The Killing of Pat McWeeney

By M. I. McCreight

M. I. McCreight of DuBois, Pennsylvania, was a personal witness to the killing of Pat McWeeney by Billy Oswald in Devil's Lake, Dakota Territory (now North Dakota) during the early 1880's, and of the subsequent trial. Much of the interest of this story centers around the Attorney for the Defense, William W. (Billy) Erwin, famous Criminal Attorney of the day.

snowcloudA regular old-style Dakota blizzard was on as Billy Oswald stepped down from the platform of the rickety day coach which comprised the rear end of the construction train that had wormed its way over the wilderness of unsettled prairie since early morning. Darkness was coming now as the flour-like snow swished and swirled around the little red combined freight-house and station far out from the cluster of shacks that bordered the one Street in a plot of pretentious dimension that was to be the newest frontier boom-town. Pat McWeeney, tall, genial Irishman, lately appointed peace officer, waited the incoming train, and when the lone passenger appealed to him for guidance, Pat lighted his lantern and led the way and carried the heavy suitcase of the tenderfoot through the terrible storm to the two-story frame boarding house called the Lake View Hotel where Billy was assigned a room. Here Billy called up the drinks for the crowd -- once, twice, three times, and thus became a respected citizen. Billy was the spoiled son of rich parents in St. Paul; he had run the gamut of social joys and entertainment and yearned for the freedom and wild life of the frontier and so when he heard of the new town to be located at the end of the track in the Devil's Lake country, he packed his grip, paid a final visit to his old sweetheart and boarded the day "Express" for the northwest. Annie Gray did not meet with the approval of Billy's high-toned parents; he was threatened with dishonor and disinheritance if he persisted in his association with her. When he called to say goodbye, he kissed the tears from her cheeks, tore her arms from about his neck and left her sobbing. And he refused to tell her where he was going. In the old geography maps, the section to which Billy traveled was marked "Salt Water Region" and but twenty years before, a government expedition had been sent to investigate its value for settlement. The report showed that the exploring party had made the trip in bateaus and canoes with but one or two portages; then it was a vast wilderness of swamp-lands, inhabited by wild game, buffalo, deer, antelope and myriads of ducks and geese. On the higher grounds now and then were seen Indian encampments of the roving bands of Sioux. Now the railroad tracks had been laid westward as far as the great inland lake of Minnewaukan, where on rising ground at the north shore of an arm of the lake called Creel's Bay was its terminus. Captain H. M. Creel had laid out a village on the north shore early in 1883.

Since the government exploring party had rendered its report that all of the vast region was worthless, many of the former lakes had evaporated. Advance settlers had discovered that wheat could be raised there; land was in demand, for Fins, Laps, Swedes came in great numbers; they were at home in the colder climate and they liked the rich black soil and so the first structure to be erected in the boom-town was an elevator for storing and shipping wheat. It was four stories high, painted red, and furnished a land-mark for land-seekers who easily became bewildered on the broad expanse of prairie that stretched away to the horizon. Adjoining this tall building was the buffalo-bone yard, where the Indians and "breeds" unloaded their crude ox-drawn carts of the monthly collection of buffalo-bones gathered up from the wilderness sepulcher, after their extermination by the insatiable hide-hunters. Fourteen miles away on the south shore of the lake was the army post, Fort Totten, and Indian mission school. To reach it, an old Missouri River captain, E. E. Heerman, had dragged overland from Grand Forks, in 1883, the machinery needed for its equipment and built the substantial side-wheeler steamboat which made the trip daily and whose wharf was just a few rods below the grain elevator. Heerman was an old Mississippi River steamboat captain, who later operated on the Missouri. This extraordinary feat of hauling steamboat machinery by ox-team was performed twice, as eventually he operated two steamers on Devil's Lake. Shortly after Billy came, there was a house erected just half way between the elevator and the boat landing. Still later, this house was occupied by Annie Gray, and Billy was a frequent visitor, which does not mean that there were not other ladies present nor that others than Billy often called there. Billy's high life in the big cities made of him an expert at cards and in this cosmopolitan atmosphere where saloons, livery barns, boarding houses, and outfitters' stores were first to be established, Billy chose the line he was best fitted to operate in. Among those which carried signs in coarse muslin across the front, one of the fourteen hastily erected as a saloon, was that called the "Gem" and Billy proceeded to make it popular. A piano was placed just inside the front door at the left, with space at the end for the violin player; then came the bar of finished pine reaching to the rear of the room at the end of which was a dodge-under door to the back bar. Along the opposite side from front to rear were stud-poker tables and a roulette wheel; the bar was stocked with all popular brands of liquor, and a big mirror, surmounted by stuffed moose head, reflected the row of cow-punchers, half-breeds, soldiers from the fort and prominent citizens of the town who congregated there to look on at the stern-faced gamblers, between drinks. It was always interesting when a game had progressed to the point where stacks of twenty dollar gold pieces had alongside, the player's six-gun. Meanwhile, the opening of spring brought lumber and builder's supplies in train loads; new stores and new houses rose like magic all over the plot; a bank was established, and a newspaper came; a court was opened for the rendering of justice, and when the surveys had been completed by the government, a land office was opened; the bone traffic prospered, for the immigrants came in hordes, seeking lands in the Indian country and bones must be gathered before they were covered by the plow. Great piles of bleached relics of the herds, which until yesterday had blackened the plains in millions, now grew higher and wider as natives deposited their gruesome contribution along with their supplication for food for starving children.

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