Norwegian immigrant victim of 'dastardly' murder, but his son and grandson became prominent ND politicians
It’s like something out of an old western -- a good guy shot in a saloon. What followed was the hunt for the killer, seeking justice for the victim and a family that decided they would thrive in spite of it all.
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FARGO — Put yourself in the shoes of 19-year-old Norwegian immigrant Knute Gullickson (K.G.) Hagen as he stepped off the ship at New York Harbor in May of 1873.
He was probably exhausted after being aboard the ship for more than a month with hundreds of other immigrants. He was also probably a little scared to be leaving everything he knew behind in Norway while simultaneously being a little exhilarated at what America had in store for him.
Like so many immigrants he dreamed of bigger thing — a better life — and he got it. But unfortunately his dream ended before it really began with what newspapers called a “dastardly” murder.
A promising beginning
In 1880, seven years after he arrived, Hagen had seemingly gotten used to life in America. He was making a living as a teacher in Sacred Heart, Minnesota, when he met and eventually married fellow Norwegian immigrant Lena Christopherson. By 1882, the couple with their young son, Johnny, moved to Walcott, North Dakota, where Hagen became the first postmaster. Four more children would follow: Oscar, Stella, Elvin and Elsie. Hagen was elected to serve as a Richland County commissioner. He also served as a justice of the peace and was active in civic and business affairs. Life was good.
But on Sept. 1, 1896, it was all about to turn very bad. Around 4 p.m. that Tuesday, Hagen was shot at the town’s “blind pig.”
What to know about 'blind pigs'
A "blind pig" was an illegal, unlicensed saloon. Think of it as a less fancy speakeasy. Even though the prohibition era was still 25 years away, blind pigs were popular in North Dakota because the state was already "dry" and had been since statehood was granted in 1889.
It’s interesting to note that while some newspapers said Hagen and his friends were drinking at the blind pig, another newspaper reported that the men were at a “temperance saloon.” Temperance saloons were bars that did not serve intoxicating beverages. Instead, they served everything from sarsaparilla to egg phosphates.
So was Hagen in a blind pig or a temperance saloon? Clay County archivist Mark Peihl said the quotation marks around the words "temperance saloon" might yield a clue.
“The quotation marks make me suspect that the editors of the story were engaging in little wink and a nod, especially since the victim was a public official,” Peihl said. “In many places in North Dakota, blind pigs were tolerated and even frequented by politicos.”
Back to the shooting
No matter whether it was a blind pig or a temperance saloon, according to newspaper reports, Hagen and two men were sitting at a table drinking whatever it was they were drinking when a man named Henry Trimble walked in and ordered a cider from the bartender.
After guzzling it down, the bartender reportedly said to Trimble, “you look downhearted today.”
Trimble answered, “I have reason to be downhearted.”
Then he alledgedly turned to Hagen, pulled a revolver from his coat and shot Hagen three times, instantly killing him.
Why kill Hagen?
What possessed Trimble to shoot Hagen? According to newspaper reports of the day, Trimble was upset with Hagen because Hagen had put his family in the county poor farm.
The previous winter Trimble, who was working as a barber in Walcott, left his wife and six children. Trimble’s wife eventually appealed to Hagen, a county commissioner, for help. He placed Mrs. Trimble and the children at the Richland county poor farm until they could get back on their feet again. They were there from November of 1895 until April of 1896.
When Trimble returned in April and found his family at the poor farm, he was incensed at Hagen for interfering. He told the superintendent of the poor farm he was going to kill Hagen for keeping him away from his family. (At one point, Trimble asked to stay at the poor farm as well, but when he showed up drunk they kicked him off the property.) The wife and children were eventually able to move back home with Trimble, but Hagen and others questioned whether Trimble was providing for them properly.
The back and forth between Hagen and Trimble went on all summer and finally came to a head that day at the blind pig. After the shooting, Trimble ran out of the bar and was able to escape from Walcott unseen.
The day after the murder the North Dakota Globe newspaper with its use of language had already convicted Trimble before his trial calling him “the murderer” instead of “the alleged murderer” or "suspect." But the paper's tone was also pretty harsh to the men in town Walcott.
“The murderer seems to have made good his escape and the men of Walcott are being severely denounced for allowing him to get away,” the paper said.
The hunt is on
The "severely denounced" men of Walcott must have taken that report to heart as the hunt was on for the man the paper described as the “dastardly murderer of K.G. Hagen.” For two months, the men who scoured the countryside found nothing.
The murderer seems to have made good his escape and the men of Walcott are being severely denounced for allowing him to get away,
But the beginning of the end came for Trimble on Nov. 2, when he knocked on his wife’s door in Walcott and asked to come in. One of the women living at the property jumped out of the window and ran into town to alert the authorities that Trimble was back in town.
By morning, Trimble was spotted walking on a country road. A posse formed — some men on foot, others on horseback — chasing Trimble from one farm to the next. One posse member got so excited he shot Trimble in the jaw. Trimble was eventually found bloodied and hiding in a farmer’s haystack.
Before being taken away, his wife reportedly expressed her love and told him to make peace with God. Meantime, the posse started talking about lynching, but law enforcement officials were able to get the increasingly nervous Trimble safely behind bars and away from the angry mob.
Trimble told authorities he shot Hagen in self-defense, but he was never able to make his case in court. He died by suicide in his jail cell on Jan. 17, 1897.
What happened to Hagen’s family?
While it’s easy to get caught up in the “dastardly” details of the murder of K.G. Hagen, perhaps it's more interesting and maybe even a little inspiring to see what happened to Hagen’s family after he was gone.
Lena was left to raise their five children alone, all while taking over from her husband as postmaster of Walcott. Oldest son Johnny, who was just 14, became the primary breadwinner working for the county auditor in Wahpeton. He eventually worked for abstract offices in Washburn, Williston and Schafer, North Dakota.
While in Schafer, he sent for the rest of the family. Lena bought a relinquished homestead that she eventually “proved up” by living on the property and making improvements. In fact, Lena’s house was the only place that had piped water for miles around. In Watford City’s 50th Anniversary Book, daughter Elsie said, “That was living!”
Lena lived to be 83 years old.
In addition to Johnny’s and Lena’s success, second son Oscar became a prominent North Dakota citizen as well. He worked for the railroad and in the newspaper business. He’s credited with breaking the first sod in what is now Watford City and did so with oxen. He later became one of the state’s most successful potato growers. He was elected to the state legislature in 1937 and served as lieutenant governor from 1941 to 1942. After his death in 1945, one newspaper report heralded him as “a citizen of the highest degree.”
Oscar’s son, Orville “Ike” Hagen, followed his father’s footsteps into politics, serving as lieutenant governor in 1960. They are the only father and son to have ever served in that capacity in the state. Orville was also a long-time Labor Commissioner. According to his 1991 obituary, “during his years in politics, Orville had the honor of serving under six governors, five attorney generals, and meeting six presidents."
It's obvious fate was more kind to Lena, Oscar and Orville than it had been to Knute, murdered at the age of 40 before he reached the pinnacle of his American dream. How would the Hagens have been different had he lived? Did his murder light a fire in the family (either consciously or subconsciously) to achieve what they could, where they could in honor of the 19-year-old immigrant ancestor who never had the chance?