Eugene Butler (serial killer)
|Died||October 22, 1913 (aged 63–64)|
|Cause of death||Natural causes|
|Other names||"The Great Plains Butcher"|
"The Midnight Rider"
|Conviction(s)||Died before crimes were discovered|
|Criminal penalty||Died before crimes were discovered|
Span of crimes
Eugene Butler (born 1849 in Niagara County, New York - October 22, 1913 in Jamestown, North Dakota) was an American serial killer who murdered six farmhands at his residence in Niagara, North Dakota from 1900 to 1906. He was then admitted to an asylum, where he died in 1913, two years before his crimes were discovered.
Early life and move to North Dakota
Butler was born in 1849, as one of three sons born to Ephraim and Rebecca (née Pearson) Butler. He was of English descent, with his family having roots in Braintree. He came from a prosperous family, and around 1882, he moved to Grand Forks County from Buffalo, New York, buying a 480 acre farm in Niagara. He maintained it on his own, never married and lived as a recluse, avoiding contacts with neighbors and only going out for business purposes in nearby Larimore, hiring farm hands to maintain his farm during the summer months.
Insanity, asylum and death
Ever since moving to the state, Butler began showing signs of a mental illness, including suffering from hallucinations and thinking that invisible people were chasing him. His mind deteriorated even further around 1906, when he began riding out into the night, screaming at the top of his lungs and scaring the county's residents. Due to being considered a public nuisance, he was admitted to the North Dakota State Hospital under the supervision of Dr. W. M. Hotchkiss.
During the following years at the asylum, Butler only gave some trouble at isolated periods to the staff, most of the time just expressing his fears towards invisible figures that were "chasing after" him and having his picture taken, believing that the camera would suck out his soul. Aside from this, he showed no homicidal tendencies at all. According to Dr. A. W. Guest, Butler was a man of small stature, very gallant and fond of attending the hospital dances, even falling desperately in love with one of the female physicians. On October 22, 1913, Butler passed away while imprisoned in the asylum. His remains were then shipped off to Middleport, New York, where he would be buried by relatives.
Discovery of murders
After Butler's death, the estate was divided between his living relatives with the help of attorney W. E. Houpt. In 1915, workmen were sent to excavate the property with the purpose of renovating it. One of these workmen, named Leo Verbulehn, was digging a cellar under the house when he discovered the skeletons. All of them had their skulls crushed, most likely by a sharp instrument, and at least two had had their legs broken. Initially, there was a theory that five of the remains belonged to a family consisting of two women, probably housekeepers, and their children; however, nobody in the neighborhood ever recalled a family had ever went missing in the county. The possibility that the family being Butler's relatives was also ruled out, as he must have murdered them immediately upon entering his premises.
Later on, police revealed that all the skeletons belonged to young men, one of them being of a boy aged between 15 and 18 and another who had a crooked nose. Authorities couldn't identify the individuals, and suggested that they were vagrants employed as farmhands by Butler, explaining why nobody had noted their disappearances. It is suspected that he had probably murdered the men because he thought they were going to steal money from his house, of which he had a lot of lying about. It was also noted that there were no traces of clothes of any kind, suggesting that the bodies were buried nude and that Butler had burned the clothes.
In order to dispose of the bodies, Butler had decided to build a trap door, removing three bottom stones from the house foundation. He then had used black dirt and red clay subsoil in order to cover-up the burial place of the bodies.
Following the grizzly discovery, many on-lookers visited the farm in order to observe the crime scene. The deputies then proceeded to deposit the victims' aging bones in a box, and transported to the office of Sheriff Art Turner. However, it was discovered that some of the bones were later stolen by somebody, most likely by souvenir hunters.
John Urbanski inquiry
A possible lead to the identification of at least one of the victims was the inquiry of Leo Urbanski, a wealthy farmer residing in Long Prairie, Minnesota. At his request, attorney C. B. DeLaurier wrote to the state attorney O. B. Burtness, claiming that one of the victims might be his brother, John Urbanski. John, who also went by the name John Miller, was a young man who disappeared near Niagara in 1902. Before his sudden vanishing, he had written a letter to his brother, stating that he was working for a bachelor in the city. The letter's post mark indicated it had been mailed from Larimore, the town where Butler conducted his business practises.
Solving the mystery
To this day, Butler's victims remain unidentified. According to Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, an anthropology professor at the University of North Dakota, if by any chance a surviving member of the people who stole the victims' bones comes forward and hands them over, modern DNA techniques could be used to identify them.
In 2016, the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department reached out to the public in an effort to find new leads, as the old case records were either destroyed or lost.
- "Skeletons Reveal Mysterious Murder". The Oakes Times. 1 July 1915.
- "Six Skeletons in His Cellar: Man Died in Insane Asylum and Never Mentioned How They Got There". The Daily Gale City. 27 June 1915.
- "Believe Maniac Murderer of Six". Sioux County Pioneer. 2 July 1915.
- "Six Skeletons Were Unearthed". Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1 July 1915.
- "Family of Five Killed, With Single Murder At Later Date, Revealed on Eugene Butler Farm". The Grand Forks Daily Herald. 28 June 1915.
- "Six Human Skeletons Found". The Devils Lake world and inter-ocean. 1 July 1915.
- "Gruesome Find By Workmen In Old Basement". The Bismarck Daily Tribune. 27 June 1915.
- "Butler Career in State Asylum". Grand Forks Daily Herald. 3 July 1915.
- "Niagara Recluse Murdered Six". The Ward County Indenpendent. 1 July 2015.
- "Believed Butler Murdered Family". The Bismarck Daily Tribune. 1 July 1915.
- "Visitors Pick Murder Bones As Souvenirs". Grand Forks Daily Herald. 29 June 1915.
- "Skeletons Are Held By Sheriff". Grand Forks Daily Herald. 18 August 1915.
- "Think One of Skeletons May Be Brother's". Grand Forks Daily Herald. 15 July 1915.
- "Long Prairie Man Fears His Brother Was Killed In North Dakota". Little Falls Herald. 23 July 1915.
- Matt Henson (1 March 2016). "Are you holding key clues to 100-year-old serial murder case?". Grand Forks Herald.
- Dolly Stolze (10 December 2018). "The Secrets of the Great Plains Butcher". Forensics Mag.