Tuesday, June 28, 1977: The Congdon murders

Posted on June 27th, 2008 – 12:01 AM
By Ben Welter

Thirty-one years ago today, lumber-and-mining heiress Elisabeth Congdon, 83, and her night nurse, Velma Pietila, were slain at the Congdon mansion in Duluth. Congdon’s daughter, Marjorie Caldwell, and her husband, Roger Caldwell, were soon charged with the murders. He was convicted; she was acquitted. Roger killed himself 11 years later. Marjorie (now known as Marjorie Hagen — and also known at one point as Marjorie Congdon LeRoy Caldwell Hagen) has had many run-ins with the law since then, spending time in Minnesota and Arizona prisons on separate arson charges.

The two reporters and photographer who worked on this initial report on the murders left the Star Tribune last year, taking the buyouts offered after Avista Capital Partners bought the newspaper.

Duluth woman,
nurse slain

By Peg Meier and Joe Kimball
Staff Writers

Elisabeth Congdon, 83 years old and one of Minnesota’s richest people, was found slain in a bed of her Duluth mansion early Monday morning, a pillow smothering her face.

Her nurse, Valma [sic] Pietila, also was killed in the 39-room house. She had been beaten over the head with an 8-inch brass candlestick and died in a pool of blood on a stairway landing.

Congdon mansion, 1977
Tribune photo by Darlene Pfister
  A policeman guarded the mansion.

Duluth police said last night they had no suspects in the case, which has all the elements of the opening chapters in an Agatha Christie mystery. Inspector Ernie Grams said the motive apparently was robbery. “An empty jewelry box was on the floor of the bedroom and the room was ransacked,” he said.

A car stolen from the estate was found yesterday at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Authorities were concentrating their investigation on the North Shore of Lake Superior and at the airport during the day yesterday. But by evening they admitted they were back to combing the house and car for clues.

The bodies of the two women were found at 7 a.m. yesterday by a nurse who was to relieve Mrs. Pietila of nursing duties. Miss Congdon had suffered a stroke about 8 years ago and had around-the-clock nursing help. Paralyzed on one side, she was confined to a wheelchair.

A chauffeur and a gardener live on the 7 1/2-acre estate but sleep in servants’ quarters in separate buildings, police said. A cook was in the mansion Sunday night; she slept in a different wing from Miss Congdon and Mrs. Pietila. The cook, Prudence Renquist, said she heard no unusual noises during the night. She told police, however, that her poodle started barking at about 3 a.m.

A 7-foot-high fence made of brick and metal surrounds the estate. Two gates were kept padlocked.

Police theorized that the assailant or assailants broke into the house through a rear window in the basement, which they found broken. Mrs. Pietila apparently heard noises and went to investigate. Her bedroom was across the hall from Miss Congdon’s. She was hit at least once, and very hard, with the candlestick, police said, and fell down six steps to a landing. She climbed onto or was placed on a window seat on the landing, where she was found.

Blood, apparently Mrs. Pietila’s, was found on Miss Congdon’s pillow. Police said blood apparently had gotten on the killer, who had then rubbed against the pillow.

Velma Pietila
  Velma Pietila

Mrs. Pietila had been a regular nurse for Miss Congdon until May, when she retired at age 65. Her husband said she was asked to work Sunday night to fill in for a nurse who wanted the night off.

Loren Pietila, her husband, was notified of the slaying and got to the mansion about 8 a.m. He discovered that his wife’s car, a 1976 white and tan Ford Granada, was missing. Later in the morning police from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport called him to say his car keys, which had his name attached, were found in an airport trashcan. He told the airport police that the car had been involved in the slayings and asked them to call Duluth police.

Airport police then looked for the car, which they found in the airport parking lot. The state crime lab examined the car for clues yesterday and then impounded it.

A State Patrol helicopter was used to search the 20-mile area between Duluth and Two Harbors. Police officers and dogs combed the estate grounds this morning. The property on Duluth’s exclusive London Rd. has hundreds of feet of lakeshore along Lake Superior.

Police had a suspect for a while yesterday, someone children saw near the mansion. Police, however, found a man matching the suspect’s description – white, thin, with long hair and wearing a bluejean jacket – and he had a good reason for being in the area.

Elizabeth Congdon
  Elisabeth Congdon

Elisabeth Congdon, called “Miss Elisabeth” by many in Duluth, was the last survivor of seven children of Chester A. Congdon, who made millions of dollars in the mining and lumber industries of Minnesota around the turn of the century.

Elisabeth attended Vassar College. As a young woman she was involved in several charities. She was the first president of the King’s Daughters Society, which later became the Junior League of Duluth. She was president of the League also.

Before her stroke, she was active in arts and symphony groups and often had people to her house. She attended the First United Methodist Church weekly and often gave flowers grown in her greenhouse to the church. Women from the congregation sometimes held meetings at her home.

People who know her described her as pleasant. “She was very likable,” one person said. “All those Congdon girls were, but especially Elisabeth.” (She had two sisters.)

She spent winters at her home in Tucson, Ariz., and had another house on the Brule River in northern Wisconsin. Several people expressed surprise yesterday that she was in Duluth rather than Wisconsin the night of the slayings.

Her father was a prime owner of the Oliver Iron Mining Co., which became a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. A conservative Republican, he served in the state Legislature. Congdon died shortly after the 1916 election, and Duluth legend has it that it was of heartbreak because Woodrow Wilson snatched the presidency from Charles Evans Hughes.

Chester A. Congdon
  Chester A. Gordon

Duluth people say Congdon’s reputation was less than sterling. “He was a sharpie,” said one man who knows the family history. “He was a legal pro who trampled all over people to make money.” Another person said of him, “He never opened his purse very wide, but his daughter Elisabeth was very generous.”

She gave large sums of money to her church, to the Duluth Symphony, to state arts groups and to local people she heard needed help. One person said, “Some rich people play a brass band every time they give away some money, but she did things quietly. She didn’t like publicity.” The value of Miss Congdon’s estate is hard to estimate, Duluth people said yesterday, but several placed it in the tens of millions.

The family holdings were extensive. The family apparently was once a major investor in the iron mining company now known as the Mesabi Trust. The trust has exclusive rights to about 10,000 acres of land near Babbitt, Minn., much of which is Reserve Mining Company‘s open-pit mine. For allowing Reserve to mine taconite there, Mesabi receives handsome royalties. The Congdon family, however, is no longer believed to be a major holder of Mesabi Trust certificates.

The family also had large holdings in the Yakima Valley in Washington and held stock in many Midwest corporations.

Although she never married, she did have two adopted daughters, whom she adopted as children.

Marjorie Congdon
  Marjorie Caldwell

They are Marjorie Caldwell of Golden, Colo., and Jennifer Johnson of Racine, Wis. Miss Congdon is survived by 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

In 1970 Miss Congdon’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Congdon, who lives a block away on London Rd., shot and killed a 17-year-old youth who police said had broken into her house.

Elizabeth Congdon allowed a movie producer to use her mansion as the filming site of a 1972 movie, “You’ll Like My Mother.” It was about a murder. A young, pregnant Vietnam widow, played by Patty Duke, goes to visit her dead husband’s mother in the family mansion. It seems the mother has been murdered and one of the murderers pretends to be the mother.

Funeral services for Miss Congdon had not been arranged last night.

Roger Caldwell
  July 1977: Roger Caldwell tried to hide his face with a towel.

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