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Why you don't hear about the murders when you tour Glensheen Mansion

A night nurse was killed with a candlestick, while a family heiress was smothered with a pillow.

Forty years ago, two people were brutally murdered at Glensheen Mansion.

It was June 27, 1977. Someone broke into the 39-room Duluth home, killed Elizabeth Congdon's night nurse with a candlestick on the grand staircase, and then smothered the 83-year-old heiress in her bed with a satin pillow, the Duluth News Tribune says. It's one of the most publicized murder cases in Minnesota history.

But it's something you probably won't hear about if you take a tour of the Lake Superior estate.

The suspects

In the days after the murders, police quickly suspected Elizabeth Congdon's adopted daughter Marjorie Caldwell and her husband Roger Caldwell. Police believed they killed the heiress in order to inherit the $8.2 million Congdon fortune.

Roger Caldwell was found guilty, but his conviction was later thrown out. He agreed to a plea deal instead of being retried, and was released from prison after five years served. He ended up killing himself in 1988, leaving behind a note saying he was innocent, MinnPost reported.

Marjorie Caldwell was charged with conspiring to kill her mother, but was acquitted, KSTP says. She's been accused and convicted of other crimes, including arson, over the years, which has continued to propel questions about her involvement in the case. She's now 84 and lives in Arizona.

"The big mystery still is, did Roger do it alone or with someone else there, and how involved if at all was Marjorie?" Joe Kimball, a former reporter with the Minneapolis Star Tribune who's been following the case for decades, told MPR News. "Even though she's been acquitted, I think there's lots of questions about that."

Why don't Glensheen tours focus on the murders?

For many years, the public tours at Glensheen Mansion didn't discuss the grisly murders – even if you asked about them.

That's because the operators say there's more to the Congdons and Glensheen than this one grisly crime.

"We don't try to hide from history, we just don't want the central theme of the tour to be about it," Dan Hartman, the director of Glensheen, told GoMN. "And it is not exactly a great kid conversation, especially with the morbid questions we get about it."

They will now talk about it at the end of the tour however, if people ask.

What else you should know about the family

Hartman listed a variety of reasons you should care about the non-murder parts of the Glensheen Mansion in a blog post Monday, including the fact that the Congdons were one of the most influential families in Duluth in the early 1900s. They were known for opening up iron mining in the area, as well as dedicating land for public use.

Another reason: the mansion houses a collection that rivals some of the best house museums in the nation for quality and historical significance, with most items dating back to 1910, he says.

Plus, about 70 percent of visitors come to the mansion for reasons other than interest in the murders. And Hartman has discovered people who visit to see the house and the expansive collection come back multiple times, while those who come just for the murders only visit once.

More about Glensheen and the Congdons

The University of Minnesota Duluth continues to preserve and restore Glensheen Mansion, and over the years more and more rooms have been made available for the public to see on one of the many tours.

If you're interested in reading more about the murders and trials, check out the bookWill to Murder, co-written by John DeSanto, the chief prosecutor at the time.

There are a few other books about the crime as well, including Secrets of the Congdon MansionandGlensheen's Daughter. Then Nightingaleis a memoir about Elizabeth Congdon, written by her granddaughter. 

There's also a musical about the murders, which runs July 6-30 at St. Paul’s History Theatre.

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