Thanks to the railroad, the years leading up to 1920 were some deadly years in Marmarth – especially between 1900 and 1920 with at least one shocking murder in town. It seems trouble followed the rail line in to town to mix it up with miners, cowboys and railroad workers.
Back then, newspapers used the terms “wild,” “lawless, “and “rough” to describe Marmarth. That could be why paranormal investigators come to Marmarth from time to time hunting for ghosts like they did in this Bismarck Tribune story. There are plenty of ghosts, or so I am told.
Nowadays, Marmarth seems to have a connection to ghosts and so, people like to talk about them. Personally, I’ve never seen evidence of ghosts, but other people have.
So, what I am about to tell you here is factual, but it is not guaranteed to be all true. Accounts vary, but the core elements are true.
Imagine the opportunity to sit down with a Marmarth old-timer to find out how things used to be. You can find stories like these to discover, too. Start your discovery at the one and only watering hole in town . And if you want, try some old newspapers.
So, imagine how this went:
Death Was a Horsehair Away
Our old-time story teller told me, “We’ve always taken care of our own here and so we kept to ourselves, a lot. That’s why it’s not well-known, but there are some suspicious ways people have died here without much fanfare. Life was rough here, and death was common back in the day.”
Since our storied old-timer was in his 80’s he heard stories from his dad’s day — early in the 1900s.
Mass Grave of Chinese Rail Workers
He looked me right in the eye, nodded for emphasis and said, “I tell ya, but I don’t know if it’s true, some will tell you there’s a mass grave of Chinese down the tracks a bit. They were working on the railroad and died near here. After that, they said it was a flu epidemic. Then, the story goes, someone dumped their bodies in a pit, covered ’em up and left unmarked.”
I thought to myself, “no wonder ghost hunters are here so often. This could be a goldmine for paranormal detectives. I wondered if they needed to speak Chinese.”
“Yep,” he continued, looking down at his glass of beer. “Admittedly, death was just a horsehair away. Take the case of Frankie Oswald. After he got killed, his family moved out, but people remember the family.
“That day, he rode on the hay wagon, then the horses ran off. He bounced around on the hay. They say he tried to get the reins to stop the runaway horses. Dumb move. He should have jumped off. The horses ran the wagon down a creek draw north of town. Then, it tipped over and killed the little fella. I think he was about 8. I guess he was the first one buried in the county cemetery.”
He barely paused a moment. It seemed like he had an entire script. He went on. “Yep, no one said getting’ around by horses was safe. Just east of town, there’s the woman whose team of horses on her wagon were struck by lightning. Killed ’em all.”
(Now, I’m no expert on ghosts and such, but it seems to me that a ghost might choose to hang around an area because death came too soon and there was no closure. If that’s true, there’s plenty of reasons to hang around Marmarth.)
I pointed out that those days of horse drawn hay wagons and buggies were long gone. The railroad brought civilization and safety to town.
He laughed at me. His laughter was a loud thing of beauty. That’s probably why more folks lined up at the bar on either side of us.
That’s all it took to get the storyteller to sit up and perform. The old fella loved an audience. He pushed back from the bar, straightened up a bit like he was about to perform for the crowd of 5 or 6 locals who drifted in.
“Boy, I’ll tell ya, that railroad took its share of blood. For instance, you know just west of here, over toward Baker, or maybe it was Terry, one fellow from town here thought he had a good thing going. A lot of those guys on the railroad lived here in Marmarth.
“Well, this fellow from town got on with the railroad and worked a while – but that was the last job he ever had. One night he was on the tracks and tried to outrun the train. He lost. He left a wife and some kids, I think”
“But ya know, people felt most bad for some young fella named Ed. I think his last name was Field. You know how it was back when there were jobs here with mining and cattle and the railroad. Well, story is, that he came here from England and was living here, doin’ well for himself, but a Milwaukee engine cut him to pieces over by Rhame. He was a fireman on the railroad. When he jumped from the engine, his foot slipped and he got thrown between the rails. He musta been about 17 or 18. Cut him to pieces.”
Another story-teller spoke up
“He’s not the only one.”
I fairly jumped when a gravelly voice behind me startled me. This new fellow to join our conversation was a cowboy. He had his own story to add to the ghost hunting myths about town.
“Musta been right about that same time, you know, 1900 or so. Story is, a hobo was on his way west when he got off the train right here in Marmarth, but he musta been deaf or something. He was hanging around the stockyard over. That’s that open area just past the depot. It was the livestock loading area. Maybe it was all the noise of the cattle. Anyway, they yelled at him, but he got hit by a locomotive, got his leg cut off, and he died a few hours later.”
The newcomer was just getting warmed up it seemed. The small knot of us turned more toward him, to give him center stage. Apparently, I was the only stranger in town. I got the feeling these regulars just needed a new audience to entertain. I’m always willing to be the audience for good stories. I don’t even try to guess if they were telling the truth.
“There was a stream of Scandahoovians looking for work around here. It didn’t seem like the kind of place where they would want to settle down. There ain’t no fjords or oceans around here. But there was one Norwegian fellow who was working on the Chicago Milwaukee Puget Sound railroad. I think he was from Iowa or somewhere.
“Over by Rhame, he stepped off his train and didn’t see another one coming the other way. Flattened that Norski dead.”
“Then there was that young couple, I think they were brother and sister. They lived just east of town here. They were crossing the tracks by the depot at Rhame and didn’t see the train a coming. It hit right between the horses and the carriage. Killed the brother. She lived. The horses didn’t.”
It seemed to me, by now, that there wasn’t too much to be suspicious about all those people getting killed. I didn’t think their ghosts would have any reason to stick around unless ghosts need closure. Some of these accidents were pretty unexpected.
They pretty much all were accidents, or just plain dumb luck. But since Marmarth had a reputation for being a wild and untamed as any town in the west, I figured there were plenty of shootings. Many of them didn’t even get the attention of lawmen over in Miles City, or at Glendive or Medora or Dickinson. I guess they were too far away or maybe the sheriffs there were too scared to try to bring the law to Marmarth.
Brothel Bedlam? A Madam Murdered?
I knew of one shooting, but forgot to ask about it. Newspapers sanitized the story by the time I read it, and I’ve never gotten to the true recollection of it. All I know is it happened at a place the newspapers called a “resort.” Back then, it was where cowboys and railroad workers could get away from the dust and dirt of the Badlands. The story I read in an old newspaper told about a woman at a resort, or actually, a brothel north of Marmarth. It seems she and one of the other “resort workers,” another woman, got in to a drunken fight.
One was shot. The other was arrested, but I don’t think she spent more than a few weeks in jail. I wasn’t sure if the ghost hunters had heard about that.
So, I asked the resident bar historians about any murders or shootings in town that they knew about. That, I assumed would be the kind of thing the ghost hunters would want to know about.
Gun Play and Murder on the East Side of the River
“Well, now, you gotta know, right after the turn of the century, about 1910 or so, the railroad didn’t kill as many people. But well, gunfights took over the deathly duty. And it wasn’t just here, there was a bad one up in Amidon, a murder,” the fellow started.
“But wait. I gotta tell ya about the Marmarth Murder. You know the one,” he looked at the other storyteller. “That sheepherder who got killed by a couple of no-goods.
I settled in for a good yarn. He said, “There was a good guy…I guess in every gun fight there always is a good guy and a bad guy.” Now I really sat up and paid attention. A gunfight?
The Good Guy
The story-teller was just getting wound up. He delivered his yarn. “Yep, story goes that he really was a good guy. His name was Tommy Corcoran. He was an old Scotchman, hard worker, friendly fellow, saved his money, got along with everyone. The way the story is told, Corcoran made it a habit to make the acquaintance of anyone he met in town.
“He worked on the railroad until he lost his arm. I don’t know what that was about. He was a conductor or telegraph operator or some such thing. So, he turned to sheepherding with his one good arm. He parked his sheepherder wagon right over there on the east side of the river.”
From where I was sitting, I could not see the east side of the river, but I knew what it looked like. In fact, there’s a wide-open prairie along the east side on the north edge of town.
People party in one of those spots every summer. So, it could imagine a sheepherder’s wagon parked there.
“Now like I said, he was a friendly fellow, especially with guys who got off the train and needed a hand to get started working in town. So, maybe he was too friendly, I dunno. But when Corcoran got back from a trip over to Aberdeen, people say they saw him with the new fella. They were hanging out in a saloon the night before. Corcoran had taken a bunch of sheep over there to sell for his boss. I s’pose the bad guys thought this one-armed sheepherder had a bunch of money from selling those sheep.
The Bad Guy
“Let me walk you through it. It was a Saturday. Corcoran was only in town a day or two and was going to head back out to the range to take care of his sheep on Monday. I guess that’s why it happened that day.
“There’s these two fellas in town, and everybody knew they were no good. One was the new guy. The other either ran a house of ill repute or a moonshine still. Either way, he wasn’t trusted.
“But, Tommy Corcoran trusted everyone. He was a friendly guy. Well, one of those two no-goods jumped Corcoran at his wagon.
“It’s in the newspapers, ya know. Pretty well-documented. I guess there were plenty of witnesses to what happened. All the witnesses pieced together the story. And, I’m not sure I got all the pieces.
First the Dog
“I know Corcoran’s dog got shot, too. That’s how anyone found Corcoran dead. The dog was wandering on the street right out there by the Opera House on the west side of the river. Corcoran’s ranch boss knew the dog, and when he saw he was bloody and hurt, he had to find out why.
“So, the boss went over the bridge to Corcoran’s wagon and found him dead. It looked like he’d been choked to death, strangled. And shot, too. Yeah, his neck was chewed up by getting strangled and he had blood on the side of his head.
“So, the boss, he ran back to town, told the judge, and the judge put together a kind of posse or security team or something like that. As a matter of fact, they’re the ones who rounded up all the witnesses, and there was a bunch of them.”
She Saw the Murder
“Well as it turns out, just north of Corcoran’s trailer over there on the other side of the river, a bootlegger and his wife had a shack. That night, it was late, way past time when good folk had gone to bed. She said she heard a shot, so she called in her dog to keep him safe.
“When she looked out, she saw two fellas wrestling on the ground. Now, how she could see at night, I dunno. They put streetlights in town here about 1910, or so. Most people had them, ya know.
“She said that It was such a dusty battle, and she couldn’t see who it was real clear. It could have been a couple of bears fighting.
“But then, she recognized the one-armed sheepherder. It was Corcoran. He was getting licked by some guy. Yep, Corcoran got the worst of it. He had only one-arm, ya know. The other fellow had him down on the ground and was yelling at him – probably trying to find out where his money was hid. After all, they figgered he had a pile of money from Aberdeen.
“Well, all of sudden the bad guy jumped up about 3 or 4 feet from Corcoran and shot him. Didn’t kill him, though. Turns out he missed. He shot Corcoran in the ear and the bullet went into shoulder. The bootlegger’s wife said next, it looked like the guy standing up was trying to get Corcoran to standup.
“He got up, alright and stumbled over to his wagon. The two of them went in there, and the bootlegger and his wife both said they could her them arguing. Then, a gunshot and they heard the dog yelp.”
I pictured the whole story, but I hadn’t read the newspapers, yet. So, I asked the storyteller, “If there were that many witnesses, why didn’t they catch the guys who did it?
Carbury did it
“As a matter of fact, they did,” he said. “The one guy was wounded pretty bad. I guess Corcoran shot him. His name was Carbury. No one around here by that name. He was just some bum who’d been hanging around town.
“Well, when they found him, he was all bloody. They knew it was Corcoran shot him cuz they dug a 41-caliber slug out of Carbury’s back, and Corcoran was the only guy around who had a 41.
“Sad thing is, Corcoran’s son worked for the railroad, too. And he had the job of getting his dad’s body out of the murder site and on a rail car to take him east over to Bowman or somewhere for a proper burial.”
Carbury’s Accomplice – a witness
“That guy Carbury got 25 years. Here’s the interesting part, there was another guy and that’s the strange thing. I think his name was Glass. He got 30 years in the state pen for murder. Glass was that bootlegger that lived next to Corcoran and testified as a witness to the murder. Turns out, he was part of it.
“That Glass guy was a local no-good. I’m not sure how he got tied up in the thing. He seemed like he was always causing trouble. He ran that moonshine blind pig, er you know, that illegal saloon.
“As I remember it, the two turned on each other, and they blamed the other guy for Corcoran’s murder. Well, the evidence was mighty thin, all circumstantial. But, the judge threw them both in jail.
“It coulda been worse. Before their trial, they were locked up in that jail cell right here on Marmarth Main Street. The jail house is gone but you can see the jail cell down the street here.
“It’s a good thing they were locked up. Because when people heard about Corcoran, they got a lynch mob together. The deputy kept Glass and Carbury outta the noose.”
Read it in old Newspapers
For the next 20 minutes or so, the two storytellers tossed around different versions of the story with the audience.
Following that, I got so confused, I just stood up and thanked them for their time. I figured that I’d have to dig out some old newspapers to read versions told about the time of the shooting.
Are you headed to Marmarth? It’s a trip!
It’s the last good stop between Beach and Belle Fourche if you take the historic cattle drive/wagon train trail between the Badlands and the Black Hills
Its ghost stories, haunted buildings and adventure waiting to be found, removed from every where — and that could be why people like it.
But now I had a better idea of why paranormal detectives come to Marmarth so often. I got up to leave when one of them stopped me. “Hey wait, you ain’t heard all of it. Up there at Amidon, there’s at least one ghost floating around that town – all because some uppity woman backed out of a rental situation that caused a murder.
I shook my head and shrugged. Ultimately, that’s another murder story for another time. I have a year to get that story put together. It’ll be next Halloween when we run it.
Every year, in the spirit of the season we like to dig up some kind of mystery or spooky story. Up and down the Little Missouri River and in towns that don’t exist any people tell local ghost stories. We haven’t found them all to share with you. In the meantime, here are a couple of other certified strange stories:
Frequently Asked Questions
Where is Marmarth?
Marmarth is the last North Dakota town on Highway 12 before it enters Montana. It’s in Slope County, west of Bowman and Rhame.
Where can I learn more about Marmarth murders?
Marmarth history is available online. Go here: https://www.marmarth.org/history.htm
Do murdered ghosts haunt Marmarth?
Paranormal investigators claim they have evidence of ghosts in the Opera House and around town. So, locals like to smile and tell you there are ghosts here.
Is Marmarth a ghost town?
You can find a convenience story and a second-hand collectibles store in town.
Sometimes, the convenience store is closed between owners.
But, a beauty shop and gift store are popular.
Also, the vintage car museum is an worthy attraction.