It was the kind of family dispute that played out on countless Minnesota farms: A 20-year-old daughter yearned to go to the big city despite her parents’ objections.
Strong-willed, Pearl Gilma Osten persuaded her folks to let her move 200 miles southeast from Otter Tail County so she could study music in Minneapolis. Her teachers said she was a brilliant and devoted student.
But within two weeks of her arrival in 1927, her grisly strangulation set her story apart. Nearly 90 years later, the case still haunts her descendants.
“I find the unsolved part of it maddening, but it’s also a good reminder that so many things don’t wrap up neatly tied with a bow,” said Sara Sha, who lives in Moorhead — about 40 miles northwest of her slain great-aunt’s childhood farm in Norwegian Grove near Pelican Rapids.
With a jumbled pile of photocopied newspaper clippings left when her mother died and online tools augmenting her research, Sha has compiled a detailed account of the case.
Born in 1907, Pearl Osten was the seventh of nine children of Norwegian-born farmers, Thea and Martin Andreas (Andrew) Osten.
They “tried to dissuade their daughter from coming to Minneapolis to study. They wanted her to remain at home in Pelican Rapids,” the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune reported three months after the murder when neighbors offered a $2,000 reward — roughly $28,000 in today’s dollars.
Osten’s musical ambition eventually overcame her parents’ protective urges. They agreed to let her complete her studies in Minneapolis before returning to the farm.
Teachers helped Osten land a job at the Jolly Peasant tea shop in downtown Minneapolis to help pay her tuition. She moved into the north Minneapolis home of her older sister, Alma Langseth, about a mile from her server’s job.
Osten went to the Orpheum Theatre on Hennepin Avenue on Saturday night, Oct. 1, 1927, with a friend, Nora Aas, who told police Osten went to work afterward at the tea room about 10 p.m.
A streetcar conductor said he remembered seeing Osten board his car about 12:30 a.m. He said she was wearing a gypsy costume — her uniform from the tea shop — and was with a young man.
“The two seemed on friendly terms and chatted amiably during the ride,” the conductor told detectives, according to the January 1928 Tribune story, adding that she “seemed somewhat reluctant to get off at Fifth street but finally consented when the young man took her arm.”
About 4:30 that afternoon, some boys were playing when an 11-year-old hiding in an abandoned woodshed stumbled over Osten’s mutilated body. At first, he thought it was a dressmaker’s wax model. The shed was only 60 feet from the home where Osten was staying with her sister and brother-in-law.
The boys’ screams drew a crowd, which obscured footprints and fingerprints. Police theorized she was dragged through an alley and left in the shed.
“Every indication is that she put up a desperate fight,” the Tribune reported a day after her body was found. A strip of her clothing was tied to her right wrist and bruises showed she had wriggled free from the strip bounding her left wrist. Her pocketbook had been emptied.
Several suspects were detained — some right away, others years later. No charges stuck. Two men in a stolen car were quickly arrested. One had cuts on his wrists. The other had a torn raincoat, “as if he had been engaged in a fight,” and refused to talk to police.
Alma Langseth told police that a man in a small coupe “accosted” her sister that Friday night after work, asking if she wanted a ride. When she broke into a run for home, he followed her in his car.
Detectives traveled to Pelican Rapids, looking for clues, and even interviewed a convicted murderer in Los Angeles. A year later, a suspect was detained in Moorhead after robbing a nearby Barnesville lunchroom. He admitted living within two blocks of Osten when she was killed, but he was released after questioning.
A decade later, in 1937, a North Dakota inmate wrote an anonymous letter, saying that a fellow prisoner named Gilbert Blais had, while the men were in the Bismarck penitentiary, confessed to killing Osten. Blais was taken to Minneapolis for questioning. Two witnesses, including the conductor, said they saw him on the streetcar that night 10 years earlier. His alibi, that he was working at a Minneapolis factory that night, didn’t hold up.
But Blais insisted the letter fingering him was merely spite from a fellow prisoner. And he was never charged with Osten’s murder.
At least two grand juries were called to look into her death.
“The investigation by the police has never been abandoned, but detectives found themselves with no further theories on which to work,” the Tribune said three months after her death.
Sha, Osten’s great-niece, realizes the chances are now remote to solve the case.
“Having an unsolved murder in the family has created lots of conversation and amateur sleuthing, particularly since we are two generations removed and don’t carry the intense emotional burden,” Sha said. “There’s always the hope that maybe somewhere there may have been a confession over a campfire or over beers that will come out. But I think we have to live with the open ending.”
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.