by Nancy Dashwood
HOWARD LAKE Imagine being a fresh-faced, straight-out-of-college news reporter with a new job writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The newspaper editor, your boss, has assigned a trip to Askov to cover the area’s strawberry crop.
While interesting, this may not be the type of hard-breaking news a new reporter is hoping to cover.
Shortly, a news report comes over the car radio, providing sketchy, fascinating details about an apparent double homicide just discovered in Duluth.
What would a cubbie reporter, assigned to a strawberry crop story, do?
From berries to bodies
If you were young newspaper reporter Joe Kimball, and it was June 27, 1977, you’d pull over, find a gas station pay phone, and call your editor to inquire about changing your story subject matter for the day.
Kimball’s editor acquiesced, and Kimball quickly found himself enmeshed in a tale that would weave itself in and out of four decades of his life and lead him to author and update “Secrets of the Congdon Mansion.”
Kimball recently shared his knowledge and memories with a gathering of interested citizens at the library community room in Howard Lake.
(Those wishing to learn more about Glensheen and the Congdon family, are in luck. Kimball is scheduled to speak at the library in Cokato Tuesday, April 17 at 7 p.m.)
Back on that summer day in 1977, Kimball rushed to the site of the Congdon mansion, a beautiful, stately 39-room home located on the shore of Lake Superior in Duluth.
He was greeted by long lengths of yellow crime scene tape, a crowd of fellow reporters, and zero view of the mansion. The home was blocked completely by mature trees. The gathered crowd witnessed law enforcement coming and leaving throughout the day.
Later, a lone officer emerged through the trees to confirm that Elisabeth Congdon, heiress to her family’s iron ore fortune, and her night nurse, Velma Pietila, had been murdered. The police believed they were looking at a botched burglary.
Kimball had stumbled upon the case that would consume much of his career.
What the day nurse discovered, and only told Kimball
Kimball got a lucky break the day following the murders, when Mildred Garvue, the day nurse who had discovered the crime scene, agreed to speak to him.
Kimball indicated that he spent two and a half hours at Garvue’s kitchen table the day after the murders, and Mildred told him what she had seen, even going so far as to draw sketches of the layout of the involved rooms in the mansion.
Garvue told Kimball she arrived at work at 7 a.m. the previous morning, and found the door unlocked. She went into the mansion, and chatted briefly with the cook.
As Mildred passed through the front foyer, she thought she saw something odd in the corner of her eye. Closer inspection brought a chilling discovery.
Mildred had spotted the body of night nurse Pietila, lying across a window seat at the top of the landing, “clearly dead.” (Investigators later determined Pietila had been bludgeoned with a candlestick, and Kimball confirmed blood spatter was visible by the window seat for decades following the crime.)
Mildred’s investigation led to additional horror. Elisabeth Congdon, the Congdon family heiress, 83, was discovered dead in her bed, smothered by a satin pillow. Jewelry was strewn about the bedroom where Elisabeth lay.
When Mildred placed a call to the police, the line mysteriously went dead.
Mildred relayed all of this to Kimball and told him she hoped he would not “gloss over what Elisabeth meant to the community.”
(Elisabeth willed her mansion to the University of Minnesota. Several years after her murder, her mansion, known as Glensheen, was opened for tours showcasing its opulence. Staff at that time were explicitly prohibited from answering any questions related to the crime that had taken place there.)
Forty years of weird
Kimball did his best to honor Mildred’s wishes, and stayed dedicated to the case. He has followed it for four decades.
From the earliest days following the murders, Kimball said police felt Elisabeth’s daughter, Marjorie, was involved somehow.
Marjorie has lived a life of bizarre and unbelievable occurrences and coincidences, Kimball stated.
Marjorie had been a problem child, and, as an adult and mother of seven children of her own, frequently asked Elisabeth for large sums of money.
Acquaintances often agreed that Marjorie initially appeared to be gregarious and even bubbly, but got “grating” after a short time.
Initially, Marjorie’s second husband, Roger, was tried for the murders. Roger sat through a two-month trial and three days of jury deliberations, before being found guilty and sentenced to two life-terms.
The day following Roger’s conviction, Marjorie was also charged with involvement in the murder scheme.
Kimball remembers that Marjorie came to her trial each day, waving sweetly at the jury, knitting during testimony, and reading during breaks.
Following a trial which called more than 100 witnesses, after a day or so, the jury found Marjorie not guilty.
Over the ensuing decades, Marjorie’s behavior continued to baffle.
Kimball said Marjorie openly committed bigamy, and “suffered” through her home burning down the night before it was to be foreclosed upon.
After moving to Arizona, supposedly for quick access to cancer drugs in Mexico for her new husband, Wally, houses and garages started to randomly burn down in her neighborhood. She was eventually charged with arson.
Mysteriously, when Marjorie was granted one day to find assistance for Wally prior to being imprisoned for the arsons, Wally died overnight.
During one of her related prison terms, both of Wally’s children, and two of her own, wrote to the court that the public would be best served if Marjorie remained imprisoned.
She was released, however, and quickly befriended an elderly man. Ever so kindly, she took over his accounts to pay his bills which she continued to do long after he died.
So much more
Kimball said he has visited or confronted Marjorie several times through the years, and has not been well-received. During his latest attempted visit, Kimball stopped at Marjorie’s home, and she told him to leave, or she’d call the police.
Kimball said five of Marjorie’s children filed a lawsuit indicating Marjorie shouldn’t profit off of proceeds made from tours of Glensheen, which has been open for many years.
Consequently, Marjorie now lives off the monetary interest from the tours, while the principal goes to her children. She also still receives a small pension from husband Wally.
Kimball’s never-ceasing story
Kimball worked for the newspaper for 31 years, then spent a decade with MinnPost, a nonprofit, online news organization.
Kimball initially printed 100 copies of his book, “Secrets of the Congdon Mansion: The Unofficial Guide to Glensheen and the Congdon Murders.”
Very shortly thereafter, a publisher requested 5,000 copies. The book has been a strong seller ever since.
Kimball’s book has been revised, with new details added, several times. Details about the murder case, and of Marjorie, now in her mid-80s, continue to fascinate readers to this day.