He played hockey and loved hunting in northern Minnesota. That made John Henry Seadlund as unremarkable as any of the boys graduating from Crosby-Ironton High School in 1928.
But within a decade, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was calling the hawk-nosed miner’s kid from Ironton “the nation’s cruelest criminal” and the “most cold-blooded, ruthless and atrocious killer” his agency had ever encountered.
Seadlund died in the electric chair in Chicago in 1938 — 13 days shy of his 28th birthday — after kidnapping and killing a 72-year-old greeting card company executive.
Many of the sensational case’s twists happened outside Minnesota. Seadlund and a sidekick kidnapped Charles Sherman Ross near Chicago. He shot his captive and accomplice at a hideout 17 miles northwest of Spooner, Wis. And 97 days after the kidnapping, the FBI caught Seadlund using an alias (Peter Anders) and ransom money to bet on horses at Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles.
But Seadlund punctuated his crime script with a few Minnesota scenes. He held Ross captive for two weeks in a shallow pit in the woods 3 miles west of Emily, Minn., in Crow Wing County. And just north of Walker, Minn., and east of Hwy. 371, he buried a typewriter box with $32,645 of the $50,000 in ransom he’d collected.
Finally, Seadlund asked a Crow Wing County undertaker to attend his execution, telling Severin E. Koop he was sorry for what he’d done. The undertaker took his body back to Minnesota, burying Seadlund next to his father, Paul Seadlund, at the Woodlawn Cemetery 2 miles south of Ironton.
The elder Seadlund, a Norwegian émigré, worked as a master mechanic at several mines near Ironton. He died in 1933 at 51 — his body found in the family car; his death was ruled a carbon monoxide accident.
That death of his father, along with the Great Depression and a happenstance meeting with a big-time gangster, might have all pushed Seadlund toward lawlessness.
“When his father died, John tried to get work in the iron mines, but they told him there was nothing for him,” his mother, Delia Seadlund, later told reporters. “He sat around home for two years. He was desperate for money.”
A year after his dad died, Seadlund was 23 when he robbed the Van's Cafe in Brainerd for $48 — the first in a string of crimes from Alabama to Washington state.
He later told Hoover he returned to the Brainerd restaurant and ate a meal “for the thrill of it,” according to a lengthy account of his short life on the FBI’s website.
Quickly arrested, Seadlund busted out of the Crow Wing County Jail in Brainerd 10 days later. Within two years, he was wanted for a car theft in Tennessee and bank robberies in Wisconsin.
He had tried a straighter route, following his father to work at the mines’ machine shops after high school.
“He appeared to be content ... and worked regularly until ... because of the Depression, he was laid off and the mines were practically closed,” the FBI website says. He found odd jobs in Chicago, worked as a lumberjack near Spokane, Wash., and staffed a grocery store and filling station back home in Ironton.
One day in 1933, Seadlund was hunting in the woods when he stumbled upon a gangster-in-hiding named Tommy Carroll — a member of John Dillinger’s gang who would be killed a year later in Iowa.
Seadlund insisted his last crime — the Ross kidnapping — began as a simple robbery. When the gray-haired retired executive became suspicious of a car following him with bright lights, he pulled over near Chicago, according to his former secretary and passenger that September night 80 years ago.
The other car veered over and blocked Ross’ vehicle. Seadlund jumped out, pointing a revolver. A wealthy man, Ross shrugged and said he always figured he’d be kidnapped.
“That gave me an idea and I said: ‘Then you’ve got some money,’ ” Seadlund said, maintaining that his holdup plan escalated into a kidnapping in the spur of the moment.
Behind the wheel as they drove away was Seadlund’s partner in crime, James Atwood Gray. They’d met in 1937 when Seadlund picked him up hitchhiking in Montana. Despite Gray’s attempt to rob Seadlund, the two decided to work together.
That partnership didn’t last long. When Ross refused to ask for more than $5,000 in ransom, Seadlund added a zero to his note. They came up with elaborate instructions and left film showing their captive holding the football edition of a Chicago newspaper to prove he was alive.
As instructed, a motorcycle driver tossed a bag with $50,000 onto the side of the road near Rockford, Ill., on Oct. 8, 1937. Two days later, they moved Ross from the Emily hideout to the one near Spooner.
That’s where a scuffle broke out. Seadlund claimed Gray pointed a gun, hoping to get all the ransom money. All three men fell into the pit, fighting for the gun. In the process, Seadlund wounded his accomplice and then shot him another eight times to finish him off. Ross suffered three skull fractures, according to an autopsy. To make sure his captive was dead, Seadlund shot Ross once in the head.
He threw their bodies in the pit and covered them with brush. Three months later, after his racetrack arrest, Seadlund led the FBI to their frozen bodies and the hidden money near Walker, Minn.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.