Every once in a while I hear a story that takes up residence in my mind and consumes me for some time. Maybe for days or weeks or months. The latest one is a crime, a double homicide, that happened in 1897 in Middleville Township, Wright County, Minnesota, about 15 miles from my home. The main reason it gnaws at me is because it was never solved, and all the family members, thus far, have gone to their own graves without knowing the truth.
I first read of the murders of William and Lydia Boxell in the Wright County Heritage Newsletter last fall in an article submitted by Chris Marcotte, the great great great granddaughter of William and his first wife Rachel. I was stunned that a crime so similar to the one attributed to Lizzie Borden, five years before that, had not gained the same notoriety.
Last week, Marcotte spoke at the heritage center and I attended the session to learn more about what happened on that fateful night. Marcotte has spent the past couple of years doing extensive research, visiting family members, and gathering hundreds of documents, newspaper articles, and pictures to learn as much about the family and the crime as possible. She has ten theories of who may have been the perpetrator(s).
Here is a little background: William Boxell married Lydia some time after his first wife Rachel died, and it must have caused quite a stir. William and Rachel had fourteen children and nineteen grandchildren at the time of her death. William’s two youngest sons, ages fourteen and sixteen, were still living at home when he married Lydia. He was sixty-two and she was nineteen, forty-three years his junior. Was it arranged by her parents who were promised 40 acres of land in return for their daughter’s hand? The two married after a three-day courtship, which may have angered at least one of her two potential suitors.
William was fairly well-to-do. He had 260 acres of farmland and was worth about $15,000, a nice sum in those days. After his marriage to Lydia, there was allegedly talk that William was changing his will. Was Lydia expecting a baby, or had something else sparked that belief? The couple had been married only three months at the time of their deaths.
The known facts of the case: It was around ten o’clock at night on May 15, 1897 and the two teenage Boxell brothers were spearing for fish in a nearby lake. Their older brother Joseph saw them as he headed for home after picking up a trunk for his father-in-law at the railway station in Howard Lake. When the boys returned home from fishing before midnight, they found blood on the porch and the front door locked. They went to get their brother Joe at his house, about a half mile away. They headed into town, where around fourteen men were getting out of a meeting. The whole group headed out to Boxell’s.
They discovered William’s body on the road, about 100 feet south of his gate. The boys had not seen it when they had returned home earlier. An ax was found thrown some distance away. The door to the house was locked, and it was apparent the killer had crawled out a partially open window, evidenced by the blood left on it. The boys had not noticed that earlier, either. Someone eventually rode to the county seat of Buffalo for the sheriff. He did not arrive until noon the next day. Why had it taken that long?
So what happened? According to Marcotte, it is believed that William knew the killer when he opened the door because he had loaded guns in the house, but did not have one on him. The killer struck William on the head with a club, which broke in three pieces. He then went into the house, locked the door, and attacked Lydia with an ax, fracturing her head in several places and crushing her face. Her body was found in a “crouched on the floor of the bedroom, having fallen forward from her knees with her head on the floor in a pool of her own blood,” as reported in the St. Paul Dispatch on May 17, 1897.
William likely was knocked out from the club blow then regained consciousness. He may have heard his wife’s screams and tried the door, but it was locked. Did he then head down the driveway to go for help, or was he trying to escape the killer who tracked him down and delivered an ax blow to his head? It was a blow so powerful that brain matter was found over twenty feet from the body.
In 1897, DNA had not been discovered. In fact human blood had yet to be separated from the blood of animals. Fingerprint evidence was not commonly used. There were a number of possible suspects, but the one who seemed to stand out from the crowd was son Joseph. He was tried and acquitted by a grand jury. But was he, in fact, the guilty one after all? If evidence had been collected properly and retained, even after all these years, the case could be solved and all the suppositions put to rest. Perhaps in the course of Marcotte’s investigation, she will uncover a key piece of evidence that will complete the puzzle, and the Boxell decendants will have the truth at last.
Christine Husom is the author of the Winnebago County mystery Series, including Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, An Altar by the River, The Noding Field Mystery, and A Death in Lionel’s Woods