John B. Hazlett, the son of a farmer, was born on the East Coast. Lloyd Van Buskirk was born 17 years later. He too was the son of a farmer and born on the East Coast. Through a morbid twist of fate, in 1906, they both found themselves in a small North Dakota farm town, one of them dead on the butcher’s shop’s floor, by the other’s hand.
The sons of East Coast farmers
John was born in 1844. He was child number three to Samuel and Elenore Hazlett, farmers in Pennsylvania. The Hazletts moved to Iowa when John was a small child, where he spent the rest of his childhood on his family’s farm. (1)
Lloyd was born in 1861. He was the 10th child of Samuel and Lavina Van Buskirk, farmers in Maryland. The family lived in Maryland for several years. (2) Like the Hazletts, they moved to Iowa where they too ran a farm. Lloyd left home when he was 18 years old and found work as a farmhand in a nearby county. (3)
The American Civil War broke out in the Spring of 1861. When John was 18, he and his older brother Gilberth caught wind that the Union Army was organizing a volunteer infantry in Dubuque, Iowa. They left home at once to enlist with the Iowa 12th Infantry. (4)
Their regiment saw action at the infamous Battle of Shiloh where they held off Confederate soldiers as long as they could before ultimately surrendering. Most of the regiment, including Gilberth, were taken as prisoners by the Confederate Army. John was one of the few who wasn’t. The prisoners were eventually returned in exchange for Confederate soldiers held by the Union Army. The brothers didn’t see any more action before they were discharged in early 1862. (5)
After the war, John settled down with his new wife, Mary, in Iowa. The two had a son, Samuel Kirk, named after his father. (3) The family ran a farm, but during the war, John had developed a chronic case of rheumatism, causing extreme pain in his joints, making it more and more difficult to keep up a farm. A career change was imminent. (6)
John’s career change
In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862. The new law allowed anyone to claim land — currently inhabited by Indigenous Peoples — as their own. (7) John took advantage of this free land and claimed the maximum 160 acres in Sioux City, Iowa in 1875. All he had to do was live on the land for five years and the land would be legally his, no strings attached. (8) (9)
Within the next 10 years, John had moved to South Dakota. Whether he sold his land in Iowa or kept it and leased it out, John had made substantial profit on the free land he received from the government. He was now on his way to leaving farming behind and building a career as a real estate broker. By the late 1880s, he had several land transactions under his belt throughout South Dakota. (10) (11)
By 1898, John not only had a new career, but he also had a new wife. He was now remarried to Lizzie Casey (12), a widow whose husband had died three years earlier. (13) She and her husband had two daughters, Veda, 8 and Nellie, 4. After the couple married, John raised the girls as his own. (14) When and why he and Mary divorced is unclear.
In 1900, Lloyd had found his way to Lidgerwood, North Dakota, where he met and married a beautiful young woman — 18 years younger than him — named Katie Busta. (15) Katie had immigrated to the United States with her family from Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic) when she was 4 years old. (16) Her family settled in Lidgerwood, North Dakota, and joined a thriving Bohemian community. (17)
Lloyd and Katie spent a brief time in Iowa, where they had one child, a son named Ernest. (18) To be closer to her family, they moved to North Dakota where they welcomed a baby girl, Anna, in 1903. (19)
Geneseo, Sargent County, North Dakota
John wasn’t the only one who took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862. The ultimate goal of the law was to encourage US colonization in the Midwest and Great Plains by everyday people, not just the few wealthy elite.
However, that’s not what happened. Instead railroad companies would snatch up this land, declare a town and then build railroads through them. This is how Geneseo — a small town in Sargent County, North Dakota — was founded by the Great Northern Railroad. (20) The land in and around Geneseo was praised for its rich soil. The new railroad, combined with fertile farmland, attracted settlers from neighboring states like Minnesota and South Dakota. The Soo Railroad did the same and named a neighboring town Alicia. (21)
John, considering himself a real estate mogul, brought his family to Geneseo in 1902. Seeing the potential of great profit in buying land near the railroads, he bought land in between the Great Northern Railroad and the Soo Railroad and declared it a new town. He named it Veda, after his oldest step-daughter.
John made it incredibly easy to acquire land from him. This attracted new settlers to buy, build and settle there. Effectively rerouting growth from Geneseo to Veda. Though it was a small town, the people of Geneseo were very passionate and proud of their hometown. They felt like John had rolled in just to show them up.
Dell Holding was one of the longtime citizens he’d angered. Dell, the son of an ex-Minnesota State Legislator, owned substantial land south of the tracks in Geneseo. The Holding family played an integral role in the early white settlement of Sargent County and were prominent figures in the community. They undoubtedly took exception to this newcomer waltzing into town and staking claim to something they thought was theirs. Dell was no fan of John and the feeling was mutual.
John’s antagonism didn’t end at land grabbing. He also made it a habit to hit on other people’s wives. The problem had gotten so bad that a prominent man in Geneseo tried to have him arrested for — as the Grand Forks Daily Times put it — “alienating his wife’s affections”.
John wasn’t making very many friends in his new home. (22)
Lloyd moves to town
The Van Buskirks moved to Geneseo sometime in 1903. Lloyd, over the years, had refined his woodworking skills and was looking for work as a carpenter. (23) (22) Geneseo was a great location for the family, seeing as it was only 10 miles from Katie’s hometown where most of her family still lived. The couple built a house on land they had leased from none other than John Hazlett.
Lloyd had quickly developed a reputation of being “a bit of a braggart”. Having spent some time in Iowa as a farmhand, he considered himself a cowboy and would boast about it to whoever would listen. To his credit, with his height, dark hair and incredibly large mustache, he looked every bit the part.
John, however, had taken a liking to Lloyd and Lloyd didn’t see the side of John the other townspeople had seen. The two men became friends. John was always willing to lend the younger man a helping hand when he needed it most. He made it a habit of loaning Lloyd money when he was in trouble. Once, he even bailed Lloyd out of jail after he was charged with carrying a concealed weapon. (23)
A friendship sours
Lloyd became an ally when John sorely needed it. His feud with Dell Holding had only grown more bitter over the years. To make matters worse, there was another landowner, William Duvall, Dell’s neighbor, who had taken a dislike to him as well. John was fed up with the two of them and wanted them out of his hair.
One day, John came to Lloyd with a request. Kill Dell and William, steal their horses and take them 100 miles away to sell them. Lloyd wasn’t a fan of the idea. He had no interest in getting in the middle of John’s problems. He knew there had been some minor squabbles between the two men regarding Dell’s chickens and William’s farm land. Lloyd suggested John poison Dell’s chickens instead. The way he figured it, Dell would blame William and the two would then get into a fight and kill each other.
To say the least, John and Lloyd’s friendship would never be the same.
It wasn’t long after that Lloyd’s wife, Katie, made a confession; John had been giving her money, for what reason was never made clear. John had also been up to his old tricks. Katie told Lloyd that John had been coming to her, making improper advances. The latest was his most daring.
One day in September of 1905, Lloyd and Katie were harvesting their crops. Katie had been in the cornfield husking corn when John approached her. Since this wasn’t the first time he had approached her alone, she had thought she knew what to expect. But he surprised her with a shocking proposal; he wanted her to run away with him and get married. She declined.
With this new revelation, Lloyd and John’s already strained relationship was completely fractured. What was once a minor dislike for his friend turned into a bitter hatred. The two had begun fighting openly in public. It wasn’t unusual for them to threaten to shoot each other in front of several eye-witnesses. And it was known around town that Lloyd carried a pistol. (24)
Lloyd meets his fate in the butcher shop
It was a cold March morning, Lloyd was hanging out with Fred Forman in his butcher shop. John had spent the day hunting and was coming back into town. He owned the butcher shop and remembered he had some business to do there and stopped on his way home. Not knowing that Lloyd had been visiting with Fred, John entered the shop through the back and left his shotgun at the door. When he turned into the main room, he spotted Lloyd. He immediately went back to get his gun.
John reentered the room and the two men exchanged insults. Fred looked on, fearing the worst. John demanded that Lloyd leave. He literally owned the place, and he didn’t want him in his establishment.
Lloyd refused. He turned to Fred and asked if it wasn’t him who rented and operated the butcher shop. Fred replied that it was. Lloyd said then it was ultimately up to Fred to decide if he had to leave or not. Fred knew of the animosity that had been building between the two and could tell by the look in John’s eyes that if Lloyd didn’t leave, there would be trouble. He politely asked Lloyd to leave.
Lloyd finally agreed. He put on his coat, scarf and mittens and started to leave. Just as he made it to the door frame, John shoved him back with the barrel of his shotgun. The two exchanged more insults. John’s gun trained on Lloyd’s chest the entire time.
Lloyd was livid. He shouted that once he was free of the shop; he was going to go to the police to have John arrested. At that, John pulled the trigger and shot Lloyd in the chest at point blank range. A portion of his heart and a rib were blown away from his body. The bullet lodged in his back. He was killed instantly. (25) (24)
The town turns on John and rumors swirl
John, an old man in poor health, didn’t want to go to prison. He needed a way out of this. With Lloyd’s dead body seeping blood across the butcher shop’s floor, John hatched a scheme. He’d tell the police that Lloyd had shot himself. All he’d have to do is pay Fred, the only eyewitness to the murder, a substantial fee to corroborate the lie. Fred agreed to do it and the two men went to the police immediately to spin their web of lies.
It didn’t take long for word to spread around the tiny town that Lloyd was dead at the hands of John. Over the years, John had made few friends and many enemies, and the town turned on him immediately. Some of the townspeople were so angry they had even talked about taking matters into their own hands. They planned to go to the county jail, bust John out of his cell, drag him into the streets, and hang him themselves. Luckily for John, there was a large portion of the town that didn’t believe in capital punishment. They were able to talk the passionate crowd out of it.
No one in town was surprised that the feud had gone this far. The two men had been openly threatening to kill each other for the better part of a year. There were even rumors that John had been the father of Katie’s unborn child, rumors that were never substantiated. It seemed only natural that one of the men would end up dead by the other man’s hand. (26)
It didn’t take long for Fred to turn on John as well. When Fred was questioned by the coroner for his inquest he immediately confessed to the truth. He told them that John had promised him a large payout if he lied to the police and said Lloyd shot himself. But the truth was John shot him in cold blood. (24)
John was taken into custody and held without bail. (27)
Described as the crime of the century — as most murders of the time were — the trial drew considerable interest not just in Geneseo but the entire state of North Dakota. However, it got off to a rocky start. It took four whole days to choose a jury. A majority of the potential jurors said they couldn’t send a man to his death, no matter what crime he had committed. 88 men were interviewed before the final jury of 12 was selected.
John’s wife and two step-daughters were present for the entire trial. The Grand Forks Daily Herald described them as showing little trace of “agitation and one might easily believe from their demeanor that it was a little matter of business under consideration rather than the life of the head of the family at stake.” (22)
The prosecution presented three main motives to the murder. The first, that John was in love with Lloyd’s wife, Katie. And he’d do anything to have her all to himself.
Second, that Lloyd and Katie had caught John “in his barn in the act of committing sodomy”. Because of the time’s rampant homophobia, it was common for people to “accuse” each other of being gay, knowing it would ruin their reputations.
And third, that Lloyd had been bitter about John’s land grabbing schemes. The prosecution argued that although Lloyd lived in Veda, on land he leased from John, he worked in Geneseo and therefore developed a sense of loyalty for the town and its people. (24)
Katie, a 27-year-old widow with her six week newborn in her arms and her two other children at her side, was the prosecution’s star witness. Not only did she gain the sympathy of just about everyone present, but local newspapers widely praised her for her emotional strength. One reporter noted that she only became distressed when part of her husband’s heart and ribs were admitted as evidence.
Katie testified that John, for some time, had been making inappropriate advances towards her. It had been going on for at least a year. She said that John would find any excuse to be alone with her, often showing up unannounced when he knew Lloyd wouldn’t be home. But she had kept it all from her husband. She also testified to John asking Lloyd to kill William Duvall and Dell Holding, the two farmers John had become rivals with.
Katie was then cross-examined for several hours by John’s lawyer, William Lauder, a controversial figure of Sargent County. Though she did admit to letting John give her a ride to her father’s home once or twice, she was unwavering in the fact that his advances were unwanted.
Lauder also forced her to admit that Lloyd still owed John money for the lot their house had been built on. And that Lloyd had a lien that was being foreclosed on, which John had loaned him money to pay off. But nevertheless, she stuck to her story and never got confused or flustered under the hours of questioning.(28)
John’s side of it
John and his defense team had simple explanations for everything. He had never made any sort of advances towards Katie, instead; it was her who had come to him with unwanted propositions. They argued it was all a plan between her and her husband. They had got him caught up in “an entanglement” and then they blackmailed him. That’s why he had given her money. She had demanded it to keep her silence. The defense even submitted letters that were allegedly written by Lloyd and Katie demanding money from him. Katie swore they were forgeries.
As for the killing, John took the stand in his own defense. He claimed it was accidental. According to John, he was returning from a hunting trip and stopped by the butcher shop to attend to some business. He left his gun at the door. But when he saw Lloyd, he knew there was going to be trouble and went back and got his gun. Lloyd immediately started shouting insults at him. John pointed his gun at him, presumably to scare him into ending his insults. Lloyd grabbed the gun and there was a scuffle. Then the gun went off, shooting Lloyd in the heart. Killing him instantly.
The defense also claimed that even if the killing had been on purpose, it was justified. Lloyd had — more than once — threatened to shoot John. And it was common knowledge that he carried a pistol. John was constantly afraid for his life. If he had meant to kill him, it would have been in self defense. (22)
Before the jury was sent to deliberate, they were instructed that the burden of proof was on John’s defense team. In other words, they had to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that John had either accidentally shot Lloyd, or if he had shot him intentionally, it was in self defense.
After deliberation and without much fanfare, the jury came back with a verdict. On June 15, 1906, they found John B. Hazlett guilty of first degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. And was transferred to the State Penitentiary in Bismarck, North Dakota to serve his sentence. (29)
Hazlett’s defense team appealed the conviction in early 1907. (30) They argued that the jury had been given improper instructions when they were told that the burden of proof was on the defense. In reality, they argued, the burden of proof was on the prosecution to prove without a reasonable doubt that John had acted intentionally when he shot Lloyd. The appellate courts didn’t agree and upheld the conviction. (31)
John’s defense team took the appeal all the way to the Supreme Court of North Dakota, who ultimately found several things wrong with the prosecution’s case.
First, they found that the jury never should have been told that the burden of proof was on the defense. Judge Charles Fisk, in his opinion brief stated, “the instruction given was clearly erroneous, according to the overwhelming weight of authority, as well as upon principle and reason.”
It was also ruled that much of the prosecution’s evidence was inadmissible. The first being the charge of sodomy. John’s team had argued that “the inevitable effect of this testimony was to inflame the minds of the jury against the defendant.” Judge Fisk agreed.
The court also ruled that a portion of Katie’s testimony was hearsay and should not have been allowed.
John’s conviction was thrown out, and he was granted a new trial. (32)
In November 1907, John was granted a change of venue. The trial was moved from Forman in Sargent County to Lisbon in Ransom County. The new trial was set for June 1908. (33)
In April 1908, Hazlett fell ill, reportedly with “valvular heart troubles”, brought on by his chronic rheumatism. (34) As his health deteriorated, his new trial continued to get pushed back. (35) John Hazlett, ultimately passed away on November 7, 1908. He never made it to a second trial. (36)
The town of Geneseo was left rattled.
Katie married Alfred Travis in 1908. (37) The couple and Katie’s three children moved away from North Dakota and settled in his home state of New York. They went on to have five children of their own. (38) She passed away at the age of 78 in Hume, New York. (39)
John’s wife Lizzie moved with her two daughters, Veda and Nellie, to Appleton, Minnesota. (37) The family eventually made their way to South Dakota, where Lizzie died in 1958. She never remarried. (40)
Lizzie’s oldest daughter, Veda, the namesake of John’s new town near Geneseo, married Carl Busitzky in 1912. (41) The couple settled down in a small town in South Dakota called Walworth where the couple raised three children (42) and lived a quiet life until his death in 1957. (43) Veda then moved to Washington state with her daughter Mildred, where she died in 1965. (44)
William Duvall stayed in Geneseo and took over as the town carpenter. (47)
While John’s little town of Veda is no longer in existence, it can still be found on some legal documents as the Village of Veda in Kingston Township. (48)
We’ll Never Know
The Supreme Court ruled that John’s trial wasn’t fair. A lot of the prosecution’s case wouldn’t be admissible in a new trial. Then, the trial was moved to a neighboring county where opinions hadn’t already been made. This begs the question, would a second trial have been more fair? Would he have been convicted of murder or a lesser charge?
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