I was a little surprised when a descendant of Ebenezer Hodsdon (1820-1907) told me she wanted no part of last week’s Minnesota History column about the Minneapolis bicycling pioneer. Then another shirttail relative of his that I tracked down in Maine asked me not to bother her because her husband wasn’t feeling well.
OK, fine. Instead of family members, the story would be built around a Minneapolis Park Board member so smitten with Hodsdon that she had a framed photograph on her mantel, showing him in 1902 with his bike and neatly trimmed beard.
Steffanie Musich learned about Hodsdon — the last farmer on what came to be called Lake Nokomis — two years ago while researching city lakes history at the downtown Central Library. Her research led to a hard-to-find 1963 book and a 1978 Hennepin County History magazine piece written by Hodsdon’s late granddaughter.
My July 10, 2016, feel-good story about Hodsdon was well-received, with more than 200 people sharing the story from our website and more than one reader asking for the link to order his photograph from the Minnesota Historical Society’s website.
The next day, a more complete and darker side of Ebenezer Hodsdon emerged. Hodsdon had been convicted of incest and sent to Stillwater prison in 1864 at age 43.
The revelations came from a Minneapolis history sleuth and longtime neighbor of Beatrice Morosco, the Hodsdon granddaughter who wrote the book and magazine article and died in 1998 at 102. Greg LaLonde recorded several interviews with Morosco in the 1990s and was granted access to Ebenezer Hodsdon’s journals.
“Over time I became intimately familiar with the Hodsdon family history,” LaLonde said. “I loved Bea. She was wonderful! … That said, the Hodsdons do have some rather fascinating family history — only it’s a history that Bea chose not to write.”
History is nuanced and evolves over time. Many family histories include dark secrets that are often glossed over. But that’s not to say I couldn’t have dug deeper. After LaLonde told me about Hodsdon’s criminal history, I googled “Hodsdon” and “incest.”
On Page 485 of a volume called “Executive Documents of the State Of Minnesota for the Year 1865,” there it is: In the annual report of the Stillwater prison warden, dated Dec. 4, 1865, “names of convicts now confined,” the fifth man listed is “Ebenezer A. Hodsdon, Hennepin [County], 7 years, Incest.”
A second source on the Minnesota Historical Society’s website, titled “Stillwater State Prison: An Index to Its Convict Register No. 1,” doesn’t mention incest on Page 33. But it lists Ebenezer A. Hodsdon as prisoner No. 53, stating he entered the original Stillwater prison on June 3, 1864, and that he was born in Maine.
LaLonde has lost track of his notes from the 1990s, but remembers the labyrinth he navigated to find the truer story of Hodsdon, a chaplain for a time in the Minnesota Territorial Legislature.
LaLonde’s research included unearthing document numbers from Hennepin County court records, then crossing the river to comb the archives at the History Center to find copies of the 1863 criminal case. LaLonde said he also came across an 1887 divorce case involving Hodsdon and his wife, Jane.
The 129-year-old divorce file told a dark side of Ebenezer Hodsdon, according to LaLonde.
“His tyrannical behavior toward his family, and particularly his egregious domestic abuse of his wife continued, unabated,” LaLonde said. “His debauchery of his children, the ongoing physical abuse of his wife, and, moreover, the threats and intimidating behaviors toward his neighbors, became a matter of legal and public record.”
His research also led him to an 1874 document — “quite a rant,” LaLonde says — in which Ebenezer Hodsdon denied all the charges against him, “blaming everyone else in sight.”
The divorce was granted the next year, LaLonde says, and Jane maintained half-ownership of the family farm along what was then known as Lake Amelia. They would sell that land to the Park Board in 1907, helping the city complete its boulevard system.
LaLonde said he was surprised his late neighbor would write such a glowing account of her grandfather. He says much of her 1963 book, “The restless ones: a family history” was “fiction, with perhaps a dollop of fact thrown in from time to time.
“Bea was a master storyteller,” he said. “But also someone who didn’t care if it meant distorting history.”
All of which brings us back to Musich, a computer programmer serving her first term on the Park Board. She lives across the street from Lake Nokomis, not far from Hodsdon’s old farm site on the southwest side of the lake.
“History is a tricky subject of study,” Musich said, “reliant upon those who choose to document events and how they tie those documents into the searchable historic record — so many opportunities for stories to be lost or modified from what played out in the world.”
She said she wants to verify LaLonde’s research before “jumping to judgment” and revising her view of Hodsdon, who “I’ve only known through the tales of his granddaughter.”
She says she’s struggling with the newly unearthed information about a man she originally said “should be remembered as one who didn’t see his age as an inhibitor to learning something new.” That’s a reference to Hodsdon joining the national bicycle craze of the 1890s when he would have been in his 70s.
His photo with his bike supports that notion, although LaLonde says the story of his winning a bike race around Lake Harriet might have been a bogus tale from his granddaughter’s imagination.
“I am having a hard time understanding why she would draw so much attention to a man that allegedly terrorized her mother in this manner,” Musich said, adding that she’s “perplexed by his incarceration in Stillwater not showing up in my inquires at the Minnesota History Center archives in 2014.”
Armed with the new information, Musich checked with the Hennepin History Museum. “They have nothing in their collection from the Hodsdons,” she said.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.