Glensheen murders still sensational after 30 years
By Will Ashenmacher
Duluth News Tribune
Thirty years after Duluth's most sensational double murder, the infamy of the deaths at Glensheen Mansion remains indelible.
On a muggy summer morning in 1977, mining heiress Elisabeth Congdon, 83, was found dead in her ancestral 39-room mansion on London Road. She had been smothered with a pillow during the night.
The body of Congdon's night nurse, Velma Pietila, was found on a stair landing, bludgeoned to death with a candlestick.
Congdon's adopted daughter Marjorie, then 44, was a prime suspect -- she stood to inherit millions from her mother's estate. But it was Marjorie's husband, Roger Caldwell, then 43, who was eventually incriminated.
Today, interest in the murders still simmers.
Glensheen and its grounds were deeded to the University of Minnesota Duluth upon Elisabeth Congdon's death. The murders piqued crowds' interest when the mansion opened for tours in 1979 and remain a lure to the thousands who tour it each year.
Lori Melton, Glensheen's marketing director, said the mansion's 30 paid tour guides are given the option of whether to mention the murders. About 80 percent don't.
"But in most cases, someone on the tour brings it up," Melton said. "From what the guides have told me, it's about 50-50 they'll have someone who's interested or who's read one of the books."
In either case, the guides won't elaborate too much.
"We don't go into a lot of detail," Melton said. "Instead, we refer them to the books in our museum shop because it's pretty complicated."
The books, and even the guides addressing the murders, are fairly recent changes to Glensheen's policy toward the murders. The gift shop began carrying the books in 2004 because, in the vacuum created by Glensheen's reserve toward the murders, rumors festered.
"Because it wasn't talked about, people didn't know what had happened," Melton said. "Our guides heard a lot of exaggerations."
But other than that, Glensheen doesn't attempt to cash in on the murder's infamy.
"We kind of steer clear of marketing the murders," Melton said. "It's the most amazing home in the Midwest ... we don't think we have to sell Glensheen on the murders."
Melton said the books are popular items at the gift shop.
And how -- "Will to Murder," the 2003 account of the Congdon-Pietila murders, has sold 30,000 units at local bookstores, gift shops and "every gas station from Ames, Iowa to Pigeon River," according to its publisher, Tony Dierckins.
The next best-selling book from X-Communications, Dierckins' firm, has sold 20,000 copies and is distributed nationwide.
"We printed 10,000 copies and they were gone in 30 days," Dierckins said of "Will to Murder." "For a regional book, if you can sell 3,000 copies in a year, that's great."
Dierckins thinks the Glensheen murders' infamy smolders on because its most sensational aspects haven't dimmed.
Elisabeth Congdon, he said, was the "last vestige" of a noble family. The Congdons' legacy of contributing land and money to worthy causes gave her a warm reputation, and that she was wheelchair bound made her death seem all the more senseless.
"You have to remember, the Congdon family helped build this town," Dierckins said. "When she died, when she was killed at Glensheen, it was symbolic. It was 'How could this happen here, and how could this happen to her?' "
Pietila, a retired nurse who was filling in the night she was murdered, makes a tragic figure. "Will to Murder" is dedicated to her.
And Caldwell's suicide in 1989, which he committed with a note proclaiming his innocence, added a grim postscript.
The escapades of Marjorie, now known as Marjorie Congdon Caldwell Hagen, 74, have also refreshed interest in the murders. In 2004, she was released from a prison after serving 11 years for being convicted of setting two fires in Arizona. She was arrested in March on charges of fraud, theft and forgery. Prosecutors allege she befriended an elderly man, obtained power of attorney and, after his suspicious death, tried to transfer an $11,000 check made out to the man into her personal account after his death.
Dierckins is updating "Will to Murder" to include coverage of Hagen's most recent scrapes with the law.