The History Theatre’s production of “Glensheen, the Musical,” is a lively, often touching and very entertaining look at the 1977 murders of heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse in the 39-room mansion on Lake Superior in Duluth.
The facts are mostly right.
I know because I covered the murders from the day they happened in 1977 through the ongoing mayhem and heartbreak that continues today. And I wrote a book about the case, “Secrets of the Congdon Mansion,” back when tours of the mansion first began (back when they wouldn’t even mention the murders).
I also consulted with the History Theatre’s creative team at the beginning of this project, though I didn’t realize at first that they planned a musical. My reward (or was it a punishment?): a song in the first act about the cub reporter who stumbles on the big case.
Since the show began its run earlier this month, I’ve had many inquiries about how close their story hews to the truth. The answer: very close.
The other question I get: Did I like it?
Though it’s hard for me to get past the tragedy and the ongoing heartbreak of the families involved — and there are many affected —I did find it very engaging. And with a deft touch of poignant storytelling, they have brought a real sense of humanity and empathy for the victims.
And it’s bitterly funny at times.
The show runs through Oct. 25, and on Friday, at 11 a.m., MPR is airing an hour-long look at the case and the musical. It includes studio versions of three key songs from the show.
For anyone unfamiliar with the story, here are the basics: Elisabeth Congdon, the last surviving child of iron ore magnate Chester Congdon (who built the mansion in 1906), was 83 years old and partially paralyzed when someone broke into the mansion in the early morning hours of June 27, 1977. The killer encountered her night nurse, Velma Pietila, on the house’s stairway and beat her to death; he then went up to the second floor and smothered Elisabeth Congdon in her bedroom. (If you’re taking the tour, it’s the first bedroom around to the right when you get to the top of the stairs.)
Police first called it a burglary gone awry — some jewelry was missing from Elisabeth’s bedroom and a ring was taken from her finger.
But behind the scenes, the family immediately told police that they suspected Marjorie Caldwell, Congdon’s adopted daughter.
Congdon had never married, but as a young woman in the 1930s, she adopted two infant daughters, Marjorie and Jennifer, and raised them at Glensheen, the family’s somewhat pretentious name for the lakeside estate.
Marjorie reportedly had problems when growing up; there were stories of stolen items from the department stores and the time a gardener suspected she might be trying to poison a horse.
Marjorie married a Minneapolis accountant and had seven children, but the marriage dissolved in the early 1970s, apparently due to Marjorie’s exorbitant spending habits. Jennifer married and moved to Racine, Wisconsin.
After her divorce, Marjorie moved to Colorado, where she met Roger Caldwell, a divorced, out-of-work salesman from Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
Roger and Marjorie had no money. The Congdon trustees in Duluth had cut her off from the family fortune because she kept dunning her mother for money: $20,000 here, $10,000 there. And she managed to spend the entire principal of a $1 million trust that her mother had set up to provide for her.
In May of 1977, Roger made his first-ever visit to Duluth, by himself, to ask his new mother-in-law for money. He wanted a million or so to buy a ranch in the mountains, he told her, because Marjorie’s youngest son, Congdon’s grandson, suffered from asthma and the mountain air would do him good.
But Elisabeth didn’t have the power to say yes. The family had taken control of her money away because Marjorie was able to manipulate her so. And when Roger stopped by the Congdon offices in downtown Duluth to plead his case, they, of course, said no.
Roger told me later that he and Marjorie were dead broke in Colorado, living in a small hotel in Golden. Their cars had been repossessed and they were reduced to using slugs in a pop machine.
A month later, Elisabeth Congdon was dead.
How I got involved
My introduction to the case came the morning of the murders. I was a rookie reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune, just out of college, and working on feature stories for the Sunday paper. I was driving to Askov early that morning to write about a family of strawberry farmers. On the drive, I heard on the radio that Duluth police were reporting a double homicide, but no further details were known.
I stopped at a gas station off the freeway — we didn’t have cell phones back then — and called the office. Could I please cover the murders instead of the strawberries? I pleaded. An editor said the report hadn’t come in over the wires, yet, but she said: Sure, go ahead.
So it began. I spent the summer living in Duluth working the story.
After about a week, I stumbled on some information about the Marjorie connection, and police then revealed that the botched burglary story was a ruse. They’d been looking at Marjorie and Roger from the beginning.
Roger was charged in the case; there was some circumstantial evidence but no smoking gun or eyewitness identifications. A year after the murders, he went on trial in Brainerd. Three months later, the jury found him guilty.
With that success, the prosecutors then charged Marjorie with helping plan the murders. But at her trial, another year later in Hastings, some new evidence emerged and she was acquitted.
Based on that new evidence, Roger appealed and was granted a new trial. This was a problem for the prosecutors. Time had passed; witnesses had died; people began forgetting details. And if Roger was also acquitted, they’d have a big problem: the crime of the century in Duluth would be, officially, unsolved.
Their solution was to offer a plea bargain. If Roger would plead guilty to the murders, they’d release him, with no further prison time. He’d been locked up a little over five years.
Later, Roger told me he considered the offer for about five seconds, then signed. He didn’t want to risk losing at trial again and spending the rest of his life in prison.
And then came Marjorie’s post-trial crime spree: bigamy, arson in Minnesota, multiple arsons in Arizona and several more dead bodies in her wake. Roger killed himself when it became clear that she wasn’t going to reward him in any way.
And yes, Marjorie did get some of the money. But not nearly as much as if her 83-year-old, paralyzed mother had died of natural causes.
The musical gets most of the case’s facts correct and intertwines them neatly into an enjoyable show. There are some scenes, which, for storytelling reasons, jam together some facts or situations that didn’t quite happen the way it’s been depicted, as you might expect. For example, Roger and Marjorie didn’t go together to the mansion before the murders to plead for money to buy a ranch. Roger went alone.
And Jennifer, the “good sister,” didn’t attend the 2001 parole hearing when Marjorie tried to get early release from a 15-year sentence for arson. I was there, along with two of her stepchildren from her third marriage. They believed Marjorie killed their mother and father, and didn’t want her released early. The parole board agreed. Marjorie served three more years before her release.
Why the story stays alive
Today, Marjorie’s out of prison, living in Tucson, on probation for fraud and forgery. A couple of years ago, I tracked her down there. She told me to leave her alone or she’d call the police.
The case has stayed alive in the public arena because of Marjorie’s ongoing legal problems. And folks are reminded of the crime because the mansion, now owned by the University of Minnesota, Duluth, is open for tours.
When those mansion tours began in the early 1980s, they refused to even acknowledge the murders, instead focusing solely on the majesty of the house and the legacy of the Congdon family. Yet back then, and even today, a good percentage of visitors have an interest in the murders. What they really want to know is: which bedroom was it?
I wrote the first editions of my book, “Secrets of the Congdon Mansion,” soon after the mansion tours began, and have been adding to it regularly over the years, mostly when Marjorie lands herself in another round of trouble. There have also been several reality TV shows about the case over the years, which bring a national audience in on the spectacle.
The story continues and this newest chapter — Glensheen, the Musical — will bring even more folks into the realm of Marjorie’s web.