The glass eye sat in a box on a high kitchen window sill. Olga Dahl King left it there because she found it uncomfortable, preferring to raise her children with her lid closed over her vacant eye socket.
“My grandmother loved to cook, but when she’d leave the kitchen, I’d sneak up to look at that artificial eye in its box when I was 5 or 6,” said Jack McCauley, now 64. “I’d pull some chairs over to the ledge and climb up.”
When family members asked about her missing eye, Olga blamed some naughty boys with a slingshot. McCauley didn’t learn the real story until years after she died in 1974 at the age of 80, he said from his home in Chaska. “She didn’t want to talk about it, which made sense,” he said.
Born in 1894, Olga Dahl was the daughter of Swedish immigrants living near the tiny Itasca County town of Warba. After graduating from Grand Rapids High School, about 15 miles northwest of the Warba farm, Olga became a teacher at 22 in the rural Round Lake school in northern Itasca County’s Good Hope Township.
Leaving work during the first week of school, on Sept. 20, 1916, Olga was attacked, dragged into the woods at gunpoint, raped, shot twice in the face and left for dead near the smoldering embers of a fire, her right wrist tied to a small balsam tree.
A.A. Clampett, an aging woodsman who lived nearby, smelled the smoke of the fire and found Olga in a spot that “had evidently been selected with great care” behind an uprooted spruce that provided “a sheltered retreat,” according to the Grand Rapids Herald-Review.
Barely conscious, Olga was taken to a nearby house, where a doctor from Blackduck prescribed morphine and said surgery would be futile. One bullet had pierced her left cheek, while the second entered her left temple and destroyed her eye. The attacker had left a barely literate note, saying something about Olga being “too pretty for [her own] good.”
The next morning, according to the Herald-Review, Olga was still alive. Two doctors, M.M. Hursh of Grand Rapids and a Dr. Binet of Deer River, “operated at once and pronounced the girl’s chances of recovery to be excellent.”
Years later, Olga remembered one of the doctors sleeping with a loaded gun beside the door in the house where she was being treated, in case the assailant returned. More than 200 woodsmen combed the rough, spruce-and-balsam terrain, looking for him. One suspect was a man who claimed to be a minister and recently had been driven out of Tenstrike, about 30 miles away, where he had reportedly tried to lure girls into the woods. But he didn’t match the description that Olga had given authorities.
Olga said the man who attacked her was a tramp who had just been invited to eat at the home of Matt Manula, where she boarded. “He was described as a drifter,” said McCauley.
“Olga remembered her attacker staring at her as she ate breakfast,” according to Brian Vroman, a teacher at Itasca Community College, who interviewed two of Olga’s daughters in 2006 and wrote about it for the Herald-Review.
At least twice, police thought they had their man. They arrested a laborer who was charged with “forcibly attempt[ing] to embrace” a teacher in nearby Wilton. Olga said he wasn’t her attacker, and neither was a suspect she was asked to identify in Minneapolis.
School Superintendent E.A. Freeman tried to ease fears among teachers but discouraged them from packing guns to school.
“The very nature of the tragedy has no doubt made you anxious for your own safety,” he wrote in a letter to teachers. However, he advised against carrying a firearm because it might “result in self-inflicted tragedies.”
Seven months later, in springtime, a spear fisherman removed a corpse lodged in a nearby creek, according to the blog Horror History. The body was badly decomposed, but McCauley said his grandmother was able to identify her assailant by the handcrafted, tree-shaped buttons on his coat. The man, whose name wasn’t included in any of the accounts, apparently took his own life.
Shortly after the attack, Olga married Bill King, a woodsman and trapper who delivered wood to schools in the area. They likely met during those first days of school before the attack, when she would have lit a fire to warm the children from the September chill. The Kings had seven children, of whom the youngest, Myrtle, is in her 80s and lives in Hoyt Lakes.
Olga lived in Warba as a grandmother, across the farm road from her daughter Evelyn’s family — including curious little Jack. McCauley said his grandmother always contended a well-to-do son of a local mill owner might have been involved in her attack. She’d spurned his advances that week, and Olga believed he put the drifter up to the assault.
“Whether or not Olga’s suspicion was justified will remain forever a mystery,” Vroman concluded.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.