Murder of Lena Olson: Haunted by a century-old case, the author delves into a Minnesota mystery – InForum

DULUTH — A murder that happened more than a century ago has haunted archivist Jeffrey Sauve, leading to recurring nightmares after he stumbled upon an account of the gruesome crime and the search for the identity of the victim found on a beach in Park Point. It was only after the identity of the deceased was discovered that exhaustive efforts to locate her unknown assailant began in earnest.

Sauve scoured the story, which inspired his recent book, “Murder at Minnesota Point,” 10 years ago while doing genealogy research for an individual at the Norwegian-American Historical Association in Northfield, Minnesota. It all started with a Duluth News Tribune article about a murder, headlined, “It’s All a Mystery.

The story goes how 7-year-old Guy Browning found the corpse of a woman in a pile of driftwood just off Park Point on August 22, 1894. As her body lay submerged, a hand with a silver bracelet sticking out of the water, and the startled boy ran for help.

The woman was from out of town and unknown to locals, making it difficult to identify the circumstances of her apparently unwitnessed death, determined to be the result of a blow to the head.

The body was cleaned, the woman’s clothes were washed and the mended victim was put on public display at the Bayha morgue, where she remained on public display for more than a week, in the hope that someone one would recognize it.

Lena Olson.

Contribution / University of Minnesota Duluth, Kathryn A. Martin Library, Historical Collections of Northeast Minnesota

Finally, on September 2, 1894, the mysterious woman was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.

Only later would her identity be revealed as Lena Olson, a 32-year-old Norwegian-American maid from Minneapolis. His sister, Lizzie, arranged for her grave in Duluth to be exhumed, and the body was reinterred at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

For several years, Sauve studied murder obsessively and toyed with writing a book about it, but kept dropping the project.

“It’s really become unhealthy. These nightmares kept reoccurring, because I think as a writer I tend to imagine a story in my head before I fall asleep,” he recalls.

In the preface to his book, Sauve wrote, “Each nightmare contained a similar dark and somber scene of a desolate shore, portending violence. A slender arm emerged from the cool, shallow waters of Lake Superior, reaching out to grab my neck. Shifty, sinister eyes hidden in the dunes followed me as seagulls howled above my head. My hands were strangely bloody, my heart was pounding.

Jeffrey Sauve Caught in St. Olaf's Library
Jeffrey Sauve.

Contributed / Jeffrey Sauve

After several false starts, Sauve made a 2018 visit to Duluth’s Enger Tower, overlooking Park Point. There he struck up a conversation with a couple who, after learning that he was a writer, asked him what his latest project was. Sauve began telling them about the murder mystery that had captured the nation’s attention around the turn of the century, and soon a small crowd had gathered with people curious to learn more about the crime.

After this experience, Sauve decided to take up the story again, with the encouragement of his wife. But first, he decided to visit Lena Olson’s resting place at Lakewood Cemetery. He knew his death had become a source of personal trauma, just as the 1979 loss of his 17-year-old brother Steve had also led to nightmares.

“I had an honest conversation with Lena, standing there and trying to deal with all these emotions that I had had for the past six years. And after I left that day, I really felt like I could breathe. The weight of telling his story was on my shoulders. In a way, I didn’t carry the drama and I never had another nightmare,” he said.

Reflecting on his burial experience, Sauve wrote, “Here, beneath recently scattered crimson autumn leaves, lay a forgotten soul – a footnote in a grim tale. But, of course, she was much more than that: she was a person of value, regardless of position, education, gender or heritage. She was a human at heart with a desire to love and be loved.

In his book, Sauve details the painstaking search for Olson’s attacker. Duluth Police Detectives Bob Benson and Tom Hayden pursued dozens of leads in the case for 2½ years after his death. Their efforts took them to 20 cities across the country to investigate suspects, but to no avail.

A Minneapolis detective, John J. Courtney, would eventually solve the case, using documents the killer left with a former Minneapolis landlady, after the suspect left without paying for his stay.

The author, James E. Alsop, was apprehended in Seattle.

Ink sketch of a portrait of a man wearing a suit and a long mustache
James B. Allsop, one of the man’s many aliases.

Contribution / Minneapolis Tribune, April 19, 1896

It was only after his capture that his story, including multiple alleged murders and scams, came to light.

Alsop used multiple aliases and won Lena Olson’s hand in marriage while impersonating Albert A. Austin. At her insistence, Olson apparently withdrew her life savings just before the short-lived couple arrived in Duluth for their fateful honeymoon.

Alsop faced two murder charges, including that of Olson and Charlotte Fetting, an 80-year-old Seattle woman known for hiding a small treasure trove of double-eagle gold coins that disappeared after her death. Alsop, who was living in the area at the time, left town soon after. The previous alleged murder occurred less than a year before Olson’s death.

Although he was never charged, Alsop was also implicated in the death of his first wife in Tacoma, Washington. Alsop died before he could stand trial, apparently hanging himself in his cell with an improvised rope made from a prison blanket.

Save Book cover.jpg

Sauve said the fact that Alsop never stood trial caused Olson’s story to fade into oblivion. His life never received the worthy recognition and respect it deserved.

“He didn’t even give his death any more justice than his, because now they’re both going to be forgotten,” he said. “It’s really unfair how the story has unfolded.”

Lena Olson now rests in a pauper’s grave, and Sauve has pledged to use the proceeds from the sale of her book to purchase and install a suitable memorial stone. He said a number of readers fascinated by his story have sent in donations to help him, and Sauve expects that marker to be installed in the spring.

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