In March of 1917 a young school teacher in western Minnesota was returning from a visit to relatives when she bumped into her landlord – hanging in a noose from the ceiling.
When she recovered from the shock enough to crank up the wooden phone and call for help, a neighbor arrived. He was the one who noticed a suicide note contained the words "he killed them."
This caused the neighbor to take a look around the house ... and make the grisly discovery that the landlord's wife and four children had been killed in their beds with an ax.
With no witnesses and no explanation of why they happened, the deaths of William and Maud Kleeman and their kids left more questions than answers. Now a former state legislator who grew up down the road from the Kleeman farmstead has filled in some of the blanks by supplying his own answers in a historical novel based on the incident.
Sundown at Sunrise
Marty Seifert says the shortage of information about what led to the Kleeman killings means a straight-ahead historic narrative would only fill about one chapter. That's why his publisher suggested Seifert turn his book about the case into historical fiction.
Sundown at Sunrise (the woman boarding with the Kleemans taught at the Sunrise schoolhouse across the road) is available online now and Seifert says it should be on store shelves before the end of the year.
In an interview with GoMN, Seifert said Kleeman's suicide note suggested an intruder had entered the home and killed Maud and the children, who ranged in age from 5 weeks to 6 years. Kleeman apparently wanted the world to think he had discovered his dead family and could not face life without them.
But when local authorities investigated, they found no evidence anyone else had been there and concluded that Kleeman committed the ax murders and then killed himself.
The author is a neighbor
Seifert says his interest in the Kleeman farmstead goes back to his childhood because he grew up down the road from the place. He remembers as a boy hearing his father explain the emptiness of the house by saying "something bad happened there."
The house sat empty for years before it was finally removed. To mark his book's publication, Seifert held an event at the site this month and invited neighbors, many of whom were only vaguely aware of the place's history.
These days a root cellar, a chicken coop, a well and a driveway are about all that remains of the place, which is about two miles from the town of Clements in Redwood County.
As for William Kleeman's motive, it, too, remains shrouded in obscurity. Seifert says there was speculation that Kleeman may have been despondent about debt – or was having an affair with the schoolteacher.
Unknown resting place
Another bit of mystery involves the whereabouts of Maud Kleeman's gravesite.
As if to symbolize how the family was torn apart, two of their children were buried alongside William Kleeman in the Redwood Falls cemetery, Seifert says, while the other two are buried elsewhere with their mother. But no one seems to know the location of those graves.
The location of the murder weapon is no mystery, though. According to Seifert it sat in an evidence room at the Redwood County sheriff's office for 75 years before a history-minded sheriff donated it to the County History Museum, where it remains today.
Seifert, who represented the area in the Minnesota House for 14 years, will be signing copies of Sundown at Sunrise in Marshall on Monday evening. Other events are planned this week in Clements, New Ulm, Redwood Falls, and Mankato. (Details are here)