The horror is real — in Minnesota's history

Just two years after the events chronicled in "Minnesota's Oldest Murder Mystery," this was the "Chapel of St. Paul," built on land claimed by Edward Phalen and the late (and mysteriously departed) William Hays. (Minnesota Historical Society)
Just two years after the events chronicled in "Minnesota's Oldest Murder Mystery," this was the "Chapel of St. Paul," built on land claimed by Edward Phalen and the late (and mysteriously departed) William Hays. (Minnesota Historical Society)
"Dial M" chronicles the murder of Carol Thompson in her Highland park residence; metro-area residents were at first terrified there was a murderous burglar on the loose but then found the trouble lay far closer to home. (Minnesota Historical Society Press image)
"Dial M" chronicles the murder of Carol Thompson in her Highland park residence; metro-area residents were at first terrified there was a murderous burglar on the loose but then found the trouble lay far closer to home. (Minnesota Historical Society Press image)
"Nearly Departed" by J. Michael Norman offers a step beyond — or world beyond — true-crime stories. Norman has gathered stories of the hauntings of those who didn't rest easy from all over the state. (Minnesota Historical Society Press image)
"Nearly Departed" by J. Michael Norman offers a step beyond — or world beyond — true-crime stories. Norman has gathered stories of the hauntings of those who didn't rest easy from all over the state. (Minnesota Historical Society Press image)
This is just one of the covers you'll see for the often-reissued "Murder in Minnesota," a 1962 classic that tracks pivotal cases from that of two settlers heading to Minnesota by riverboat and only one arriving to the murderous opportunities offered by the miles-long range of automobiles. (Minnesota Historical Society Press image)
This is just one of the covers you'll see for the often-reissued "Murder in Minnesota," a 1962 classic that tracks pivotal cases from that of two settlers heading to Minnesota by riverboat and only one arriving to the murderous opportunities offered by the miles-long range of automobiles. (Minnesota Historical Society Press image)

It's been said before — and often in a newsroom — "You couldn't make this stuff up."

Which is why true crime accounts — grounded by the quirks and flaws of actual people as well as real places and times — are so could-have-happened-here chilling.

This Halloween, leave the vampires and zombies on the shelf and learn a little more about Minnesota history through some of the most gripping cases of the past 150 years.

You may know the names, the dates and the facts, but the "how" is always mesmerizing.

Like those who lived through the discoveries, investigations and prosecutions, we still find it startling to reflect on the plotting carried out under the surface and so close to home.

Too close.

'Why her? Why here?'

Probably the watershed moment in Minnesotans' interest in true-crime is the murder of attorney's wife and mother of four Carol Thompson, chronicled in "Dial M" by true-crime chronicler William Swanson. 

On a chilly morning in March, 1963, a woman living in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood opened her door to a blood-covered woman wearing only a robe and clutching her throat. The woman whispered "Help me; help me" before collapsing.

A neighbor across the street had seen the woman on the porch and sent her husband, a physician, over even as the door opened.

It was only after he arrived and cleaned the blood off the woman's face that they recognized Carol Thompson, their neighbor.

Police tracked Thompson's bloody barefoot prints from house to house where she'd apparently tried to summon help, back to her own home where she lived with her four children and attorney husband T. Eugene Thompson, and upstairs to a bedroom where there had obviously been a struggle.

While they searched and questioned neighbors, Carol died at the hospital from a severe pistol beating and multiple stabbings; she still had a broken-off knife blade in her neck when she collapsed on the neighbor's floor.

The killing, publicized by evening newspapers and local TV and radio broadcasts, caused a statewide sensation.

As reported in the St. Paul Dispatch, Northwestern Bell struggled with a load of calls as "husbands called their wives and instructed them to keep doors and windows locked … and wives called their husbands at their offices and told them to come home early." Hardware stores sold out of door locks. Sports stores reported a spike in ammunition sales. And meter readers and door-to-door fundraisers encountered closed doors and drawn curtains for blocks as the inhabitants hid inside.

In 1962, most neighborhoods felt safe, especially Highland Park. A bloody, seemingly random attack like this resonated through the cities, suburbs and even into the national conscience. Carol, who got her hair styled at the Powers department store and sewed her and her daughters' dresses herself, could have been any young mother.

This wasn't just an anomaly in sleepy St. Paul; it was something that refuted the assumption that your own neighborhood — and own home — was safe.

"What made the Thompson case stand out at the beginning was, of course, the station and character of the victim, juxtaposed against the baffling, almost surreal circumstances of her murder and the mystery of her killer's identity. Why her? Why here?" Swanson writes.

However, police and prosecutors' attention turned, inevitably, to those inside the house, and eventually focused on T. Eugene,

T. Eugene was a Navy veteran, Macalester College graduate and attorney with a degree from what would be renamed William Mitchell. His dapper suits, new car, tony address and drive all signalled success.

By the early '60s, he was the chair of the criminal law committee of Minnesota State Bar Association and was North St. Paul's city attorney.

"A background report prepared for an insurance company in 1962 said his 'potential appear(ed) to be unlimited,'" Swanson notes.

By the end of 1963, T. Eugene was on trial for arranging for a hit man to murder his wife, allegedly for the same old motive that propelled so many "Alfred Hitchcock Hour" TV installments at the time: the insurance money. By the time he was convicted, the case was being reported globally.

After being paroled in 1983, T. Eugene lived quietly, working in technology before retiring. He died on his 88th birthday, Aug. 7, this year. Again, national media revived the Thompson case.

Asked about the former village attorney, the late North St. Paul Mayor Bill Sandberg had said that even without considering hindsight, T. Eugene had always struck him as something of an outsider, someone who wasn't quite part of the group and who willingly kept his distance. "He was an odd duck."

Swanson notes that unlike other true-crime tales, this one "is both a family saga and a true account of a notorious crime. And happily — granted, an unlikely word given the circumstances — the saga does not end when the book does."

Indeed, son Jeffrey Thompson, who also became an attorney and later a judge in Winona County, told local reporters after his father's death that his family's past is an ever-present reminder that "very few people turn out to be just one thing. Everybody has got another side."

Notorious past

It seems that only with the passage of a comfortable time — well over a century in some cases — are people willing to probe beyond respected pioneers' history-book accolades to the uncomfortable truths that were there all along.

Such is the case with Edward Phelan or Phalen, honored with at least 30 places and programs in the metro area.

On Sept. 27, 1839, the battered body of a middle-aged Irishman was found by some Dakota Indian boys. The corpse washed up along the Mississippi River shore, about seven miles downstream from Fort Snelling near the ancient Indian landmark the non-Indians called Carver's Cave.

It was the body of Sgt. John Hays, former soldier, who, prior to his disappearance had been sharing a log shanty a few miles upriver from the cave with business partner Edward Phalen. Before the year was over, Phelan was arrested and charged with the murder of his friend.

In "Minnesota's Oldest Murder Mystery," Gary Brueggemann examines the long-buried facts that indicate the fearless Phalen was also unafraid of consequences when he realized Minnesota land he'd claimed with a partner would be twice as profitable without one.

It was a critical time in Minnesota history, and Phalen was in exactly the right place to reap the benefits. Statehood was still 20 years off, but a treaty signed the year before between the Ojibwe people and the United States had made it legal for settlers to claim land between the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers.

Into the vacuum swept speculators like Phalen, who'd already survived on his wits and will in the Five Points area of New York — the crime-ridden crucible of "Gangs of New York" notoriety.

Was Phalen — a key personality in establishing St. Paul and founding Minnesota — guilty? All investigative reports and records of Phelan's trial were mysteriously lost and no newspapers covered the story.

However, Brueggemann's discovery of a handwritten transcription of the court hearing in a justice of the peace's casebook at the Minnesota Historical Society archives adds many of the clues missing in other sources.

The book is published by Beaver's Pond Press and is available through online sources.

'Could not report the most ingenious'

For a breezy but wise look at Minnesota's murderous past, the late Walter Trenerry, former West St. Paul city attorney and alderman, offered "Murder in Minnesota" in 1962. It's still available and is evergreen in its retelling of more than a dozen infamous chapters in Minnesota's first century.

From the risk undertaken by choosing your land-claim partner on a riverboat to the wide scope offered for concealing crimes by the miles-long range of automobiles, Trenerry offers a prosecutor's knowing look at crime, punishment and the politics and prejudices that can pervert justice.

Even while writing during a time when the West was still being wrested from the Native Americans on every TV screen, Trenerry offers a modern look at the lack of evidence in many 1800s-era cases against Native Americans. For instance, one hinged on what was supposedly a young woman's partial skeleton but was actually deer bones. "Where every witness was biased, and the stakes were life and death, the truth could hardly be expected to come to light," Trenerry notes in one account.

Back in the cities, the meting out of justice was also murky. In 1859, charged and convicted of murdering her husband with arsenic, 40-year-old Ann Bilansky escaped her prison cell and went on the run with the man prosecutors portrayed as her paramour. A statewide woman-hunt ensued for more than a week before the pair were apprehended walking from Lake Como, where they'd been camping, toward St. Anthony.

Whether Bilansky gave her husband rat poison or not, and whether the man who helped her hide from authorities for over a week was her lover or, as he insisted, considered himself her nephew, is contested even today. Her appeal to the Supreme Court for a new trial was denied even thought the prosecutor in her first trial pressed for it, and Bilansky became the only woman ever hanged in Minnesota.

Or, contemplate along with Minnesotans of 1909 what grim deeds must have taken place in the stately Arbogast home, where Louis' Arbogast's wife and five daughters were found screaming in the  master bedroom as the bed, with Louis in it, went up in flames. The gasoline can, the blow to Louis' head that crushed his skull and women's bloodstained clothing were not enough to convict anyone for the murder, and not one of the women ever broke her silence.

As well as his activities in West St. Paul, the author also served as president of the McKnight Foundation, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Civil War Roundtable and was vice-president of the Bush Foundation. He chaired the MIA and was a member of the planning committee for the original Guthrie Theater. He sought out parcels of land to purchase that abutted state parks and then donated them to the state, both in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He taught law-school courses, raised roses and loved hearing — and telling — an engaging story.

For a taste of Trenerry's mordant wit, try his foreword to the book:

"My investigation of Minnesota murders over the years revealed no new motives for killing anyone. The old ones are perfectly satisfactory... I regret that I could not report the most ingenious and remarkable ones. They looked like accidents or natural deaths and were never discovered."

And for ghost fans

Of course, many of the victims in the above crimes probably are not resting easily.

Those folks populate "The Nearly Departed: Minnesota Ghost Stories and Legends," by Michael Norman and  published by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Some ghosts are particularly well-traveled, such as the one that haunts the MIA's reconstructed 1730 salon from a Paris hotel. For years, security guards well-accustomed to walking darkened halls amid spooky silence have felt their flesh creep as they see an unexplained shadow or actually hear a floorboard creak.

Those who've tried to shoo what they think is an unallowed after-hours visitor away have had no luck with her; as they walk to meet her in a hall or the darkened space of an exhibit, her shadowy outline disappears. If they turn to see who it is seemingly walking beside them, they find nothing.

If Minnesota seems an unexpected place for crime, consider some of the venues, including a Lutheran church where "the lutefisk ghost" that shows up with increasing regularity around the time of the congregation's annual supper.

Is it an actual presence? Or, as one parishioner suggests, is the problem that "With those lutefisk fumes, people aren't really responsible, you know; they get delirious!"

For more in the Historical Society Press' collection, go to http://shop.mnhs.org/collections/books-true-crime. All books but "Minnesota's Oldest Murder Mystery," which is from Beaver's Pond Press, are available from Minnesota Historical Society Press. They are also found online and at local libraries and as e-books.

 

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