The murder at Glensheen that you've never heard of

Decades before the famous mansion was built, blood was spilled on its grounds.
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It's one of the most popular attractions in Minnesota, but Glensheen Mansion has a darker past than most historic homes you'll find in America.

The 39-room mansion and estate on the shore of Lake Superior in Duluth will be forever associated with the shocking events of June 27, 1977, when mining heiress Elizabeth Congdon was smothered in her bed and her night nurse Velma Pietila was murdered with a candlestick.

The killings were carried out by Roger Caldwell, allegedly at the urging of his wife, Congdon's adopted daughter Marjorie, though she was later acquitted of conspiracy to murder at a trial.

Congdon was the only surviving child of mining magnate Chester Congdon, who built the lavish mansion in 1909.

But new information suggests that she and Pietila were not the only victims of a violent killing on the grounds of the historic estate.

A murder at a beer garden

Historian Tony Dierckins was researching old newspaper archives for his book, "Naturally Brewed, Naturally Better: The Historic Breweries of Duluth & Superior," when he made a startling discovery: another killing at Glensheen.

In a quite remarkable coincidence, the killing happened on June 27, 1880 – 97 years to the day before Elizabeth Congdon and Velma Pietila died.

Before Chester Congdon built his mansion in 1909, the grounds of what would become the Glensheen estate was in the hands of another prominent family, the Tischers.

Urs and Elizabeth Tischer had migrated to Duluth from their native Switzerland, before starting a mining and logging operation along the Duluth creek that now bears their name.

Writing on his website, Zenith City Press, Dierckins says that the Tischers bought land east of the creek and established a farm there.

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In 1880, St. Louis County started issuing licenses for Sunday beer gardens in an effort to raise money, and the Tischers' son John bought a license, welcoming a big crowd at the farm for a beer garden event on June 27, 1880.

Among those in attendance was Herman Oppel, the son of pioneer grocer Christian Oppel.

As proceedings got increasingly rowdy, a booze-fueled fight broke out between St. Paul & Duluth Railroad official James Brennan and another man.

As Brennan's brother Edward tried to break up the fight, Herman Oppel got involved, striking Edward Brennan behind the ear with a loaded cane – a walking stick topped with a head made of lead.

Brennan collapsed, and three minutes later was dead.

You can read more about the fight and its aftermath here on Zenith City Press, but much like Marjorie Congdon, Oppel was acquitted in court.

An unwanted legacy

Dierckins told Bring Me The News that he came upon the story quite by chance in 2017 as he was researching his book.

"If I hadn’t known both the history of the Tischer family as well as the Congdons, and wasn’t familiar enough with the 1977 killings to recognize the date—I likely would have missed the connection between the two events," he said.

Given that Glensheen wasn't built for another 29 years, the location and date of the killing are purely coincidental.

Dierkins himself says he's "not convinced there is much significance in the 1880 event in regard to Glensheen’s history" outside of these coincidences.

Nonetheless, it adds another layer of intrigue to an already fascinating story of one of Minnesota's oldest homes.

But its history can be a poisoned chalice, according to Glensheen Mansion Director Dan Hartman, who says the attraction's grisly history stops some visitors from coming.

"The murders keep some people away," he said, despite the wealth of historic artifacts and priceless art that festoon the mansion's 39 rooms. "We would be getting double the visitor numbers than we get now if they had never happened."

"It's also our biggest stumbling block when it comes to donations and public support," noting that a prominent radio personality once told him he could "never support a murder house."

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