After visiting the famous Glensheen Mansion that Chester Congdon built for his family on London Road in the eastern part of Duluth, my curiosity about the tragic ending for the last Congdon family member has been rekindled.  So much so, that I requested the book WILL TO MURDER from one of the library systems I use routinely.  It appears to be the definitive book written about the 1977 double murders at the huge and ornate Glensheen mansion on June 27, 1977 when a night nurse for the partially disabled Elisabeth Congdon and Miss Congdon herself were brutally murdured during the early morning hours of that fateful day.  The murders shocked Duluth and the entire state of Minnesota, as well as becoming a national news story also.  Brutal murders were not as much a part of the scene in that era.  The Congdon Mansion did not even have any special protection or 24 hour surveillance, so safe did the residents feel with the doors locked at night.  But on the night and early morning of June 27 that feeling of peace and safety was shattered when the murderer entered the mansion, probably by breaking the glass window of a porch on one end of the huge Jacobean house.   The intruder then proceeded to the grand staircase….a stunning feature of the stunning home that was lavished with the finest of building materials and furnishings by the wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Chester Congdon whose riches were the result of early investment in Minnesota’s booming iron ore business of the late 19th century.

The intruder encountered the night nurse, Velma Pietila, a woman who defended herself to her death and tried to save the life of Elisabeth Congdon.  Mrs. Pietilla, I think, knew who the person was that was attacking her….it was no stranger to the mansion.  She was brutally beaten and bludgeoned with a heavy candlestick from the mansion itself.  The ornate staircase’s landing was soaked in the nurse’s blood, her teeth knocked out and her face unrecognizeable when the body was discovered early in the morning.  The intruder then proceeded to the real target:  Elisabeth Congdon who was smothered with a pillow from her own bed where she lay, mostly helpless, but even Elisabeth fought for her life as her body showed when it was found.  She had struggled against the killer so much her one arm which was not paralyzed by a stroke was bruised in the struggle, all the skin on her nose was rubbed off from trying to save her life.   It was futile for both women.

The ensuing investigation into the double murder and the trial one year later of Elisabeth Congdon’s son in law, Roger Caldwell, led to his conviction and life imprisonment.   His wife, Miss Congdon’s adopted daugher, Marjorie, was also tried for conspiracy in the murders but she was acquitted…although she did not escape imprisonment. She served time for arson and other petty crimes committed in Arizona; she also married a man when she was stil married to Roger Caldwell having gone to North Dakota and used a false name for that marriage.  ND still has her recorded as a bigamist.  The book unveils the troubled life of the "Glensheen Daughter"….spoiled and pampered by her adopted mother, a girl who grew up to be a manipulative sociopath..always in financial trouble due to her outrageous spending and check bouncing and schemes to get still more money out of the Congdon Trustees.  One damning piece of evidence that helped a jury convict Roger Caldwell was a handwritten will by Marjorie, scrawled on a piece of tablet paper on June 24, 1977, which left all her anticipated wealth of millions,  at her mother’s death, to her husband Roger.   It may have been the motivation Marjorie used to get Roger to agree to murder her mother so they could inherit the millions from the Congdon wealth that would be hers when her mother died.

The book is not only interesting in tracing the history of the Congdons and their great wealth and the fortunate adopted daughter who would have inherited much of the wealth had she not been so desperate for  money, so greedy and so mentally unbalanced, as the book unveils.   It is surely one of the most interesting "reads" I have had.  

I was surprised in one of the chapters that gave all the details of the many many legal actions needed in the unfolding of the murders  and the trials that took place afterwards, that I found the name of one of my relatives in the story.    This man was a lawyer in a St Paul firm that was brought in at one point to untangle the legal and criminal labyrinthes of the Congdon case and the wealth of the family.   He is the son of my Dad’s cousin, whom I regularly correspond with from his home in Florida.  His involvement was minor but I was surprised when I read his name in the book.

I have been trying to get interested in another book…..CHOCOLAT…. the book for the adult reading group at  the local library.  If a book does not "grab" me in the first two chapters I do not continue reading it. "Chocalat" is a very "light" read and also a fantasy form of modern lit and it does not intrigue me at all.  I confessed this to Joy, the librarian and she confessed back to me that she is feeling the same way about the book!  I have always been a reader who knows exactly the sort of books that intrigue me— as most readers know that about themselves.

Back to the Glensheen Murders:  Roger Congdon was released from prison after serving much of his sentence but committed suicide in the late 1990s.  Marjorie Congdon Leroy Caldwell Hagen is still alive and is "at large" somewhere in the southwestern part of the U.S. much to the dismay of those who know her and fear her, even though she would now be in her late 70’s.



Published by

Kay Syvrud

I am a retired elementary "schoolmarm"..I was a school librarian/media director for nearly 25 years before I retired in 2004. Naturally one of my fondest things is reading! I also love reading aloud to young children, something I did for so many years with amazing results; every child wants to read the same book as the teacher read!!!! I also am fond of my gardens...both flower beds and vegetable plots. I love being outdoors....mowing the lawn after my husband has done so with a big lawn tractor...I trim with my small power mower! I have a rain barrel to collect rainwater for plants! I have an old fashioned "pedal" bike I love to ride. I enjoy going to a Silver Sneakers class at a community center about 20 miles from my country home on what I call the "Buffalo Bluff" which overlooks the Buffalo River and its valley below. I LOVE to write and am working on a book for my grandkids so they will always know more about Grandma when she was still "kickin" and "had all her marbles"!!!!


  1. I read the book also. One could not write fiction that would be better than that story. Our son lived in Duluth for several years.

  2. Thanks to the commenters. That book is better than any fiction. I agree with Jon about that. I was so gripped by it I read it in just a couple of days once I got started on it. Now I feel like re-reading parts of it.
    GramMary….it IS a magnificent house and the careful choices the two elder Congdons made in designing and furnishing it are still as exquisite as the days they lived there. I did notice a “seasoned sort of musty smell ” in the house—probably due to the old furniture and the old wood…all of it so beautiful. The preservers of the mansion are doing a great job with it; I thought the gardener’s cottage and the carriage house with its apartments were also lovely. I enjoyed walking down to the rocky beach and getting up close to that magnificent stone boathouse also. We arrived early and had time to walk around the grounds and see the two creeks flowing on either side of the property. Lake Superior is an awesome place. Jon I think I would like to live in Duluth for awhile..but the fog and cloudiness would eventually get to me after enjoying the seaport atmosphere for a bit. I guess I am a prairie child after all is said and done.
    I loved what has been done with the old brick buildings in Canal Park.

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