For centuries, people have been fascinated by the idea of buried treasure.
Stories of pirate gold on the east coast of the United States and the Caribbean have been passed down through the years, sowing the seeds of new interest in young minds as they’re told and retold throughout the generations.
Of course, some of these stories were made up, probably to entertain each other around a campfire or maybe to see a child’s eyes light up, fired by imagination. But if treasure like this only existed in the realm of make-believe, then they might never have lasted as long as they have.
Instead, every so often, someone actually finds one.
In England, a metal detectorist named Michelle Vall found a gold coin valued at around $20,000. Another man, Eric Lawes, also found gold one day while he was using his metal detector.
In 1992, Lawes was using his detector to find a lost hammer when he discovered an ancient Roman treasure that was eventually valued at over $3 million. I don’t know if he ever found the hammer.
These stories of real discoveries give people hope. Like someone winning a $200 millon lottery, these tales of valuable finds lend support to the idea that one day they can win, too. They can find Captain Kidd’s buried treasure, or discover where Nazi’s have hidden the panels of Russia’s lost Amber Room.
Hope drives them forward; carries them through all doubt and discomfort. Hope makes them believe.
But there is another side to hope, as well: The hope that the treasure will never be found.
People hide things for a reason. They don’t want someone to get their wealth, or to discover valuable military secrets. Or, they don’t want someone to find out about a terrible thing that they’ve done.
People who do construction are possibly among the best finders in the entire world. Whether it’s people who are doing it for themselves or paid professionals, people in the construction trades are able to find many forgotten things.
In 2013, David Gonzalez and his wife bought a $10,000 home in Minnesota. David was a professional contractor, so he knew what he was doing. Many times, contractors hate to start demolition work in an older home because they never know what they’re going to find.
Dry rot, termite problems, and electrical or plumbing issues are just some of the problems that a contractor can find in a home built in 1938, like the one David was working on. Problems like these can set back the completion time of a project days or even months, and can sometimes cost thousands of dollars to take care of.
But when David tore into a wall, he discovered something unexpected – an old comic book. Thankfully, David took an extra moment to look at it.
As it turned out, the comic was an original edition of Action Comics #1, which marks the first appearance of one of the most iconic superheroes of all time: Superman. The comic later sold for $175,000 at an auction.
Of course, not all things found in old houses and buildings are as valuable as that.
It’s surprisingly common to find old newspapers, soda cans, bottles, and even dishes in the walls of old buildings. Sometimes, people find hidden rooms that were walled off during renovation work and then forgotten.
During renovation work in a historic bank lobby in Davenport, Iowa, workers found a set of stairs that no one knew about. They led into a full basement, sealed off decades before. There, forgotten to everyone, was a huge, walk-in vault, ready for use and in nearly perfect condition.
In 1915, a group of workmen in central North Dakota made their way steadily to a farm near the town of Niagara. They expected to simply do what they had been hired for and then move on to the next. But people just doing their job seldom expect to find something that will change history.
Leo Verhulehn had just bought the property a short time before. Maybe he wanted to fix it up for himself or a relative, or maybe he wanted to fix the place up a little before he sold it again.
The first thing Leo wanted was a cellar under the house. A cellar was a good addition to a property on the Great Plains of North Dakota. It provided a place to store food, and could also serve as a storm shelter.
Before heavy machinery like back hoes were invented to dig up large scoops of earth, all the digging would have to be done by hand. This was labor intensive work, back breaking and hard. But many of the men who came from this part of the world were used to it, and were no strangers to manual labor.
So, in the June heat of a Dakota summer, the group of men made their way to the old farmhouse and began to work. With calloused hands, they dug in with picks and spades, gradually clearing away the soil as they began the new cellar.
It didn’t take long for one of them to find something. Sometimes people found things digging around under old houses. It probably wouldn’t be anything valuable – probably just an old bottle or pot. Still, it gave the man a good reason to rest for a moment.
The worker smiled, bending down to pick it up and see what he had found. As he turned it over in his hands, his amusement gave way to fear. What he held in his hands was smiling back at him. The worker was holding a human skull.
He let everyone know what he had found. They all stopped and got out of the hole. There was no good reason for a head to be under an old house, and the workers knew it. They needed to let someone else know, and left the farm to get someone. That someone was a local doctor.
With his help and guidance, the workmen continued the excavation, eventually uncovering six bodies. Five of them were buried together, but there was another that was interred separately just a few feet away.
All of them had died the same way – a heavy blow to the head. It was clear that all of them had been murdered. The men packed up their tools again and, with the doctor in tow, went to contact the authorities.
The police didn’t have much to go on.
In the initial examination, the group of skeletons were determined to be six adult men, with the youngest being about eighteen years old. It looked like they had all been bludgeoned to death, and then stripped of all their clothing.
The majority of the victims had been dumped under the house via an earthen shaft that had been dug from outside the house, underneath the foundation wall, and into a hole dug underneath. A few foundation stones had been displaced in the process, and then replaced once the grisly work had been completed. The shaft had then been filled in, with no one ever the wiser.
Police also determined that the separate body, unlike the others, had been dropped through a crude hole cut into the floor of the house.
Like most rural areas, Niagara didn’t have many things happen that would command headlines all over the state, especially of the criminal variety. Dozens of vehicles with curious people showed up at the farm to see first-hand what was going on.
Some of the braver spectators even helped themselves to the bones of the dead bodies themselves, stealing their gruesome prizes away from the boxes they had been collected in before anyone could stop them.
While there wasn’t anything to identify the poor victims, many people there that day, including the police, did have a name in mind for who killed might have killed them: Eugene Butler.
Around 1880, a group of men and women had come to this part of North Dakota looking to settle.
Most of them had done alright for themselves back home in New York, but like many people in that era, they were looking for more. More land could potentially afford them more wealth and opportunity, and a better future for their children. So, they packed up everything that they had and headed west.
Among them was Oscar Butler and his brother, Eugene.
Oscar was married with a few children. He worked as an expressman, an individual entrusted with safeguarding the cargo on board a given train. In the 1880’s, this usually meant the money and the safe that it was kept in. This also most likely meant that Oscar would be required to travel for certain periods of time, and having his brother at home to watch over his family in a strange new land would probably have been a comforting thought.
Eugene, a farmer, would have looked after Oscar’s family while tending to any crops grown on the property and the various chores that go along with farm life.
Eventually, Eugene bought a farm of his own a few miles outside of the new town of Niagara. He never married, and didn’t really socialize all that much. Not that the neighbors minded, as they made it a habit to steer clear of him. While the reasons for them doing this are ultimately unclear, later events might provide some insight.
Over the years, Eugene continually used the money he made from farming for buying land surrounding his property. Ultimately, he acquired over 480 acres, a large farm by 19th century standards. There was no way that he could work that much land by himself, so the reclusive Butler was forced to hire more workers.
While not exactly what most people would refer to as a ‘people person,’ no one seemed to think any worse of Butler, either. He was stingy, and for several years had been rather eccentric.
Around 1906, however, Eugene’s mental health took a turn for the worse.
He became very paranoid, and was convinced that people were following him, working against him toward unknown ends. Butler knew this because voices were telling him about it.
Butler began to ride his horse down the roads and across the fields at night, screaming at the top of his lungs. At first, it used to scare the hell out of everyone that heard. When screams like that break the still of the night, people have a tendency to get nervous.
But, like so many things, if they go on long enough, people adapt. Eugene Butler’s nightly screaming rampages were no exception. Instead of being afraid, they were annoyed, and probably still a little worried. The locals approached the local authorities and asked them to do something about it.
Butler was detained and assessed as insane, after which he was sent to the State Hospital for the Insane in Jamestown, North Dakota.
Doctors quickly found out about the paranoia and the voices in his head. Butler was convinced that the conspirators had continued to follow him, and had hidden themselves among the people working at the hospital.
Butler also had delusions of grandeur. Outside, he believed that every woman in the area around Niagara was lusting after him. Inside the institution, Butler thought that he ran the hospital and that everyone there was employed by him.
He didn’t like to be told what to do by anyone, and would become angry when they did.
He passed away quietly in 1911, having spent most of his time at Jamestown drawing.
While Butler had exhibited no signs of violence during the years he had been institutionalized, clearly he had serious mental issues. Just because no one had seen him attack anyone didn’t mean that he hadn’t in the past. The skeletons buried underneath his house were a clear indicator of that. So who were the people buried underneath his house?
Eugene Butler was a man who spent most of his time alone, usually doing the majority of his socializing with hired hands. This gave him ample time to commit the murder and hide the bodies undetected.
Police initially proposed that Butler had killed some of his hired hands and then hid their bodies under the house. While motive wasn’t clear, it had already established that Butler was a paranoid man that heard voices telling him about how other people were seeking to cause him misfortune. It made sense that something had triggered Butler to kill a handful of his workers and then conceal the evidence.
However, when doctors examined the skeletons more closely, this was quickly disproved.
The five bodies that had been found close together were estimated to have been murdered at about the same time, while the body found apart from them had been killed at a later time. Not only that, but the group of five consisted of one man, one woman, and three children.
Because they had been killed at about the same time, it was theorized that the five might have been a family group. The other body had been male and was killed at a separate time.
No clothing was found at the site, despite careful digging around the entire cellar area. Because most of it would have probably rotted away, the investigators took extra care to look for buttons or any other kinds of fasteners that could last a long time in the ground without disintegrating.
Because nothing was found, it was theorized that Butler must have stripped the bodies and burned their clothes.
An even bigger problem was that when police asked the neighbors from around the Butler home about who the skeletons might have been, no one could remember anything about a family disappearing suddenly from the area, or anyone else for that matter.
There were no crimes, no disappearances, no people suddenly moving away, nothing.
Police were at a dead end, and they had no more leads.
Their chief suspect had been dead for years, and there was no way to identify the bodies. In spite of the best efforts of the police, the case quickly grew cold.
In 2016, police looked into the possibility of taking some of the bones and finding a DNA match. Unfortunately, the bones had already been taken by the grisly souvenir hunters who were at the old Butler farm in 1915. None had ever been returned.
Eugene Butler had gone to North Dakota to farm. He bought some land, built a house, and, over the next twenty years, turned them into a very profitable and successful farmstead. But as his fortunes grew, his sanity began to gradually dwindle away, eventually confining him to a mental institution.
Not even his doctors knew the extent of his madness. Eugene Butler hid the darkest parts of it away like he had hidden away his victims, leaving no one the wiser until it was much, much too late.
Sadly, history only remembers the nameless, faceless victims in connection with their murderer. One day some of the bones might be discovered again, or some other breakthrough brought to light. Until then, their lives have to be imagined, and the fact that they were living, breathing human beings victimized by a monster always kept in mind.
I would like to thank Mr. Troy Larson, who wrote extensively about Eugene Butler on his blog, Ghosts of North Dakota, in 2017. Mr. Larson and his blog partner, Terry Hinnenkamp, have been writing about the great state of North Dakota for over fifteen years.
Not only do they share great stories, Larson and Hinnenkamp also take amazing pictures from all over their beautiful state. If you get a chance, stop over and look through their site; it’ll be well worth the visit. You can find it at www.ghostsofnorthdakota.com.
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Larson, Troy. The Strange Tale of the Midnight Rider: Serial Killer Eugene Butler. http://www.ghostsofnorthdakota.com, 6/23/2017
Larson, Troy. Niagara, North Dakota: Former Home of a Serial Killer. http://www.ghostsofnorthdakota.com, 3/1/2016
Iler, Amy. From Years Past: A North Dakota Serial Killer & the Devils Lake “Serpent” It Takes 2 with Jack & Amy, 6/26/2017
Notice of Sale of Real Estate. Grand Forks Herald, 12/24/1912
Eugene Butler’s Insanity. Jamestown Weekly Alert, 7/8/1915
Niagara Recluse Murdered Six. The Ward County Independent, 7/1/1915
Six Bodies With Skulls Crushed Are Found at Niagara, N.D. The Bismark Tribune, 6/27/1915
Six Skeletons Were Unearthed. Jamestown Weekly Alert, 7/1/1915
The Six Skeleton Mystery. Jamestown Weekly Alert, 7/1/1915
Believed Butler Murdered Family. The Bismarck Tribune, 7/1/1915
Inmate For 8 Years. Jamestown Weekly Alert, 11/9/1911
Old Larimore Case Recalled By Death. Grand Forks Herald, 11/1/1911
Jamestown Weekly Alert, 2/4/1904
The Bismark Tribune, 2/1/1904
New York Attorney in the City. Grand Forks Herald, 10/20/1906
Believes His Brother Victim At Niagara. The Weekly Times-Record, 7/22/1915
Jamestown Weekly Alert, 10/26/1911
Linnabery, Ann Marie. Niagara Discoveries: Niagara, N.D., got its name from former New Yorkers. Ockport Union-Sun & Journal, 4/19/2014.
Public may hold key to solving 100-year-old ND murder mystery. http://www.inforum.com, 3/1/2016
Hornung, Sabrina. Eugene Butler Had a Secret: Niagara’s Unsolved Murder Mystery. http://www.hpr1.com, 2/7/2018
United States Census Records
New York State Census Records
State Historical Society of North Dakota Website – http://www.history.nd.gov
Body of person dead for years is found in old Council Bluffs grocery store. http://www.1011now.com
Davis, Tyler J. Police: Body foundin shuttered Council Bluffs supermarket may have been there for years. Des Moines Register, 1/24/2019
Brummer-Clark, Courtney. Body discovered inside vacant No Frills store on West Broadway. The Daily Nonpareil, 1/24/2019
Hignett, Katherine. Dead Body Found Between Shelves and Coolers At Iowa Supermarket Closed Since 2016. Newsweek, 1/25/2019
Khanyi Molomo, 20 Images of Treasure Hunters Making the Discovery of a Lifetime. http://www.thetravel.com, 10/28/2018
Melrose, Kevin. ‘Action Comics’ #1 found in wall of house sells for $175,000. http://www.cbr.com, 6/12/2013
Butler Feared That His Life Was In Danger. The Bismarck Tribune, 6/29/1915