Case Notes on the Unsolved Murder of Alvira Johnson and her 7 Children

     Albin and Alvira Johnson married around 1923 in Chisago County, Minnesota. Alvira parents weren’t very keen on the marriage as she was their youngest of four daughters at 19 while Albin was 36, 17 years her senior. Both born to Swedish Immigrants, Albin was described as the typical farmer and woodsman. He was a very strong man with large hands and could always be seen wearing blue overalls over his dark suit with a woodsman’s cap on. He stood at a very tall 6’3” tall and weighed 240 lbs, a later neighbor would recall Albin as a quiet introverted man who never said a word. His niece described him as a selfish man and had this to say about him: “When he went to town, the storekeepers who knew the family was poor would send candy home with him for the kids. He would eat the candy himself and throw the bag away before he got home.”

     Alvira was quite pretty, with blond hair, blue eyes, and dimples - she was remembered as being a gentle character whose love and care for her children and home were second to none.

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     By the time 1933 rolled around for the Johnson’s in Chisago County, Minnesota - now 46 and 29-year-olds - have had seven children together, and it was rumored that one was on the way. Harold is 10, Clifford 9, Kenneth 7, Dorothy 5, Bernice 4, Lester 2, and James 4 months.

     Its common knowledge around the town that the family isn’t very well-off. One friend of 10-year-old Harold remembered them playing together - he was 2 years her senior. She said, “Often mother would scold me for eating too much when we were visiting them, as they were poor and didn’t have much, but everything tasted so good.” “Also I couldn’t understand why Santa didn’t leave them anything at Christmas, especially when their need was so great.”

     According to the 1930 Census, Albin was a farmer and the sole breadwinner for his family. However, what the census doesn’t show is that he struggled to provide for his family. Keep in mind, this is during the Great Depression - however, the farm Albin worked at was owned by his father - who he rented his house from. Emil Johnson, Albin’s father, was a well-respected man who built the Lutheran Church in Harris alongside his brother. As a possible move from a father showing tough love to a disappointing son - by April of 1933, he was evicting Albin and his family from the farmhouse.

     Early Tuesday morning, 3 am, on April 10th 1933. Freshly fallen snow surrounds Johnson’s farmhouse. The dark night air is chilly, and outside the house is a flatbed truck packed full of all the family’s belongings. Later this day the family is going to be moving into a new home, at least that was the plan. Alvira is sleeping with 4-month-old James in one room, 10-year-old Harold is asleep in the kitchen with Albin, and the remaining 5 children are asleep in another room. It was believed the family was sleeping on make-shifts beds, basically blankets on the floor as this was the last night they were to be sleeping in the house.

     Its reported by neighbors later that around this time they hear what sounds like an automobile driving off from the farmhouse.

     Shortly after, Ragner Krantz was sound asleep in his home about 1/2 a mile down the road. At 3:30 am his 5-year-old son wakes up because he sees an orange light flickering like waves on the walls in his room. As he reaches downstairs he meets his mother, who also woke up to the flickering light. Together, they wake up Ragner, who calls both the Harris and Rush City Fire Departments before rushing over to the farmhouse. He says “After giving the alarm, I drove over to the Johnson place as fast I could get there, but the house by that time was almost totally destroyed. Only one corner remained standing and after a short while that crumpled too.”

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     When Chief Hanson arrives at the scene there are already four neighbors present. He immediately calls for the searching of the outbuildings and surroundings fields - hoping to find family members who have fled the fire. No such person was found. As the fire burned down a body could be seen during in the embers.

     Fresh tire tracks were found leading away from the farmhouse, still being able to be seen in the snow that fell that night. Soon a gas can is discovered, and the chief quickly believes it may have been used to start the fire. Later the origin of the fire was believed to have been in the kitchen near the stove.

     By 4pm the next day, the remains of Alvira and her seven children were found and positively identified. 10 year old Harold was found in the basement as the home’s basement only extended under the Kitchen - they believed this is where Albin’s remains would soon be found. Officially, his remains were never found.

     This appeared in the North Branch Paper on April 13th, 1933: “This terrible tragedy which has taken eight lives and leaves the fate of the missing father a mystery, has left the community horror-stricken at the terrible fate of this mother and the seven children.”

     So where Albin? Good question.

     Deputy Coroner A. O. Stark of Harris reported having said, “I went through every bit of the ruins myself, and I am certain as I can be that Ablin Johnson’s body is not there.”

     Immediately after the fire, many people in the community speculated that Albin snapped, killing his family and lighting the home on fire before killing himself close by. Over the next few days, more than 50 people searched a small lake and woods near the home for Albin’s remains. This search quickly grew to over 300 people by the following week as they combed St. Croix River for about 6 miles, while also dragging the river. Still no Albin.

     On April 15th Chisago County Attorney S. Bernard Wennerberg launched an investigation to determine if the eight were slain prior to the fire. Unfortunately, the results of this investigation were never publicly shared.

     To this day, the coroner’s report and sheriff report seem to have been misplaced. The Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul and the Chisago County Courthouse point fingers at each other as being the one that has the information. Some people in the community believed that the victims had all been beheaded, while others believed they were all shot. It is important to note that there were two pistols and a rifle found among the ruins.

     The police report on the fire is still not being publicly released as they see this as an open case.

     Alvira’s parents were living with their daughter Freda at the time of the fire and received word of the fire on the morning of April 11th. Her sister Freda was so distraught that she started screaming for a long time and became inconsolable. This tragedy hit hard for Alvira’s parents and the entire family - they hired a private detective using all the money they had and offered up an award of $50 for information leading to the whereabouts of Albin.

     It's about this time that investigators conclude that Albin is responsible for this fire and murder. County officials indicted him for first-degree murder on 10/20/1933.

     During their investigation, they found that Albin was last seen late in the day the evening before the fire in both Harris and Rush City. They noted that he did not pay the rent of $25 for the new place in Rush City that his family was to be moving into the next day. He had to borrow the money from his brother-in-law Matt Scherer.

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     Police began collecting theories on a motive for why Albin could have murdered his family. Quickly they were drawn to the fact that up until this time Albin was unable to provide for his family. It as clear he had been experiencing hard times, and his own father had evicted him 10 days earlier. He struggled to make a living as a farmer and his brother-in-law wasn’t able to get Albin a job where he worked at the Rush City flour mill. Essentially Albin was about to move his possibly soon to be 10 person family to another home on borrowed money and didn’t have a job lined up.

     Albin was described as a proud man, so in their mind, it wasn’t too far of a stretch to see a motive of him not having the means to support his family and him resulting to drastic measures.

     Many believed Albin hopped onto the midnight train that ran through Rush City and fled to Canada where he worked previously as a logger.

     The great depression was happening, so it was common for many men to mix in with the millions of people out of work - riding the rails for an opportunity.

     The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were involved and tipped off about Albin possibly fleeing there. Their reports show that one person in Canada reported seeing Albin, however, the RCMP were unable to validate that claim as the person had already moved on out of the city.

     Albin’s brother-in-law Harry Galpin had suggested Albin was innocent from day one. 4

     Harry was a well-known businessman in St. Paul and believed the police were crooked and corrupt - ultimately believing they messed up the investigation as he believed Albin died in the fire with his family.

     He wrote an eight-page letter to the newspapers three years after the fire, it read:

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     “These charges ranged from perjury to destruction of evidence to incompetence and negligence, and to railroading a murder indictment against a man known to be dead, to cover up the ghostly blunder of the Deputy Coroner who had cast Johnson’s remains outside the foundation where they were trampled under foot by spectators.”

     Harry and his family insisted that they had found bones in a distant part of the basement that belonged to Albin. They called for a burial certificate to be issued so that his family could bury these bones, however, no such certificate was granted. He believed the private detective and deputy sheriff used the case as an excuse to take a 4,000 mile trip to Canada in search of Albin. The trip cost the county hundreds of dollars and turned up no evidence.

     In St. Paul Dispatch the day after the fire, Coroner L.N. Westberg of Center City stated “We have no evidence to indicate that the fire might have been planned. True, Johnson is still missing, but so far as we can learn he was rational and fully intended to move.”

     The day before the fire Albin told his brother-in-law, Fred Peterson, he was practically set to move.

     Over the years there have been a few theories, rumors, and facts that point to Albin being innocent. One of the strongest for me is that Albin’s dog was left behind. Many people reported that they witnessed his dog returning to the field near the house several days after he survived the fire and staring at the house. I am not sure Albin would have left his dog behind, but maybe if he reached the point that he would do this to his family he would.

     Albin’s brothers were rumored to have been rough, tough, and very mean as many people in the community feared them. Some believe there was an argument between them and Albin, which resulted in him being killed. They believe the brothers covered it up by killing the family and staging it to look like Albin was responsible so as they themselves would not be charged in his death.

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     The main two theories of the cause of death of the family members were that they were strangled, beheaded, or shot. With their bodies being found still in the sleeping position, it's unlikely that this happened without others waking up. If the family was killed prior to the fire, I would expect it to be from either poison or be being beaten to death as to not wake up the people sleeping in the other rooms. Unfortunately, the investigation results looking into the cause of death was never released, but I question if an indictment would have happened for Albin if they found the family died from the fire.

     Could the family of 9 sleep through a fire? A person will typically die of smoke inhalation between 2-10 minutes from the start of a fire. On the day of the fire it was cold and snowing, so the windows would have been closed to keep the warm air inside - meaning less oxygen would be in the air during the fire. Smoke inhalation is the most common cause of death for indoor fires. Something to keep in mind is that at the time of the fire all of the family’s belongings were packed outside the house because they were to be moving the next day. It seems the family was sleeping on what sounds like blankets on the floor. I argue that because of this, they would be slightly less exposed to the gas and fumes from the smoke verse if they were up higher in a normal bed. I would suspect this to cause at least one of them to wake up because of a higher response time - but that doesn’t seem to have happened.

     In the aftermath of the house fire that claimed the lives of at least eight people - many people in Chisago County quickly let the event fade from memory. Many residents believed and feared that Albin would return for revenge on those people talking about the deaths of Alvira and her 7 children.

     The funeral for Alvira and her children was held on the following Saturday in the Rush City Lutheran Church that the family grew up in. Over 350 people were in attendance. All seven children and Alvira were buried together in a single casket. Their resting place can be found in the cemetery of First Lutheran Church in Rush City - their stone reads “Alvira Lundeen Johnson and her 7 children died April 10th, 1933.” 

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