The murder of Lena Olson: Haunted by a century-old case, author dives into a Minnesota mystery
Author and archivist Jeffrey Sauve has delved into the curious and difficult case that stumped Duluth detectives for years.
DULUTH — A murder that occurred more than a century ago haunted archivist Jeffrey Sauve, resulting in recurring nightmares after he stumbled upon an account of the grisly crime and the search for the identity of the victim found on a Park Point beach. Only after the deceased’s identity was discovered could the exhaustive efforts to locate her unknown assailant begin in earnest.
Sauve ran across the story, which inspired his recent book, “Murder at Minnesota Point,” 10 years ago while doing genealogical research for an individual at the Norwegian-American Historical Association in Northfield, Minnesota. It all started with a Duluth News Tribune article about a murder, headlined: “Is all a mystery.”
The story related how Guy Browning, 7, found the corpse of a woman in a pile of driftwood just off shore Park Point on Aug. 22, 1894. While her body was submerged, a hand with a silver bracelet protruded from the water, and the startled boy ran for help.
The woman was from out of town, and unknown to locals, making it hard to put together the circumstances of her apparently un-witnessed death, determined to be the result of a blow to the head.
The body was cleaned up, the woman’s clothing was laundered, and the redressed victim was placed on public display at Bayha’s Morgue, where it remained on public display for more than a week, in hopes that someone would recognize her.
Finally, on Sept. 2, 1894, the mystery woman was buried at Forest Hill Cemetery.
Only later would her identity come to light as Lena Olson, a 32-year-old Norwegian-American domestic servant from Minneapolis. Her sister, Lizzie, arranged to have her grave in Duluth exhumed, and the body was reinterred at Minneapolis’ Lakewood Cemetery.
For several years, Sauve researched the murder obsessively and toyed with writing a book about it but kept shelving the project.
“It really became unhealthy. Those nightmares kept recurring, because I think, as a writer, I tend to frame a story in my head before I go to sleep,” he recalled.
In the preface to his book, Sauve wrote: “Each nightmare held a similar murky, dark scene of a desolate shoreline, foreboding violence. A slender arm emerged from the cool shallows of Lake Superior, reaching out to grasp my neck. Fleeing, sinister eyes hidden within the dunes followed me while seagulls screeched overhead. My hands were oddly bloodied, my heart pounding.”
After several false starts, Sauve paid a 2018 visit to Duluth’s Enger Tower, overlooking Park Point. There, he struck up a conversation with a couple who, after learning he was a writer, asked what his latest project was. Sauve began to tell them about the mysterious murder that had captured the nation’s attention toward the turn of the century, and soon a small crowd had gathered with people curious to learn about the crime.
After that experience, Sauve decided to take up the story anew, with encouragement from his wife. But first, he decided to visit Lena Olson’s resting place in Lakewood Cemetery. He knew her death had become a source of personal trauma, much as the 1979 loss of his 17-year-old brother, Steve, had led to nightmares as well.
“I had an honest conversation with Lena, standing there and trying to deal with all these emotions I’d had for the past six years. And after I left that day, I really felt like I could breathe. The weight of telling her story was off my shoulders. In a sense, I wasn’t carrying the drama, and I never had another nightmare,” he said.
Looking back on his graveside experience, Sauve wrote: “Here, under recently scattered crimson autumn leaves, lay a forgotten soul —a footnote in a lurid tale. But, of course, she was much more than that: She was a person of worth, no matter her station, education, gender or heritage. She was a human to the core with a desire to love and be loved.”
In his book, Sauve details the laborious search for Olson’s assailant. Duluth police detectives Bob Benson and Tom Hayden pursued dozens of leads in the case for 2-1/2 years after her death. Their efforts took them to 20 cities across the nation to investigate suspects but to no avail.
A Minneapolis detective, John J. Courtney, would ultimately crack the case, with the help of documents the murderer had left with a former Minneapolis landlady, after the suspect left without paying for his stay.
The perpetrator, James E. Alsop, was apprehended in Seattle.
Only after his capture did his history, including multiple suspected murders and swindles, come into focus.
Alsop used multiple aliases and won Lena Olson’s hand in marriage while posing as an Albert A. Austin. At his insistence, Olson apparently withdrew her life’s savings just before the short-lived couple arrived in Duluth for their fateful honeymoon.
Alsop faced two charges of murder, including that of Olson and Charlotte Fetting, an 80-year-old Seattle woman known to have stashed away a small trove of gold double-eagle coins that went missing following her death. Alsop, who had been living in the area at the time, lit out of town shortly afterward. The previous alleged murder occurred less than a year before Olson’s death.
Although he was never charged, Alsop has been implicated in the death of his first wife in Tacoma, Washington, as well. Alsop died before he could be tried, apparently hanging himself in his cell with an improvised rope fashioned from a jail blanket.
Sauve said the fact that Alsop never went to trial caused Olson’s story to sort of fade away into oblivion. Her life was never given the dignified acknowledgment and respect it deserved.
“He didn’t even give her death any more justice than his own, because now they’re both going to be forgotten,” he said. “It’s really unfair how history played out.”
Lena Olson now rests in a pauper’s grave, and Sauve has pledged to use proceeds from the sale of his book to purchase and install a proper memorial stone. He said that a number of readers taken with her story have sent donations to assist, and Sauve expects to have that marker installed in the spring.