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Elisabeth Congdon’s other daughter, Jennifer Johnson, has died

Jennifer Johnson
Maresh-Meredith & Acklam Funeral Home
Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson, the other adopted daughter of murdered Duluth heiress Elisabeth Congdon, has died in Arizona. She was 82.

She told me that she believed her sister, Marjorie Caldwell Hagen, was involved in the murder of their mother, which happened 40 years ago. There’s no mention of Marjorie in Jennifer’s obituary. 

Exactly 40 years ago — on June 27, 1977 — Elisabeth Congdon, who never married but adopted the two girls as infants in the 1930s, was smothered with a pillow in her bed inside the 39-room Glensheen mansion. A night nurse, Velma Pietila, was bludgeoned to death with a candlestick holder on the mansion’s grand staircase. 

Police alleged it was a crime of greed, saying Marjorie Caldwell and her new husband, Roger Caldwell, were desperate for money and wanted to speed up their $8 million inheritance. Roger Caldwell was convicted (and eventually confessed), but a jury found Marjorie not guilty of charges that she planned the murders. After her acquittal, though, she spent 12 years in prison for arson in Minnesota and Arizona, has been charged with bigamy and fraud, and was associated with other mysterious deaths.

I wrote a comprehensive take on the complex case for the current Artful Living magazine, and a first-person story for the Star Tribune about my long journey covering Roger and Marjorie Caldwell.   

In 1977 I was a rookie reporter and stumbled on the case in Duluth the day of the murders (but I have an alibi!), and have covered it ever since. Preparing for the anniversary stories, I reached out to Jennifer Johnson and her family, but they declined to comment on the record over the past months. 

But I received a note from her son saying Johnson died last month in Chandler, Arizona, where she moved after spending her adult years in Racine, Wisconsin. She died of natural causes, said her son, Thomas Johnson of Racine.

Johnson’s husband, Charles, died in 2012. I  kept in contact with the couple over the years, letting them know when a story about Marjorie would be in the paper. They had theories on the case, thinking that a second person was with Caldwell in the mansion the night of the murders. They tried, unsuccessfully, to get Roger Caldwell to tell the whole story about that fateful night, but he committed suicide in 1988 without divulging more than a rambling, vague confession of the murders.

When Marjorie was imprisoned for a string of Arizona arsons in the 1990s, Jennifer wrote a letter to the parole board, opposing an early release. The board agreed and she stayed locked up until her prison term ended in 2004.

As her health faded, Jennifer moved from Racine to Arizona to be with a daughter. She had helped her husband found a successful computer-related business and was active in philanthropic activities including the Mayo Clinic and the Racine Zoo. 

The two sisters were maids of honor in each other’s weddings (only Marjorie’s first) but after the murders Jennifer was totally estranged from Marjorie, who also has lived in Arizona since her release from prison. Last summer, Marjorie bought a new house in Tucson and she’ll be 85 next month. Elisabeth Congdon was 83 when she was murdered.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 06/27/2017 - 09:58 am.


    There is no need to refer to Jennifer Johnson in your headline as adopted. She was adopted 82 years ago and was simply her mother’s daughter from that point on.

    After an adoption is finalized children have the same status as those born into a family; singling their origins out simple leads to a lower acceptance of adopted people and adoption. It is unlikely that you would headline an obituary with the following

    • Submitted by Mark Walker on 08/16/2018 - 01:45 am.

      Use of words, adopted daughter

      You must also remember, even back as far as the 1980’s, our country was still not accepting of unwed mother’s. Therefore, as an unmarried woman of Elizabeth’s time, people would automatically refer to her children as “adopted” due to social status and moral status of the time periods.

      I do not find the usage of the words offensive, as I was born in the 1960’s, growing up surrounded by the same mind set as thousands of years prior. In the 1970’s, parents were still shipping pregnant daughters off to relatives and forcing the babies up for adoption because it was immoral and embarrassing to their parents.

      It would have been necessary to use the wording adopted daughter with someone of Elizabeth’s Social standings and time period in order for society to accept her children.

  2. Submitted by Susan Albright on 06/27/2017 - 10:22 am.

    Thanks, Beth Ann.

     Good points and we have changed the headline.

  3. Submitted by Tina Gastelum on 11/07/2017 - 10:59 pm.

    Yes i also think that after a child is adopted that, that word should not be used in reverence to the child it creates unnecessary feelings that’s unfair.a child that’s born into a family is not singled out as different nether should a adopted child. So i think that people that say those things are insensitive to the issue and should learn not to speak in such tones. It reads Elisabeth congdons other adopted daughter has died, when it should simply say her daughter has died. She had two daughters that she raised up and love very much and Elizabeth congdon will forever be a beautiful memory of our times thanks to her for all her selflessness she will greatly be missed……

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