As Wilda Johnson sat grinning in the Owatonna courtroom, her demeanor surprised reporters and curiosity seekers who had packed the proceedings.
“She looked somewhat pale, but showed remarkable indifference,” according to one newspaper account from Dec. 14, 1905. “All the morning her face had been wreathed in smiles and her every act showed that she little appreciated the gravity of the charge against her.”
And that charge was plenty grave. Authorities accused the single, 32-year-old farm woman of pouring rat poison in a neighbor’s well. They contended she was trying to kill a 26-year-old schoolteacher named Gertrude Lundstrom, who was dating a single farmer and church usher for whom Johnson secretly pined.
The Steele County love triangle case, not surprisingly, captivated the rural region about 70 miles south of the Twin Cities.
“The case is creating the greatest interest of anything that has ever happened in this county,” according to a “special dispatch” published in the Owatonna People’s Press, the Minneapolis Tribune and picked up in newspapers across the country.
Among the juicy bits of evidence: an orange earlier left in a bag tied to the doorknob of the country schoolhouse where Lundstrom taught, with a note attached saying it was for the teacher. She never ate the orange because she noticed it was punctured with suspicious holes. A state chemist later determined there was enough strychnine poison in the orange to kill 25 people.
Testimony at the trial included witnesses who joined all three of the key players — the teacher, the defendant and the farmer — at the Aurora Norwegian Lutheran Church the Sunday before the poison was detected in the well. When Oscar Prestegaard ushered Lundstrom and her family to their pew, witnesses said Johnson glared furiously. After services, Prestegaard escorted Lundstrom to the teacher’s family farm.
Anna Larson, a local dressmaker, was at church that day and told jurors that Johnson’s “countenance bore an intensified, revengeful look.” The defense attorney countered with testimony from Carl Prestegaard, who said he — not his brother — ushered Lundstrom to her pew.
The prosecution’s key witness was the intended victim, Gertrude Lundstrom. She grew up on a Steele County farm in Havana township before marrying Sedrick Lundstrom and moving to Amery, Wis. Sedrick died from tuberculosis in 1903, leaving Gertrude widowed with a young daughter. She moved back home near Owatonna and started teaching school.
She testified that she rose early on Wednesday, June 7, 1905, lit a fire in the kitchen and went to the well to fetch a pail of water for breakfast. She ran to her father, who was milking cows, and showed him the water in the pail that had a “peculiar green color.”
They returned to the well and found more green poison — and footprints. They followed those tracks through mud left from recent rains. The footprints had an unusual worn-down right heel and led 2 miles down a private road to a farm where defendant Wilda Johnson lived with her mother and brother.
Instead of confronting Wilda, they went to the sheriff. When they all returned to check the tracks, they found none. Wilda’s brother had just tested his horse-drawn plow disc in the area, erasing any alleged tracks.
A 5-cent sack of rat poison found in the well was traced back to an Owatonna pharmacy. A clerk testified that a woman had purchased it, but he couldn’t identify Wilda. When Sheriff Frank Chambers questioned her about the poison, she first said she knew nothing about it. She later wept and changed her testimony, saying she had indeed purchased some poison to kill rats in her basement. The sheriff testified he found no poison amid the basement rat holes.
Despite the mounting evidence against his client, defense attorney Harlan Leach had some strategy of his own to raise reasonable doubt. He produced a shoe the size allegedly left in the muddy tracks, and Johnson’s foot didn’t fit in it.
He also produced a witness named Magnus Johnson, who testified he was riding along the road by the farm the night before the poison was found. He said his horse spooked upon seeing a man walking in the ditch, a wide-brimmed hat pulled low down over his eyes.
When he hollered at the man to ask “what the hell he was walking in a ditch at this time of night,” the man turned his head and skulked away. Under cross-examination, he couldn’t swear the person in the ditch was a man.
After two and half hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict: not guilty. The judge gaveled the raucous courtroom to order and the case soon disappeared into the fog of history.
Chris Larson, a Richfield history buff, dug up the old newspaper accounts of the trial in anticipation of its 110th anniversary this week. Her great-grandmother was among the prosecution witnesses, and her research revealed she’s related to both the accused and the intended victim.
In fact, she said both were descendants of the first group of Norwegian settlers in the Owatonna area. They likely didn’t know it, but they were third cousins, once removed.
After her acquittal, Wilda Johnson remained on the family farm. She died 12 years later of tuberculosis at 44. The registrar who signed her death certificate? None other than Oscar Prestegaard, the church usher who’d gone on to marry a different woman, with whom he had five children. He died in 1919 from a burst appendix.
Gertrude Lundstrom moved back to Amery after the sensational trial and was married two more times. After her second husband died, she relocated to Austin, Minn., with her third husband. She died in 1968 at 89.
“Although Wilda was acquitted, I still wonder if she was guilty,” Chris Larson said. “As far as I know, no one else was ever charged or tried for the crime.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.