Unsolved Mysteries

From the Kensington Runestone to the fact that Joe Mauer is still single, this state has plenty of explaining to do. Here, 10 questions to keep you up at night.

Did aliens attack Sheriff Val Johnson?

Al Johnson, a Marshall County deputy sheriff, was patrolling the emptiness near the North Dakota border on the night of August 27, 1979, when he saw a bright light arc strangely across the sky. He gave chase, but the light shot toward him then hovered above his car. He heard breaking glass then blacked out. When he came to, his eyes burned (a doctor likened the retinal damage to mild welder’s burn). The car’s antennae were oddly bent, a headlight was broken, and the windshield was smashed—from both outside and inside the car. Johnson’s wristwatch and the car clock were both running 14 minutes behind. “Involved in an accident with an unknown object,” read the police report. Johnson soon found himself at the center of one of the most famous UFO stories of the 1970s.

The Theories

The car in question, now parked in the Marshall County Historical Society Museum, still draws skeptics and UFO fanatics alike—while yielding no good explanations. Was a meteor shower to blame? What about the burn marks in a nearby field? As one investigator put it, “You would think that beings advanced enough to have an interstellar transportation system…would be able to avoid a collision.” Or maybe not.

Why was Hole in the Day assassinated?

He was the last truly powerful chief in Minnesota, the self-styled leader of the Upper Mississippi Ojibwe. But he was wildly inconsistent, negotiating with presidents one day, getting into barroom brawls the next; he rebuffed settlers but married a white woman. And in 1868, on his way to Washington, D.C., to fight the removal of Ojibwe to the White Earth Reservation, he was ambushed near Crow Wing by at least 12 Ojibwe men. The murder was barely investigated.

The Theory

“A lot of people had a motive to kill him,” says Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and author of the new book The Assassination of Hole in the Day. But Treuer suspects white and mixed-blood traders, who sought to run things on the new White Earth Reservation—Hole in the Day stood in their way. “They orchestrated a coup d’etat,” Treuer believes, hiring the killers from nearby Leech Lake.

Read expert opinions on this mystery (and more) at MNMO.com/mysteries2010.

Why do so many celebrities marry Minnesotans?

What do Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Burt Reynolds, Phil Hartman, John Denver, Tiny Tim, Billie Joe Armstrong, and Maximilian Hoover (the socialite heir to the vacuum fortune) have in common? They’ve all slipped rings onto Minnesota gals’ fingers.

The Theories

Blondes. We’ve got ’em, some gentlemen prefer ’em. Too crass? Star Tribune television critic Neil Justin has another idea: “Celebs may enjoy dating groupies, but when they’re ready to settle down, they want a partner, not a fan. And Minnesota women just tend to be more grounded and responsible than those raised in la-la land.”

Who stole the ruby slippers?

For years, a pair of ruby slippers used in the filming of The Wizard of Oz was occasionally displayed in the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids. But one morning in 2005, the museum was broken into and the most valuable shoes in the world—insured for more than
$1 million—were snatched. The pumps remain at large.

The Theories

 The leading suspect was a local ne’er-do-well, but police lacked proof. Given the insurance payoff, some fans suspect the shoes’ owner, a former child actor living in Hollywood who had loaned the pair to the museum for the exhibition. He, in turn, suspects obsessed fans. Flying monkeys, anyone?

What’s killing our moose?

As recently as the late 1990s, there were thousands of moose chilling in the swamps of northwestern Minnesota; now there are maybe a couple hundred. In northeastern Minnesota, the die-off has been slower but steady. Soon, moose may only be found here in gift shops.

The Theories

Bullwinkle may have dodged Boris and Natasha, but he’s no match for climate change. The dead moose show no sign of injury but are generally filled with parasites, probably because they’re expending so much energy beating the heat that they can’t fight the buggers off. Which explains why northeast Minnesota is retaining more moose than the northwest—it’s simply shadier.


Are the Minnesota Vikings Cursed?

Fans have the numbers seared into their consciousness, if not their forearms: four Super Bowls and four championship games lost.

The Theories

 Some fans blame the whiskey bottle thrown by a Vikings spectator in a 1975 playoff game, knocking an official unconscious. Others note that the Kensington Runestone mentions 22 Norwegians—the same number of starting players in football—beset upon by enemies. To Paul Allen, the Vikings’ play-by-play announcer on KFAN, “The idea of curses is stupid. If we win the Super Bowl this season, the conversation is over. If we win the next two, we’ll be the cat’s ass again.” Which apparently is a good thing.

Who killed the Congdon heiress? 

It was murder most cliché in 1977 when elderly heiress Elizabeth Cong-don was snuffed with a pillow at the sprawling Glensheen mansion in Duluth and her maid was whacked with a candlestick. The suspects? Congdon’s adopted daughter, Marjorie, and Marjorie’s husband, Roger Caldwell. Roger confessed, Marjorie got off.  But was Marjorie truly innocent, or had she masterminded the whole thing , just to claim her inheritance a few years early?

The Theories

“The story keeps going because Marjorie has become this unbelievably roguish character since the trials,” says MinnPost columnist Joe Kimball, who authored Secrets of the Congdon Mansion. She married again while Roger was imprisoned (drawing bigamy charges) and never shared the inheritance with Roger. Then her new husband turned up dead. Police charged Marjorie but never followed through because she was headed to jail anyway—for arson. In short, Kimball notes, Marjorie hasn’t acquitted herself well.

Is there a Minnesota Stonehenge?

Jutting from the prairie in Blue Mounds State Park is a low wall of large stones about a quarter-mile long—that just happens to align with the sun during the equinox. Was it built by an ancient sun-worshipping people? Or simply an industrious, and unwitting, farmer?

The Theories

 “Sometimes a rock wall is just a rock wall,” says Mark Hollabaugh, who teaches ethnoastronomy, the study of how cultures regard celestial phenomena, at Normandale Community College. American Indians would probably have oriented their sun-watching to points on the horizon rather than build a structure. And besides, he notes, there are many directionally oriented structures in our midst; we just tend to know who built them. “No one gets very excited about the fact that France Avenue is perfectly north-south.”


A purple riddle wrapped in a pompadour inside a house in Chanhassen.

The Theories


What Sank the Edmund Fitzgerald?

On November 9, 1975, the “Mighty Fitz” chugged away from Superior, Wisconsin, loaded with taconite. It was soon enveloped in gale-force winds, heavy snow, and 35-foot waves—some of the largest ever spotted on Lake Superior. The next day, Fitz captain Ernest McSorley radioed that the ship was listing badly, had lost both radars, and was awash in water on deck. “This is one of the worst storms I’ve ever been in!” he cried. At 7:10 p.m., he radioed again, saying the ship was “holding its own.” And then, within minutes, it vanished from radar. The ship was later found on the lake floor, snapped in half.

The Theories

1) Leaky hatches. 2) The crew may have accidentally steered the ship onto shoals, tearing a hole. 3) The ship may have been battered by three unusually high waves reported in the area, a phenomenon known as the “three sisters.” “There are many theories but two certainties,” says Konnie LeMay, editor of Lake Superior magazine and The Night the Fitz Went Down. “Lake Superior storms can destroy the strongest vessels, and 29 families never saw their loved ones again. This is why it strikes a chord to this day.” 

Mysteries Solved: Answers to Other Burning Questions

Why is it called Scotch Tape?

It’s an ethnic joke, riffing on the idea that 3M’s Scottish founders were too cheap to give the tape more adhesive.

Why is everything called “northwest” here, from Northwest Airlines to Norwest Bank?

From 1787 until 1803, a swath of the country from Ohio to eastern Minnesota was officially the Northwest Territory. The name stuck.

Why did those NWA pilots overshoot Minneapolis?

We may never know, but they were probably tuned to the wrong radio frequency. They claim they were absorbed in working on their laptops.

Is Har Mar Superstar still alive?

Yes, and reportedly working on an HBO series with Juno’s Ellen Page.