Friday, March 24, 2017

On This Date in Minnesota History: March 24

March 24, 1917 – William Kleeman, a well-known young farmer living near Clements, Redwood County, killed his wife Maud and four little children—Rosadell, Gordon, Lois and Gladys—with an ax, and then hanged himself.

Redwood County1

Discovery of the gruesome tragedy was made Sunday evening, March 25, by Miss Ruth Snyder, a young school mistress, a border at the Kleeman home, upon her return from a weekend visiting her parents in Mankato. Local authorities were notified early Monday morning, March 26.

Both Kleeman and his wife were under 30 years of age, and the children ranged in age from four weeks to six years. The couple had been married about eight years, and both were the children of prominent and wealthy residents of the vicinity.

Neighbors of the Kleeman’s later reported that the family had been heavily in debt. This was believed to have caused Kleeman to brood and finally to have deranged his mind.

Dr. A. Brey of Wabasso, coroner, left for the scene on Monday morning. Virtually impassable, muddy roads made it difficult to reach the Kleeman’s home, which was about 12 miles southeast of Redwood Falls. Miss Snyder had departed for her parents’ home in Mankato Friday night. She returned on Sunday by rail to Morgan, and started for the Kleeman home by team.

When within a mile of the Kleeman home, the roads became impassable for the team, and the young woman proceeded on foot, making slow progress.

It was after 5 p.m. when she reached the house. She was struck by the silence of the place, and as she entered the kitchen in the gathering darkness, she stopped short as a body confronted her, hanging from a rope attached to a hook in the ceiling. All alone in the death house, the girl said she did not even think of flight. From the table she seized a knife, mounted a chair, and cut the rope—stumbling to the floor as the body pulled her down.

For some time she worked over the body, vainly trying to revive the man. It was almost dark when she ceased her efforts.

Then she wondered at the absence of the other family members and entered the next room. The door to the bedroom adjoining was open and in the faint light she saw an ax on the floor.

In two beds she found the victims—the mother with her 4-weeks-old baby and another child in one, and the two older children in the other, all apparently slain as they slept.

Possibly to assuage his guilt, or maybe because he was insane, Kleeman left a not at the scene.

According to the New Ulm Review, the note said “Dear Folks, when I woke this morning someone in the house said, ‘Money or life.’ It is it dresses. Happy. I hang myself. Good-by, bye. With love, W. E. Kleeman. On the other side of the note was written as a sort of afterthought: ‘He killed them.’”

Owatonna’s Daily People’s Press quoted a similar, but differently worded message: “’Someone came into my home and killed my wife and children; I cannot live without them,’ was penciled on one side of the paper. On the other side in capital letters were the words ‘He killed them.’ It was signed by Kleeman.”

It was believed to have been a case of murder/suicide, and there was no search done for another suspect.

Marty Seifert, a former state legislator who grew up down the road from the Kleeman farmstead, has recently written a historical fiction book about the murder called Sundown at Sunrise (the woman boarding with the Kleemans taught at the Sunrise schoolhouse across the road). It is available online and in stores.

Sundown at Sunrise by Marty Seifert2

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune; “Farmer Kills Wife and Four Children, Then Hangs Himself. Five Redwood County Victims Apparently Slain With an Ax as They Slept. Slayer Believed to Have Been Deranged. School Teacher Discovers Tragedy on Her Return After a Visit.”; March 27, 1917; p. 5.

New Ulm Review; New Ulm, Brown County, Minn.; March 28, 1917; p. 2.

Daily People’s Press; Owatonna, Minn.; March 28, 1917; p. 1.




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