William Erhardt had just gotten off work handling baggage at the Soo Line train depot in downtown Minneapolis. About 8 p.m., the 21-year-old hopped on a streetcar, heading toward his family’s home on the still-undeveloped northwestern shore of Lake Calhoun. It was Dec. 3, 1894.
“It was a sparkling cold night,” Erhardt recalled six decades later, in 1955. “I can still see the dim figures of the skaters circling Calhoun, and the lights of the city back of them.”
That picturesque scene was quickly shattered. A tan-colored horse charged toward him — pulling what appeared to be an empty buggy — just after Erhardt stepped off the streetcar for his walk home. Four years later, the posh Minikahda Country Club would rise nearby. But back then, Excelsior Boulevard was a rutted, narrow road.
A few steps later, Erhardt discovered a woman’s body wrapped in an expensive sealskin coat. He assumed she’d been thrown from the buggy by the runaway horse. But rather than an accident, he’d stumbled upon what would become one of Minnesota’s most notorious murder-for-hire cases. The coroner found a bullet hole in the back of the woman’s skull by her right ear.
The horse, a buckskin named Lucy, galloped 4 miles back to the Palace livery stables. A worker there discovered a pool of clotted blood on the buggy seat and told police the carriage had been rented to a woman named Katherine Ging. Just 29, with curly black hair and gray eyes, she’d moved from New York to make hats and dresses for well-heeled women of Minneapolis at her upscale dress shop on Nicollet Avenue. Her friends and customers called her Kitty.
She lived at a new five-story red brick apartment building, the Ozark Flats, which still stands on the corner of Hennepin Avenue and 13th Street. So did Harry Hayward, the building owner’s ne’er-do-well son — a gambler with ties to counterfeiters.
The two had dated, but “rumor was that he was more infatuated with her than she with him,” Peg Meier wrote in this newspaper in 1994 on the murder’s 100th anniversary.
Described as tall, trim, with broad shoulders and bold eyes, Hayward had an alibi. He returned home a little after 11 p.m. that night after escorting a well-to-do woman to the Grand Opera House, where several people had seen him attending a performance of “A Trip to Chinatown.”
But Hayward’s brother and the janitor at the apartment building would soon send him to his execution.
A year and a week after Erhardt found Ging’s body, Hayward became one of the last convicted murderers publicly hanged in Minneapolis. Adry Hayward told a prominent lawyer that his kid brother, Harry, talked of enlisting an accessory to kill Ging for insurance money. She’d taken out two $5,000 policies, naming Harry Hayward as the beneficiary. He told police she did that to offset loans he’d made to expand her dress shop. In reality, she’d been loaning him money for mounting gambling debts.
Claus Blixt, who tended the furnace at the Ozark Flats, actually pulled the trigger and shot Ging. He was sentenced to life in prison and went insane behind bars, dying there more than 30 years later.
“A quivering Swedish immigrant … he was better at stoking the furnace than he was at murdering or lying to detectives,” Meier wrote. “The Ging case was one of the few in local history in which a murderer received a punishment less severe than the person who instigated the crime.”
Blixt told police Hayward had once bullied him into burning a barn for $10. He’d threatened to tell police about the arson — “10 years in the state pen” — if Blixt didn’t agree to kill Ging for him. He promised $2,000 for the hit and, for good measure, also threatened to kill Blixt’s wife if Blixt didn’t carry out the act.
Hayward told Ging to order the carriage and ride with Blixt to the western shore of the lake, where he would meet her with a team and they’d go out while the janitor returned the buggy.
Hayward furnished Blixt with a handgun and a bottle of whiskey to calm his nerves. Blixt confessed to shooting her and dumping her body a mile away. Her body was found at the foot of the Minikahda Club’s hill, according to local writer Michael Wilson.
On the night of the murder, Hayward had carefully gone to his date’s house and, checking his watch, asked her father to confirm it was 8 p.m. The alibi proved to be as leaky as a punctured tire.
“He had made the mistake of believing his brother would not say a word,” Catherine Burke wrote in this newspaper in 1945, 50 years after the case, “and of trusting the complete silence of Blixt, who coughed up his story.”
Thousands of gawkers were turned away from the sensational seven-week trial’s first day the next fall.
“Tackiness reigned,” Meier wrote. “Postcards were sold picturing the principal characters and the murder scene.”
Erhardt, the baggage handler who found Ging that night, spent two days on the witness stand — explaining how he found her body. And he joined the crowd at the city jail to witness the end of the case he started on that chilly winter night in 1894.
“But they wouldn’t let us near,” Erhardt recalled, at 82. “And we couldn’t see much.”
During the trial, Erhardt learned that the buggy wasn’t empty when the runaway horse charged past him that night. “Crouched in it, letting the horse have its head, was Blixt,” the newspaper reported in 1955, “fleeing from the scene of his crime.”
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.