It was in this country, in 1926, that a soap opera of homicide played itself out in the ridges and valleys near Rising Sun in Crawford County, on the north side of the Wisconsin River that forms Grant’s northern boundary. The hill country near Seneca was populated largely by poor but honest farmers, many of Norwegian ancestry. Hence its nickname “Little Norway.”
The Lutheran Church was a powerful force in the Norse families of the region. Despite the force of religion in everyday life, there were many who made a buck hosting dances where moonshine, not so secretly trafficked in the midst of prohibition, warmed the blood and propelled dusty feet to fox trot the night away. Seneca was a popular gathering place for such events.
Clara Olson first began keeping company with Erdman Olson after meeting him at a Lutheran Church Social. They kept company in the following months. They were not related. She was 22 and he was 18. She lived with her parents on a small farm. She was her father’s favorite. Erdman was attending Gale College in Galesville, Wisconsin, a Norwegian Lutheran Church institution. He had been attending that school since the age of sixteen. His father was a well to do (for those hills) tobacco farmer near the tiny village of Rising Sun. He was wealthy enough to have provided stylish clothes and a car for Erdman. During the early summer of 1926 Erdman used that car to take Clara to dances and go for long drives in the hills and valleys of the Kickapoo. Clara was in love.
Not surprisingly, Clara found herself pregnant, and that was a matter, even in the roaring twenties, of great shame in hill country. Erdman had always avoided meeting her family and usually picked her up at the end of the long lane leading to her house. Now he was avoiding her. It is not known what words passed between Erdman and Clara regarding her pregnancy, but on August 17, 1926 she wrote a letter to Erdman’s father, Albert Olson:
“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Albert Olson –
I know you folks will be surprised to hear from me and what I have to say. Understand I am a good friend to your son Erdman and am sorry to say that we are in a pinch and have to get married – if God is willing and if you folks are willing to help us. I wrote Erdman a letter some time ago to come down and marry me because I do not want to get him in trouble and I don’t want my parents to know and I hope you folks will help us before my folks find out what has come.
“Please be good to Erdman. I know he never meant to leave me. It is only four and one-half months’ left now until I will be expecting. So I hope Erdman and I can get married this month and make our lives worthwhile. I am closing with love and God’s blessings and I hope to hear from you and see Erdman soon.”
When the letter was received Mr. and Mrs. Olson confronted Erdman. Recounting the event in later testimony Albert said that Erdman “seemed surprised.” He ordered the boy to go and bring Clara to their home. Clara refused the invitation. Perhaps she knew that the intent of Erdman’s family was to procure an abortion, in those days termed an “illegal operation.” From that point her life was coasting toward its end.
|Lane leading to Christ Olson Home
On September 9th Clara received a letter that Erdman had send two days earlier. He asked her to destroy the letters he had written and not to disclose to anyone the contents of the present letter after she had destroyed it. He asked her to pack only the clothes that would be needed for the trip and to bring money. “We’ll go and get the ceremony over with and come back in a week or so and let them know” he wrote. “Do as I have asked you and everything will be OK. If you don’t, your chance may be shot, and I might make a scarce hubby. So if you want to avoid disgrace, do as I say and keep mum. As ever, as usual” These were hardly the words of a person in love, but Clara's hopes soared. On the night of September 9th , Erdman wrote, she was to put a lantern in her upstairs window which faced the road. He would drive by at midnight and wait for her if he saw the light. She was then to run to him and jump in the car for the wedding trip to “Hendrum, Minnesota which is the same as Winona.” That afternoon she looked forward to the coming midnight, when she would have a husband and father for the child coming. She looked in her geography book, but couldn’t find Hendrum, which was actually north of Fargo, North Dakota, 400 miles away on the Minnesota side of the Red River. She baked cookies while reviewing Erdman's letters, smiling occasionally as she read the words before crushing them, lifting the hob eye, and tossing them into the fire.
“Wine and new wine take away the heart." Hosea 4:11
On the night of September 9th, Erdman went to a dance in Seneca. He danced the Fox Trot with the girls and drank beverages which he laced with “Synthetic Gin.” This was in the middle of Prohibition. The hills were full of moonshiners. Erdman was known as a supplier. His last dance was with Marie Anderson, a friend of Clara's younger sister Alice. She testified later that “he couldn't keep step,” probably because he was drunk from ingesting the liquid courage that he would need to carry out a foul deed. At about 11:30 pm Erdman stumbled out of the hall accompanied by a man unknown to the others and never to be identified. He sped away into the night mists.
Christ Olson was not asleep. He saw the lights at the end of the lane. Clara was leaving. “I’m getting a breath of air" she said. A few moments later he heard the car speed away.
The next morning the family realized that Clara had not come home. They found a note that Clara had written which read:
“Dear Folks: I know you all will be surprised to find me gone. I am leaving this evening. I will have to go tonight. I did not know I was going until this afternoon, but could not make up my mind to go till now, when I am leaving. Please do not worry about me as I will not be gone very long. If anyone asks about me tell them that I have gone to La Crosse. Again I must tell you not to worry about me as I am taken good care of and will be back soon. I cannot explain to you tonight why I am leaving, but will when I come back. Now, please do not take it too seriously, as it will mean nothing, only a little surprise. I will be back soon from my trip. Now please remember, don’t worry about me. I will be back soon.”
Did her repeated assurances and entreaties to her parents not to worry betray her own doubts?
Christ sent Clara's older brother Bernard to the farm of Albert Olson to inquire after his daughter. Bernard noticed the tire prints where a car had turned. He noted the distinctive pattern and observed that three of the tires matched but one didn’t. He noted the prints in the ditch at several places. When he arrived Mrs. Olson invited him in. He asked to see Erdman and was told he was asleep. Soon after, Erdman came into the room. Bernard asked where Clara was. At first Erdman denied having seen her. When Bernard confronted him with the fact that his tires matched the tracks observed, Erdman changed his story. He said he had driven Clara to Viroqua and left her there with fifty dollars to travel to Minneapolis. He didn't say why. Clara's family didn't believe a word of it, and they began to make inquiries.
|Albert Olson, father of Erdman Olson
After weeks had gone by, Christ visited the home of her daughter’s companion, confused and angry. He was told that Erdman had returned to college and then he received a contemptuous brush off. “Forget it for a while” said Erdman’s mother. “She’ll be back about Christmas time with a child and no husband.” These words hit Christ like a lightning bolt. He had not known of her pregnancy. The shame he may have felt was subsumed in dread and anger. He decided to take action.
On September 26th Christ and Bernard went to Galesville, found Erdman, and confronted him. His pals at school knew about Clara. He referred to her as “my hick sweetie” or “the green country girl.” Christ demanded to know her whereabouts. Erdman repeated the story he had told Bernard on September 10th. Christ offered him land and cattle to establish a small farm for them and the child. Erdman had no interest in that. Finally, Christ gave him an ultimatum; bring his daughter back within three days or he would send the Sheriff after him. Erdman had told Christ that he would need time to go where she was and bring her back, but the next day he advised the school that he was leaving and dropped off the map, but not before saying to a friend “Offering me cows to marry his daughter. Them hicks must think I want to be one too!”
The night Erdman disappeared Christ had a dream. He told his neighbors “I saw her buried on her face,” he said and went on to explain that it seemed she was in a ditch or shallow grave. He hired two detectives, John Sullivan, retired Milwaukee chief of detectives and a Madison private detective named Casween also a retired police detective, to search for Clara. They interviewed witnesses piecing together the movements of Erdman Olson. Two letters were sent by Erdman. One to his parents and one to Christ. To Christ he wrote: “I know Clara can't be back by the time you say. What a fool I would be to wait for the Sheriff. I don't want you to cause trouble for my people who know nothing of this. Your daughter will come back to you when I come back. I am leaving school so don't try to find me.”
His letter to his parents did not show the defiance and bravado that he had shown Christ:
“I am leaving tonight for some place where no one knows. I have decided to skip until things come back to normal. I shall not even tell you folks where I am going, though God knows how I feel. I have thought of finishing everything, but life is sweet and hard to part with, but I say this, that I would rather take death than captivity… Some time I may write you, but I can't say that you will ever see me again. I would not blame you if you don't. I will never stay long in one place, for that would be dangerous.
“Mother, I suppose your health will suffer tremendously from this and it might wreck father, but don't let it do that. Forget me. These people cannot prove anything definite, although they will try. Do not let them try to pull anything over on you folks. Please try to bear this with bravery and forget me as I am not worthy of your memory. Shut me out of your thoughts entirely, as though I never lived. Good bye and God bless you.”
On November 25,1926, Thanksgiving Day, Christ with detectives Sullivan and Casween met with Sheriff Harry W. Sherwood and Justice C.H. Speck and laid out the evidence. Justice Speck issued an arrest warrant for Erdman Olson based on “information and belief” and Christ Olson's complaint. The news exploded over the news wires. Bernard Olson asked the American Legion to help organize a search for Clara's body, and Christ Olson offered a $200.00 reward, which was soon raised to $3,000.00 by a community fund drive.
When the news broke, Arthur Price Roberts of Milwaukee, a well-known Welsh born medium and “psychic detective” who had assisted the police on past investigations made a prediction. He said that Erdman Olson would never be found alive.
With the Sheriffs consent over 600 men formed a posse and began searching the region for the body. On December 2nd searchers Charles Bowden and Al Marvin found a patch of overturned soil on Battle Ridge, about 100 yards off of Highway 27 and near a lane. The spot was only a quarter of a mile from Erdman's home. As they removed the clods they saw the heels of a pair of shoes. It was Clara, buried face down in a very shallow grave. The body was taken to the coroner’s office in Prairie Du Chien.
|Alice(left) and Bernard (right) comfort Christ at the inquest.
Dr. Charles H. Hunting, the State Pathologist was called in to conduct the autopsy. As they removed the sticky clay dirt from her body, Hunting found two letters stuffed in her bosom. They were a damp, gory mass. They carefully separated and cleaned the paper revealing the letter Erdman had sent her on September 7th instructing her to meet him in the night after destroying all correspondence. She hadn't destroyed this letter, instead taking it along, perhaps to retain as a keepsake for the happy years she expected would follow. These letters zipped up the case against the killer. He had killed her with a massive blow behind her ear which fractured her skull. Erdman's parents still denied his guilt. They said he had returned home at 1:15am on the fatal night, and had a sandwich. He could not have taken her at midnight, drove ten miles, killed her, and dug and closed even that shallow grave in an hour and 15 minutes.
For his accusers the answer was simple and horrible. He had dug the grave on the seventh of September, the day he wrote and sent the letter instructing Clara how to meet him for her short, fatal voyage. The letter that lay by her heart when it stopped beating.
|At the Utica Norwegian Lutheran Church
|The Crowd of Mourners
On December 7,1926 Clara was laid to rest in the graveyard or the Norwegian Lutheran Church, now known as the Utica Lutheran Church. A crowd of about six hundred came, but only 300 could be accommodated inside. Rev. Martin Dummernaess asked the mourners to pray for the one who took not one but two lives; that of Clara and of the little girl she carried. “Ask forgiveness for him, and ask God to bring repentance on his heart,” he said. Outside, the family stood by her gray Coffin as she was interred. The snow was soaked with rain and formed a dirty slush, which the previous night’s misty fog had topped with a hard frozen crust.
|Clara's Casket leaving her home
In the following years tens of thousands of wanted posters were sent all over the country. At the urging of Albert Olson, Governor Zimmerman sent Assistant Attorney General J. E. Messerschmidt to review the case and report back. After several weeks he reported to the Governor that there was no doubt of Erdman Olson's guilt. He stated that there was sufficient evidence to try him for first degree murder “when and if he is found.” The search went on for years with the $3,000.00 reward unclaimed. Reports came in from all over claiming Erdman had been spotted. A suicide victim in Chicago was thought to be Erdman – it wasn't. In 1932 a man was detained in Los Angeles thought to be Erdman. In 1933 a man in Portage was detained. In 1939 the Sheriff of Crawford County issued thousands more wanted posters. In 1940 the county, having never had a good lead, absorbed the reward fund into its general fund for 1941. In 1949 the last suspect, Theodore Wagner of Fargo, North Dakota was detained on suspicion of being Erdman Olson and sent to Crawford County for identification. Wrong again.
Two weeks after Clara's death, Frank Blazek of Prairie Du Chien reported seeing her ghost “flitting over the snow, crying for her sweetheart.” In February of 1927 the body of Will Holmes, age 19, of Prairie Du Chien was found with a pistol at his feet in a hollow tree in the Kickapoo River bottoms not far from the grave Clara had been buried in by her killer. He was reported to have been despondent at his girlfriend enduing their relationship. In the spring of 1927, a cardboard box was found near the shallow grave she occupied from September to December 1926. It was hidden in a nearly invisible crotch formed by two stumps and a sapling. It contained a “georgette gown with a ribbon sash, a silk slip. A yellow polka dot dress and two pairs of silk hose. It was quickly labeled as Clara's “wedding trousseau” by the press.
Clara lies in the Utica Church cemetery, now joined by her parents and other family members. The fog still owns the night in those hills and valleys, but in the morning the sun rises and the fog lifts, and all is clear. The memory of this heinous crime is still fresh and is part of the folklore of the hills. The mystery of Edman’s disappearance remains shrouded in darkness and fog. It is unlikely that anyone now lives who can answer the question of the murderer's fate. Did he start a new life in some faraway place? Did he kill again? Did he tire of running and end it all? There are many wooded bluffs, caves, and swamps in the Kickapoo region. They have many secrets that may never be given up.