Tuesday, June 28, 1977: The Congdon murders

Friday, June 27th, 2008

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.

Thursday, May 11, 1944: Flower feud

Monday, April 21st, 2008

As World War II ground on, a story about two neighbors feuding over flowers landed on the front pages of the two Minneapolis dailies. Signe Erickson of Excelsior sued her neighbor, an Excelsior police officer, for $5,000 for false arrest after she was hauled to jail wearing only a coat, a slip and slippers on a cold November night. Her alleged crime? Pouring salt on his flowers. (Both raised flowers for sale.) After a judge cleared her of that disorderly conduct charge, she took the cop to court – and won a $500 judgment. The tears she shed on the witness stand probably swayed the jury. The Tribune captured the scene in this page one story:

Suing Woman Still Weeps as She Thinks
About Chilly Arrest in Slip and Slippers

Mrs. Signe Erickson of Excelsior still weeps a little when she thinks about how her neighbor, who happened to be an Excelsior police officer, had her arrested on a cold November night last fall when she was dressed only in a slip, slippers and a coat.

Signe Erickson

She cried a little before District Judge Vince A. Day late Wednesday as trial of her suit against the neighbor, John Kohnkey, Excelsior police officer, for $5,000 for false arrest, got under way.

On the night of Nov. 17, she testified, she had had company. The guests had left, she had washed the dishes and was taking the garbage out to the edge of her lot when she was “grabbed in the back.”

Freeman “Dooley” Hoag, acting in Kohnkey’s behalf, did the grabbing, she testified.

“He grabbed me and put me in Kohnkey’s garage,” she said.

Then Kohnkey came, she said, and accused her of pouring salt onto his flowers. Both she and Kohnkey raise flowers for sale.

Kohkey then put her into his car and took her to the county jail in Minneapolis where she spent the night, she said.

“I asked him if I could go home first,” she testified. “I had on only a slip and a coat over it, and he didn’t answer me.”

She said she was afraid her husband would awaken and, not finding her in bed, might have a heart attack. He had a bad heart, she said.

A friend came to the jail in answer to her pleadings with the jailer that she “wasn’t a bum” and arranged to have her released.

At her trial before Justice Tom Bergin, on a complaint by Kohnkey charging her with disorderly conduct, she said Kohnkey testified she had been spreading salt on his garden flowers.

He said, she asserted, that he had found the pan in which she had carried out the garbage, and that it was “sparkling with salt.”

There was no salt in the pan when she had it, she declared.

“You can cut my throat if there was,” was her testimony.

Justice Bergin was called to the stand to testify from his records that he had acquitted her of the disorderly conduct charge at the trial Nov. 25.

Testimony will continue Thursday.

Monday, July 14, 1890: Lake Pepin steamer capsizes

Monday, April 7th, 2008

Powerful thunderstorms moved through Minnesota on a steamy Sunday afternoon in July 1890. A huge tornado, later immortalized in a Julius Holm painting, churned across Kohlman Lake, “a little summering place” in what is now Maplewood. At least seven people were killed and dozens injured.

That evening, about 70 miles to the southeast, on Lake Pepin, a much larger tragedy unfolded. A “cyclone” blew in from the west, capsizing a steamer carrying more than 100 passengers and crew up the Mississippi River. A Minneapolis Tribune correspondent who happened to be on the scene told the tale in gripping — if maddeningly chronological — fashion.


An Awful Disaster
At Lake Pepin,

A Steamer Capsizes
With 150 People

The Wind and Waves
Have no Mercy on

Only Twenty Succeed in
Saving Their

People Watch the Awful
Struggle From the

But no One Could Lend
Any Assist-

The Storm Drowned the
Cries of the Un-

A Disaster Never Before
Equaled in the

LAKE CITY, Minn., July 13. – [Special.] – What may prove the most disastrous storm in many years passed over this place this evening killing probably 100 people and damaging property to an extent that at this writing cannot be estimated. Your correspondent was visiting friends in Lake City and was sitting in the yard when what appeared to be an ordinary electric storm was noticed coming up from the West. In half an hour the whole heavens were converted into a complete canopy of lightning which was watched with interest by the brave citizens of the little village and with fear by the timid women and children. A little before dark a terrific wind struck the community and your reporter sought the shelter of the house just in time to escape being caught under a huge tree that came crashing down against the house. Windows were closed instantly and none too soon, for the cyclone was upon us and trees and houses were fast being demolished in its path.

The steamer Sea Wing about a year before the tragedy. (Photo courtesy

While my wife, in fear and trembling, sought the seclusion and protection of the cellar in company with the ladies, I assisted in closing shutters and making preparations for the worst that could be expected while trees were heard to be crashing down and missiles were striking against the house. The building proved strong enough to weather the blast, and in half an hour the worst of the hurricane had passed. As soon as the trees had been cleared away from the front of the house your correspondent started out and soon learned


Had befallen the place, that had not been equaled since the St. Cloud cyclone several years ago. People began to gather on the streets, and in a few moments the news was scattered abroad that an excursion boat with over 200 people on it was capsized in the middle of Lake Pepin. The boat proved to be the steamer Sea Wing, which came down the lake from Diamond Bluff, a small place about 17 miles north of here, on an excursion to the encampment of the First regiment, N. G. S. M., which is being held a mile below this city. The steamer started back on the homeward trip about 8 o’clock, and although there were signs of an approaching storm, it was not considered in any way serious, and no danger was anticipated. The boat was crowded to its fullest capacity, about


from Red Wing and Diamond Bluff being on board, and about 50 people on a barge which was attached to the side of the steamer. When about opposite Lake City the boat began to feel the effects of the storm; but the officers kept on the way. The storm increased as the boat continued up the lake. In 15 minutes it was at its height. Nearing Central Point, about two miles above Lake City, the steamer was at the mercy of the waves, which were now washing over the boat, and all was confusion. The boat momentarily ran onto a bar and the barge was cut loose, and the steamer again set adrift in the lake. A number of those on the barge jumped and swam ashore. As the barge also floated again into the deep water those on the barge saw the steamer as it was carried helplessly out into the middle of the lake, and as they were being tossed about on the raging waters, they were horrified a moment later to see the steamer and its cargo of 150 people


Those on the barge remained there until they were drifted nearer the shore and they were all rescued or swam ashore. Among them were two ladies who were brought to the beach by strong and ready swimmers. There were about 50 in all that were on the barge.

The events that transpired on the steamer after it separated from the barge are probably most clearly stated by those who were rescued from it about half an hour ago. It is now 12 o’clock midnight. As soon as the [storm] had begun to affect the progress of the boat, Capt. Weathern [Wethern, actually] gave instructions to run the boat into the Wisconsin shore but it was a too terrible force of wind and wave. In five minutes more the waves began to wash into the boat and fill its lower decks, and while hailstones as large as hen’s eggs came down on the heads of the poor helpless creatures which were huddled together on the top, a huge wave struck the craft on the side at the same moment that a terrific blast of wind, more horribly forcible than the others, came up and carried the boat over, all of the people on board; 150 or more were thrown into the water, some being caught underneath and others thrown into the waves.

The boat turned bottom upwards and only about 25 people were observed to be floating on the surface. These caught hold of the boat and climbed upon the upturned bottom, those first securing a position assisting the others. In 10 minutes more than 25 or so who had obtained momentary safety on the boat could observe no others of the boat crew or passengers floating on the surface of the continuing high sea of waves. Afterwards, however, as a flash of lightning lighted up the surface of the lake, the sight of an occasional white dress of a drowning woman or child was observable, but it was impossible for those who witnessed the horrible sight


Those remaining began calling for help from the shore as soon as the storm began to abate and in half an hour lights were observed flitting about on the pier at Lake City, opposite which point the upturned steamer had now been driven. Before help could reach them, however, the creatures who remained to tell the horrors of the night were again submitted to another battle with the elements, with no word of warning; and as they were just beginning to hope that they would be taken off by the citizens of Lake City, the boat again turned over, this on its side and again all of the 25 remaining souls were hurtled into the water. Of these several were drowned before they could be brought to the boat by those who succeeded in remaining afloat and again securing hold of the boat’s side. As the men hung on to the railing, in danger each moment of being washed away by the waves, one man observed the forms of two women wedged in between a stationary seat and the boat’s side, both pale in death, as the lightning gleams lit up their upturned faces. Another man saw two little girls floating past him as he hung with desperate efforts to the steamer’s side.

National Guard members survey the wreckage of the Sea Wing. (Photo courtesy

Half an hour after the passage of the storm your reporter went with others to the dock where the steamer Ethel Howard was anchored safe from the storm. It was presumed that the steamer would at once proceed to the rescue of the drowning, but when I asked the captain, Mr. Howard, if he was going out to the rescue, he replied that he was not going to run his boat away from the shore until the indication of another approaching storm had disappeared. He said also that he did not propose to run the risk of losing his boat in order to look for dead people out on the lake. Citizens of Lake City, who heard Captain Howard’s remarks, were most severe in their denunciation of this position he assumed in the face of the statements made to him that every minute might mean the saving of a half dozen lives. Many talked of taking the boat away from him by force, but there were not enough to put the threat into execution, and other means of rescue were resorted to. In a few minutes a dozen or more rowboats were manned and put out from the shore. The upturned boat was at last discovered;


Clinging to the boat were rescued and brought to the shore, most of them being men who could swim.

Among those who are known to have been on board the steamer and who are undoubtedly drowned are: Two children of C.H. Reberick, Peter Goken, his wife, five children and hired girl, Fred Sebes, wife and daughter, Mrs. Capt. Wethern and her two children, F. Christ, Wm. Blaker and family of three, Mrs. Hempting and daughter, Gus Beckmark; a Miss Flyn, Bose Adams and Ira Fulton. A full list of the 150 passengers, which are pretty certain to have been drowned, is not obtainable at this writing. A large majority of them were women and children. Those being saved being nearly all strong men, who were able to swim, and cling to the boat, after it had capsized. On the return from the capsized boat with three or four people who had been rescued, one of the row boats encountered two floating bodies, each with a life preserver attached.

In Lake City the damage to property by the cyclone is great, although no fatalities have been reported. Collins Bros.’ saw and planning mill is totally demolished. The roof of the opera house, owned by Mr. Hanisch, was carried away and the stores underneath more or less damaged by the rain and hail.

Up to this time, 1:30 a.m., 62 bodies have been found and laid out.

Julius Holm’s 1893 oil painting shows the Kohlman Lake tornado as it skirted the edge of St. Paul.