History buff dusts off St. Paul's coldest case

  • Article by: BY CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 15, 2012 - 6:04 PM
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St. Paul historian Gary Brueggemann’s new book tells the tale of St. Paul’s coldest case, a 173-year-old murder involving a famous name.

Photo: Curt Brown, Star Tribune

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He doesn't own a cellphone. When you spend most of your time ensconced in St. Paul's early history, why bother?

"I see all these kids on their phones constantly," Gary Brueggemann said. "I'm afraid no one would call me."

After all, most of his closest confidantes have been dead for decades. Brueggemann loves history like cats love milk. He laps the stuff up as a teacher at Inver Hills Community College and Century College.

For years, he led community education bus tours of his West Seventh neighborhood, pointing out nooks and crannies and telling long-forgotten stories to anyone who would listen. He's such a St. Paul aficionado, he's embarrassed to admit that he attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls 30 miles east.

The son of a St. Paul grocery store owner and father of four, Brueggemann descends from ancestors who arrived in the Minnesota Territory in 1854.

Growing up with no car was no problem. Every neighborhood had its bakery and doctor's office. He could hop a short bus ride as a Cretin High School kid in the 1960s to get to downtown St. Paul.

"I was so rooted to my neighborhood growing up, going to Merriman Park was an adventure," he said. "I've always been intrigued by a 1,000 things about St. Paul at once."

Brueggemann accidently stumbled into his latest obsession in 1994. He was researching Minnesota's 62 mostly forgotten pioneers who attended the 1848 Territorial Convention in Stillwater. Joseph R. Brown led the group and Brueggemann was combing through his boxes of papers at the History Center when he found some handwritten pages.

It was Brown's "Justice of the Peace Casebook" and included details of the city's first -- and still unsolved -- murder, details that historians had long written off as lost. "I said: 'What the heck is this?'This case is so cold it's arctic.''

As he deciphered Brown's illegible scrawl, he learned about a case that centered around an unscrupulous, unsavory, whiskey-drinking scoundrel named Edward Phelan, whose named was also spelled Phalen.

And, yes, he's the same guy for which Lake Phalen -- not to mention a golf course, boulevard, creek, ice arena, recreation center and elementary school -- also take their names.

When some Dakota boys discovered the battered body of a soldier, Sgt. John Hays, washed up on a Mississippi River bank near what non-Indians called Carver's Cave, Phelan came under scrutiny. He shared a shanty with Hays near where the Xcel Energy Center parking ramp now sits.

Brueggemann's new book, his first, is called: "Minnesota's Oldest Murder Mystery; the Case of Edward Phalen: St. Paul's Unsaintly Pioneer." He'll be reading from the sordid tale at 6:30 on Thursday night at the Claddagh Coffee Cafe at 459 W. 7th Street (where else?) in St. Paul just down the block from the Day by Day Cafe.

My mission in life is to recover the past," he said. "The gaps are huge, but sometimes I feel the spirits guiding me."

CURT BROWN

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