When journalist Brian Johnson was young, nobody really talked about how his great-aunt Alvira Lundeen Johnson died.
He grew up understanding, in a vague way, that there was a terrible fire in the Johnson home in Harris, Minnesota in 1933. It claimed Alvira and her seven children, with whom Brian’s mother used to play. Brian and his family would visit the victims’ graves in Rush City. Even then, he felt strangely drawn to his lost relatives.
“Curious” is a word he sometimes uses for it. “Haunted” is another.
Eventually, after poking around, he realized that the tragic Johnson fire was likely not an accident. The family appeared to have been asleep, as if burned alive with their eyes soundly closed. They wouldn’t have stayed so still while the house burned around them, Brian says – unless, of course, they were dead already. To make matters murkier, a gas can was found near the ruins of the house.
Then there was Alvira’s husband, Albin – the father of all those seven children, and the eighth, if you count the one Alvira was pregnant with when she died. He was not found with his family after the fire, nor was he found anywhere. He'd disappeared, never to be seen again. He was indicted for murder later that year – even sought by the Pinkertons for a $50,000 reward -- but never brought to justice.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Brian started researching and interviewing family and friends – people who knew Alvira, Albin, and the children. His new book about what he learned – Murder in Chisago County – is an attempt to get closer to the heart of the mystery.
Brian still says a number of things could have led to Alvira and the children’s deaths. They seemed, by all accounts, a decently well cared-for brood. He found no evidence of abuse in his search through the records, and many who knew Albin still swear that he couldn’t have annihilated his own family – that the government was trying to “railroad” an innocent man.
Perhaps it was Albin’s “rough,” “hard-drinking” brothers, he says. Maybe they “had it in for Albin for some reason.” Perhaps it was a total stranger.
But if you ask Brian what he thinks happened, he’ll tell you his money is still soundly on Albin, who was evicted from the land by his father-in-law shortly before the fire. His family was large and struggling. Brian’s mother remembers Alvira as a good cook, but was warned not to eat too much while she was there. The family couldn’t afford to give much away.
“The short answer is yes, I think he did it,” Brian says.
The tough part about sorting though these scraps is knowing they may never add up to a concrete answer. He clings to the possibility that someone out there knows something. Maybe by publishing the book, someone may offer some missing piece.
“I’m not holding my breath,” he says. But he is holding out hope.