The Stoic Farmer: The Gilbert Family Murders, Part II


Warning: This material contains content that may be sensitive for some readers. Reader discretion is strongly advised. 


The argument was the same. It never changed.

Sell out and move to town, she said. “We’re not moving, Hazel,” Guy replied.

And round and round they went. Guy was always reserved, never emotional. He didn’t yell, he didn’t scream. He just told her no, matter-of-factly. Every time.

The plain truth is that we don’t know why Hazel wanted to move off their farm in rural South Dakota, only that it was important to her. Beyond that, we’re left to speculate.


Guy and Hazel’s Farm, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Daily Argus-Leader


Guy had been a farmer when he married Hazel in 1931. Farming had always been a hard life, even when things were going well.

A farmer is always at the mercy of the wind, rain, and sun, not to mention insects and disease. If a farmer got hurt, there was no workman’s compensation. They would have to either get help, push through their handicaps, or sell everything and move away. For farmers, life was always a gamble.

However, if fate was a casino, then the house had been playing a vicious game with South Dakota agriculture for nearly twenty years.

In 1915 and 1916, European demand for American agricultural goods was enormous. Not only did they have troops to feed, they also had to feed the citizens left behind on the home front. With higher demand came higher profits for farmers. Many were eager to ride this new wave of prosperity.

In South Dakota, farmers took advantage of new legislation to get more land, mortgaging their land and property to gain even more. And why not?

The prevailing theory was that it would take Europe quite a while to bounce back from the ravages of war. Most of their previously fertile farm fields were now an unrecognizable hellscape of broken trees and unending mud. People needed food, and they had to get it from somewhere. Midwestern farmers were only too happy to provide for them.

The money was coming in better than ever, and profits continued to rise. As long as that money kept coming in, they could pay off whatever they borrowed and come out stronger for it.

Unfortunately for them, that all ended with the advent of the new decade in 1920.

Europe had bounced back faster than anyone had believed possible. They were growing increasingly self-sufficient, and no longer needed American agricultural support. Now farmers had a surplus of crops and had no one to sell it to. Demand for these crops dropped rapidly, like a stone into a well. As demand fell, so did profits. At the same time, taxes and the cost of regular commercial goods started to rise. The farmers who had gambled on being able to pay back mortgages on land and equipment were finding it harder and harder to pay off their accumulated debt.

While the rest of America wouldn’t feel the ravages of the Great Depression for several more years, it had already begun for Midwest farmers as early as 1920.

Hazel had seen all of this as she grew up on her family farm near Doland, South Dakota. She had lived the life, and knew how hard it could be. Guy, like her, had grown up on a farm in the same area. When he had asked her to marry him, they both and known what they were in for. Or, at least Hazel thought that she did. She would have been wrong.

In 1930, the year prior to their marriage, a major drought had hit South Dakota, turning miles of farm fields into hard-baked uselessness. Worse yet, and probably unrealized by many farmers, the soil itself had started to go bad.

In South Dakota, the soil is generally not very nutrient rich. When a crop is planted, those plants take a certain amount of those nutrients from the soil in order to grow healthy and strong. Years of over-farming the land to feed Europe had virtually killed it, turning it so thin it looked more like dust than soil. Crop yields started to decrease, and what could be grown was far from ideal.

Worse yet, when the wind blew, the dust went everywhere, coating everything in fine, black powder. Gigantic black dust storms, much akin to the sandstorms of the Sahara desert, blew across many of the western states that made up the Midwest. South Dakota was one of the northernmost states to experience this kind of phenomena.

To make matters worse, immense insect swarms, namely locusts, would occasionally come through and consume everything that the farmers could manage to grow under such awful conditions.

Government programs helped some farmers to make it through, but certainly not all. For nearly 10,500 farmsteads across the state, it was all just too much to handle. Many of these families sold off whatever they could and made their way to the west coast to make a fresh start.

But Guy and Hazel were not among them. They pushed on, managing as best as they could. The couple had even been blessed with two children:  9-year-old Norma and 4-year-old Ron.

Now, in 1940, after all that they had faced, Hazel was ready to leave. The subject had come up several times before, but this time Hazel broke down into tears. That was how the argument had ended. Eventually, Hazel stopped crying, and the couple went to bed.

The next morning, it was as if nothing had ever happened. Everything seemed fine. Guy had to leave that day to help a neighbor in their field. He said goodbye to Hazel and set out.


Hazel Gilbert, date unknown. Courtesy of the Daily Argus-Leader

Later that morning, at about 9 A.M., another farmer named George Fryer stopped by the farm to retrieve a machine belt that he had loaned to Guy.

When he pulled up in the yard, Hazel was at the well, drawing water. Ronald was nearby, making mud pies. Fryer greeted them, and told Hazel what he had come there for. She smiled and engaged in some friendly small talk with him. Fryer collected the belt and left without incident.

While everything had seemed fine to George, he would soon realize that he had become one of the last people to see Hazel alive.

On the afternoon of August 9, 1940, a steady stream of coal-black smoke billowed into the clear South Dakota sky near the town of Doland.

Two men, Charles Edwards and Herschel Liebig, both saw it from a farm about a quarter of a mile away. They knew that kind of smoke didn’t mean anything good, and went to investigate where it was coming from.

The smoke came from a still-burning vehicle that had been parked along a nearby road. Flames roared from the now broken windows, and the heat was far too intense for either men to get too close. They sat back down in their car and waited for the fire to die down.

As they talked, probably trying to figure out why exactly the car was there and who would have done something like that, one of them noticed something inside. As they looked, they realized that there was a body in the drivers seat.

A burning car was one thing, but bodies were a different matter. Together, they drove into town and contacted the local marshal, Norman Lockwood.


Remains of the Gilbert’s Car. Courtesy of the Daily Argus-Leader

After a few phone calls, the men headed back to the car, accompanied by the town fire department, the county sheriff, and the coroner. The fire was quickly put out and the investigators got to work.

Three bodies were found in the car – one adult and two children. They were carefully removed and taken to Doland.

Later that day, Guy came to see the authorities. He had two letters in his hand, which he handed over. He explained that they had been written by his wife, and he had found them on the table at home. As soon as he had read them, Guy knew that he had to bring them to the sheriff.

By the time they had finished reading it, the authorities knew the answer to the mystery of who was in the car, as well as the awful truth of why it was left burning in the road.

Guy wasn’t going to listen to her. Hazel knew that for sure now.

She broke down into tears, despair clawing at her heart. There was no way that they were going to get off that farm with him. It didn’t matter what she said, or what she did. Guy wouldn’t budge. A new wave of tears came as she struggled with what had to be done. There was one way off the farm, and now she knew that it would be the only way.

After a while, her tears stopped. She took a few deep breaths, and went to bed. Hazel had decided that tomorrow would be the day.

As Guy went to leave that morning, she wanted desperately to kiss him goodbye, but she didn’t. If she did, Hazel was afraid that Guy would suspect something, and would stop her. And that couldn’t happen. She had to get her and children away from the farm.

She watched him leave, then went about doing her normal chores. When George Fryer showed up later, Hazel put on a brave face and acted like everything was normal. It was much easier to do with him than it had been with Guy. After getting the machine part that he needed, Fryer left, suspecting nothing.

While Norma and Ronald played, Hazel wrote a note to Guy, explaining what she was going to do. After, she wrote a separate letter to her parents. When that was finished, she went to make preparations for what she had to do.

At about 1:30 that afternoon, the time had come to leave the farm.

Hazel went and got Norma, and asked her if she wanted to play a game of Blind Man’s Bluff with her. Essentially hide and seek, the person who is the finder is blindfolded and then, generally, spun around five times, after which the others in the game go and hide.

Norma Gilbert. Courtesy of the Daily Argus-Leader

The blindfold not only adds to the difficulty of the game, but also lends more fun for the people being sought as they watch the finder grope and stumble around.

Norma eagerly agreed to play. Hazel smiled and took out a blindfold. Norma was going to be the finder first.

Making sure that it was tightly in place, she had Norma begin counting as she walked quickly away.

As she listened to the numbers tick away, Hazel took out the .22 caliber rifle from where she had stashed it beforehand. Putting the stock firmly against her shoulder, she leveled her aim at Norma, and squeezed the trigger. It was time to leave the farm.

The report of the rifle came sudden and sharp. Norma fell limply to the ground, dead. A short time later, Hazel played the same game with little Ronald, with the same result.

Ronald Gilbert. Courtesy of the Daily Argus-Leader

After she was done, Hazel carefully wrapped her children in blankets, then carried them to the car. She laid Ronald on the floor and Norma on the back seat.

Returning to the house, she took the family shotgun and walked over to the table where she had left the letters. Sitting down, she added a postscript to the one for her husband. It said:

Norma was shot by me at a quarter to 2; Ronny at 10 to two. I am going to burn the car and all of us together so there will be no funeral expense.

Finished, Hazel returned to the car with the shotgun and drove to a spot near Doland.

Pulling over, she set fire to the blankets that she had wrapped around Norma and Ronald. They caught quickly, and the flames started to spread eagerly through the car. Taking the shotgun, Hazel placed the muzzle firmly under her chin, and squeezed the trigger.

She was never going to return to the farm.

The blast of the shotgun tearing through her skull was the last sound that she ever heard.

An official coroner’s inquest was held in the Doland town hall. Several locals came, crowding themselves into the building wherever they could. When there was no more room inside, they gathered around the windows, eagerly straining to hear all of the details of the case.

One by one, the inquest panel called the witness to give their testimony. When it came time for Guy to come forward, everyone must have held their breath. It had been his wife and children, after all.

Whatever they were expecting, it probably wasn’t a completely calm and stoic man. Whatever anguish and pain he felt, Guy kept it firmly in check, betraying nothing. Instead, he sat down like nothing had ever even happened, smoking his pipe. Guy didn’t even shed a tear as he was called to read the letter that Hazel had written specifically to him, not even when it talked about when she had murdered the children.

People took notice of his monumental self-control, but everyone already knew what had happened to the Gilbert family. And, as many hardships that had come everyone’s way over the past several years, nearly everyone there understood that everyone handles stress in their own way.

For his part, Guy mustn’t have had any idea what Hazel was planning. Couples argue all the time, and very rarely does anyone believe that their spouse is going to commit a murder/suicide if it doesn’t go t heir way. Not only that, but Hazel had taken careful steps to keep him from knowing, believing that he would have stopped her before she had a chance to carry out her awful plan.

There wasn’t anything left to do but mourn quietly and keep moving forward. The family was buried, and, starting in the 1940’s, life started to get better for farmers in South Dakota.

Eventually, Guy remarried a woman named Evelyn Hamilton. They settled down and had five children together, who all grew up and went on to have families of their own. Years later, Guy and Evelyn divorced and went their own separate ways.

Regardless, their son Gene always managed to stay close to both of them. He frequently made trips back to visit, sometimes announced and other times not. Even after Gene had taken his family to eastern Iowa, he always found time to come back.

So, while Guy Gilbert was probably a little surprised when Gene came to visit on January 4, 1981.

Guy took a glance outside, but didn’t see Gene’s wife and kids. That also wasn’t anything surprising. Most of the time when he showed up like this, Gene was by himself. They lived about eight hours away in Eastern Iowa, and that kind of trip can be hard enough by yourself, let alone with a bunch of cramped, uncomfortable kids.

Guy welcomed Gene inside.  Guy Jr., Gene’s brother, was also there, and the three of them sat down to talk. Overall, it was a pleasant visit.

The next morning, the two men left Gene sleeping on a cot while they went to a doctor’s appointment. When they returned that afternoon, they found Gene, dead. He had committed suicide by shooting himself with a revolver. The gun was lying on his chest, and a suicide note addressed to Guy Sr. was laying on the floor nearby.

Even for stoic Guy, this scene must have conjured horrible memories of Hazel, Norma, and Ronald unbidden to his mind. The memories must have only gotten stronger and more vivid after he received the news that, before his visit, Gene had already murdered his wife and five children.

To have suffered through such a tragedy once was more than enough for anyone, but now he faced it again.

Guy Gilbert buried his son in South Dakota, and then did what he had always done before – he moved on. There was nothing more to do. He mourned quietly, in his own fashion.

It was a hard lesson that he had already learned on a warm summer day nearly forty years earlier.




S.D. Mother Kills Children, Suicides. The Daily Argus-Leader, 8/10/1940

Doland Farm Woman Kills Two Children, Takes Her Own Life. Rapid City Journal, 8/12/1940

Iowa town rocked by suicide, murders. Lead Daily Call, 1/5/1981

Gilbert death ruled suicide; family shootings being investigated. Rapid City Journal, 1/6/1981 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012. 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012. 1940 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012.

South Dakota Department of Health; Pierre, South Dakota; South Dakota Marriage Records, 1905-2016

South Dakota Department of Health; Pierre, South Dakota; South Dakota Marriage Records, 1905-2016

Witt, Thomas. Corbett, Kathleen. Norton, Holly. Steely James. The History of Agriculture in South Dakota: Components for a Fully Developed Historic Context. Colorado; SWCA Environmental Consultants, 2013.

Collinger, Zachary. How to play Blind Man’s Bluff. 5/17/2017









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