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Blood money: The grisly murders at Duluth's Glensheen mansion

Portraits of Chester and Clara Congdon hang proudly in the halls of Glensheen, the site of a murder most foul.

Portraits of Chester and Clara Congdon hang proudly in the halls of Glensheen, the site of a murder most foul. Star Tribune

Mustachioed turn-of-the-century capitalist Chester Congdon made a fortune on the Iron Range, and to celebrate, he built the Glensheen Mansion in 1909. The monument to his wealth still stands today in Duluth.

And what a monument it was: 27,000 square feet and 39 rooms, crafted from rich materials the world over. There were showers and footbaths and stained glass windows, plus some fine crystalline dishes that glow an eerie green under blacklight -- the relics of an age when luxury items were often also faintly radioactive.

Chester, his house, and his brood were self-made royalty in the Gilded Age. Glensheen is Duluth’s Downton Abbey, a source of endless romance and fascination. Tourists now ooh and ah when they pass through, and imagine the Congdon girls in their lacy dresses and the pastoral beauty of family outings on the lake.

Chester Congdon's massive manor was the envy of Duluth.

Chester Congdon's massive manor was the envy of Duluth. John Gregor

But inevitably, someone asks about the murders.

In 1977, 83-year-old Elisabeth Congdon -- Chester’s last living child and the ailing heiress to his fortune -- was found smothered in her bed with her satin pillow. A watch and a ring she was wearing were missing, along with other pieces of jewelry and a wicker suitcase. Her night nurse, a 67-year-old woman named Velma Pietila, was found on the grand stairway, bludgeoned to death with a sturdy brass candlestick.

Elisabeth Congdon (right) and her nurse Velma Pietila (left) were found brutally murdered in Glensheen.

Elisabeth Congdon (right) and her nurse Velma Pietila (left) were found brutally murdered in Glensheen. Associated Press

It was a macabre end to Chester’s grand legacy -- one you wouldn’t expect from Duluth’s finest family. But almost immediately, investigators had some prime suspects.

Among them was Marjorie Caldwell, formerly known as Jacqueline Barnes before Elisabeth adopted her and changed her name in 1932. Her teachers knew her as rebellious and prone to mischief -- a girl who kept her plans to herself. In 1949, she was officially diagnosed as a sociopath.

It was around 1973, four years before her death, that Elisabeth suddenly became ill after eating a sandwich slathered with Marjorie’s homemade marmalade. She survived, but hospital staff were unable to explain the high level of tranquilizers found in her system.

Marjorie was always the member of the family most ripe for suspicion. She quickly earned a reputation as not only a troublemaker, but a spendthrift. In the 10 years before Elisabeth’s death, Marjorie had managed to burn through $2 million of the $8 million she was supposed to inherit. A month before Elisabeth was smothered, Marjorie and her second husband, Roger Caldwell, had asked the Congdon trustees for $750,000 so they could buy a horse-breeding ranch. They’d been denied.

Marjorie Caldwell, the adoptive daughter of Elisabeth Congdon, was diagnosed a sociopath.

Marjorie Caldwell, the adoptive daughter of Elisabeth Congdon, was diagnosed a sociopath. Associated Press

After Elisabeth’s funeral, the couple traveled to the Twin Cities, where Roger suffered an unexpected collapse. He was rushed to the hospital, where it was found he had been pumped full of sedatives -- eerily similar to the ones found in Elisabeth’s body three years earlier.

While Roger was recovering, authorities searched the couple's Bloomington hotel room and found Elisabeth’s diamond watch, sapphire ring, and wicker suitcase.

During her trial, Marjorie calmly knitted behind the defense table. When one of the lawyers’ birthdays rolled around, she brought a cake. The jury watched her and raised their eyebrows, wondering if this woman could ever kill her own mother. She was acquitted. It’s said she celebrated the verdict afterward by partying with the jury members.

Roger, meanwhile, was convicted and sentenced to several lifetimes in jail. He would have remained there if a piece of evidence – a fingerprint that was supposed to place him in Duluth on the day of the murder – hadn’t been found to be compromised. The Supreme Court threw out his conviction and offered a retrial, much to the chagrin of the weary prosecution. Rather than risk letting him off scot-free, they drastically shortened his sentence in exchange for his confession. He served just five years behind bars and took his own life 12 years later.

Roger Caldwell: accomplice, victim, or both?

Roger Caldwell: accomplice, victim, or both? Associated Press

The trial wasn’t the last anyone heard of Marjorie Caldwell. In 1982, she married Wallace Hagen of North Dakota, without bothering to divorce Roger. Two years after that, she was convicted of burning down a house in Mound, Minnesota -- which she had sold while maintaining her status as the insurance beneficiary. In 1990, she and her new husband moved to Arizona, followed by a suspicious rash of fires, until she was caught trying to burn down her neighbor’s house in 1991.

Before being sentenced for the arson, she was given 24 hours to help her husband -- whose health was failing him -- travel from Tucson to their Ajo home. He was dead within hours of their return -- a drug overdose. Marjorie insisted that they had a suicide pact, but that she’d gotten cold feet on her end. Wallace’s children still believe she killed him.

After she was released for the Ajo burnings, Marjorie would be charged with fraud, theft, forgery, and computer tampering for trying to steal an old man’s inheritance and having him cremated before the police could determine a cause of death.

Rumors swirled for years, spread during the guided tours at Glensheen and beyond; and yet, Marjorie was never convicted of murder.

She’s kept a relatively low profile since then. She doesn’t have any contact with the Congdon family or the old house. She’s not much older than the heiress herself was when someone held a pillow over her nose and mouth. She lives a life so far removed from the murderous glamor of Glensheen that many have forgotten that she still exists out there, somewhere -- that her secrets lie within her, and not within the deserted halls of the mansion.

But old money, like old crystalline dishes, sometimes glows a strange color when you shine the right light on it. Fantastical wealth on its own is fascinating. Wealth tainted with a hint of death -- that small trace of radioactive intrigue -- is something you can’t look away from.