JC ran from Iowa and Nebraska trying to get free of scenes like this, but he could not shake his own deeds. Now, two men dead, and JC is on the run.
JC gave up. The brush was thick and the posse was angry. He ran as far as he could, then he just laid down his two handguns, raised his hands and let the posse haul him away.
Did he know he was being hauled to the courts of “prairie justice” and that by the end of the evening, he’d be dead?
The murderer is caught
JC Collins hoped to keep running, staying ahead of his wicked past. The killings down south were just the prelude to this moment. The year is 1913. He’d been on the run for at least 3 years.
Now, on April 4, 2013, he is about to meet his end. His life punctuated by more than one killing, but this one, would be his last. A dead sheriff. A dead deputy. A mob beating through the brush looking for him.
The rowdy town of Mondak was only three miles east of where JC had shot the two men. Gunshots were common in the border town – the Dakota side was dry and the Montana side, liquored. Normally, no one would pay any attention to the shots outside of town. But ever since the Sheriff had pulled in to the Snowden Bridge construction site, the rumor pipeline ran full. Like the old saying, “bad news travels fast, good news travels slow.” The news of the shooting ran like wildfire into Mondak even before JC could get out of the mancamp.
“The Sheriff’s shot! So’s his deputy!”
A half-dozen liquored up men got in their cars and on their horses. They headed for the mancamp. They weren’t as much interested in getting involved; they just wanted a good seat to see the action.
By the time the mob got there, Deputy Wilson organized a search party. Some of the men from the Mondak saloon joined the drunken posse. They worked through the brush and cottonwood trees along the river. They surrounded JC. He gave up.
Arrested and jailed momentarily
Loud and rough, they didn’t give JC any leeway. Tying his wrists wasn’t enough. They hogtied him and half carried, half dragged JC off toward the little adobe shack in Mondak that was called a jail. It was a well-used building, but this time, there was no one there to share quarters with JC.
That’s when the posse and JC ran into the rest of angry horde from the Mondak saloon. They riled up themselves enough to take action, and it was not going to go well for JC.
The mob’s rope and clubs made it clear to JC and the deputy what was about to happen. The deputy and rag-tag posse stood up to the handful of men. They got JC safely into the Mondak jail. That didn’t satisfy the newly energized mob.
The mob returns
Hours later, the turmoil resumed. It was getting near sunset and the crowd grew. They wanted action. Word had spread across the region, and the mob was joined by five carloads of angry men from Sheriff’s hometown of Medicine Lake. They wanted revenge for killing their hometown lawman.
The churning angry crowd got larger and angrier. From the state line saloon, the mob flowed back a couple of blocks to the jail over on the west side of town. This time instead of five or six, there were more than 20 loud shouting and shoving men. More ropes. More clubs. Flaming torches lit the night. It was time for some prairie justice.
The crowd was successful. The deputy stood down.
They hauled JC out of the jail. Deputy Wilson watched. JC pleaded with him to protect him. The deputy just shook his head. JC was on his own.
There is nothing polite or genteel about an energized group of men fueled by the contagion called “anger.” Their heat fed each other until they set aside every peaceful quality. They dragged JC out the front door of the jail, and then through the street. Beating him shoving him around.
JC stumbled and fell. Men hauled him back to his feet. He was more dead than alive. JC cried for mercy when the rope was jerked around his neck. He stumbled and fell when the men shoved him over to a telephone pole and tossed the rope over the crossbeam.
They tied the loose end of the rope to a Ford car and the car took off. JC jerked, kicked and then dangled.
Liquor and hot emotions are an insane combination. Men used JC’s swaying body for target practice until they got bored. They went back to the Mondak bar.
Great Northern Train #4 passed to the south of the jail that night, about a hundred yards. Passengers saw something dangling from a telephone pole. They had no idea of the bloody arena they were passing through.
What would happen next?
Would there be justice for JC’s lynching? Would someone be held accountable? After all, the deputy knew the men. He knew they had murdered JC. The men knew it too.
So, to hide the evidence, they doused the dangling body with kerosene and set it on fire. It didn’t burn too well. Mostly it just signed the lifeless flesh. Only the clothes burned.
The body — gone!
After the gruesome scene quieted down, about 10 that Friday night, the deputy and the county coroner took lawful civilized action. They lowered the stinking charred body and stashed it in the jail to be buried.
Mid-day on Saturday, the deputy returned to the jail. It didn’t smell as bad as he expected. The body was gone.
Wilson stepped quickly back to the dirt road outside the jail. Now he knew what those marks were in the dirt. He had seen it when he came in, but now it made sense — a rutted trail down the dirt street. He followed the plowed path. He found a shoe and a charred shirt along the drag marks.
Word is that guilt-driven men saw that the evidence of their prairie justice was still apparent. So, they used that same Ford and dragged the body to the river. Three men grabbed the charred mangled corpse and tossed it into the river. It landed on a chunk of ice.
Later on that Saturday and Sunday, local farmers and ranchers at Mondak, past Buford and at Williston said they saw the ice chunk carrying a large dark mass floating downstream. Of course, these days, people think it strange to toss a dead body in the Missouri River. Fact is, up and down the Missouri River, it was common to skip burial of unknown dead men, or those who were too rotten for a Christian burial. JC was one of those, the men decided. They used the Missouri River to send JC back south.
Questions were asked, but no one knew what happened to the body. Or at least, that’s what they said. (Even generations later, families know who took part in the lynch mob, but it is a well-guarded secret. No one wants to claim to be related to any part of the lynch mob.)
JC’s workmates on the Snowden/Nohly Bridge knew whose body it was, floating on the ice chunks, heading to the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. They knew somewhere down the line, that carcass on the ice would drop to the bottom of the channel.
Is JC still fighting? Haunting?
JC was a strong, stubborn man. He fought to the end and even though he is dead, he’s not giving up.
The telephone poles are gone. Mondak is gone. Snowden is gone. Nohly is gone. The bridge is still there. The river is still there.
When the ice goes out in the spring, along about March or April, people say they see something big pop up to the surface of the churning angry rising Missouri River. Every spring, high water, the battling mashup of ice chunks banging their way downstream making an angry scene. Like the mob that overflowed from the saloon to the jail to the telephone pole, ice floes cannot be stopped.
Even today, people say they see a large object float to the shore, and it’s gone.
Is it a log or is it a carcass?
That year, it was reported that lynchings were down across the United States.
Two of them were in northwestern North Dakota. One, of course, was JC Collins. Cleve Culbertson was also hanged by a mob that year.
Mass murders at Epping, Wheelock, and Ray were equally shocking. That story is here.
No two newspaper accounts are in 100% agreement on the incident, but enough similarities can be found to piece together the story. Thanks to these historic stories and others for filling in the details of the reason for the spooky apparitions along the Missouri River at Mondak:
Browse the entire collection of images from the Beautiful Badlands of North Dakota. You’ll see some sights you recognize, some that may be new to you.