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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.

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