all bespoke of violent struggle. The mark of bloody left hand across the mouth told that the clutch of the Assassin had stifled her cries. The premises and the body after the inquest were turned over to her friends. In obedience to the Superstition prompted customs of these people, perfumed paper and various colored candles were burned about the corpse. All the unique ceremonies required by these Customs were duly observed and the body buried. A well-behaved Spirit should have ridden from the vale of Tears on the incense created by the burning of their offerings but not so with the indignant Spirit of Madame Di Hee. the first night that the premises were occupied after the removal of the remains, a gentle tap, tap, is heard at the door; the voice of the Dead is heard in reply, the door is opened, and a male voice without Beggs admission; the door creaks upon its hinges as it is wide open, the hurried step of two men is heard a struggle follows, and then again all is still. An examination shows the room in its usual order, the door is fastened as before. Of course the haunted premises are promptly vacated and have so remained since. And now comes the occupants of the adjacent houses, who tell that in the dead hours of night when honest men are supposed to sleep, and ghost ride the Gale on broomsticks, mop handles, Etc, and to sit astride the chimneys of deserted old houses the haunted houses of our childhood there is heard in the vacant tenement, struggling, muttering curses, and the voice of the murdered woman explaining in pitiful, pleading accents, “Moo shot nghin”, “Moo shot nghin”, “Moo--”, And the words died away in a gurgle, as though the speaker were being strangled, and all when no person in the flash is about. In all this, to the average Chinese mind, is no mystery. The unnatural manner of Di Hee's death, the unnecessary Interruption and this arrangement of their ceremonies, by reason of the presence of their officers, have disquieted the spirit of the dead woman, and it was where she returns to the scene of her former festivities. Chinatown is stirred to its very center over the ghostly presence, and vigorous steps are being taken to reconcile the grief ghost. Meanwhile our real estate speculators are interested, and predict the property in the neighborhood May soon be dirt cheap. “ - Brett Stolz Four months after Di Lee’s murder the newspapers reported a more down-to-earth development in the China Doll case. A young Chinese woman ran screaming into the IXL Hotel, closely followed by an angry mob of Chinese men and women. The woman begged the proprietor to call the sheriff. A lawman, perhaps Lawrence County Sheriff John Manning, arrived as the noisy crowd sought to drag off the frightened woman. She told the sheriff she had seen her “fella” kill Di Lee, but when she tried to have him arrested, law officers had paid no mind to her accusation. Now this fella wanted to get back at her, and so did the mob. The sheriff placed the woman in protective custody. How long she remained in the Deadwood jail is unknown, as is her fate after the sheriff released her. She disappeared from the record. Likewise, the papers didn’t identify her fella. The Times made its final reference to the China Doll case in its January 25, 1880, edition. Deadwood authorities were investigating the opium dens in Chinatown. Certain Chinese men there had marked a man named Coon Sing for death because he had been seen in the company of a Deadwood peace officer and was suspected of being a snitch. A judge assured Coon Sing the law would protect him. But the newspaper suggested otherwise: When any one of them [the Chinese] violates one of their laws, in a few days he is found most brutally murdered, as in the case of…the woman here in town less than two years ago, and the authorities were powerless to even find a person that could be suspected. Not a Chinaman could be found that knew a thing about it, they were all as reticent as the grave. It is unlikely that anyone from Deadwood’s Anglo community killed Di Lee. Motives are lacking. She was not raped, and it is unclear whether she was robbed. Deadwood’s sporting girls might have been jealous of her beauty, but there is no evidence she was competition to them or had any disagreements with them. Most likely a person or persons in Deadwood’s Chinese community committed the murder. Perhaps that anonymous fella of the frightened young Chinese woman was involved. The murderer(s) used a small knife and the blunt end of an ax. The ax was the weapon of choice of the tongs, the secret Chinese societies that sometimes dealt in prostitution, gambling and drugs. The use of two different weapons in the crime suggests two assailants, though a lone attacker could have used both weapons. It is possible the Chinese people who reported ghostly encounters knew more about the circumstances of the murder than they were willing to reveal to Deadwood authorities. The ghost story related by the anonymous occupants of the house after Di Lee’s death featured a man begging to be let in, the China Doll apparently opening the door for him, two men hurrying inside and sounds of a struggle. The neighbors’ ghost story had the victim pleading in Cantonese, “Moo shoot nghin!” (loosely translated as “Do not kill me!” or “Do not hit me!”). If it was two men who committed the crime, that would absolve Ah Sing and his wife (or Ah Hem and his wife, if they are even different people). If Di Lee did let a man into her house in the middle of the night, she must have known him. Hong Lee came forth afterward, claiming to be a relative of the late China Doll. Could he have planned her murder and brought along an ax-wielding accomplice? He did stand to gain her property as next of kin. The December 4 Black Hills Daily Times suggested that Di Lee was the slave of an unknown Asian in California, but it is doubtful he had anything to do with the murder in Deadwood, if he even existed. In short, there are no definitive answers to the mystery. Barring the unlikely discovery of some revealing Chinese journals or letters, the murder of the China Doll must remain an open case, historically speaking. Kitty LeRoy and the Lone Star Saloon Life was cheap and brutal in territorial Deadwood, and those tragedies continued to create still more hauntings. A grim-faced bartender led a pair of sheriff’s deputies up the stairs of Deadwood’s Lone Star Saloon to the two lifeless bodies sprawled on the floor. One of the deceased individuals was a gambler named Kitty LeRoy and the other was her estranged husband, Sam Curley. The quiet expression on Kitty’s face gave no indication that her death had been a violent one. She was lying on her back with her eyes closed and, if not for the bullet hole in her chest, would simply had looked as though she were sleeping. Sam’s dead form was a mass of blood and broken tissue. He was lying face first on the floor, and pieces of his skull protruded from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In his right hand he still held the pistol that brought about the tragic scene. For those townspeople who knew the flamboyant twenty-eight-year-old Kitty LeRoy, her violent demise did not come as a surprise. She was a voluptuous beauty who used her remarkable good looks to take advantage of infatuated men who believed her charm and talent surpassed any they’d ever known. Kitty LeRoy wasn’t going to let a little thing like dying tragically end her fun. From The Black Hills Daily Times of Deadwood, January 16 of that same year, not even two weeks after that story I just read had run in the Yankton paper: “Haunted House” Disembodied Spirits Visit the Scenes of Past Realities. “Spirits of the good, the fair and beautiful, Guard us through the dreamy hours; Kinder ones, but, perhaps less dutiful, Keep the places that once were ours.” For some time past vague rumors have been in circulation concerning unnatural and unaccountable noises and apparitions in the “Lone Star” building, on lower Main Street, near Chinatown. This house will be remembered by Deadwoodites as the recent scene of the murder of Kitty LeRoy, and the subsequent suicide of her murderer and husband, Sam. R. Curley. These reports having become a subject of general conversations, a TIMES reporter visited the house, of which so many stories were afloat, and gleaned the following: The Lone Star building gained its first notoriety from the suicide, by poisoning, of a woman of ill repute last spring. The house was subsequently rented by Hattie Donnelly, and for a time all went smoothly, with the exception of such little rows and disturbances as are incident to such places. About the first of December the house was rented by Kitty LeRoy, a woman said to be well connected and possessed of intelligence far beyond her class, Kitty was a woman well known to the reporter, and whatever might have been her life here, it is not necessary to display her virtues or vices, as we deal simply with information gleaned from hearsay and observation. With the above facts before the reader we simply give the following, as it appeared to us, and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions as to the phenomena witnessed by ourselves and many others. It is an oft-repeated tale, but one which in this case is lent more than ordinary interest by the tragic events surrounding the actors. To tell our tale briefly and simply is to repeat a story old and well known—the reappearance, in spirit form, of departed humanity. In this case it is the shadow of a woman, comely, if not beautiful, and always following her footsteps, the tread and form of the man who was the cause of their double death. In the still watches of the night, the double phantoms are seen to tread the stairs where once they reclined in the flesh and linger o’er places where once they reclined in loving embrace, and finally to melt away in the shadows of the night as peacefully as their bodies’ souls seem to have done when the fatal bullets brought death and the grave to each. Whatever may have been the vices and virtues of the ill-starred and ill-mated couple, we trust their spirits may find a happier camping ground than the hills and gulches of the Black Hills, and that tho’ infelicity reigned with them here happiness may blossom in a fairer clime.” - Malia Lukomski “The Tragedy of a Haunted House” Our final story tonight is a ghost story unlike any other I have read in South Dakota. It takes place in 1900 and appropriately enough takes place in a ghost town. This story was reported in The Black Hills Union newspaper of Rapid City on August 17th,1900. Earling South Dakota no longer exists. The only things left that mark its existence are a cemetery, a handful of classified ads in the Argus leader from the 1890’s mentioning the town, and this story. It was located in Lyman County, less than half a mile north and about a mile west of present day Kennebec. Kennebec is currently the Lyman county seat but did not exist until 5 years after this story. According to local historian and all-around helpful and awesome guy Lonis Wendt of Vivian, Earling’s Lutheran Church was dedicated in 1891, generally assumed to be the oldest church in Lyman Co. for settlers. The lumber was hauled by wagon from Chamberlain. This church sat in the SW corner of the Earling cemetery grounds.(Still maintained today by BankWest employees at Kennebec) It also housed the school for a time, before the erection of a permanent school just west of the Church. The Story begins: “Charles R Casmer is in jail here, charged with the murder of Frank W. Heppe April 13. His defense is that the crime was committed by a man already nearly five years in his grave… The residents of the neighborhood are so firmly convinced of something supernatural in the killing that it is doubtful if a jury can be found in the country to convict a prisoner who alleges such manifestations. In the Summer of 1892 Heppe and Thomas Barber formed a partnership, bought a bunch of cattle and engaged in business as ranchmen. Both were bachelors and lived in a sod house eleven miles north of this place. For two years they got on well together. Then a dispute arose concerning a division of profits. Heppe left the ranch and commenced a suit against his partner for an accounting. Before the case came to trial a settlement was affected, the partnership was re-established and the men resumed housekeeping together. About two months afterward Heppe rode into town and gave himself up to the authorities with the explanation that Barber had assaulted him and that he had killed him out of self defense. On visiting the house the officers found Barber lying where he had fallen. He had evidently been sitting or standing in front of the rude fireplace and had been killed by a knife thrust between the shoulders. The fact that he was stabbed in the back gave the case an ugly look. Heppe’s version was that Barber was reaching for a gun kept over the fireplace. As there was no witness to contradict this story the prisoner was acquitted. Public Opinion was so strongly against him however, that he sold his interest in the ranch and left the country. While Heppe was in jail the knife, with which Barber was killed, disappeared in a most mysterious manner. The night before the case was called the prosecuting attorney saw the knife in his safe. He locked the safe and sat down for an evening’s work. Before leaving he reopened the safe and was astonished to discover that the knife had disappeared. He had not left his office during the evening nor had any one but himself entered it. Nothing else in the safe, which included a considerable sum of money, was disturbed. Soon after Heppe’s departure it began to be whispered that strange things were happening about the deserted cabin. Passing Cattlemen said that groans, imprecations, and shrieks for aid were issued from the windows, and sometimes a figure was seen moving inside. The majority spurred by at top speed after dark. The bolder scoffed at the tales, but no one card to investigate more closely. So far as is known, the hut was never entered from the time Heppe left it until the night of April 13. Heppe himself and Casmer were the first to revisit it. After spending nearly five years on the Texas cattle ranges Heppe returned to the northwest and obtained employment on a ranch nearly 100 miles north of Earling. Winter’s storms drifted many head of his employer’s cattle to the southward, and Heppe and Casmer, a fellow herdsman, were detailed to round them up. On the 2nd they entered Presno county. Toward the evening a snowstorm set in. Both men were exhausted and blinded by snow. Casmer suggested riding to Earling for shelter. On the way Heppe led him, either by accident or design, toward his old sod house. Heppe proposed stopping there for the night. The house was in a very dilapidated condition, but the cowboys built a fire on the hearth, produced their provisions and a flask of whisky and were soon comfortable. It was late when they arrived, and when, after partaking of their impromptu luncheon, Heppe seated himself on a stump in front of the fire, on nearly the same spot where Barber had been stabbed five years before. Casmer thinks it was between 12 and 1 O’clock. Casmer says he had stepped to the door to see whether there were any signs of a cessation of the storm when he was startled by a yell of agony from his companion. Rushing inside he found the latter lying on his face in front of the fire, his forehead actually in the Embers and a knife sticking in his back. Afraid to stay in the house longer he mounted his Bronco and started for Earling. He was unfamiliar with the country and soon became hopelessly lost. Such was the story he told when found early the next morning, wandering aimlessly over the Prairie. His Rescuers accompanied him to the cabin. Heppe was still on the floor with a knife sticking between his shoulder blades. On drawing it out the spectators were horrified to discover it was the same weapon which had so mysteriously disappeared from the Presno County prosecuting attorney's safe. Casper was brought into town and locked up. No he might have pleaded self-defense with at least as good a chance of acquittal as happy is he insists that the latter was killed by an invisible assailant. The knife has been fully identified as the same that with which Barber was slain. Public opinion is strongly with the prisoner. “-Adam Wells What happened next? We don’t know. Records are lost. Sometime around 1930, a tornado scattered the original Earling Church, resulting in the loss of all early church records, including birth, death, and marriage certificates. The church at Earling was only used sparingly at that time and the congregation had gradually been absorbed into the Kennebec Lutheran congregation.


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