After 40 years, Glensheen murders still intrigue
It was in 1968 that the Congdon family gave its Duluth estate — Glensheen — to the University of Minnesota Duluth so the Congdon legacy would live on.
Chester A. Congdon, an attorney, businessman and state legislator around the turn of the last century, made his fortune in the mining industry. He and his wife, Clara, built their elegant English manor on the shore of Lake Superior from 1905-08, using skilled craftsmen and fine materials from around the world. Sixty years later, with most of the mansion's 39 rooms little-used, their descendants deeded the house and grounds to the university. But it was on the condition that Elisabeth Congdon — Chester's last surviving child — would be allowed to live out her years there.
Her life at Glensheen ended abruptly on June 27, 1977, when the ailing, 83-year-old heiress was killed in the mansion along with her night nurse, Velma Pietila, 67. Elisabeth Congdon's adopted daughter and son-in-law quickly became suspects in a murder plot. For years, the case grabbed headlines statewide, becoming one of the most publicized homicides in Minnesota's history.
So it was no surprise that when Glensheen, at 3300 London Road, opened for public tours in 1979, people flocked there because of the murders. To this day, the case continues to draw visitors, overshadowing the broader Congdon story, says Glensheen Director Dan Hartman. Today, up to 30 percent of people who tour the historic 27,000-square-foot mansion and grounds come because of the murders, he says.
Because of that, most Duluthians aren't aware of the Congdon family's contributions. They don't know that Chester Congdon helped develop the Mesabi Iron Range. They don't know that he envisioned a scenic North Shore drive and bought, then donated land for what is today Scenic Highway 61. They don't know he created Congdon Park along Tischer Creek in Duluth's East End and donated the park to the city for public use.
People don't know because of a tragic one-day event in 1977, Hartman says.
Still, it's no wonder that 40 years later, the Glensheen murders continue to fascinate. The case had all the ingredients of an old-fashioned whodunit — wealth, greed, betrayal, even a mansion and a candlestick murder weapon.
Moreover, the Congdon name was well-known in Duluth. Chester Congdon had been part of the city's early leaders who helped shape the city and region. There's Congdon Boulevard, Congdon Park, the Congdon Park neighborhood and Congdon Park Elementary School.
The onslaught of headlines began 40 years ago Tuesday, when Elisabeth Congdon was found smothered in her bed. Pietila's badly beaten body was on the second-floor landing. Investigators quickly focused on Elisabeth's spendthrift daughter, Marjorie Caldwell, 44, and ne'er-do-well son-in-law Roger Caldwell, 43, in a murder scheme to speed up her inheritance. Marjorie, deep in debt, stood to inherit $8.2 million after her mother's death.
"The murders made national news not just in the aftermath of the crime, but throughout the trials that followed," said Tony Dierckins, who writes and publishes books on local history. "Perhaps it was because Elisabeth Congdon had long been a beloved member of the community for her charitable practices. Perhaps it was because the headlines described her as an 'heiress.' You know, people are intrigued by the lives of the wealthy. Both trials were moved outside of Duluth. This wasn't just a Duluth story; this was a Minnesota story."
Both Marjorie and Roger Caldwell were charged in the slayings. A jury found Roger Caldwell guilty of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison. His wife, who was in Colorado at the time of the slayings, was found innocent of murder conspiracy. Because of a discredited piece of evidence, Roger's conviction was thrown out, and his case was sent back for retrial. Instead of another trial, Roger Caldwell walked free in a controversial plea bargain. In exchange for guilty pleas to second-degree murder, he was sentenced to time served.
With no eyewitnesses, it was a circumstantial case that never got totally wrapped up — which added to its intrigue. Lingering doubts and unanswered questions remained. Despite Marjorie Caldwell's acquittal, many people continued to believe she was the brains behind the murder and that she got her husband to do it by promising him a large chunk of her inheritance. To the frustration of authorities, Roger's controversial plea bargain didn't reveal anything new, nor did he implicate Marjorie. The picture was further muddied when he committed suicide five years later, leaving a note saying, "I didn't kill those girls."
Meanwhile, Marjorie continued to make news, leaving a trail of bigamy, arson, fraud, prison time and more suspicious deaths. Books have been written about the case and about her. "Glensheen," a musical about the case, was a sold-out hit at the History Theatre in St. Paul in 2015 and 2016 and will be back for a third run this summer.
For some members of the Congdon family, the murders remain painful, even after 40 years, while others have put it behind them, said Thomas Congdon, the last surviving grandson of Chester and Clara Congdon.
"To some degree, some mending has happened, some healing," he said. "People's feelings and concerns have improved but not our attitude toward Marjorie. There's no forgiveness that I know of."
The Congdon family holds reunions every four or five years in places around the country where Chester Congdon had homes or business ventures. In 2010, it was held at Glensheen. Ropes that section off rooms came down, and they were able to use the house like it was a private home again.
At the reunions, the murders aren't talked about, Congdon said. He isn't aware of any family members having contact with Marjorie in decades. But when one of her daughters attended the last reunion, some were very happy to see her, he said.
Marjorie, now 84 and using the last name Hagen, lives in Tucson, Ariz. Reached by phone this month, she declined an interview with the News Tribune.
John DeSanto, the assistant St. Louis County attorney who prosecuted both Caldwell trials, was just 30 years old when it all began. For the next two years, it would consume his life and the life of Gary Waller, the Duluth police sergeant who led the investigation. They were up against two prominent Twin Cities attorneys — Ron Meshbesher representing Marjorie Caldwell and Doug Thomson defending Roger Caldwell.
"I learned in the school of hard knocks, with two of the best criminal defense lawyers ever in Minnesota," DeSanto said.
Both DeSanto and Waller, who endured days of cross-examination during the trials, would go on to define events in their careers as BC (before Caldwell) and AC (after Caldwell).
At the time, Roger Caldwell's three-month trial in 1978 was the longest criminal trial in the state's history, only to be topped by Marjorie Caldwell's 3½-month trial in 1979, according to DeSanto. Both trials were moved out of Duluth because of pretrial publicity.
DeSanto, who became a state district court judge after 35 years as a St. Louis County prosecutor, would continue to be associated with the Congdon case despite his handling of numerous other homicides. But, he says, his connection to the Congdon cases never was a burden.
"I don't mind talking about it 'til this day," he said. "It was part of my life as a prosecutor. But I don't want to emphasize that. It was a tragedy because two women died who should not have died. There's a greed and outright evil in this world."
In the late 1980s, DeSanto teamed up with Waller and former News Tribune reporter Gail Feichtinger to start working on the book, "Will to Murder: The True Story Behind the Crimes & Trials Surrounding the Glensheen Killings." It was published in 2003 and dedicated to the two victims. Three revised editions followed, largely to update Marjorie Caldwell's continuing saga. The book is published by Dierckins' Zenith City Press.
"We've sold about 80,000 copies since 2003, and most regional books sell fewer than 3,000 copies in their lifetime," Dierckins said. "It is selling strong."
The book is comprehensive, with insiders' accounts of the Glensheen murders, the events leading up to it and the aftermath, and that has spurred interest in turning it into a movie.
"Several production companies, from documentarians to makers of feature films, some based in Minnesota, others in Los Angeles, have approached us about some sort of film," Dierckins said. "None of these have panned out, mostly because of costs. The production companies simply weren't able to attract the investors to raise the funds necessary."
Among them was Duluth native Michael Laskin, now an an actor, producer and lecturer in Los Angeles.
About 10 years ago, Laskin and a business partner in Minneapolis wanted to produce a small, independent film based on the book.
"The elements had everything — privilege, wealth, madness," he said. "We thought it was a great idea for a film."
When he was growing up in Duluth, Laskin's family moved to a house near the big mansions in the Congdon Park neighborhood. It was then he became aware that there were some very wealthy people living in Duluth, including the Congdons.
"They were in a different world," said Laskin, a 1969 Duluth East graduate. "They lived in a world we didn't know. You see their names on buildings. But with the murder case, you got a look into that world."
He wanted to shoot the film in Duluth, at Glensheen if possible, and wanted to involve the community.
The first thing needed was a great story, which it already was. Then he needed a good scriptwriter to adapt the book for the big screen and attract a name star. He envisioned actress Kathy Bates, who had starred in "Misery," in the role of Marjorie Caldwell.
He had several discussions with DeSanto and Waller about the project. He gave a presentation at Glensheen to potential local investors. For starters, he needed about $100,000 to hire a good scriptwriter, while the film could have been made for $5 to $7 million then, he said.
"We really wanted to make it happen," Laskin said. "We went after a couple major investors in Minnesota and it just didn't pan out. But we had a great time trying to get it off the ground."
These days, chances are slim that a movie on the murders could be filmed at Glensheen.
"We don't allow it because we're more of a business," Hartman said, referring to the daily tours and the events held at Glensheen. "It would be disruptive, and we don't want to promote the murders."
For years, Glensheen tour guides weren't allowed to discuss the murders out of respect for the Congdon family. Officials said they wanted the focus to be on mansion's outstanding Jacobean architecture and how one of the state's wealthiest families lived a century ago.
That no-talk policy stuck even when tours reached the grand staircase where Elisabeth Congdon's nurse had encountered an intruder and was beaten to death.
The policy was relaxed around 2005 when staff were allowed to briefly comment if the murders were brought up. Today, staff defer questions to the end of tours when they'll talk about it. Glensheen also sells the "Will to Murder" book in its gift shop and its authors have given presentations at the mansion.
"We don't ignore the murder," Hartman said. "A lot of children are on the tours. That's a major part that people tend to forget. Moving it to the end allows families to continue on (when talk turns to the murders). Also, it doesn't flow with the narrative. It's like talking about the breakfast room in the living room."
Glensheen's attendance hit a high of nearly 140,000 in 1981, two years after it opened for public tours. But like most house museums across the country, attendance began declining in the 1980s, with Glensheen hitting a low of 56,450 in 2007. Glensheen has bucked the continued downward trend in recent years, with attendance rebounding to 123,000 in 2016.
So how did they do it?
A lively new marketing strategy using social media left sepia tones behind. It's reaching the Twin Cities market and younger adults that make up the bulk of Glensheen's ticket sales. There's also a greater push to book private events and to hold community events to increase local interest.
But the biggest reason is the addition of new tours that open up previously closed areas of the house and grounds for viewing. There's the Nooks & Crannies Tour, the Flashlight Tour and the Servants Tour. The Photo Tour was added this month and takes visitors to the best spots on the 12-acre estate for photos Another new tour is coming in July in which participants will arrive by kayak.
"They made a concerted effort to provide new programming and tours focusing on new aspects of the house," said Anna Tanski, Visit Duluth's president and CEO. "It gives people who have been there a reason to come back."
TO LEARN MORE:
What: The authors of “Will to Murder: The True Story Behind the Crimes and Trials Surrounding the Glensheen Killings” will talk about the crimes, investigation, trials and people involved.
Who: Presenters will be John DeSanto, who prosecuted the case; Gary Waller, who led the Duluth police investigation; and Gail Feichtinger, a former Duluth News Tribune reporter who covered the case in the 1980s. They’ll also answer questions and sign copies of their book.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday — the 40th anniversary of the Glensheen murders. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Spirit of the North Theater in the Fitger’s Brewery Complex
Sponsor: Bookstore at Fitger’s