One box in the archives recently caught my attention, the Murder Box. There are forty-two folders in the Murder Box; the earliest is dated October 1, 1892. Being a young adult, most of the television shows I watch are crime dramas but when I started reading through the files, I was struck by how connected to the people I felt. The ones I identified with the most were the cases where young people were affected. I found myself wondering how I would react in the situations these individuals were placed in. I read through four of the files completely but one of the four has stuck with me the longest.
The first file I read was from the Buckman area and occurred in December 1941. Richard Dehler murdered his parents and two younger siblings. I was intrigued mostly by Richard’s reason for killing his family. During the trial, Richard’s lawyer claimed Richard felt he could “never be free of the farm and its debts because of the illness of [his] father” (LFDT 1/22/42). The prosecution later attempted to show this claim to be false because “during the seasons when there [was] heavy work to be done on the farm, Ralph [Richard’s older brother], University farm school student, [was] at home to assist” (LFDT 1/22/43). The trial concluded quickly and Richard was only charged with the death of his mother, but could still be convicted of the other charges at a later date. Prior to his trial, Richard broke out of jail with another man but was captured. In 1959, Richard was released from prison because of lapses in the original proceedings. The due process of his trial was called into question and he was released only to be re-arrested and re-arraigned for the death of his mother. In December 1960, Richard pleaded guilty to 2nd degree murder and got a life sentence to prison.
When I finished reading, I was not satisfied. I knew what happened to Richard but I did not know what happened to his older brother and four older sisters. How did they react to the deaths of their parents and youngest siblings? Did they contact Richard? Did Richard contact them? Why did the state choose to prosecute him on the same exact charge in 1959 rather than prosecute him for the deaths of his father or his siblings? As I tried to answer these questions, I pulled another file and kept reading, hoping to find answers somewhere else.
The second file I read was from Swan River and occurred in July 1918. John Wozniak killed three of his children. Again, John’s motive was intriguing. He killed them because he was “laboring under [the] delusion that [they, the children] would starve” during the winter (LFDT 7/12/1918). He was convinced his crops, which were doing well, would fail and Tilla, age 8, Louis, age 5, and Walter, age 6, would starve. Prior to the murder, John sent the two oldest children out to do chores and left the 8-month-old baby sleeping in the children’s room. John confessed to the murders but later pled not guilty. During the trial in August 1918, he changed his plea to guilty and received a life sentence. In July of 1920, John hung himself while in prison.Another file finished and I had even more questions. Where did John Wozniak get the idea his crops would fail? Why did he not tell his wife about his conviction the crops would fail? Why did he leave the baby and the two oldest children alive? Why did he kill two sons? I realized my answers would not be found in the murder box but I noticed similarities between the first two stories and wanted to see if there were similarities to any other stories. The first two files I read were centered around farmers and the inescapable nature farms appear to have. Did this trend, if that is what it is, continue?
The third file I read was from Royalton and occurred in July 1959. Julius Voeller was shot by his daughter Shirley, age 14. The Voeller family had problems. Julius and his wife were divorced in the early 1950s in South Dakota. The children, Shirley, Lee, 17 at the time of the murder, Janet, 11, and Mary, 10, were put in an orphanage until roughly 1957. They moved to Royalton only the year before. Lee was working on a different farm and was not at home. Shirley blindfolded and tied her father to a chair before shooting him. Julius was able to drive to a neighbor’s house and get to a hospital before he died. Shirley shot him because he was “dirty to me and mean to the kids” and she “did the work of a housewife” (LDFT 7/17/1959). Julius “had sexually molested her frequently…often swore in the home and …beat them with a strap” (LDFT 7/17/1959). The case was dismissed as self-defense and the judge reprimanded the South Dakotan welfare board. The South Dakota welfare board basically ignored Shirley when she tried to get help.
There were fewer similarities between this case and the first two. It happened in the summer, as the second did, and other than occurring on a farm, it was not related to farming. I did have a few of the same questions that were unanswered with Richard Dehler. What happened to Shirley and her sisters? Were they adopted? What happened to Lee? Did their mother care? After the trial was dismissed, apparently all mention of the Voeller family evaporates. I decided to read one more file, not knowing the amount of questions I had was going to continue to increase.
The fourth file I read was from Darling and occurred in April 1905. It was the file of the unresolved murder of Annie Kintop. She was returning from Little Falls and left the train station in Darling by herself. A week later, when she was still not home, a search was started. Her brother and brother-in-law found her body near a church. She was strangled and beaten. Her brother-in-law, Frank Coenen, had dreamed of the place the night before. She was killed by blunt trauma to the head, caused by a spike hammer. The suspects were two black men. The story was picked up by three out-of-state newspapers, the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, the New York Times, and The Washington Post, all the papers the day after her body was found. After a few false leads, the two black men were no longer suspects nor was anyone else. In 1909, a series of arrests were made. Archie Cyrus, William Bailey, Joseph Kennedy, Hugh Kennedy, and Alfred A. Fredrickson were arrested between February 27, 1909, and March 19, 1909. William Bailey was the first released on March 3, 1909. The last two released were Hugh Kennedy and Alfred A. Fredrickson on April 1, 1909. Two years later another possible lead also failed.
Annie Kintop was not much older than I am now when she was murdered. Her murderer was never found. There are no factual connections between Annie’s story and the other three stories. The only connections can be found in the questions. Unlike the three previous stories, there are more questions concerning physical elements of the case. Of course I still wonder what happened to her family and the community: How did they cope with the death of a daughter and sister? Did parents throughout the community regulate the actions of their children, especially their daughters, even if they were grown up, more strictly? How does a community move on after a murder when there is seemingly no closure? These questions are important but ever more present is the question: Who killed her? Obviously I have no idea, nor does Joan Vetsch, who wrote a book about Annie.
My questions may not have answers, for who can really say why people do what they do? I try to find answers to help better understand my fellow human but when, instead of answers, I find more questions, I find myself lost. And then I realize, it is not necessarily the answers that matter so much as the questions. In the end, that is what makes history thrilling. There are so many questions and so few answers. We may know who, what, when, where, and how but the why is almost always a mystery—even when we are told the answer. In finding connections between different events and the questions they raise, we can truly learn something. Whether what we learn is about the past, ourselves, or the future is up to each individual. So, as I close the Murder Box, I do not close the topic; I merely shelve it in my mind to think of when I am looking through another box from another time in another place. My questions remain questions but the answers I hope to find now are not the answers I had hoped to find when I began.
-By Marissa Knaack, MCHS Intern
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 24, Number 3, 2011.