NIAGARA, N.D. — It's one of North Dakota's biggest murder mysteries: The name of the serial killer is known. The names of the victims are not.
We take a closer look at the case, and how advances in science along with your help could identify the victims more than a century later.
It's a small farming community of about 50 people on the far western edge of Grand Forks County. But a nightmare is part of this sleepy town's history.
“If someone says Niagara, you mean that's where that guy buried all those dead people,” said Niagara resident Laurel Nabben.
Eugene Butler didn't just bury seeds on his farm but also bodies.
“It’s a little piece of our history,” explained Nabben.
History describes Butler as a loner and paranoid. He was eventually committed to an insane asylum in 1906 and died several years later. A few years after his passing, while tearing down a house where a workshop stands today, a secret was unlocked. A secret Butler took to the grave.
"The fact there was that many bodies out at that scene," said Sergeant Dan Hillebrand with the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department.
Six nude bodies buried in a crawlspace underneath the house that could only be accessed through a hidden trapdoor in the floorboards. Some reports say it was a family of five plus one more victim. Others suggest all the bodies were males between the ages of 15 and 18. All reports indicate the victims were killed with a sharp object, sharp enough to put a hole in their skulls. Legs were broken on some of the victims so they would fit in the shallow graves.
“I'm assuming it was a rather limited force with a sheriff and possibly a few deputies,” explained Hillebrand referring to the department back in the early 1900s.
The sheriff at the time believed the serial killings took place over a period of several years. Since Butler was already dead the motive remains a mystery. As the story was passed down over the years many theories have been mentioned, the victims may have been housekeepers who were costing too much, farmhands plotting to rob Butler, or possibly a homosexual relationship that ended violently. The case file is nowhere to be found today.
"If they existed they would have been in the courthouse somewhere, in the basement area, and they could have washed away or been destroyed. I'm not even sure they existed back then - just a mystery what happened to the records," said Hillebrand.
The victims were never identified. Police believe Butler burned the clothes to hide their identities.
“How sad it would be that they were missing and nobody knew it, or a loved one was looking for them and never found them,” said Nabben.
According to newspaper clippings at the time, when townspeople got wind of the serial killings they flocked to the farmstead to collect bones belonging to the victims and took them as souvenirs. So we raised the question: if someone reading this story has one of those bones could it help identify the victims even if 100 years have gone by?
“The probability is high we would be able to extract DNA, because the techniques are dramatically improved now,” said University of North Dakota anthropology professor Doctor Phoebe Stubblefield.
She explains even the smallest piece of bone could provide some answers.
“DNA will give us the same level of specificity which population are they descendent from,” said Stubblefield.
Scientists say the bigger the bone, like a skull or femur, the more useful it would be. Dr. Stubblefield would not be surprised if skulls from this event still exist as they are often kept as trophies.
“If there is a story attached to that skull you just keep it. Especially the family members will maintain possession, just keep passing it down and pass the story down,” she explained.
But making a positive ID is impossible without a DNA match. Someone has to be looking for the victim. Lately the odds of finding a match have improved with more people researching their ancestries, and with larger DNA databanks of missing persons.
“The icing on the cake will someone come forward and say I’m missing a relative, could this be my relative from the early 1900s that we know disappeared?” commented Stubblefield.
A community hoping advances in science could unbury the identities of the six murder victims.
“Another piece of our history, closure definitely,” said Nabben.