Case remains unsolved 90 years after Minnesota mom, 7 kids were murdered
HARRIS, Minn. (FOX 9) - The suspected murders of a 29-year-old mother and her seven children in Chisago County topped headlines nine decades ago. Decades later, the town is still talking, and a Twin Cities author has made it his mission to sort rumors from reality.
On April 11, 1933, a farm home in Harris, Minnesota, burned to the ground. The remains of 29-year-old Alvira Lundeen Johnson and her seven young children, ranging in age from four months to 10 years, were found inside. Investigators determined they were dead before the fire started, and a murder investigation began.
"It's one of those stories that just kind of grabs at you and doesn't let go," said Brian Johnson, a Twin Cities journalist.
Alvira Lundeen Johnson, who is buried at First Lutheran Cemetery in Rush City, was Brian Johnson’s great aunt, his maternal grandmother's younger sister. And what does a journalist do when the best story comes from his own bloodline? He writes about it.
Brian Johnson published an article in a local newspaper in 1992, and then, more than 20 years later, a group of people from Rush City contacted him about the article, peaking his interest in the case once again. His true crime book, "Murder in Chisago County: The Unsolved Johnson Family History," was published in 2019.
"I grew up knowing about the tragedy because we would visit the cemetery every year around Memorial Day. We would make the drive up, listen, pay our respects. But when I was a kid, I always thought it was just terrible, accidental fire," he said.
It wasn’t until his own research beginning in college when Brian Johnson learned his relatives were suspected murder victims and his great aunt Alvira's husband, Albin Johnson, had disappeared in 1933, never to be seen again.
"Albin Johnson was actually indicted (by a grand jury) and charged with the murders. So I'm sure there was good reason to believe that there was foul play involved," Brian Johnson explained. Though he shares a surname with Albin Johnson, they are not related by blood.
Through his research, he learned investigators also suspected foul play because Alvira Lundeen Johnson and her children were still in their sleeping positions when they died.
"The thinking at the time, at least, was that if any of them had still been alive, at least one of them would have made an effort to get out of the house," Brian Johnson explained.
At Kaffe Stuga, the diner in Harris where FOX 9 interviewed Brian Johnson, a wanted poster for Albin Johnson still hangs, living proof of the international manhunt that ensued in the 1930s.
"When I've talked to people who have heard this story here in town, I feel like it's almost taken on kind of an urban legend status," he said.
A local he interviewed for the book said while she was growing up in the 70s, a neighbor would shout, "Better watch out: Old Man Johnson's gonna get you" while she rode a horse past the site of Albin and Alvira Lundeen Johnson’s home.
The biggest question of all: What happened to Albin Johnson? Did he escape to Canada, where he had worked in the logging camps in the World War One era? Or perish in the fire as part of a larger cover-up?
His 2019 book includes family photos and interviews with his mother, who was 12 when the murders happened, and his mother’s young sister, Betty.
"What was really important for me was to create sort of a lasting memory of this family. I don't want the family to be forgotten," he explained.
Despite the memories, these murders remains unsolved. To add to the mystery, he got permission from a Chisago County judge to review the grand jury records only to find out that they had gone missing. Though even he has doubts that a 90-year old cold case could be solved, he hopes his work may bring the answers his family and the people of Chisago County have been seeking all this time.
"I do hope that maybe somebody will come up with some information. Maybe those grand jury records will suddenly show up in somebody's attic, or some letters or diaries," Brian Johnson said.