Post by Joanna on Sept 9, 2018 17:23:05 GMT -5
Murder in Wisconsin: The Clara Olson Case
Three decades before the 1953 disappearance of Evelyn Hartley devastated the Coulee Region, the murder of another young woman sent shock waves through Crawford County, an unsolved case still pondered by residents nearly a century later. Neither case led to an arrest, but while Hartley was never found, the bludgeoned body of 22-year-old Clara Olson was discovered in 1926 near Highway 27 in Rising Sun. The ghastly murder was covered by newspapers worldwide.
Larry Scheckel of Tomah, who grew up just 10 miles from where Clara’s body was discovered, spent three years scrolling through articles on microfilm, interviewing people and conducting research for his debut foray into true crime, Murder in Wisconsin: The Clara Olson Case, released last month. Scheckel also sought information about the case through a newspaper ad and heard from several locals, including a funeral director in Readstown, a woman in Mount Sterling whose relatives knew the families of both Clara and Erdman and another woman who called claiming, “I have everything but the shovel.” Unfortunately, Scheckel laughed, “She had nothing. But everyone had a theroy.”
Scheckel has written three science books and a memoir and grew up with the story of Clara Olson. He recalled his father’s pointing out her burial site one day on a family drive. The case had everything – love, scandal, mystery – and Scheckel delved in to put a “crime of the century” on paper.
It was June 1925 when Clara met Erdman Olson (no relation), the 18-year-old son of rich tobacco farmers who lived near her home. Though she was four years older, Clara was instantly attracted to the “bad boy” who sped around in his car, showed off a gun around town and carried a flask. The two communicated through letters while Erdman attended Gale College and dated when he was in town.
In the spring of 1926, their relationship became intimate and Clara became pregnant. Filled with shame, she revealed her secret to Erdman’s parents in a letter that August, but their son denied he was the father. However, in correspondence to Clara, Erdman accepted responsibility and promised marriage. He instructed her to meet him at a dance on Thursday, September 9, in Seneca, from which they would drive to Winona and elope. Around midnight, Clara hopped into the passenger’s side of Erdman’s car on the way to what she believed would be her wedding. Unbeknownst to the young woman, some 12 hours earlier, Erdman had been shovel deep in dirt seven miles away. “The dynamics of the two is fascinating,” Scheckel explained. “Imagine, she is greatly relieved, the happiest ever and sitting next to her is a young man who dug the grave that afternoon and had murder on his mind.”
What happened when Erdman pulled over the car on a logging road is unknown, but Clara suffered a fatal blow to the head, so forceful a triangular portion of her skull was caved in.
On September 10, 1926, the morning after the murder, Clara was declared missing. Erdman went about his normal activities as though nothing had happened. “It was not only a national story. It was an international story,” Scheckel continued. “It was almost impossible to believe: Lutheran boys don’t kill Lutheran girls. People didn’t commit crimes in 1926. That was big city stuff, not farm country kids.”
In late September, Chris Olson, Clara’s father, confronted Erdman at Gale, promising him money, farm animals and a home if Clara returned and they married. Chris gave Erdman an ultimatum: If his daughter didn’t return within three days, he would report him to the sheriff. Cornered, Erdman penned two letters, one to his parents and one to Clara’s before disappearing himself.
Sightings of Erdman were reported and countless people were questioned. Many were considered suspects, including Chris Olson himself. Search parties combed the Kickapoo Valley. “On December 1, there were 1,000 people looking for that body,” Scheckel said. The next day, a rubber boot was found sticking out of the frozen ground in a knoll on Battle Ridge, an unlikely place for foot traffic.
Clara’s body was located December 2 on land owned by Erdman’s uncle. “It was by a serendipitous accident she was found,” Scheckel continued. “Most likely she would never have been found and that would have left a sear on the soul that would have been really hard to deal with.”
Over the next few years, the authorities “arrested probably 30 or 40 young men,” Scheckel added. As for Erdman, there was speculation he moved to a big city with the mob, that he fled to South America, that he changed identities and started a family. Erdman was referred to as “a youthful Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in the Winona Republican-Herald. Theories continued to float about, with articles in the La Crosse Tribune indicating a medium had a vision of Erdman’s whereabouts and that Clara was hitchhiking several days after the assumed date of her death.
The saga is fascinating, but for Scheckel the lack of resolution is astounding. “Nobody knows for sure if [Erdman] is the killer, but there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence he did it,” he concluded. “I have no doubt he did it. How he got away with it – that was unbelievable.”
Murder in Wisconsin: The Clara Olson Case is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other booksellers.
Source: Emily Pyrek, The La Crosse Tribune, September 4, 2018.