There is a small cemetery in Elmdale Township, a one-acre plot of land a half-mile south of Elmdale in Section 17 of the township. It is Willow Cemetery, associated with a long-defunct Missouri Synod German Lutheran Church known as the Willow Church. There are only three stones in the cemetery, one belonging to Carl Wittke, another for Gottlieb Mokros, and a third that simply says “Gollnik” with no other information provided. It is this last stone that brought my attention to a dramatic story in Morrison County’s history through researchers who became interested in the case.
Cousins Alfred Janske and Bette Brown, both of California, have done extensive research on the roots of their families in Morrison County. One line includes the Blair family, one of whom owned the Gollnik property in Swan River Township. As Alfred was searching for his own family history in files and newspapers at the Morrison County Historical Society, he became curious about this Gollnik family, which was headed by William and Mathilda Gollnik. On August 13, 1908, William was severely beaten in his home, the injuries resulting in his death on August 16, 1908. Mathilda was charged with his murder and later found guilty and sentenced to life in Stillwater State Prison. In 1914, she was declared insane and sent to Fergus Falls State Hospital, where she lived the remainder of her days.
Alfred was so intrigued with this case that he compiled an entire file box of documents on it to supplement the newspaper articles already in our Murders file on the case. (He even provided an index to the documents.) His cousin, Elizabeth “Bette” Brown, picked up where Alfred left off and wrote a book about the Gollnik case. The book, called “UNJUST: Conviction of Innocence: Mathilde’s Story,” was released this fall and is available on Amazon in both paperback and e-book formats.
Often in a murder case, once a suspect is convicted and jailed, you rarely find out what happened to her or her family. Bette was determined to go beyond the sentencing and researched the ensuing years in Mathilda’s life. The “feeding frenzy” that occurred in relation to the Gollniks’ property is yet another dramatic story in the Gollnik case and is included in the book.
In order to see archival documentation on the Gollnik murder case, including that collected by Alfred and Bette, visit the Weyerhaeuser Museum and ask for the Gollnik box. We also have documentation on Willow Cemetery within our cemetery collection (ELM8 is our identification label for the cemetery).