Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: The Rest of the Story
There is a plaque in front of the Hughes County Courthouse that talks about the first and only hanging that occurred in Hughes County back in 1885. The sign gives very general details. This, as Paul Harvey used to say, is “The Rest of The Story.”
James Bell and Forest Small were two of the first lawyers/real estate agents in Harrold, and because of the growth of the area, were kept busy with land transactions. Bell was apparently a bit shifty, and was involved with some shady land deals as well as being accused of attacking a women who refused his advances, threatening her with a hatchet. Small had defended James Bell in court, and now was suing him for his services. A court date was scheduled in Blunt in December, 1884. Bell and an acquaintance started for Blunt in a buggy, and Small followed them horseback. About half way to Blunt, Bell and Small stopped to talk, trying to settle their differences. At some point, Bell struck Small with a hatchet, killing him. Bell and his traveling companion took the body several miles north, just into Sully County, burying it in a shallow grave they dug into a frozen plowed field. Bell had his companion take Small’s horse to Pierre and sell it, then leave the area, traveling to Bismarck, North Dakota. Bell was able to shift suspicion of his crooked land deals to Small, using Small’s disappearance as evidence of his guilt. Small’s father didn’t believe any of the accusations and enlisted the help of the newly elected county sheriff to investigate. They soon found out that the day Small disappeared Bell had someone with him, and the sheriff tracked his companion down. It didn’t take long and he told the sheriff everything about the murder of Small. He and Bell ended up in the county jail in Pierre, at the same site as the present day court house.
When the people of Harrold heard the details of the murder, they wanted justice immediately. A group of ten to twelve businessmen set out for Pierre, instructing the local telegraph operator to stop sending or receiving telegrams that night in an attempt to keep an element of secrecy in their journey. They rode the train to Blunt, then traveled by buggy and horseback into Pierre, arriving close to midnight. They overpowered the guard at the jail and drug Bell outside, putting a noose around his neck and running the other end of the rope over the top rung of a ladder they had propped against the flag pole in the courthouse yard, then pulling Bell off his feet, hanged him. About that time the sheriff, having been alerted to the lynching, came up the hill from Pierre’s main street in time to see the group of men run off in the direction of where the St. Charles Hotel now stands. The sheriff cut the rope, dropping Bell to the ground. He was still breathing but soon died. There was another coil of rope on the ground and the sheriff surmised they had intended to hang Bell’s companion too.
It was generally known who the men from Harrold were, many of them prominent businessmen from the growing town. There was an inquest with witnesses testifying, but that was as far as it went. The general feeling was that Bell, with so much evidence and testimony stacked against him, was undoubtedly guilty and frankly got what he deserved. There was little remorse for what happened that April night in 1885, it was a taste of frontier justice at a time when the law was still taken into people’s own hands.
This information came from an article written by Charles H. Burke, who was a Justice of the Peace for Hughes County at the time the hanging occurred. The complete article is included in the book “Siding #6,The History of Harrold, 1886-1986.”