40 Years Later, Congdon Murders Still Fascinate

June 26, 2017 11:46 AM

This week marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most notorious murder cases in Minnesota history. On June 27, 1977, heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her night nurse Velma Pietila were discovered murdered in Congdon's Glensheen mansion in Duluth.

"There were so many different elements, it was almost Agatha Christie-like," said journalist Joe Kimball, author of "Secrets of the Congdon Mansion." "With the killer breaking into the 39-room mansion and sneaking up the stairs and then battling with the nurse and beating her to death and then going upstairs and smothering the heiress in her bed with a satin pillow."


It was a shocking crime that initially looked like a botched burglary. However, 12 days later Congdon's son-in-law Roger Caldwell was arrested and charged with the crime. Eventually, Congdon's daughter Marjorie Congdon Caldwell was also charged with the crime. 

It began a legal odyssey that stretched over several years.

"The son-in-law was charged and convicted of the murders," Kimball recounts. "Then the daughter was charged with planning them, but she got off. And then based on her trial the son-in-law was granted a new trial, but then he did a plea bargain and was released after only five years in prison even though he confessed to killing the two women in the mansion."

RELATED: Glensheen Mansion Murders: 40 Years Later

Kimball covered the case as a first-year reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune newspaper (now the StarTribune) and for several decades since. He's still amazed by how the story mushroomed.  

"I was actually on the freeway that Monday morning when I heard on the radio that Duluth police were reporting a double homicide, but there were no details about who it was or where it had happened," Kimball said.

The Glensheen Mansion is now owned by the University of Minnesota and is a popular tourist destination in Duluth. It's noted for its architecture and art work, but almost everyone who tours the mansion knows about the murders and asks about them.

Kimball said he thinks there will always be interest in the case. "As long as the mansion's open and reminds people of this Agatha Christie, Greek-tragedy kind of crime, I think that there will be an interest in it," he said.

Roger Caldwell committed suicide in 1988 and left behind a note recanting his confession and saying he didn't commit the murders. Eighty-four-year-old Marjorie Congdon Haden served time in prison for arson convictions in Minnesota and Arizona, but is now living in Arizona and still receiving money from the Congdon estate.

Although she received several million dollars from the estate because she was acquitted, much of it went to pay legal fees.

She could not be reached for comment for this story.


Tom Hauser

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