More Unsolved MN Mysteries

First, read this month’s feature on Minnesota’s greatest mysteries. Then come back here for experts’ expanded guesses on a few. Finally, offer your own take on the truth behind these mysteries—or suggest a mystery we might have missed—in the comments section below. What’s mysterious to you about Minnesota?

Who Killed the Congdon Heiress?

Thoughts from Joe Kimball, MinnPost columnist and author of Secrets of the Congdon Mansion:

I had just started at the Tribune, in 1977, and it was my first year at the paper. I was hired to work on the farm-home section: How to weather-proof your home, what’s the best way to bail your hay. And then on Monday morning in June of 1977, I headed up to Duluth to work on a story about strawberry farmers when I heard on the radio that police had just discovered a double homicide. I thought, That sounds better than strawberries.

I ended up staying in Duluth for the rest of the summer, bought clothes, stayed in a hotel. The paper let me be the point guy on the scene.

The next summer, Roger Caldwell was charged with the crime, and then the trial was held in Brainerd. So I was in Grandview Lodge for the summer. They convicted Roger and then charged Marjorie. We knew she was in Denver during the crime and so it would only be conspiracy charges. I actually testified at them.

Her defense attorney, Ron Meshbesher, was the guy then. He found a few facts that seemed kind of fishy at the time. He got some pretty good stuff, and Roger wouldn’t implicate her. So she got off.

Roger appealed, and after five years, the state Supreme Court said he deserved a new trial. By 1980, the prosecutors up there were very worried that with this new evidence Roger might get off. They offered him a plea bargain. I went back to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he was living then, to see if he’d ever roll over on Marjorie. He said, “I thought about that for about 3 seconds.” In five years he got out.

And this is why the mystery stays alive, because Marjorie became this unbelievably roguish character afterwards. Acquitted of the murder, Marjorie remarried while Roger was in prison. I only heard about the new husband because my aunt went to church with him. And Roger never got divorced. So they charged Marjorie with bigamy.

Then Marjorie got convicted of burning down a house in Minneapolis. She and Wally Hagen, her new husband, moved to Arizona. And suddenly over the course of a few months, houses around them started burning down. Police were sure that it was kids messing with the snowbirds. But someone had put a kerosene-soaked rag on this window-sill, and it turned out to be Marjorie. She was sentenced to 15 years.

Roger in the meantime had killed himself. Then Wally ends up dead and Marjorie is charged with murder. After this, Wally’s kids started thinking back. Their mother died mysteriously in a nursing home and Marjorie was the last to see her. Wally’s kids wanted to bring his body back to Minnesota, by the way, but Marjorie wanted him buried. A judge had to say, We’ll cremate him and you each get half. You can’t make this stuff up.

As for the mansion in Duluth, in the late 1970s, early 1980s, they started letting people in for the tours. I went on one of the early ones and they would not even acknowledge that there’d been a murder—this was unbelievable. There were still some relatives of the Congdons around, apparently, and the University of Minnesota, had they had bequeathed the mansion to, wanted to emphasize the family’s philanthropy—they didn’t want to make it the murder mansion.

Of course, by not acknowledging it, they kind of kept this mystery going.

What’s Killing our Moose?

Thoughts from Gretchen Mehmel of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources:

Moose in Minnesota, especially in northwestern Minnesota, have declined precipitously and the cause is not certain. We’ve found them lying there dead. They weren’t preyed upon. We found them full of parasites—death by parasite and disease. A lot of people scoffed at this idea. Oh, they said, we can tell you it’s poachers shooting them or wolves eating them. But we didn’t find wolves to be driving the population.

Now, during the same period of time that we’ve been watching moose numbers decline, the temperature has been going up, we’ve had longer growing seasons, etc. There’s a correlation there. Metabolically, the moose are spending so much time maintaining their body temperature, they don’t have the ability to fight off all the parasites.

It’s a range change, and we’re at the very southern edge of moose range. So with warming temperatures, it’s contracting further north.

In northeastern Minnesota, you have more shade, because there are more confiers, so the supposition there is that although the heat is getting to them, and we’re seeing moose tipovers, they’re able to survive longer because they’re not spending as much time trying to lower their body temperature.

To be honest, I don’t have much hope for moose in northwestern Minnesota. We got used to having lots of moose, I was seeing them every day. And now you talk to kids in school and they’ve never seen a moose.

Why was Hole in the Day Assassinated?

Thoughts from Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and author of The Assassination of Hole in the Day:

A lot of the sources that the reporters of the assassination used were whites from Indian Affairs offices. Two investigations sponsored by the government got as far as walking up to Leech Lake and saying no one will talk to us.

Histories written about the Native American experience have typically followed the same course: White man shows up, Indian goes downhill. They rely on archives, but a lot of stuff you can’t find in the archives. And non-native academics have a hard time penetrating native communities. So you end up with this assumption about natives that there is this ancient, static, harmony with mother nature thing, that nothing has ever changed. But the fact is that there was plenty of change within native communities, and the Hole in the Day story exemplifies that.

Even prior to contact with Europeans, the clan system was changing; warrior clans dominating on the frontier to the west; other clans dominate at Red Lake. There was flux in leadership patterns long before Europeans came.

You also have to understand that Hole in the Day’s character is just out of this world, so outrageous and complicated. You can’t help but cheer for him. But he does things obviously self-serving—he was a signator on almost every land cession treaty for Ojibwe. And at the same time that Objibwe were being deprived of their land, he insisted on things for his heirs. There is a perception that he was a profiteer, some is justified, some is scapegoating.

He married a white woman, kept her with his other Objibwe wives and they had a child together. Crazy stuff. Just strange. But it shows his charm and charisma, and willingness to see past racial lines. It reinforces this perception among his own people that he’s an outsider even though he’s in charge.

He did have an incredible amount of power; had he lived longer there likely would be a reservation around Crow Wing, where he was living, and the removal of Indians to White Earth would have been very different.

He was proclaiming to be chief of an entire region, not just a village, even in places half populated by whites. His claims were in excess of his own authority, but he did successfully maintain position for himself.

In the prologue of the book, I set up everyone who had a motive to kill him, people from Leech Lake who took all these risks, leaders from Mille Lacs upset with him constantly trying to assert more authority in their area, usurping their power in treaty negotiations. Some treaties were only signed by Hole in the Day and a guy under him. In 1861, he wrote to President Lincoln: I’m willing to represent the U.S. government. The Red Lakers are like, who the hell is this guy. Non-native people, missionaries. The other bigger part of the story is his relationship with white and mixed-blood traders from Crow Wing—for a long time he had cultivated their friendship.

They worked for an American fur company and private traders. They served as interpreters at treaties and arbiters and they helped Hole in the Day get more authority than he deserved. Ultimately, the economy was changing, beavers going out of style in Europe. So Indians were cut out of the economy. And eventually they run out of land to sell. Mixed blood and white traders would have to find a different way to make money. Some saw opportunity in moving Indians to White Earth.

Hole in the Day, who had been courting their friendship, then says I don’t have any more annuities or land to barter with. And in making a treaty, he includes a provision to exclude mixed-bloods.

So they’re the ones who do him in. They successfully orchestrated a coup d’etat and hired guys from Leech Lake to do the killing. These traders, soon as Hole in the Day was out of the way, about six or so became Indian agents at White Earth. They were the primary benefactors of White Earth.

After he was killed, no one knew who did it. A few decades later, in an unrelated investigation of land trade and swindles, these traders’ names keep popping up. The assassins had been quiet for decades, but 40 years later, the dynamic was different. And the guys who had hired them to do the shooting had been intentionally impoverishing them. When you put those pieces together, you ultimately get the names of the triggermen.