A 120-year-old murder mystery buried in old boxes and folders is taking on new life at the Anoka County Historical Society, which is sharing the made-for-TV story in an ambitious new fundraising project.
The Historical Society, with only a few full-time staffers and a dozen volunteer actors, has produced “An Un-Wise Murder,” to premiere online Saturday. The show centers on members of the Wise family, targeted in a fatal shooting on May 27, 1900, at their home in present-day Andover.
Four family members sitting at the kitchen table playing cards that evening were shot, leaving two dead and two survivors. Speculation mounted about the potential involvement of the two teenage Wise girls, and while there were several persons of interest, multiple arrests and a trial that grabbed headlines across the country, no one was ever convicted in the killings.
The Historical Society had a treasure trove of documents from the case — letters, court transcripts, evidence and the notes of former County Attorney Albert Pratt — that staffers discovered two years ago. The cold case was seemingly forgotten despite all the attention surrounding it in 1900.
“We didn’t realize the iceberg we found,” said Rebecca Ebnet-Desens, the Historical Society’s executive director. “The one-sentence summary of ‘someone shot the Wise family’ doesn’t begin to convey the amount of witnesses that were called and the number of suspects that were arrested, and twists and turns.”
Staffers thought the material would make for a great murder mystery dinner, a type of fundraiser they had done before. The challenge was to turn that interest into ways to financially sustain the low-budget nonprofit as it faced a significant drop in donations amid the pandemic. Local history, Ebnet-Desens said, isn’t an immediate need like other nonprofits combating homelessness or hunger.
“Our people are already dead,” she said.
So they decided to go digital, a direction the Historical Society had been heading in recent years with video projects and more content on social media.
Volunteer coordinator Sara Given, who had no background in film, took on the roles of producer, videographer and editor. With the History Center in downtown Anoka on lockdown, she brought the microfilm machine home to pore over newspaper clippings, and even ventured to Forest Hill Cemetery in Anoka to write the script near the graves of residents who would have been following the case.
Given said the process started out as a lot of research and creating a story line, and it turned into “coming up with new skills and a way to share my love for all this dusty-musty history and turn it into something exciting.”
Ebnet-Desens said the mission of the society is to tell history and not just preserve it in boxes.
“History has the word ‘story’ in it for a reason,” she said. “Without telling that story, you lose the humanity of our past, and once we do that we have no context for how we’re living today.”
When the pandemic closed the History Center, staffers created “Tour of Anoka County,” 21 videos of 21 cities in the county. Website engagement skyrocketed, reaching up to 80,000 views — more than five times the number of visitors to the museum in a typical year — persuading them that they were making history more accessible.
Given said the true-crime show is proof that the society can be ambassadors of history in a digital world. While a museum tour occurs in the moment, she said, the show can live on. Ebnet-Desens described going digital as “a step toward inclusion.”
“There are so many reasons why people can’t see our history if it stays in the building,” she said.