When it came to antiquing, Clarence and Jean Larson made a good husband-and-wife team in southwestern Minnesota in 1980. He could fix just about anything and she was a whiz at refinishing furniture and pricing items, skills they used to stage a huge sale at their Tracy home every autumn.
Before the 1979 sale, their auctioneer from Sleepy Eye had spotted a china closet in the Larson home and joked about the profit they could make selling it. Never, Jean told him. She'd inherited the cabinet, with its showy dishes and rare glassware, from her mother. None of it was for sale.
But when the auctioneer arrived for the 1980 sale, Jean was gone and Clarence was selling the china cabinet with all its collectibles. His wife, he explained, had gone to the Twin Cities for her arthritis. He said they'd be moving to California soon. It was one of several stories he was telling people when asked about Jean's whereabouts.
Since that day, Oct. 6, 1980, no one has reported seeing Jean Larson, 61, despite wide-ranging searches and investigations by local and state authorities. All they found in the end was dried blood and a section of replaced carpet near the kitchen sink. Clarence told them Jean had cut her hand on a fruit jar. When state agents told him that wouldn't explain the splatter, he replied: "Oh."
It wasn't the first time that authorities had zeroed in on Clarence Ladue Larson, then 70 years old.
Nearly two decades before, Clarence had been indicted on first-degree murder charges and jailed for three months in connection with the death of his first wife, Martha. She died on Dec. 19, 1961, at the age of 52, in what Clarence claimed was a farm accident that left her twisted on a power takeoff shaft.
At the trial in Windom in 1963, experts testified to a circular skull fracture on the back of her head and other skull fractures. But the judge dismissed the charges before the case went to jurors, citing insufficient evidence.
Two cases, separated by nearly two decades and 15 miles of farm country, leaving one woman dead and another missing — and both married to the same man.
Now Granite Falls history writer Patricia Lubeck has stitched together the details of both cases in her fifth true-crime book, "Victims of Foul Play: A True Story of One Man's Dark Secrets," available through Amazon or Outskirts Press at tinyurl.com/Lubeckbooks.
"I felt it was important for me to find the facts and separate them from the rumors," Lubeck said. "It's a sad, creepy part of the history of this area, and I felt like I became the voice of these two women who wanted their stories told."
The youngest of six children, Clarence Larson was born in 1910 on a Murray County farm near Balaton, and died in Tennessee in 2002 at 91. He moved there in the mid-1990s to live with one of his two children from his first marriage.
Lubeck tracked down witnesses and combed through court documents, newspaper accounts and insurance records to suggest Larson's possible motive for killing Martha: a $10,000 accidental-death policy he had taken out on her 11 days before her death, a windfall that would grow to $38,000 with another insurance policy and the sale of their farm house.
Lubeck theorizes that he killed Martha and then staged the body to look like a tractor accident. Pathologists testified in court that her skull fracture came from a moving object striking a stationary skull, but Larson told jurors: "I did not kill my wife, so help me God. I did not."
Lubeck points to "gross mistakes made during the investigation" of Martha's death, including a trampled crime scene that covered up the bloody snow, no police photos and timeline issues surrounding Martha's watch, which stopped at 3:50 a.m. — an hour before the accident supposedly occurred.
"I guess we will never know for sure" whether Martha's clothing really got caught in the power shaft or Clarence killed her, Lubeck writes. They're buried side by side at Zion Lutheran Cemetery near Balaton, not far from where Clarence was born and Martha died.
A year after the judge dismissed his murder case, Clarence married Jean in 1964. He was never charged in her disappearance because prosecutors were unable to seek murder charges without a body until the law changed in 1981, after Jean had vanished.
Diane Deming told Lubeck in 2018 that her close friend Jean had never mentioned impending travel — especially to California, which Jean had said was "one of the dumbest places to go" in the mistaken belief that the state had high humidity and would aggravate her arthritis.
Investigators asked Deming to look in Jean's closet, where she found three of her friend's favorite tops. If Jean had left on her own as Clarence claimed, Deming said, she would have taken those tops with her.
Martha's death, Lubeck writes in her book's conclusion, "is heartbreaking. Justice has never been served in her tragic death. … If Clarence would have been locked up, Jean's terrible fate would have been avoided."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.