History Prof Takes Stab at ‘Minnesota’s Oldest Murder Mystery’

Swede Hollow in St. Paul
Courtesy of Beaver's Pond Press
Minnesota’s Oldest Murder Mystery

Inver Hills history professor Gary Brueggemann finds it a bit amusing that his first book, Minnesota’s Oldest Murder Mystery: The Case of Edward Phalen: St. Paul’s Unsaintly Pioneer, and his current academic focus deal with topics he did not study in college.

“I received undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from University of Wisconsin, River Falls. “It’s ironic that my specialty is Minnesota history,” he said, “since I never took a class on the subject.”

He came by his love of local lore honestly, however, since the 62-year-old Brueggemann is a lifetime resident of St. Paul’s West 7th neighborhood, and his father, to whom the book is dedicated, inspired his son with tales of early pioneers. “He would tell me stories about living along the Mississippi by where some of the area’s earliest settlers had built their cabins,” Brueggemann said.

After graduating from River Falls and returning to his W. 7th neighborhood, Brueggemann followed his passion for Minnesota history. Besides, it was a matter of finances. “I call it ‘poor man’s history,’” Brueggemann said. “If you wanted to study people like Jefferson and Washington, you’d have to travel to Washington, D.C., to look at the archives. I could ride my bike to where St. Paul was born and to Fort Snelling, where the state first began to develop. It was also an easy trip to the Minnesota History Center, where all these great untapped primary research documents existed.”

Using what he learned, in 1978 he developed the first-ever college accredited course on St. Paul history for Inver Hills Community College. He has been teaching at the college ever since.

“I really love it here,” he said. “I love working with the students. That’s what keeps me going.”

Continuing to expand his knowledge of local history, Brueggemann  in 1994 made what he called the “most exciting discovery of my career!” while doing research on Minnesota pioneer Joseph R. Brown at the Minnesota History Center. Spreading items from Brown’s papers across a desk, he picked up Brown’s old, stained Justice of the Peace casebook.

Swede Hollow
Swede Hollow in St. Paul

“I found references to a badly beaten body and a lost calf,” Brueggemann said, “and I knew exactly what I had stumbled upon.” The casebook contained among other things Brown’s notes about his investigation of Edward Phelen, who in 1839 had been charged with murdering his business partner, John Hays. Both men had been soldiers stationed at Fort Snelling and were living together in a cabin near the current site of Irvine Park.

Not only was the murder well known in local history circles as Minnesota’s oldest unsolved homicide, Phelen’s name (spelled in a different fashion) is one of the most recognizable in St. Paul, gracing such local attractions as Lake Phalen, Phalen Creek, Phalen Golf Course and many others. In addition, early historians thought all records of the case had been lost.

“I felt I had an obligation to write about my discovery,” Brueggemann said.

Brueggemann spent three to four hours that first day transcribing what he could of Brown’s cramped, faded cursive into some notebooks. Then he had to set aside his work on Phelen as he tackled more pressing commitments. After several twists and turns that almost parallel the bizarre case itself, Brueggemann was able to devote some energy to Phelen in 2007.

By that time, the notebook had been put on microfilm, and Brueggemann spent several more excruciating hours deciphering Brown’s almost illegible handwriting on a microfilm reader.

Unknown to Brueggemann, in 1996 Washington County Historical Society President Nancy Goodman and her husband, Robert Goodman, who published the first modern biography of Brown, had transcribed Brown’s casebook into a volume entitled Minnesota Beginnings.

“Ironically, I had Minnesota Beginnings in my own library,” Brueggemann said, “but I thought it was just a reprint of Wisconsin Territorial Papers. I didn’t know the Goodmans had added the transcription.”

Brueggemann had mixed feelings about discovering the Goodmans’ work: frustration when he thought about the hours of unnecessary work he had put into the project, but also relief over his guilt about not making much progress on his pledge to bring the casebook to light.

“Then I realized I was in a unique position to make sense of the materials for the average reader,” Brueggemann said. “At first, I thought I’d do an article for Ramsey County History magazine, but then I realized I had enough material for a book.”

Brueggemann spent every summer from 2007 on toiling on the project. “My wife thought I was crazy, and I thought I was crazy,” he said. “I didn’t know where I was going with the book, and I had no idea if I could solve the case.”

Eventually, Brueggemann decided to create in Chapter Nine “A Fictional Account of the Murder and Cover-Up Based on the Historical Record.” “The other chapters leading up to it are straight history,” Brueggemann said. “I walk the reader through all the evidence as we both try to figure it out. I’m very transparent, and the readers are certainly welcome to take a different position.”

The last chapter covers Phelan’s life after charges are dropped.

After looking at several publishers, Brueggemann chose Beaver’s Pond Press of Edina because of its good reputation among his colleagues and the fact that a few of the company’s authors had won awards.

“I’m happy the way everything worked out,” he said.

Before working at Inver Hills, Brueggemann used to give parents who asked about possible colleges for their children a list of potential four-year schools. Now he encourages them to give institutions like Inver Hills serious consideration.

“It’s a great value,” he said. “And if you eventually get a four-year degree at another college, it counts the same as those awarded to students who started as freshmen, but it’s a lot cheaper.”

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