Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A look back at an unfathomable act of domestic violence in rural Minnesota & more March 24, 2018

WHAT CAUSED A MINNESOTA farmer to kill his entire family—his wife and four young children—with an ax in a horrific act of domestic violence?

We likely will never know the truth behind the murders-suicide which happened on March 24, 1917, in rural Redwood County, my home county in the fertile farmland of southwestern Minnesota.

 

 

Up until the release of a book of historical fiction, Sundown at Sunrise by former Minnesota state legislator Marty Seifert in late 2016, I’d never heard of this crime. I recently read the book published by Beaver’s Pond Press. Therein I found familiar names, including the maiden surname of my maternal grandmother and other known names from Redwood County.

 

The murder occurred in Section 16 of Three Lakes Township in the area noted by the pointing hand. This is a photo of a Digitized State of Minnesota Plat Book map from 1916. I found this through the Minnesota History Center, Gale Family Library, Borchert Map Library. The author grew up in the northeastern corner of Sundown Township.

 

Seifert grew up in Sundown Township within miles of the murders. In a farmhouse in Section 16 of Three Lakes Township north of Clements, William Kleeman, 31, raised an ax and killed his wife, Maud, and their children ranging in age from six weeks to five years. He then hung himself. Many times I’ve passed that former farm place at the intersection of Minnesota State Highway 68 and Redwood County Road 1 west of Morgan and near the site of Farm Fest. I had no idea of the violence that occurred there.

But the author grew up hearing the story of the Kleeman ax murders. That and his interest in history—he’s a former history teacher—prompted Seifert to research and pen this book rooted in fact.

 

From the Minneapolis Morning Tribune dated March 27, 1917. This is a photo of the article found in the Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub.

 

I decided to check out for myself newspaper accounts of the murders. That led me to the Minnesota Digitized Newspaper Hub and sensationalized layered headlines followed by detailed stories. I expect Seifert used the same sources, and more, to research for his book. But he goes beyond those stories to suggest the real reason behind the crime discovered by a young teacher (her name is fictionalized in the book) who boarded with the Kleemans. I won’t share more. You need to read the book.

 

The story about the murders published in the New Ulm Review on March 28, 1917.

 

In reading Sundown at Sunrise, I noted specific red flags pointing to future domestic violence and an awareness of that potential. A hired hand, for example, tells Maud’s father upon her engagement to William Kleeman that, “I think Miss Petrie done deserve better.” Henry Petrie agrees.

The author also describes William Kleeman “from a young age parlaying his handsome looks and confident demeanor as ways to manipulate his mother.” That manipulative charm threads throughout the story. I appreciate that the author understands the characteristics of an abuser and writes that into this work of fiction based on fact.

And then, after the murders, the hired hand sees the Kleemans’ marriage certificate nailed above the bed where Maud and her baby lie in pools of blood. Frank Schottenbauer notes that “he’d rather look at a bloody corpse than view the license William Kleeman had used to violate Maud Petrie.”

The author many times works the appearance of garter snakes and William Kleeman’s aversion to religion into the storyline, alluding to evil.

 

The Pine Island Record printed this story on March 29, 1917.

 

You can surmise what you will from this book of historical fiction. But nothing changes the fact that Maud died at the hands of her husband and Gladys, Lois, Gordon and Rosadell died at the hands of their father in an unfathomable act of domestic violence in Redwood County, Minnesota.

Today I honor the memories of that young mother and her beloved children. They deserved to live full lives on the prairie, to love and to be loved.

 

A plat of Three Lakes Township from a 1963 Atlas of Redwood County Minnesota shows the section (16) in which the crime occurred. You’ll find some of the surnames here included in Sundown at Sunrise.

 

FYI: The ax used in the murders is stored in the archives of the Redwood County Historical Society in Redwood Falls. For years, it was kept as evidence by the sheriff’s department before its donation to the county museum.

 

 

 

TODAY, AS YOUNG PEOPLE and others gather in Washington, DC, and around the world (including right here in Minnesota) for the “March For Our Lives” anti-gun-violence rally, I honor those I knew (via personal connections) who have been murdered in acts of domestic violence. Not just by gun violence, although several were shot.

Violence, whether in our schools, our homes, on the street, needs to stop. We need to take a stand, to act when we can, to say, “Enough is enough.” We need to care, to speak up, to listen, to educate ourselves, to push for change. I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I have witnessed and experienced the pain and grief of those who have lost loved ones through acts of violence. If you haven’t, consider yourself fortunate.

I’ve had to reach deep inside myself to comfort a friend whose father was murdered. I’ve had to reach deep inside myself to comfort parents whose daughter was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. I’ve had to reach deep inside myself to write about the murder of a beloved community member by her ex-husband at our local tourism office.

I’ve watched a SWAT team sweep through my neighborhood searching for a knife used in a murder within blocks of my home. I’ve talked to police many years ago about a drive by shooting involving big city gang members. A gang member purchased a car from us, failed to change the title, used the car in a shooting and then stashed the gun in the trunk. Investigators started with us, owners of the car.

Yes, I’ve been touched many times by violence. Gun and other.

Enough is enough. To those young people and others who are speaking up today, thank you for using your voice to effect change.

 

 

 

IMPORTANT: If you are in an abusive relationship and in immediate danger, call or text (if that option is available in your area) 911. If you are leaving (or thinking of leaving) your abuser, please seek help and have a safety plan in place. Talk to someone you trust like a family member, friend, c0-worker, clergy, advocate…  Immediate help is available. Reach out to a local women’s shelter or advocacy center for professional help. You are not alone. You deserve to live a life free of any type of abuse whether physical, mental, emotional, psychological, financial, spiritual or technological.

Please know that you are in greatest danger when you are about to leave, are leaving or have left your abuser. Abuse is about power, control and manipulation. When abusers lose that control, they often become violent. Be safe and know that you are loved.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Quoted passages are copyright of Marty Seifert and used here for review purposes only.

 

Serving up history and pie in Faribault April 12, 2011


I EXPECT YOU have no clue what you are viewing above. Perhaps you think this is a piece of art in a gallery exhibit.

You would be wrong. Way wrong.

Rather, this shows a portion of a Civil War battle flag that I’ve switched up with some photo editing tools to emphasize the stars and letters and numbers in the upper left corner.

Lighting conditions weren’t ideal for photographing this flag Saturday afternoon in the Guild House at the Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour in Faribault.

Honestly, I hadn’t even expected to photograph this flag sewn by a group of women in Fairmont and carried by Company C, 6th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. The last time I asked to photograph the flag at the Rice County Museum of History, my request was denied by director Susan Garwood.

She didn’t know me from Adam, or Eve, although I gave her my business card and explained that I was a writer and blogger. That didn’t matter.

Thankfully, Garwood changed her mind and I got the go-ahead-and-shoot-but-without-flash OK.

Garwood has reason to be cautious. This battle flag is rare, among about a half dozen in Minnesota. Recent restoration cost nearly $7,300.

Here's how the flag really looks. Faded. The company which carried this flag was comprised of men primarily from Bridgewater Township in Rice County, Minnesota. On the back side of the flag 34 stars are sewn representing the number of states in 1862. You are seeing reflections here on the glass encasing the flag.

 

Just another, upside down, view of the flag and the reflections of visitors viewing it.

I don’t know the value of the restored flag. But it is valuable enough that a Faribault police officer was guarding the flag Saturday afternoon during “Recognition of the Fall of Fort Sumter–The Beginning of the Civil War” sponsored by the Rice County Historical Society and the Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable.

Likewise a collector of Civil War era artifacts was standing guard over his tables full of treasures. He had, among Civil War uniform buttons and other items, an original Lincoln photo engraving (used on the $50 bill) and signature. I didn’t ask the values. Sometimes it’s better not to know these things.

 

A slightly out of focus photo that I took of an original Lincoln photo engraving for a $50 bill on display Saturday.

The last time I photographed parts of his collection at a 2009 Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting, he made me promise not to reveal his name. I agreed. I didn’t want to go missing and have my family looking for me under a stadium. That’s an exaggeration, but this collector was serious. My lips are sealed.

I did ask him, though, why he didn’t bring his slave bills, which were advertised as being at the event and one of the key reasons I attended. He simply said he didn’t know he was supposed to bring them. He gave the same answer 1 1/2 years ago at the Roundtable meeting. I had gone to the session then specifically to see the slave documents.

But on Saturday I perused a few other artifacts I hadn’t seen before like…

these old bullets

 

and two Civil War era muzzleloaders which I was allowed to pick up and which were heavy at 18 and 21 pounds.

I also saw…

these costumed reenactors pull up in a pick-up truck

and this unidentified reenactor, left, posing for photos with Sharon and Richard G. Krom of Rochester. Richard is the great grandson of a Civil War soldier and has written a book, The 1st MN Second to None.

Finally, I sat down with friends and family to enjoy…

a piece of delicious homemade pie made by Rice County Historical Society President Jason Reher. He baked 16 pies for the event. (Jason could be a professional baker; his pie is that good.)

Fortunately for me, Jason had baked my favorite pie and apparently a favorite of many as everyone sitting at my table chose blueberry pie over apple, pumpkin or pecan. Most of us wondered if the blueberries were wild, yet never bothered to walk over and ask the pie-maker.

Jason wondered why I was photographing his pie. I just handed him a business card and figured he’d figure it out.

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling