Three decades before the 1953 disappearance of Evelyn Hartley devastated the Coulee Region, the murder of another young woman sent shock waves through Crawford County, an unsolved case still pondered by residents nearly a century later.
Neither case led to an arrest, but while Hartley was never found, the bludgeoned body of 22 year old Clara Olson was discovered in 1926 near Hwy. 27 in Rising Sun. The ghastly killing was covered by newspapers worldwide.
Larry Scheckel of Tomah, who grew up just 10 miles from where Clara’s body was found, spent three years scrolling through articles on microfilm, interviewing locals and conducting research on the case for his debut foray into true crime, releasing “Murder in Wisconsin: The Clara Olson Case” earlier this month.
Scheckel, who sought information about the case through a newspaper ad, heard from several locals, including a funeral director in Readstown, a woman in Mount Sterling whose relatives knew the families of both Clara and Erdman and another woman who called him claiming, “I have everything but the shovel.”
“She had nothing,” Scheckel said with a laugh. “But everyone had a theory.”
Scheckel, who has authored three science books and a memoir, grew up with the story of Olson, her burial site pointed out by his father on a childhood drive. The case had everything — love, scandal, mystery — and Scheckel delved in to put the “Crime of the century” on paper.
It was June 1925 when Clara met Erdman Olson (no relation), the 18 year old son of wealthy tobacco farmers who lived not far from the home of Clara, her siblings, and her parents, Chris and Dina. Though she was four years older, Clara was instantly attracted to the “bad boy” who sped around in his car, flaunted a gun around town and carried a flask. The two communicated through letters while Erdman attended Gale College, going on dates when he was in town.
In spring 1926, their relationship turned intimate, and Clara became pregnant. Filled with shame, she revealed her secret to Erdman’s parents in a letter that August, but their son denied he was the father. However, in correspondence to Clara, Erdman took responsibility and promised marriage. He instructed her to meet at a dance in Seneca on Sept. 9, from which they would drive to Winona to elope.
Around midnight, Clara hopped in the passenger’s side of Erdman’s car, on the way to what she believed would be her wedding. Unbeknownst to her, some 12 hours earlier Erdman had been shovel deep in dirt seven miles from her home.
“The dynamics of the two is fascinating,” Scheckel said. “Imagine, she is greatly relieved, the happiest ever, and sitting next to her is a young man who dug the grave that afternoon and had murder on his mind.”
What happened when Erdman pulled over the car on a logging road is unknown, but Clara suffered a fatal blow to the head, so forceful a triangular portion of her skull was caved in.
On Sept. 10, 1926, the morning after the murder, Clara was declared missing. Erdman went on as though nothing had happened.
“It was not only a national story, it was an international story,” Scheckel said. “It was almost impossible to believe — Lutheran boys don’t kill Lutheran girls. People didn’t commit crimes in 1926. That was big city stuff, not farm country kids.”
In late September, Chris confronted Erdman at Gale, promising him money, farm animals and a home if Clara returned and they married. Chris gave Erdman an ultimatum: If his daughter didn’t return within three days, he would report him to the sheriff. Cornered, Erdman penned two letters, one to his parents and one to Clara’s before disappearing himself.
Sightings of Erdman were reported, and countless individuals were questioned. Many were considered suspects, including Chris himself. Search parties combed the Kickapoo Valley.
“On Dec. 1, there were 1,000 people looking for that body,” Scheckel said. The next day, a rubber boot was found sticking out of the frozen ground in a knoll on Battle Ridge unlikely to ever receive foot traffic. Clara’s located Dec. 2 on land owned by Erdman’s uncle.
“It was by a serendipitous accident she was found,” Scheckel said. “Most likely she would have never have been found, and that would have left a sear on the soul that would have been really hard to deal with.”
Over the next few years, they “arrested probably 30 or 40 young men,” Scheckel said. As for Erdman, there was speculation he moved to a big city with the mob, that he fled to South America, that he changed identities and started a family. Erdman was referred to as “a youthful Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in the Winona Republican-Herald. Theories continued to float around, with articles in 1926 editions of the La Crosse Tribune stating a medium had a vision of Erdman’s whereabouts, and that Clara was hitchhiking several days after her assumed date of death.
The saga is fascinating, but for Scheckel the lack of resolution is astounding.
“Nobody knows for sure if (Erdman) is the killer, but there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence he did it,” Scheckel said. “I have no doubt he did it. How he got away with it — that was unbelievable.”
“Murder in Wisconsin: The Clara Olson Case” is available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble in Valley View Mall.
Scheckel will hold a book signing at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Onalaska Public Library.