A Monkey Trap

September 1, 2009

As I’m trying to finish my first draft of “Spooky North Dakota” (belatedly), I find myself feeling like I’m caught in a bear trap. Reconsidering, I think it’s more like a monkey trap.

I’m not sure where I first heard about monkey traps; I suspect it may have been in a Rudyard Kipling story. But if you don’t know about them, let me explain. Monkeys are both greedy and curious. So, take a jar with a mouth just large enough for a monkey’s paw to get in, and fill it halfway or so with peanuts. Then tie the jar to a tree. A monkey will come along, and being curious, stick his paw in. He’ll feel the peanuts, and grab a handful. With his hand full like that, he can’t get it out of the jar. So, he has a dilemma. Give up the windfall of delicious peanuts, and leave, or sit there with his hand stuck? Usually he sits there with he greedy paw full of peanuts until whoever set the trap comes along and takes him.

It’s not peanuts for me. It’s the mystery and clues around one of the stories I’m including in my book. It’s not a huge haunting. In fact, it’s not a haunting at all. It’s a “spooky.” (Since I’m stuck with the title I might as well make the most of it.)

The story is that of a Lutheran minister, Heio Janssen, who  in 1938 poisoned his pregnant 16-year-old maid, Alma Kruckenberg, while his wife was out of town, then burned the parsonage down to hide his crime. (This happened in Krem, ND, which is no longer there, but the church is — and the lawn next to it where, they’ll tell you, the parsonage was before it burned down. Church members don’t volunteer why it burned.) Such things don’t stay hidden, of course, and the firemen found the body almost as soon as the flames were out, and the coroner found the pregnancy. Janssen denied quite stoutly that he had anything to do with it, even when the parents of the girl confronted him, begging him to tell the truth, since they’d entrusted him with their youngest daughter, who was “a good girl.”

He didn’t break down until he was shown her body, which was just a torso, and the jar that contained their child. Then he confessed, saying the devil got into him and made him do it. (Really. He said that.) He actually made so many conflicting statements that when he was taken to Mandan’s then-notorious “midnight court” (mostly to prevent a lynching) he was convicted of perjury along with all the other charges (rape, murder, arson, etc.).

The people of Marsh, MT, read about this. He had been their pastor from late 1915 until 1933, when he’d left abruptly. They recalled how he’d seemed close to Rosa Opp, the teenaged daughter of one of the church deacons. She disappeared in September of 1930, and her body was found a few days later in the Yellowstone River. The coroner said she’d died from drowning, and called it a suicide. No autopsy was done. Now the folks in Marsh began to wonder. Rosa was a happy girl. Just before she disappeared, she was preparing to be a sponsor to one of her sister’s children at his baptism, and was very excited about that, and making herself a new dress. No one knew of any reason why she would kill herself.

When questioned about Rosa, Janssen said he had nothing to do with her death. But then, he wasn’t facing her body or her father…

Then the people from his very first parish, Lincoln Valley, started to wonder as well. Lincoln Valley no longer exists as a town, but it’s near Harvey, ND. In 1915, just before he went to Marsh, his teen-aged sister-in-law, Margaret Monseur,  disappeared. She was never seen again, and no body was ever found. They went to the judge who’d convicted Janssen of Alma’s murder, and he ordered that Janssen be questioned about that, too. Under intense questioning, he confessed to having “relations” with his sister-in-law, and with at least one member of his congregation in Marsh, but still denied killing them.

These are the peanuts. I have a story — I have everything I need to put it in the book. But I can’t seem to let those peanuts go. I’m searching for information about Margaret. Did she reappear somewhere? I didn’t  find her with a Google search or in newspapers, or on http://www.findagrave.com — although a friend of my sister, who is helping me search, found Alma’s grave in a cemetery near the Krem church. But I already knew that. The friend also found the grave of a man who is more than likely one of Janssen’s sons, in Colorado. I want to try to find his children, if he has any, and find out what they know. I’ve been in contact with a man whose roots are in Marsh, and he’s sent me photos of Janssen with the church there, and stories from his late father and his 93-year-old aunt, who remember Janssen with dislike (their stories of finding Rosa’s body are much gorier than the actual death certificate tells — but make a great story). I want to know more from the people of Marsh. I want a seance, so I can talk to Rosa and Margaret, who by now is undoubtedly dead, even if Janssen didn’t kill her.

But, if I don’t let the peanuts go, I’ll never finish the book. I have all the story I need. I’m promising myself that when I’ve finished my commitments, I’ll return to the murderous minister, and search for more clues. Maybe there’s enough for a book, or at least a longer story. Or perhaps fictionalize it. Not so much a whodunnit, since the answer is clear, but a why. What makes a man of the cloth, top of his class in seminary school, become a rapist and murderer? What demons lived in his soul? Did something happen to him when he was growing up, or while he was crossing the Atlantic on a great ship? What makes a murderer — or was he born bad? I’m about 60 years too late. He died in 1946 in the State Penitentiary, of natural causes. But I want to know more…





19 Responses to “A Monkey Trap”

  1. What a great story! No wonder you can’t let go. I imagine putting it on your blog will help you to move on. In the meantime, we get the benefit of this great story.

  2. You’re right, this is so intriguing I’d have trouble letting it go too. Why not tell the short version that takes place in your spooky book, then plan on writing a book. That way you can move on now, keeping all the excess information with plans like “as soon as I finish this one, I’m writing that one.” All us writers have a file like that in our head that contains more than one story idea. Good luck. Enjoyed reading the blog.

  3. Hmmm- does give one pause , doesn’t it. The first thing that popped into my head? What did his wife know? Did she wonder why women kept dying around them? Why they moved? Was she aware of his realtionships? Just onther angle…. Bet he talked in prison too. although how you would find out, I don’t know.

  4. leescott58 said

    I do plan on writing more about this — that’s how I managed to let go of the peanuts! I also wonder what his wife knew or suspected. I don’t know if he talked in prison; from what people in his congregation in Marsh said, he tended to act like he was better than everyone — and I don’t think he wanted anyone to know what he had done. I also wonder how many girls there really were… He was 51 when he went to prison; that’s a lot of years that he could have been killing. Assuming he did kill all three — and I feel that’s a valid assumption!

  5. leescott58 said

    And where did the underlines come from? I didn’t put them in, and see no way to take them out! Help, other wordpress bloggers!

  6. YES!! Write a novel about it.
    How fascinating!

  7. Interesting these murderous ministers. We have a new to us minister, an older guy, and there’s been a time or two when I’ve had murderous thoughts toward him and perhaps visa versa. I get the impression he thinks the shadow of Eve taints all women and also he forgets that religion and politics don’t mix and sneaks in little jabs at President Obama. Oh, well, we’ve had a string of them (ministers) and some have been crazier than others, but none, I’m sure murdered young girls, or even old ones. Anyway it should make a great story and I can understand how hard it would be to corral all that information. Don’t you wish you could have a one on one chat with Ann Rule?

  8. Umm, Lori, in thinking about my most recent comment, it seems I sort of lumped our ministers into a crazy catagory. Only one was maybe crazy, the rest were as normal as I am. 🙂 Anyway, I wish you the best in dealing with your murderous ministers. Eunie

  9. Lori Orser said

    Well, Eunie, I think there are good and bad, crazy and sane, in every profession. And some of us are crazy on bad days, and much more sane on better ones! Just who decides what “normal” is, anyway? I wouldn’t worry about it!

  10. Smorg said

    Oy! I don’t know how interested I’d be in a book about a haunting, but this sounds more like a cross between a delicious mystery and an Ann Rule true crime stuff. A potent combo, LO. :o) You’ve better publish it soon before I die of curiosity (the way all good cats do)! ;o)

  11. Pat said

    Gertrude’s sister Margaret died in 1971, IF she is the sister in law you are referring to.

  12. leescott58 said

    She is, Pat, and I know that; she died in Pine Bluff Arkansas, the widow of one George Beaumont. It just took a lot of digging to find that out. There was a younger sister, too, also named Alma, adopted by the Fitch family who took her with them to Wisconsin where she married Peter Udelhoven and had three children with him. She died, and he married her half-sister, Mary, the daughter of Alma’s (and Gertrude’s and Margaret’s) father Fred Masuhr and Bridget McLaughlin. Mary and Peter had several more children, and some of their children are still alive. I’m assuming your information is from GenForum and you’re the Pat with the Udelhoven connection? You may have heard from Cynthia, who found Margaret’s trail in your GenForum Masur (wrong spelling, according to documents like Fred’s nationalization papers and Margaret’s land patent papers — it’s Masuhr with the “h”). So thank you for your help.

  13. Pat said

    Your welcome, and your right, Alma was my husbands Grandmother. Mashur is spelled a few ways on the documents we have and yes, Cynthia has gotten in touch with me, I had never heard of the “story” until Cynthia bought it to my attention. Not that it matters but it’s the “Flitsch” family, at least in our part of WI it was! Has there been another given name for Janssen, I ask because my info was Robert H. Janssen, I enjoyed your blog.

  14. Lori Orser said

    Hi Pat! I was writing too fast on the response; you’re right that there’s an “l” there, otherwise Cynthia and I have found both “Flitsch” and “Flitch.” In one of the obituaries, it was “Flitch” without the “s” so that was the one I went with (although in the book I wrote “Flitch or Flitsch” to cover the bases). Gertrude’s husband, the minister convicted of murder, was Heio Janssen in every piece of information I found outside of newspapers, which demonstrated remarkable creativity in the spelling of his first name. “Robert” doesn’t occur. “Heio” is in his records at Waverly College (Seminary), the American Evangelical Lutheran Church records, most of the census records (although some of those are creative too; he was “Hans” in one), his draft card for WWI, and his death certificate, so Heio is what I’m going with. His sons were Erwin and Martin — and Martin was the doctor, which may have caused the confusion; Erwin was a minister. Martin had no children, but Erwin had two sons, another Erwin, a psychiatrist, and Werner, who is involved in politics and environmental causes in the Seattle area. Thanks for your help, and I’m glad you enjoyed the blog!
    Lori (LeeScott)

  15. Pat said

    If he used “Hans’ it may be why I couldn’t find him on a census. Where was the “Waverly College located at, if I may ask? From Martin’s wife’s obit, I gathered it may be because of his Aunt Margaret and her being married to a Doctor, is why he ended up in Chicago attending school to become a Doctor. Do I understand correctly that you have something published on this family (The Janssen’s)? Are you David & Cynthia related some how or just interested parties?

  16. Jill Brown said

    My mother is a Kruckenberg. I am not sure but pretty sure Alma is a relation of mine. My mother hid many nasty things about her family. I would love to hear from you. I also have been trying toput thepuzzle together about the history of the Kruckenbers. Some are just not nice people.

  17. Jill Brown said

    I should have said my mother was born in Hazen ND. We were are all baptised Lutheran which I find odd. Her father was Trouget (TED) Kruckenberg who was from Beserabia Prussia, which is no longer. He ended up in Hazen ND. Sorry my spelling is off at times the name is Kruckenberg. Spelled it wrong above. I have information which I can’t put on an open forum. I would love to learn much more and also share my information.

  18. leescott58 said

    Jill, I’ve tried to use your email and couldn’t get you. If you’re following this, please email me at laurel1@bis.midco.net and we can “chat” privately!

  19. Ok, OMG! Sorry..I have a new one and I’m doing it now…The coolest ever…

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