By Jennifer Kotila
HOWARD LAKE, MN The descendents of W.T. and Rachel Boxell’s 14 children reunited Aug. 26 at Memorial Park in Howard Lake, and were able to tour the house in which the murders of W.T. and his second wife, Lydia took place more than 115 years ago.
W.T. and his young wife, Lydia Oliver Boxell, were murdered with an axe between 11 p.m. and midnight the night of May 15, 1897 at their home just northwest of Howard Lake. The case has never been solved.
W.T., who was 61 at the time of the murder, had married Lydia, a young woman 19 years of age, shortly before the murders took place.
His wife, Rachel, had passed away only a few months earlier, and W.T. had become lonely, marrying Lydia to be his companion.
Members of the Boxell family are currently working on books based on known facts about the murders, and others would like to eventually write a screenplay.
The Gruenhagen family has owned the house in which the murders took place since 1919.
The house had been sitting vacant since 1897, and there were still axe marks and blood stains throughout the home when it was purchased, said Gruenhagen family member, Trudy Latt.
Although the home has been updated and remodeled several times, blood stains are still present when looking up at the floor boards from the basement, and the layout of the house is nearly the same.
The house has sat empty again for a number of years, and the Gruenhagens were kind enough to allow the descendents of W.T. and Rachel Boxell to tour the house.
“This has been an adventure for us, too,” Trudy Latt told the Boxell family, noting they get excited when people talk about the murders.
Elton Gruenhagen, who grew up and still lives on the property, noted his parents never talked about the murders which took place in the house.
This may be the last time the family will be able to tour the house lived in by their ancestors, as it is in very bad shape, and may eventually be torn down.
Along with touring the house, the family shared their theories about what happened and played some games, such as a look-alike contest and Boxell family crossword.
They were also able to hear a recording Ernie Workman made when he was 82 years old, recalling his memories of what occurred at the time of the murders.
Workman was a 10-year-old boy when the murders took place, and went to the site with his father the night of the murders and the following day.
Theories about the murders
During the reunion, family members shared what they knew of the murders, and their theories on who committed them.
One of the theories about the murders is that W.T.’s children were involved somehow.
Most of the children were grown at the time, and they were concerned that his young wife would inherit his wealth, which was estimated at $15,000 at the time of his death.
A reporter from the Minneapolis Journal came to Howard Lake to look at the crime scene and interviewed several family members for an article published June 3, 1897.
The article seems to implicate W.T.’s sons, Joe and John, and son-in-law, George Taylor for the murders. However, at the time, those working the case did not have enough evidence to make an arrest.
The men were eventually arrested and charged with the murders two years later, in 1899.
Joe was tried first, and, according to newspaper accounts at the time, his trial was the longest, most expensive trial to have ever taken place in Minnesota.
Joe was found not guilty July 18, 1899 at 9 p.m. after a month-long trial, and the charges against John and George were dropped.
Following his acquittal, Joe toured the area, lecturing about his experience to raise money to cover the expenses of his trial.
The Annandale Advocate reported on one of the lectures, at which more than 300 people were present and he obtained a “liberal collection.”
Joe’s great-grandson, Jeff Boxell, Jr. read the transcript of Joe’s lecture during the reunion.
During his lectures, Joe claimed to have been “disgraced and persecuted by so-called detectives, not working to figure out who committed the crime, but to get the reward.”
A large cash reward was offered for anyone with information to help solve the murders, and Joe claimed that United Methodist pastor, Eldor Murray, Alex McVeety, and others wanted a part of it.
“It is too bad that Eldor Murray’s children can’t be educated, or Alex McVetty’s can’t have a new piano,” Joe stated during his lecture.
He also told audiences of political reasons for his arrest, such as McVeety’s ambition to be nominated sheriff if he could get a conviction.
Two theories pin the murders on suitors Jake Dextor or Shed Nelson, who had been calling on Lydia before her quick marriage to W.T.
Another theory is that Fred Kier, a son-in-law of W.T.’s, had committed the murder in a fit of insanity. However, Kier was supposed to be in an insane asylum in Fergus Falls at the time.
Kier murdered W.T’s daughter, Sarah in a fit of insanity two years after the murders of W.T. and his wife, and spent the rest of his life in prison and insane asylums.
Some theories pin the murders on the Oliver family. One is that John or Emma, Lydia’s parents, committed them because W.T. had not given them the property promised before the marriage.
The other is that Lydia’s sister, Henrietta committed them because she was jealous to have been passed over as a bride for W.T.
A final theory mulled over by the family is Joe’s wife, Lizzie, wanting out of the marriage, asked her father, Robert Robinson to commit the murders in order to frame Joe and collect a $2,000 insurance settlement if he was convicted.