Alvira Lundeen Johnson and her seven children died on April 10, 1933, according to a simple, flat gravestone at Rush City's First Lutheran Cemetery 55 miles north of St. Paul.
Her grisly death certificate, dated April 11, 1933, says the 29-year-old was "burned beyond recognition" and found in the charred ruins of their farmhouse 4 miles northeast of Harris. The Chisago County Press reported her body was lying near the crib of 4-month-old James — her youngest. Harold, the oldest of her five boys and two girls, was only 10.
More than 85 years later, Alvira's great-nephew insists the one-day discrepancy between the gravestone and death certificate was no typo or goof.
"I think her family, who presumably ordered the marker, was making a statement that they'd been murdered on the 10th before the house was torched in the early hours of the 11th," says Richfield author Brian Johnson.
Johnson's new 120-page book — "Murder in Chisago County" (The History Press) — zeros in on husband and father Albin Johnson, who was charged with killing his family before fleeing during the Depression.
Fourteen years older than his wife, 43-year-old Albin was a big man — 6-foot-3, 240 pounds — and a big drinker during Prohibition's bootlegging era. When authorities failed to find any of his remains in the burned house, a manhunt spun north to Canada — where Albin had spent three years working in Saskatchewan logging camps.
Six months after the fire, a grand jury indicted Albin in the deaths. The charges were filed in so-called absentia because he had vanished — for good.
Albin's relatives accused authorities of botching the investigation, insisting Albin died in the fire. "The more conventional view is that Johnson just slipped away," writes Brian Johnson, whose grandmother was Alvira's sister.
Brian Johnson, 55, has spent more than 20 years as a staff writer at Finance & Commerce — a daily Minnesota business newspaper. In his new book, he blends journalistic balance with his personal connections to the case. He gives voice to Albin's defenders, who insist he either died in the fire or took his own life. But the author also injects his role as a relative of the victims, recalling childhood visits to the graves of the family.
"I wanted to contribute to the historical record and keep the memory of the family alive," he said in an interview. He first toyed with writing a novel, but "I could never make up anything as compelling as the true story of the Albin Johnson case.
"More than eight decades after the mysterious blaze, the Harris fire of 1933 remains a riddle," he writes. "At times, the facts surrounding the mystery bounce through my head like the silver orb in a pinball machine. At other times, they pound away like a pile driver."
In rich detail, he lays out clue after clue — explaining how Albin's father had just evicted the family from the house. He unearthed newspaper accounts in which one of the first neighbors on the fire scene at 3:30 a.m. noticed auto tracks in the snow leading from the house to the highway. They were promptly "obliterated" when other vehicles poured into the farmyard.
Although grand jury records have disappeared, then-Chisago County Attorney S. Bernard Wennerberg said two pistols and a rifle found in the burned rubble may have been murder weapons. Other theories point to Albin poisoning the family.
If the fire started in the kitchen stove, experts say some of the victims would have been awakened by the smell of smoke. But all eight were found in sleeping positions — convincing authorities that they were dead when the fire started.
Then there's the kerosene can, found in the Chisago County sheriff's office in the 1960s and reportedly obtained on the Johnson farm after the 1933 fire.
Brian Johnson puts the case in the context of the Depression and gangster era, pointing out that Albin could hide in plain sight as countless hobos and wanderers crisscrossed the country on highways and trains looking for work. Unsophisticated law enforcement, meanwhile, had its hands full with Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and other gangsters in 1933.
The remains of Alvira Johnson and her seven kids — Harold, 10; Clifford, 9; Kenneth, 7; Dorothy, 5; Bernice, 4; Lester, 2, and James, 4 months — were buried in a single casket. But not before a coroner's inquest jury examined the bones and determined Albin's remains were not among them.
"It's anybody's guess what really happened," Brian Johnson says, doubting the mystery will ever be solved.
"Facts seem to indicate that Albin Johnson snapped and killed his family," the author writes. "The family had just been kicked off the farm ... It would have been quite a coincidence that the house just happened to go up in flames at precisely that moment of desperation."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.