On Sunday night, with the series finale of Game of Thrones waiting in the wings, masses descended upon Northrop Auditorium to hear about some real backstabbing. My Favorite Murder – the shockingly grim darling of podcast charts everywhere – was ending its tour with one last hurrah in Minneapolis.
Hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark began My Favorite Murder in early 2016. The two love true crime, so every episode they each tell the story of a grisly murder – from hostage situations to family annihilation to famous serial killers. Nobody is more surprised and bemused than them at how popular the show has become – smashing download records and perennially appearing the top 10 of iTunes’ comedy podcast chart.
The show’s driven by a horrified fascination with the macabre, sure. The events and deeds the hosts describe are often genuinely terrifying, even tragic. But its success comes in large part from the chemistry between Kilgariff and Hardstark. Even during the live shows, they speak to one another rather than to the audience, get sidetracked by personal anecdotes, even talk about how nervous and “sweaty” they are onstage. To the audience, it feels as though you're eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between two funny – if peculiar – friends.
What often brings fans (dubbed “Murderinos”) out to live shows is a chance to see their home state in a new, gruesome light. Kilgariff and Hardstark pick local murders to cover.
Hardstark told the story of Byron David Smith – a 64-year-old man from Little Falls who had retired from a security job with the U.S. State Department. Back in 2012, Smith was incensed to find someone had broken into his home and stolen cash and precious trinkets, including his father’s POW watch. One night, he parked his car down the street to make it look like nobody was home, hid his armchair in a dark corner of his basement and sat there, monitoring security footage and holding a gun.
When 17-year-old Nicholas Brady broke in and headed to the basement stairs, Smith shot him twice, waited for him to fall onto the tarp he’d laid on the floor, and shot him in the head. After muttering angrily to the teen’s dead body, he hauled the tarp into a corner and resumed his position, waiting for Brady’s cousin, 18-year-old Haile Kifer, to come looking for him.
While Kifer was calling her cousin’s name, Smith shot her on the stairs. The 6-hour recording Smith himself took of the evening picked up her screams of “I’m sorry” and “Oh God” before Smith shot her multiple times in the torso and once in the left eye, all the while calling her a “bitch.” He shot her one final time under the chin to finish the job.
“I am not a bleeding heart liberal,” he said in a statement after the shootings. “I felt like I was cleaning up a mess… I was doing my civic duty. If law enforcement couldn’t handle it, I had to do it.”
By the end of her tale, Hardstark had the audience cheering for Minnesota’s Reasonable Person Doctrine, which led to Smith being found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder with premeditation and two counts of second-degree murder. He was sent to prison for life with no possibility of parole.
Kilgariff followed with the story of the 1963 murder of Carol Thompson, a young, well-to-do wife in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood who was stabbed in the back multiple times in her home. The neighborhood quivered with fear in the aftermath, thinking a serial murderer might be on the loose. It was only later that someone noticed her husband, a defense attorney named T. Eugene Thompson, had taken out a massive life insurance policy on his wife shortly before she was killed.
What followed was the trial of the century. Spectators in enormous coats with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths lined up in the cold outside the courthouse to get a sidelong look at the man suspected of having his wife killed (the Murderinos of their time). T. Eugene came to his own defense, ended up damning himself in the process, and broke into messy tears when he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The yarn is, in fact, one of the key inspirations for the movie Fargo.
Kilgariff, true to form, cast each character in the story with an actor she’d choose for a “made for TV” movie of the incident, including Linda Cardellini as the doomed Carol Thompson and a “young Barbra Streisand” as Schatzie, the family dog T. Eugene gave away before he took out the hit so the barking wouldn’t alert the neighbors.
There were laughter, gasps, and dispirited moans through the evening – a confusing roller coaster of emotions both onstage and off. But the covenant Kilgariff and Hardstark have with their listeners is an understanding that the world is, at times, a horrifying, terrible place, especially for MFM’s target audience: young women. It’s sometimes easier to face the constant threat of death, violation, and loss if you can face it with laughter. It is one of the last weapons we have in the face of danger.
With thunderous applause, Kilgariff and Hardstark gave their final sendoff of their tour. It’s a reminder to all who listen: Look with fascination into the grim corners of the world, and muster the courage to face another day: “Stay sexy, and don’t get murdered.”