For 115 years, the murder of 15-year-old Grace Burns has gone unsolved. But everyone knew who did it.

FARGO — In the weeks after finishing 7th grade at Hawthorne Elementary School in Fargo, Grace Burns took an interest in boys. The winter snows had melted; spring slid into the warmer months of summer. By June 21, 1907, she managed to keep her romantic rendezvous at the Red River secret from her mother, who worked as a maid.

Blessed or cursed with the looks of an older woman, she was known as “Pretty Grace Burns,” according to newspaper reports. A cheerful girl, smart in school, she wore her hair parted in the middle and tied in the back with ribbons.

Her paramour was a “Chicago tough,” 22-year-old Charles McCartney, who Grace knew by the alias Roy Smith, according to an in-depth report published by The Forum in 1956. McCartney told his partner in petty crime, Tommy Ryans , that he “was crazy about Grace Burns.”

When passersby saw young Grace along the river, waiting, she made up stories that she was being whipped at home and was running away, or that she planned on taking a trip to see her estranged father, a gambler, Michael Burns, whom her mother divorced.

Several times, people saw her and McCartney together. Once on a rainy night, they were spotted sneaking into a boxcar along the nearby railroad tracks. When approached, they ran, but not before the onlooker got a good look at McCartney who was thin, wore overalls, and favored a black felt fedora.

Grace left her home at about 4 pm on June 21, and “disappeared as if the earth had swallowed her,” the Bismarck Tribune reported on Aug. 9, 1907. She was tasked with going to Huffaker’s meat market in Moorhead before supper, but she took a detour — again — to the Red River.

Her body was found five days later, beaten, strangled. Two young boys while out playing found her corpse floating on the Minnesota side of the river.

To this day, despite fortune tellers and Pinkerton spies, 115 years later, her case remains officially unsolved.

Grace Burns when she was 15 years old in 1907, published in The Forum, Jan. 8, 1956.

Contributed: The Forum Archives

‘Grace was only a little girl’

Hilda J. Burns, Grace’s mother, waited three days before going to the police, who immediately began asking about Grace’s personal life.

At first, Hilda told police that she thought her daughter would return, and she refused to believe that her daughter had any boyfriends.

“Grace was only a little girl,” and she kept company with no one, Burns told police.

As the investigation unfolded, doubt was cast on the mother’s story, but no one in the community could blame her, according to 1907 reports in The Forum and the Bismarck Tribune.

Despite a local $500 reward for any information leading to an arrest of a suspect, police came up empty handed and by that fall Gov. John Burke added $1,000 to the reward, a total equivalent of about $50,000 today.

Hilda became overwhelmed with grief and family members reported that they feared she was losing her mind. Early in 1908, a criminal named “Gold Tooth” Murphy told a story about Grace’s murder of her while en route to a Minnesota prison. Investigators pounced on what they believed was a confession, but later proved that he was following the mystery in the newspapers.

After more than three years of mystery, the case against chief suspect Charles McCartney, falls flat citing a lack of evidence to convict.

Contributed: Newspapers.com

“Then, (in 1908) suddenly, something happened in Great Falls, Montana, which was to open a door to the Burns case,” The Forum reported in 1956.

Tommy Ryan, who also went by the alias Joe Stanley, was arrested along with Edward Goodheart and McCartney for stealing $17,000 in drafts and $5 in cash from a US postal bag at Fargo’s Northern Pacific depot in 1908. The heist was a federal offense and was planned by “the biggest batch of desperadoes ever seen in Fargo at one time,” said US District Court Judge Charles F. Amidon.

McCartney went free, only to be arrested again on unrelated similar charges and sentenced to hard labor at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, but Ryan — who believed his partner double crossed him — eventually broke under questioning and named McCartney as Grace’s killer.

On June 7, 1909, The Forum ran the headline: “Foul murderer of Grace Burns, slain in June ’07, run down by federal officials, doing time in pen.”

What journalists did not know at the time was that McCartney had been suspected and shadowed for nearly two years, since his arrest for the Fargo heist, by US Marshal James F. Shea and Gilbert J. Stout, chief deputy US marshal.

The marshals said little at the time, mentioning to the press only that “The three men in the gang knew of the Burns killing,” and that McCartney would be returned to Fargo after finishing a sentence at Leavenworth Penitentiary, according to The Forum’s 1956 article , also evident from a lack of information from newspaper reports in 1909.

“Fargoans settled down to wait for Aug. 8, 1910,” the day that McCartney would be released and sent back to the city where many believed he murdered Grace, according to The Forum.

Shea and Stout presented their evidence for a warrant, which they believed was “in abundance.” They matched footprints along the Red River near the Old Red Brewery to Grace and McCartney. They had found nearly a dozen people who put them at the scene of the crime on days leading up to and on the day of the murder. They had testimony from Ryan claiming McCartney was the killer, and they knew Grace was also seeing another boy, and so they claimed McCartney had a motive: jealousy.

But Cass County State’s Attorney Arthur Fowler, the North Dakota attorney general and a “jurist of distinction” Cass County District Court Judge Charles A. Pollock, all agreed there wasn’t enough evidence to convict McCartney, and refused to issue a warrant for his arrest

Shea offered to pay for all prosecutorial expenses and that the reward money should go to Hilda Burns.

Neither suggestion met with please, according to The Forum.

Shea then made his evidence, a “thick bundle of affidavits and statements,” available to the press.

the three investigators.jpg
Three of the main investigators into the murder of Grace Burns in 1907: Gilbert J. Stout, chief deputy US marshal under James F. Shea, US marshal in Fargo, and JK Bingham, Cass County deputy sheriff.

CS Hagen/Forum News Service

McCartney’s guilty conscience

Within Shea’s documents, the public learned more about McCartney. He was sent to a reformatory in Ohio when he was 13, and in 1904 he was sent back to the same institution on an assault charge — for beating his own mother.

He arrived in Fargo in 1905 after his release, and was “strongly addicted to the use of cocaine and alcohol. When under the influence of either he was extremely dangerous.”

While in Fargo, people knew him as Roy Smith, and he was arrested in 1905 for larceny. The next year, he was arrested again for thievery in Montana, but broke out of jail and returned to Fargo in 1907, finding employment as a hack or hear driver for a Fargo liveryman.

He was a frequent caller at the Burns’ home, and Hilda believed he “was such a nice fellow,” and told Shea that “I could hardly believe he would do it (murder Grace).”

On the day of the killing, and the day after, multiple witnesses said they saw McCartney along the riverbank.

The night that Grace’s body was found, McCartney went to a grocery store on the first floor of the building where the Burns lived, talked to a family member and cried, saying he was sorry for Hilda.

On the day of Grace’s funeral, June 27, 1907, McCartney also asked his boss for permission to drive the hearse to her funeral.

“He was given permission. As the girl’s body was lowered in the grave he fell in a faint,” The Forum reported.

McCartney then dropped the use of his alias, Roy Smith, after the slaying. He was soon arrested again for larceny and confined in Cass County Jail. Upon release, he traveled to Oregon and was arrested again, returning to Fargo in 1908 for the “mail bag” job.

Guilt may have plagued McCartney after he was arrested for the mail bag job, because he made strange statements to investigators.

“You are not taking me back to testify against Goodheart. “You are taking me back for a more serious offense,” McCartney said at the time.

And when he saw Ryan in Cass County Jail, he said: “For God’s sake, Tommy, You wouldn’t swear my life away, would you?”

He also told a jailer, Max Richards, that he believed he would soon face charges for murdering Grace.

The place along the Red River where Grace Burns was murdered in 1907 The Forum Jan. 8, 1956.jpg
The place along the Red River where Grace Burns was most likely murdered in 1907. Photograph published by The Forum in 1956.

Contributed: Forum Archives

Fortune teller and a Pinkerton spy

Forty-eight years after Grace was murdered, JK Bingham, retired police officer and deputy sheriff assigned to the Burns case, opened up about the investigation to reporters at The Forum.

At 84 years old in 1956, he remembered pacing many miles up and down the banks of the Red River, looking for the place where Grace was tossed in, he said. I believed I found the site because imprints of “high shoes with Cuban-type heels” were discovered, which matched the shoes that Grace wore.

On the night of Grace’s funeral, he turned to the supernatural and consulted a fortune teller, or clairvoyant, who resided in the upper floor of FW Woolworth store, the current site of Halberstadt’s on Broadway.

“Even in 1907, clairvoyants were considered mountebanks, were barred by ordinance and were forced to practice their profession surreptitiously. They usually established themselves in an upstairs back room downtown where they enjoyed a thriving and fairly profitable business,” The Forum reported.

Bingham met the unnamed fortune teller during his days as a plainclothes officer, and she had already helped him solve at least three larceny cases. When he asked her about Grace’s murderer, her answer shocked him.

“Who is he?” Bingham said he asked.

“He is the man who drove the hear carrying his coffin to the grave,” she replied.

Bingham looked into the driver and found that he had been booked into jail and it was indeed McCartney. His problem, however, was how to connect the man with the crime.

“Try as he would, Bingham could not definitely pin the crime on the suspect. He could not assemble enough elements for an accusation. On the other hand, he could tell no one that his case was built on a clairvoyant’s trance. “He would have been hooted out of town,” The Forum reported.

It was shortly after Bingham’s visit to the fortune teller that the Pinkerton detective was called in. The man, who was not named, decided to “turn hobo and have himself confined in the county jail with the hackman in an effort to incriminate him,” The Forum reported.

The detective let his whiskeys grow, put on old clothes, and spent a total of about 37 days behind bars with McCartney.

“The detective’s cleverest tactics brought not the slightest results. The prisoner could not be led to talk,” The Forum reported.

The case was abandoned, the Pinkerton detective left, and Bingham had to turn his investigative skills elsewhere.

Charles McCartney while at the Minnesota state prison in 1915 as published by The Forum in 1956.jpg
Prison photograph of Charles McCartney, chief suspect in the murder of 15-year-old Grace Burns in Fargo, while at the Minnesota state prison in 1915 as published by The Forum in 1956.

Contributed: Forum Archives

In his third year of a five-year sentence for forgery, Charles H. McCartney died in a Minnesota prison in 1918.

“Who killed Grace Burns may never be definitely learned but there was no doubt in the minds of Marshal Shea, and his chief deputy, Gilbert J. Stout,” that McCartney was the murderer of Grace Burns.

 
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