Various locations in Minnesota have seen their share of notoriety and crime--heck, St. Paul used to be a known haven for gangsters in the early part of the 20th century--but one of the more enduring crime stories is set in Duluth: the murder of Elisabeth Congdon at the Glensheen estate.
Some quick background: the Congdon family was an important part of Duluth society in the 1900s. Chester Congdon, Elisabeth's father, was a lawyer when he arrived in Minnesota with his wife, Clara. But savvy investing and good timing in the iron ire and copper mining boom of the early 1900s made his fortune. In 1904 he commissioned the building of an estate for his family on the shores of Lake Superior. And what an estate it is:
The 39-room mansion was ahead of its time in many ways, including the installation of what was one of the first central vacuum systems. At completion, the price totalled $854,000--or nearly $30 million in today's dollars. Imported fixtures and moldings, top-of-the-line linens and wood trims, elegant furniture, and lovely grounds waited the family's arrival in 1908, when the estate was completed.
The above photo was taken in the back yard of Glensheen; the windows look out over Lake Superior.
Chester didn't have long to enjoy his estate; he died in 1916 at the age of 63. Daughter Elisabeth eventually inherited the estate. She never married, but in an act that was also way ahead of her times (and which raised some eyebrows), she adopted a child as a single mother. That daughter, Marjorie Congdon, was troubled from an early age; by the time of her marriage to Roger Caldwell, she had developed a pattern that was later described as sociopathic. She had several children and was frequently out of control, both emotionally and financially. Elisabeth was called in again and again to bail Marjorie out monetarily.
In 1968, the estate was turned over to the University of Minnesota in Duluth, with the stipulation that Elisabeth and her nurse, Velma Pietila, could stay there through the end of Elisabeth's life. On June 27, 1977, both Elisabeth and Velma were found murdered in the mansion. Marjorie and Roger were the prime suspects, due to Marjorie's monetary woes. Caldwell was convicted of the murders, but Marjorie was not convicted in the accompanying aiding and abetting accusations.
Although she escaped a jail sentence at that time, Marjorie's life did not significantly improve; she has been accused of various other crimes, including arson, insurance fraud, and computer fraud. Today she is thought to be living somewhere in Arizona.
This picture shows the carriage house, which is currently the starting point for tours of Glensheen, and some of the beautiful gardens and grounds.
To the left is the groundskeeper's cottage. Lake Superior is just beyond.
There are three options for visiting Glensheen. You can visit the grounds only, which is a self-guided tour and the least expensive option, but you won't get to see the inside of the remarkable home. The standard tour includes the basement, first and second floors; the expanded tour includes the private areas of the third floor. During the summer, it's recommended that you arrive early, as tours are first-come-first-served and do sell out quickly. If you have the time, take the expanded tour; the house is a gem historically and architecturally, and the guides are well-trained and knowledgeable about the building.
When the estate first opened for tours in 1979, the guides weren't allowed to address questions about the murders. That restriction was lifted with the passage of time, and visitors are now welcome to ask what they like (and yes, you will get to see the room where Elisabeth died). The gift shop even sells the book Will to Murder, a journalistic exploration of the murders and the ensuing tangled route through the judicial system.
But don't go just for the details of the murders. Go because it's a beautiful piece of history, a glimpse into how the other half lived. It's a bit sad, in a way, to think that this lovely estate had only one generation of the family to live in it; I have to wonder if Chester Congdon didn't mean for this to be a family heirloom, a place where generations of Congdons could grow up and entertain the elite of Duluth society. To rise to that level of glory, then fall in the messiness of mental illness and murder, is a sad destiny.