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The Unsolved Murder of Pearl Gilma Olsten

(Photo of Pearl gifted to findagrave.com by Kent Gebhard)

Pearl Gilma Osten sat across from her parents in the living room of her family farm house, having the sort of conversation between parents and teens that seems to transcend time.

She was the 7th of 9 children born to Thea and Martin Andreas (Andrew) Osten, and she wanted her parents to trust her in her pursuit to make her music, which was her passion, her career. To do so meant she'd have to move 200 miles southeast from the small farming community in Otter Tail County she was raised in to Minneapolis.

Her parents, protective of their daughter and fully aware of what a big city can do to a naive young girl, were hesitant. Stay here, they persuaded. Their farm was a guarantee and her help was needed.

But Pearl was persistent, and it was her dedication to music that her parents knew they couldn't deny. They soon obliged and it wasn't long before Pearl found herself at the doorstep of her sister, who lived in Minneapolis with her husband.

She took a job as a server at a local tea room, supporting herself with her customer's tips as she chased her dreams in music.

On the night of October 1, 1927, mere weeks after her arrival and still dressed in her server's uniform, she boarded a street car after her shift ended late. The conductor reported he saw her at 12:30 a.m., smiling and laughing with a gentleman, and appeared reluctant to get off with him at one of the stops. The conductor later told police that the gentleman touched Pearl's arm in a gesture of reassurance, before she left the car with him at 5th Street.

She was never seen alive again.

The next afternoon, at 4:30 p.m., a group of young boys were playing in a field. An 11-year-old, hiding in an abandoned woodshed, found Pearl's mutilated body inside. She had been strangled. Worst of all, the woodshed was located only 60 feet from her sister and brother-in-law's house.

Unfortunately, in the 1920s, crime scene investigation wasn't the pristine process of evidence collection that is insisted upon today. Instead, it became a spectacle. Responding to the boy's screams, neighbors and passers-by crowded the scene, contaminating it with their foot and fingerprints. Police couldn't decipher which were made of a sinister nature, and which were out of curiosity.

This was before DNA, and at a time when solving crimes relied heavily on unreliable witness testimony, when no one reportedly saw or heard a thing.

Still, it seemed Pearl was trying to reach out from beyond. She had fought her attacker. She had many bruises on her body, a strip of cloth was tied to her right wrist and her pocketbook had been emptied.

The case went cold, and over 90 years has since passed without any closure.

Pearl's parents were distraught with grief upon hearing the news. A parents' worst nightmare had come true, and I'm sure they were haunted by the circumstances that surrounded it. If only they were more insistent that she remain. They weren't able to protect her, and with no one to run to her screams and cries for help, their little girl died a brutal, painful death alone and far from home.

Generations were added to the family, and Pearl's descendents remained in Minnesota. They carry with them a lingering despair that started with her parents almost a century ago. Of course they'd like an answer. Of course they want the case solved. Police only have hope of the remote chance that at some point, someone, somewhere will find a signed, handwritten confession in a forgotten box in the attic that ties to Pearl's murder.

THE PURSUED LEADS

Police conducted interviews as far away as Los Angeles, and though suspects were detained, no charges ever stuck. Neighbors from her hometown of Pelican Rapids pooled their money and offered a $2,000 reward ($28,000 today) for information.

In 1937, an inmate at North Dakota's Bismarck Peniteniary wrote an anonymous letter that implicated a fellow prisoner Gilbert Blais, stating he confessed to him he killed Pearl.

Blais was immediately taken to Minneapolis and questioned. Witnesses, including the conductor, identified Blais as the man seen with Pearl and his alibi (that he had been working at a factory) quickly fell apart.

However, Blais insisted the letter was written out of spite. He was never charged.

Two grand juries were called to look into Pearl's death, but nothing seemed to have come about.

MY REACTION

What struck me the most is how relatable this case is. I had a very similar conversation as I left to pursue my future (ironically, just outside of Minneapolis), as I'm sure I'm soon bound to have it with my own children when they come of age. As parents, it is our jobs to give our children the confidence to strike out on their own. The fear of monsters in the dark is never something we outgrow.

Unfortunately, I fear Pearl's death will forever carry this open ending. Who did it? Instead of being known for her music, Pearl's legacy is of her grisly death instead.

Hart Island, New York City

Dear Diary,
My introduction to Hart Island came through the Brittany Murphy/Michael Douglas thriller, Don't Say A Word.

In the film, Brittany's character witnesses the murder of her father when she's a little girl. With no next of kin, and therefore no one to claim the body at the New York City morgue, he's buried in a potter's grave on Hart Island. The girls sneaks onto the ferry loaded with his pine coffin, memorizing the identification number carved into its top, and she becomes a ward of the state. She grows up in institutions because, as the plot unfolds, it's revealed that's where she's felt safe from the men who murdered her father. He was killed for something they wanted, something her father hid in her doll, which she snuck into her father's pine coffin.

It wasn't long after that I realized Hart Island is a real place.

Located just off the Bronx in the Long Island Sound, Hart Island had, at various times in its history, a workhouse, a hospital, prisons, a Civil War internment camp, a reformatory and a Nike Missile base. Currently, it serves as the city's potter's field and is run by the New York City Department of Correction.

Surrounded by the decaying ruins of the island's past, inmates on Riker's Island are paid fifty cents an hour to bury the unclaimed dead in mass graves, in nondescript pine boxes just as the movie portrayed.

I took this as I searched for those deemed "unworthy" of a burial on the consecrated grounds at Highland Cemetery.

I've said in previous posts (here and here) that you can learn a lot about a place by how they treat their dead.

Turned over headstones at the abandoned Middle Creek Historic Cemetery.

In the 1850s, New York State passed a law that was praised nationwide for its resourcefulness but denounced by the the poor and immigrant populations that would fall prey. If your family couldn't afford the cost of a private burial, then you would be donated to the medical or funeral schools in the city for study (of note, these schools have since announced they would no longer continue this practice) before being buried in a potter's grave on Hart Island.

It was soon revealed that even if families could afford a private burial, a "mix-up in paperwork" would occur, causing the deceased to be sent to Hart Island anyway instead of the family's plot. Only when it started happening to rich, white, prominent men did the mistakes spur an outcry in the city. This has been documented in a New York Times investigation published in 2016.

The sins of the past commingle with the present, and a non-profit The Hart Island Project seeks to right these wrongs. They work to put a name to the identification numbers, and record the stories of their lives.

A scroll through the site reveals burial information that date back only to the 1980s. "Buried for" timers track how long each ID goes unnamed, and those that have been identified, announce a "Found after" span of time since they were put into the ground on Hart Island.

Over 1 million people are buried there.

In my opinion, the history of the Island of the Dead served only to hide the individual tragedies, and with it, the failures of a system that ensure such mass graves are the ultimate indignity.

It's often assumed families will oversee burial arrangements, but what happens when the families are outlived, or outside the country? What happens when the dead fall through the cracks of a system that merely seeks profit?

I'm grateful to the work of The Hart Island Project. The dead are finding their identities again. They're getting their names back. Their stories are being told.

This year, a city council man proposed moving Hart Island under the care of the NYC Parks Department. Currently, relatives that can prove a family member is buried there are allowed to visit but only on specific days and only if accompanied by a prison guard. The relatives aren't allowed past a certain point. Their perspective is merely that of a field.

There are no gravestones. No trench markers. Nothing to pinpoint where their loved on is buried. They're just, there.

And that's what I find most heart-breaking.

My husband and I have family plots to visit. We know where our loved ones are buried. They have tombstones that identify them by name, with a dash between two dates that symbolizes their lives. They were loved, as they are in death, and we can leave flowers behind in remembrance.

Families of those buried on Hart Island are denied this.

Since The Hart Island Project is run completely by volunteers, this page details how you can help the mission.

Review: Silent Witnesses by Nigel McCrery

Dear Diary,
When I was in college, I enrolled in a course titled “Dead Men Do Tell Tales.”

It was taught by a revolving cast of guest lecturers including the County Medical Examiner, anthropologists, toxicologists and forensic scientists, and after reading the brief course description I was immediately intrigued.

Now I admit, my interests sometimes take a morbid turn and criminal justice is a long held fascination of mine. I 've harbored such a curiosity for the process and pursuit of monsters, how law enforcement apprehends their suspects, and the ensuing legal processes. By then, I had already witnessed the drama of a courtroom proceeding (specifically, a sentencing in a murder trial), so I was eager to learn more about this side of the system.

The lecturers were not shy in their details, posting gruesome crime and death scene photographs as well as photos from an active dig at a Potter’s Field. There were autopsy reports, there were skeletons, and there was blood. I hold the proud distinction of being one of the few females to not barf during the 3-hour/week lecture.

I was often on the edge of my seat as the lecturers spoke.

I felt this same level of interest and intrigue as I started the book, Silent Witnesses.


I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was a tough title to follow, but this book provided insight into the role science plays in identifying killers. It made strong connections to the how of the lab work briefly discussed in IBGITD, backed by the historical evidence and chronology that turned forensic science into what it is today.

'Silent Witness' is a British TV crime drama, and also written by McCrery.

Overall, while this book was informative, I struggled to remain engaged. Though I'd set aside time to read (it's become my preferred "wind down" activity before bed, replacing my previous "wine down" time), long stretches would pass before I'd pick up this book again. In fact, I was inspired and reread IBGITD after authorities caught the serial killer.

Final verdict: I wish I had this title for supplemental reading when I was enrolled in the "Dead Men Do Tell Tales" course. It was a good book read at a bad time I suppose ...

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase a book through the link, I will receive a small percentage of commission. You are under no obligation to use these links, but if you do, I will use the money to reinvest in more books.

The Legends and Stories of the Whaley House

Travel Channel’s ‘Most Haunted’ named The Whaley House the #1 Most Haunted House in the United States.



My photo tour of the Whaley House (posted here) is one of my most popular posts to date. 
It’s prompted some interesting correspondence I’ve had with readers.
One comment I’ve received via email has really stuck with me:

“Weren’t you scared? The Whaley House is said to be extremely haunted, and you were completely alone!”

I was very honest in my reply: walking through the home felt as though I was walking through my grandparents’ house. The dining room was much darker than the rest of the house (a windowless, central room) which made me a little uneasy, but I was never scared.



I would later learn seances were once conducted in that very room.


Furthermore, I was curious to learn why the home had such a reputation, and who was responsible for it.

I began by re-examining the home’s timeline, which I had summarized in my initial post.

But this time, I dove between the lines.

ANATOMY OF A HAUNTED HOUSE

Opening as a museum in 1960, the Whaley House was destined to be haunted before the home was even built. The land the house is on was once the site of a public gallows.

Yankee Jim Robinson was hanged there for grand larceny.



And Thomas Whaley couldn’t care less about this connection and he purchased the land in 1855 for his family home.


Thomas, his wife Anna, and their 3 children moved in in 1857.

Then, a fire raged from within and it destroyed the general store Whaley ran from inside the home. The family relocated to San Francisco for a period of time, returning to the home in 1868.


(The courthouse) 

 (The general store)

(The theater)

In addition to the general store, the home was also the site of the city courthouse, the city’s first theater troupe, and more.

In 1870, merchants moved out of Old Town and into New Town.

Armed men held Anna at gunpoint as courthouse records were seized in 1871.

ASSOCIATED DEATHS
  •       Not long after the family initially moved in, their youngest son Thomas, Jr., died of scarlet fever in the house at age 18 months.
  •       In 1885, daughter Violet shot herself in the chest following her failed marriage. She succumbed to her injuries and died.
  •       Many descendants lived and died in the house including Thomas, Anna and four of their 5 children.
RESTORATIONS SPARK ACTIVITY

It was during the home’s numerous periods of restoration that strange sights, sounds occurrences and aromas were documented.

Most notorious is the sighting of Yankee Jim. It’s said his ghost makes eerie noises, loud footsteps and leaves disembodied footprints. The family was continually fearful.

Baby Thomas is also said to have stayed behind. People can hear “tiny” footsteps, and the sounds of him crying or giggling.


(The second floor landing, where the family slept and many of the documented sightings occur.)


Violet’s presence is felt on the second floor, where she spent most of her time after her divorce but before her suicide. It’s said the feel quite cold in these areas.

Thomas Whaley, Anna and others are felt within the house, on the staircases and around the property. Thomas especially, is noted to be seen at the top of his stairs, dressed in his frock, coat and top hat.

Visitors can smell Anna’s perfume.

Mists are seen.

Lights turn on and off.


(The music room, and the lamp's crystals that allegedly swing on their own.)

Crystals in the music room’s lamp swing without prompt.


No one has lived in the house since 1953, but yet, it seems the house remained inhabited.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Whether you believe in ghosts and spirits or not, touring the Whaley House can pique the interest of anyone. The home is historic, and the beautiful restorations alone are worthy of a look. If you go, will you let me know if you experience anything?

Travel: An Overnight In Old Town

Dear Diary,
I’m perpetually hesitant to call posts of this nature “guides,” because I don’t want to sound like I’m telling you what to do, or that it must be done in same manner I did it.

Instead, my goal with this post is to spark your interest in a place and inspire you to see it for yourself. I will share with you what I experienced, but in the end, the choice and opinion is yours. 


With all of that said, exploring Old Town San Diego was like stepping into a time capsule. It is considered the birthplace of California, with the first settlement created in 1769 with merely a mission and a fort. After strolling along the modern downtown city and watching the seals, a visit to this historic site completes the picture.

When we traveled: mid-December (this Minnesota family was EAGER!)

Where we stayed: Hilton Garden Inn, Old Town (request a room with a renovated bathroom!)


Restaurants we ate at: CafĂ© Coyote and Casa Guadalajara (we ate at Casa multiple times!)

(Casa Guadalajara)

What we did:


We bought souvenirs at the Bazaar Del Mundo.

(Inside the Mormon Battalion)

Take in a free tour at the Mormon Battalion.


Purchase tickets for a walking tour through the Whaley House. It’s completely self-guided, and they allow photography. This was one of the most interesting homes to see! (Whaley House Web site)


Then, go to the nearby cemetery. The stories that come from this site stay with you.



We also walked around the State Historic Park and the Cosmopolitan Hotel, which is another option for your stay.

(*All photos by Brianne Sieberg unless a source is linked beneath the image. Links will take you to either my related blog posts, or the official site of the places mentioned here.)

For more information, visit the Old Town San Diego Guide.

A MN Urban Legend Inspired a Megadeth Song

Dear Diary,
I revisited a post I wrote in 2016 that discussed one of Minnesota's infamous urban legends.

Mary Jane Twilliger was a real human being, not a beheaded witch as the legend describes, who died young at age 17 from diphtheria.

I wish I could pinpoint why and how her memory was spun off in this story, which has spurned frequent online searches to uncover any reasoning behind it.

According to one result, the legend can potentially be traced to a man named James Sanford Peters, who had operated a mill. Anytime something went wrong at the mill, he’d blame the witches.

What kept it growing remains unsubstantiated.

Another result points to the proprietors of the Loon Lake Store. In the 1970s and 80s, alcohol was not sold in Iowa on Sundays. In order to boost sales and entice Iowans to cross state lines, they relied on the myth. “After all, it is best to confront a haunted area when fortified by spirits." I take issue with this assumption as well, since Minnesota also didn't sell alcohol on Sundays until just recently.

It is also undetermined if May Jane Twilliger’s name is spelled is one ‘l’ or two. I keep seeing both.

What I found most intriguing, and thus, inspiring today’s update, is the legend’s connection to the heavy metal band, Megadeth.

Turns out, their song “Mary Jane” is not about marijuana as notably assumed, but rather – Mary Jane Twilliger.

You see, founding member David Ellefson graduated from high school in Jackson, MN, and released the song in 1988 on the band’s ‘So Far, So Good … So What’ album. 

In fact, Twilliger’s epitaph inspired the song’s chorus:

Beware my friends, as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I’m now so you must be
Prepare my friends to follow me.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Twilliger’s tombstone is on display at a museum in Lakefield, MN to protect it from vandals.

It appears this story is much more far-reaching than I had thought.


DESTRUCTION OF THE CEMETERY

The Loon Lake Cemetery, where Twilliger’s family plots are, had its first recorded burial in 1821 and last in 1926. Unfortunately, as was the case with the Farmington Middle Creek Historic Cemetery, when the associated small country churches close, these cemeteries become abandoned, neglected and lost to time.

It is a felony to destroy the property. That’s why Highland remains at the intersection of a busy thoroughfare, and Middle Creek stands within a modern subdivision. However, as properties change hands and farm equipment got bigger, maneuvering around headstones became difficult. 

There are reports of farmers simply piling headstones in a ditch to plow the land atop the graves.

At one time, there were over 70 gravestones and markers standing in memorial. Today, there are less than 20.

Finally, as nature reclaims the land, the neglect and abandonment likely contributed to the spookiness that propels the urban legend into the present. It’s important for us to remember that every person matters – that they had a life, a family who loved them, and have earned the right to be respected in death.

Hopefully this particular urban legend has been laid to rest.

What's At Risk When You Submit Your DNA?

Your DNA is the most personal, valuable thing you own.
Every cell carries the full sequence, including the mutation pattern that makes it uniquely yours.

I wrote two posts about receiving the Ancestry DNA kit as a Christmas present, and that the results confirmed some long-held assumptions about my family tree. I still consider it to be fun, creative and thoughtful because it answered some questions I had.


Lately however, these at-home DNA kits have made headlines.

In fact, last November, just as the DNA kits were being advertised as the perfect holiday gift, New York Senator Chuck Schumer announced he asked the Federal Trade Commission to “take a serious look at this relatively new kind of service and ensure that these companies have clear, fair privacy policies.”

Privacy.
What if the most personal, valuable thing I own wound up in the wrong hands?

My biggest fear, immediately, became of the insurance lobbyists. If they were granted access to these consumer databases, could it have a detrimental effect on the healthcare system in this country? 

Could they determine coverage denials based on certain DNA mutations?

What could that mean for my children?

In response to Sen. Schumer, legitimate genetic testing companies have promised to not sell or give away this information without consent. 

“We respect and agree with Sen. Schumer’s concern for customer privacy and believe any regulation should match the commitments we make to our customers,” Ancestry said in a statement. “We do not sell your data to third parties or share it with researchers without your consent.”

Unfortunately, a broad consent is part of the initial contract the consumer makes with such company when a test is submitted for analysis.

Would I have any knowledge or awareness of when or if a company or law enforcement agency goes too far?

And what if, despite best efforts, my biggest fear is realized and health insurers get access?

Did I truly understand what I agreed to?

The truth is, no – I didn’t.

Consumer Protections Need To Keep Up

Even with the fears I’ve highlighted, there is some good that can come from this.

What if these at-home DNA kits can unlock the cure for Type 1 Diabetes?

What if there was a way to detect Celiac Disease or Parkinson’s before its onset?
What if we can then eradicate them?

Because there is such potential, it is my hope that regulations can be put into place so a person’s DNA sequence can’t be used against them. 

Ancestry has also stated that a person could log on to their Privacy Center and delete their genetic information. However, even if the sample is physically destroyed, once it’s digitized, it’s difficult to make completely anonymous. If consumers aren’t capable of knowing how their DNA is used, would they be able to prove an employer fired them because they now have the risk of an expensive diagnosis? 

Would this person then receive the shock of a suddenly higher insurance premium, or worse, a flat out denial and be able to prove his privacy was violated?

It’s not likely.

Your Sample Could Be Subpoenaed In Court

Even more timely – decades old homicides are being solved and serial killers who went into hiding long ago are being unmasked thanks to consumer DNA databases.

The Golden State Killer was apprehended through a match to a distant relative, and investigators were able to build his family tree before his capture. 

Michelle McNamara dwelled on this idea in her book, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark. She entered the samples she had access to into a public Internet database, GEDmatch. When I learned of its success, chills ran down my spine.

Society as a whole deserves justice for these horrific crimes, but especially the victims and their families. While cities were terrorized, it was the families who suffered an undeniable tragedy. 

Can we trust law enforcement to not go too far?

Police in California plan to use a similar process to track down and identify the Zodiac Killer.

Both Ancestry and 23andMe said they do not work with law enforcement unless they receive a court order, adding that they did not receive on regarding GSK. Ancestry hasn’t received such a request in 3 years, but did report it released a customer’s DNA profile to police in compliance with a search warrant in 2014.

In a statement from 23andMe, police requested information for 5 Americans and the company “successfully resisted the request and protected our customers’ data from release to law enforcement.”

Plus, the genotyping used in the criminal database, CODIS, is very different than what is used for the private sector. Even if police are presented a situation in which their testing would be useful, they still face the legal and technical limitations that are usually a deterrent.

The answer is it’s possible, but it’s rare.

Would you submit your DNA for a genealogy test?

Is the benefit this could have on society as a whole worth the potential privacy risk to its citizens?