A cool, rainy morning signaled Duluth’s summer was fading on August 22, 1894, when 7-year-old Guy Browning’s mother sent him to fetch driftwood for the stove.
He headed for Minnesota Point harbor – the narrow 7-mile sandbar running southeast from the shipping channel – but sprinted home with news of a horrific find.
Back with his mother, Guy showed authorities where a woman’s body was partially covered in driftwood, her bloodied head wrapped in a satin-lined cape. A large, bloodstained oak staff lay nearby. The next morning, the Duluth News Tribune said, “It’s all a mystery.”
In 2012, this title caught the attention of Jeffrey Sauve of Northfield during an unrelated computer search of digital journals while he was an archivist at St. Olaf College.
“On my lunch break, while I was eating my sandwich, I thought I could learn what had happened in a few minutes,” Sauve said.
Instead, a decade-long obsession began for Sauve, now 57 and a full-time writer, who hoped to draw attention to what he calls “a forgotten soul.” He searched Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis for more than an hour to locate the victim’s unmarked grave, and he woke up startled by recurring nightmares of a clutching hand reaching for him from the shallows of the lake. Superior.
Saves sleeps better now than his true crime book,”Murder at Minnesota Point,” is outside.
Duluth’s population had increased almost tenfold between 1880 and 1890 to 33,115, but the 1894 murder, writes Sauve, was “the first unknown female homicide within the city limits” and “pierced residents with a certain curiosity morbid”.
After more than a week of public exposure at the morgue, the victim found on the beach remained unidentified. She had a charm bracelet on her right wrist, with six of the twelve engraved charms. A married couple who own Acme Laundry, where the victim’s clothes were washed before she was fixed for viewing, said her underwear was ‘that of a good woman’ – not what the “sporty women” would wear.
“Her brown serge skirt and waist-matching jacket suggested a person of good condition,” Sauve wrote.
Police Inspector Bob Benson followed a hunch and headed to Minneapolis – thinking that if no one in Duluth could identify her, she might be from the big city. He ordered printed posters but missed his September 1 train because the printer was late. It turned out that the train was nearly engulfed in the Hinckley Fire which broke out that day, killing more than 400 people and distracting attention from the murder mystery.
Benson’s hunch was correct. He determined that the victim was Lena Olson, 32, a Minneapolis domestic worker whose parents had emigrated from Norway to Wisconsin in 1861, the year before she was born. Benson escorted Olson’s younger sister, Lizzie, a servant from Lake Minnetonka, to Duluth, where she saw the exhumed body and confirmed that her sister was the mysterious victim found on the beach two weeks earlier.
Sauve guides readers through a complex series of potential suspects and aliases as they appear and fade. Detectives believed they had found their man in New Orleans; when that didn’t work, they checked on a suspect imprisoned in a river town in Ohio bordering West Virginia. This lead “turned out again to be a wild goose chase of mistaken identity,” writes Sauve, detailing many of the 20 potential suspects.
(Spoiler alert: stop reading now if you’d rather dive into the book and keep the mystery alive.)
Minneapolis police detective John Courtney finally solved the case in April 1896 – more than a year and a half after Olson’s death – with the help of handwriting experts and a landlord. Minneapolis boarding house that had kept a boarder’s battered briefcase after he slipped away on his bill.
Inside the briefcase was a will bearing the name of James E. Alsop, who toyed with pseudonyms and, Sauve said, “believed himself to be a well-heeled Englishman”, but was entangled in various real estate scams.
Courtney tracked down Alsop in Tacoma, Washington, and arrested him as the suspect was picking up his mail at the Seattle Post Office. Before he could be transferred to Duluth to face murder charges, Alsop hung himself in jail with a noose made from his cell blanket.
“Lena was an easy target,” Sauve said in an interview. “This guy who looked like a wealthy Englishman offered to take her out of the drudgery of her housework, married her in Minneapolis and the next day dumped her in Duluth for her $500 nest egg she had pocketed.”
Now Sauve is raising money from book proceeds to fund a new headstone for Olson at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, where she was reinterred in the poor section after her sister identified her.
Curt Brown’s Tales of Minnesota History appear every Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at [email protected]. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war, and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.