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.

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Beyond the final rose, a billboard message that really matters March 14, 2018

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

DO PEOPLE NOTICE billboards? Apparently yes, if based on all the media hype last week about billboards supporting Becca Kufrin, the young Prior Lake woman dumped by bachelor Arie Luyendyk Jr. From LA to Minnesota to Times Square, digital billboards proclaimed their love for this Minnesotan to whom Arie initially proposed during the reality TV show The Bachelor.

While it’s nice to read that Minnesota Nice message—Becca—You’ll always have a rose from Minnesota—there are much more important public messages that should grab our attention.

 

 

That includes a billboard just north of Faribault along Interstate 35 which promotes texting 911. In December, Minnesota rolled out this option to reach emergency services in our state. For those with a hearing loss, the texting option is a valuable tool.

But it’s valuable to others, too, including victims of domestic abuse and violence. In many cases, they may be unable to safely call, and talk to, a 911 dispatcher. Texting offers an option, one that could save a life.

We need to care as much about domestic abuse and violence as we do some reality TV show and whether or not someone gets a rose.

FYI: Click here to learn more about Minnesota’s 911 texting system.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Domestic abuse awareness takes center stage in Owatonna February 16, 2018

This graphic from the Little Theatre of Owatonna Facebook page promotes its current show, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

 

WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE remaining in the national spotlight, most recently via accusations against a former staff secretary to President Donald Trump, it’s important to remember that this issue reaches beyond DC and Hollywood. In every corner of our country—from rural to city—abuse happens. To think otherwise is to turn our eyes from the problem.

That’s why I so appreciate efforts to discuss domestic violence locally. Little Theatre of Owatonna is tackling the topic as it presents Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The storyline of this Pulitzer Prize winning drama deals, in part, with domestic abuse.

Rather than simply practice, perform and then move on to the next production, LTO is seizing the opportunity to educate its audience on domestic abuse. The theatre troupe will provide information from the Crisis Resource Center of Steele County at each of its shows. And following the 2 p.m. matinee this Sunday, February 18, Jeffrey Jackson addresses how he approached the subject of domestic abuse in his director’s role.

I applaud this director, this cast, this small town Minnesota theatre company for taking that extra step to create awareness of domestic abuse and violence. It would be easy enough for them to let the curtain fall and walk off stage. But they are choosing to make a difference, to care, to educate, to enlighten. They understand this is their issue, too, not just something that happens in DC and Hollywood. But in Owatonna, Steele County, Minnesota. They understand that domestic abuse happens across the street, across the aisle, across town and perhaps even within their own families and/or circle of friends. They get it. And for that I am grateful. Awareness breaks the silence, brings hope and help to victims, to survivors and to those who love them.

 

 

A must-read report: Murders due to domestic violence in Minnesota in 2017 February 1, 2018

Photos of victims released with the 2017 Femicide Report. Source: Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women Facebook page.

THE 2017 FEMICIDE REPORT: Domestic Homicide Violence in Minnesota is out. This year in my state, 24 people lost their lives due to domestic violence, according to this report released by the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

Of those, 19 were women murdered by current or former intimate partners. The other five were family members/friends/interveners.

Senicha, Dawn, Jessica, Phanny, Sarah…

Slightly more than half were shot, the rest beaten, strangled, stabbed and killed by other methods. Their stories break your heart. These were women (and two men) who were loved and valued in their families, their communities, their workplaces. They are not simply statistics.

Please take time to read this report by clicking here. Beyond data, you will see the victims’ faces and learn of the circumstances related to their murders. You will read also about the “Red flags for batterer lethality” and findings and recommendations from the MCBW. At 44 pages, it’s a lengthy report packed with plenty of valuable information. But it’s well worth your time if you care about this issue, and you should. It’s vital that we are educated and aware. These are our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, our nieces, our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers.

We cannot, must not, remain silent.

FYI: If you are in an abusive relationship and in immediate danger, call 911. The time period in which a woman is leaving or has just left her abuser is the most dangerous. Have a safety plan in place. Reach out to a local women’s advocacy center for help. Or start by talking to a trusted family member, friend, co-worker…you are not alone.

Please also click here and read an article by Bob Collins at MPR about a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that toughens the state’s Domestic Abuse Act.

 

Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Domestic violence awareness event stresses collaboration & a directive to speak up January 18, 2018

 

 

A YEAR AFTER TWO HIGH PROFILE murder-suicides in my community, a small group of Faribault residents and several professionals came together for a community-wide meeting on the topic of domestic violence Wednesday evening.

 

 

 

 

While statistics show substantial (49 and 121 percent respectively) increases in cases of domestic and sexual assaults in Faribault last year, the numbers don’t necessarily equate a significant rise in those crimes. Rather, there’s a heightened community awareness, resulting in more cases being reported, according to Erica Staab-Absher, executive director of HOPE Center.

 

 

Staab-Absher focused on the progress Faribault has made in the past year, specifically through the Blueprint for Safety Program. The program is a collaborative effort of HOPE Center, local law enforcement and other agencies that communicate and work together in addressing the issue of domestic violence. Professionals have been trained in the past year, for example, on strangulation and stalking. Law enforcement officers now carry a card listing questions to ask suspected victims of domestic abuse/violence. Advocates are called to the scene immediately to help victims and to assess their situations and the dangers they face. Most important, victims know help is available to them.

That theme of cooperation and heightened awareness threaded throughout Wednesday’s meeting as did the admonition that “we all have a calling to help our neighbors.”

 

 

Two of the speakers, Ruthann Lang of Rice County Child Protection Services and Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen, cited specific cases (the murder of a child and the current case in California of 13 malnourished children held captive by their parents) of people failing to intervene. They stressed the importance of speaking up rather than remaining silent.

The topic of mental health also surfaced, the police chief expressing frustration with the lack of mental health services available locally.

 

 

Many frustrations remain and much work still needs to be done. But I am hopeful. Any time a community improves communication, works together, creates awareness, we break the barriers of silence. Domestic abuse thrives in silence. In Faribault I hear a voice rising against domestic abuse and violence: No more. No more.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

All graphics published in this post were available to the public at Wednesday’s awareness meeting.

 

Just an important reminder… January 17, 2018

 

Graphic courtesy of the Faribault Police Department Facebook page, via Peter van Sluis.

 

Take Two: Raising awareness about domestic abuse & violence in my community January 16, 2018

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A snippet of the domestic violence poster published by the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

ON THE EXTERIOR, everything seemed normal. Julie and her husband attended church services every Sunday. She worked a 9 – 5 job at a local law office. Steven worked in sales. He came across as a charming guy with a strong opinion on everything. Julie, although friendly enough, was much more reserved. Quiet in the shadow of Steven’s overwhelming presence. Yet they appeared happy enough to those who knew the couple.

But something seemed off to Julie’s co-worker, Kathryn. She couldn’t pinpoint the reason for her concern. But it lingered, just below the surface. Kathryn caught unguarded moments of sadness in Julie’s eyes, unfounded anxiousness whenever she asked about Steven. Something wasn’t right.

Still, Kathryn felt it wasn’t her place to probe. If Julie and Steven had problems, they would work the issues out themselves. She didn’t want to meddle. Besides, she was probably just being overly-sensitive.

But Kathryn should have trusted her gut. Julie was in an emotionally abusive relationship. While Steven had yet to raise his hand against his wife, he had already intimidated Julie into silence, convinced her to lie for him, controlled their finances, pulled her away from friends and even belittled her with demeaning names. Julie feared losing Steven’s love if she resisted, disagreed, shared her worries about Steven’s behavior.

 

Photographed on the inside of a women’s bathroom stall at Lark Toys in Kellogg in 2015. I found this to be one of the most powerful messages I’ve ever read on domestic violence. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The above story is fictional. But it could be your story, your neighbor’s story, that of the woman sitting next to you in church or across the hall in your workplace. You could be Julie. Or you could be Kathryn.

This Wednesday evening, January 17, the Faribault Elks Lodge hosts its second annual community-wide forum on domestic abuse and violence. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. and features talks by Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen, HOPE Center Executive Director Erica Staab-Absher, Ruthann Lang of Rice County Social Services and Jennifer David of DivorceCare.

 

A photo of a graphic posted on the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women Facebook page shows photos of all 21 individuals who died as a result of domestic violence homicide in 2016 in Minnesota. Barb Larson, left (second from top) was among those murdered. The 2017 Femicide Report releases soon. At least 24 people were killed in Minnesota in 2017 due to domestic violence. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I’d encourage you, if you live in Faribault, Rice County or a neighboring community, to attend. We all need to be educated and aware. Abuse thrives in silence. We each have the power within us to make a difference and that starts with knowledge.

 

Northfield, Minnesota, native Becky Kasper was only 19 and a student at Arizona State University when her abusive ex-boyfriend killed her on April 20, 2013. Her murderer is serving a total of 30 years in prison followed by a life-time of probation with mental health terms. Read Becky’s story by clicking here. She died in a vicious act of domestic violence. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

If you are in an abusive relationship like Julie, you can break free. No one has the right to control any aspect of your life. Help is available. If you are intuitively sensing abuse like Kathryn, it’s important for you to trust your feelings. Connect with an advocate so you can best help your friend, co-worker, loved one.

No one has to go this alone. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.

FYI: If you are in an abusive relationship and in immediate danger, call 911. Know that the period in which you leave a relationship and immediately thereafter are the most dangerous times for you. Have a safety plan in place. Don’t rely on a piece of paper (an order of protection, for example) to keep you safe. Reach out to a women’s advocacy center or shelter in your community for help.

UPDATE, 12:53 p.m. Tuesday: This post has been updated with the correct time of Wednesday’s meeting, which differs from previously published information. The hour-long forum begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Elks.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling