When Marty Seifert was very little, he would ride with his father past an abandoned farmstead near their own southwestern Minnesota property and ask: “How come no one lives there?”
“I was probably 5 or 6 the first time I asked, and he said, ‘Something bad happened there,’ ” said Seifert, a Republican politician-turned-lobbyist from Redwood County who mounted two unsuccessful bids for governor and was minority leader in the state House for three years.
“Then a few years later, it was, ‘Someone died.’ A few years after that it was, ‘Someone was murdered.’ By the time I got to high school, it was: ‘A man murdered his entire family with an ax and hung himself,’ ” Seifert recalled. “And my dad wasn’t the type to kid around with something like that.”
“Sundown at Sunrise” is the title of Seifert’s just-released historical novel about a 1917 true-crime case notorious in his corner of Minnesota but, he said, not well-known anywhere else. Ax murderer William Kleeman left a grim body count before hanging himself: his wife, Maud, and their four children, all under 6.
Once known around the Capitol for sharp partisan quips, Seifert saw a chance to turn his creative skills to the printed page. “I always said if I ever write a book it’ll be about that case, and here I had a chance to do it,” said Seifert, who still commutes to St. Paul during legislative sessions to lobby for the St. Paul firm Flaherty & Hood.
March 24 is the 100th anniversary of the murders, and Seifert found a small publishing house in Beaver’s Pond Press willing to put it out.
Digging into Kleeman’s story, Seifert found details scarce. An inquest at the time suggested Kleeman initially tried to make it look like someone else committed the crime.
“They ultimately surmised the farmer went insane,” Seifert said. But that left much unanswered. And there were compelling details: Kleeman was only 31; his wife was in her 20s; their youngest child was only six weeks. William’s and Maud’s parents were all alive in the area. William was buried locally with his two oldest children, while the burial site of Maud and her two youngest is unknown.
The dearth of hard information prompted Seifert to write a novel rather than nonfiction account. Starting in 1909, he invents a courtship for William and Maud — and speculates at what may have planted the seeds of the brutal crime.
No one yet lives at the property on the corner of Minnesota Highway 68 and Redwood County 1, in the township of Sundown. The stone foundation of the house is still there, Seifert said. A young man farms the nearby fields. Once while he was writing, Seifert said, he and his family drove to the property so he could take a couple of pictures. They brainstormed book details as they drove.
“We were talking about, what breed of dog would they have? Because every farm had a dog,” Seifert said. “We decided it would be a black dog. We pulled up to the site, but we’d just hit this wall of fog and it was so dense I couldn’t take a picture. Then I opened my door, and I see a dead black dog. That was creepy.”