Community members shine light on Maynard girl who died night before 18th birthday

Frida’s grave at Wang Lutheran Cemetery. Photo by Scott Thoma

Positioned in the ninth row of the Wang Lutheran Church Cemetery in Wang Township four miles southeast of Maynard is a prominent headstone with the name Frida Herness engraved on it.

A closer inspection reveals that the girl died one day shy of her 18th birthday. She was born on Sept. 1, 1896, and died Aug. 31, 1914. Included in the engraving are the Norwegian words: ELSKET AG SAVENET, which translates to LOVED AND MISSED.

In an article in the Sept. 8, 1914, issue of the Granite Falls Tribune, Herness’ death was ruled a suicide by poisoning. According to Chippewa County Coroner F.W. Burns’ report, Frida drank an acid, most likely carbolic acid, and died.

But many circumstances regarding the death make it appear unlikely that Frida had taken her own life, and her father, Halfdan, may have been involved. Records show that there was little or no investigation of the death by any member of law enforcement or an investigator. No autopsy was performed on the body, only an examination of what was visible on her body and inside her mouth.

Burns quickly headed up an inquest at 2 p.m. in the Herness home on the same day (Sept. 2) that Frida’s body was discovered. It wasn’t so much a trial, although there were six coroner’s jury members and a court reporter present. It was more to determine whether the county coroner’s cause of death was accurate. County attorney C.A. Fosnes conducted the questioning of each witness called.

Very few of the key players were called as witnesses for the inquest, such as Frida’s mother, her boyfriend, and others.

Through stories passed on from one generation to another about Frida’s death, Jim Harvey, of Willmar, caught wind of the story.

Harvey grew up on a farm approximately one-half mile from the Herness place, understandably piquing his interest in the death of the young woman.

 “I was at a class reunion with Linda (Heen) recently and told her about what I had heard and learned about (Frida’s death),” Harvey said. “Linda became interested in it and started to do some researching.”

Heen checked church records at Wang Lutheran Church, where Frida and her parents attended, and also found some information through ancestry.com.

“I found her confirmation date was 1912 and some other information on the family,” said Heen.

Heen, who lives about three-fourths of a mile from the former Herness home, then passed along the information about Frida’s death to Elaine Johnson, a retired Renville County jail administrator, who also lives in the area.

“I digitalize old photos for people, and Elaine helps me with it,” said Heen. “That’s how we got to know one another.”

Paul Loe, who currently lives a few hundred yards from the former Herness place, which is dilapidated and barely visible in a grove of trees, brought some photos recently to Heen to be digitalized.

Unbeknownst to Loe at the time, the photos he brought to Heen included a confirmation picture of Frida sitting in a chair holding onto her Bible.

A group discusses the death of Frida Herness recently at the home of Linda Heen near Maynard. Clockwise from Elaine Johnson (red shirt on couch), David Ellefson, Jim Harvey, Paul Loe, Gerald Loe, and Linda Heen. Photo by Scott Thoma

“The whole story of her death is intriguing,” said Heen. “It sure seems like there was something highly suspicious about it.”

Often in those early years, a mysterious death with no witnesses was ruled a suicide to avoid an exhaustive investigation and to avoid a lengthy trial.

Through newspaper articles, records from the inquest, and the coroner’s report obtained by Johnson, the story goes something like this:

The night before her death, Frida attended an ice cream social near Maynard with a young man named Mr. Loftsgaarden (first name not given) that she had been socializing with for approximately one year.

Frida, an only child (her brother Fred drowned in a well at age 2 when the Herness family lived in Norway), didn’t arrive home until Mr. Loftsgaarden brought her back around 1 a.m.

That’s the last time anyone saw her again, other than her father (he claimed he spoke to her the next morning), until her lifeless body was discovered two days later near a haystack about one-quarter of a mile from the house.

The parents did not search for their missing daughter for two days.

“We believed that she had gone to Kramer’s because she talked that she would go to learn some drawing work,” Halfdan said at the inquest. “That is all I know. I can’t say anything more.”

Josephine Herness was never questioned during the inquest to give her version.

As members of the search party, Tom Loe (Paul’s grandfather) and Theodore Thorkelson discovered her body around 9 a.m. (Sept. 2), a quarter mile from her home. Both men said Frida was lying on her back with her hands hand crossed over her chest and clenching a cloth handkerchief. She was lying 6 to 8 feet from a haystack on the Herness farm.

According to the two men, other eyewitnesses and the county coroner, there were burn marks visible on Frida’s lips, face, hands and above one eye. Dr. J.W. Helland, a Maynard physician and surgeon, testified during the inquest that he felt Frida had died from corrosive poisoning, “probably carbolic acid.” Helland also stated that he noticed burns around Frida’s lips, right side of the face, over the right eye, tongue, inside of her cheeks, slight ulcers in the esophagus, her right hand, right forearm, and her left thumb and index finger.

“It seems to me that some of the things that were asked and said at the inquest made little or no sense,” Johnson said. “In my opinion, there was little doubt the girl did not poison herself and then be able to lie down in that manner. She would have been in too much pain.”

There was no apparent suspect or person of interest, little time for preparation for the inquest questioning, no fact-checking, and little or no investigation into why the young lady would want to kill herself. And no suicide note was found.

Frida’s confirmation picture when she was 16, about two years before her death. Contributed photo

During questioning, Halfdan Herness claimed he spoke with Frida around 8:30 a.m. the morning of Aug. 31 upstairs in her room while she was still in bed.

He admitted becoming upset with Frida for coming home late that night because she had to get up early to help with chores. And he said it wasn’t proper for a young lady to be out that late with a man.

“I said, ‘Frida, will you be so good and get up and help us a little?’” Halfdan recalled. “Then I said to her ‘It would be better if you hadn’t gone with that boy. It would have been better,’ I said, ‘both for you and for us. Only bad girls do it and that reputation I don’t want you to have.’”

Halfdan denied ever being upset at her at any time other than that. But Anna Youngren, a close friend of Frida, seemed to contradict that when she was questioned.

“Frida told me she cried some nights on account of her folks scolding her,” she said.

Halfdan said after he spoke to Frida, he left her room, and when he returned, she was gone.

One doctor that was questioned said it would be hard for anyone ingesting a poison such as carbolic acid to remain calm enough to lay down stretched out on your back, fold your arms over your chest and clutch a napkin. Instead, he said, it’s more likely that a person would be in agonizing pain and likely convulse and curl up in a fetal position.

When asked if he had any poison in his home, Halfdan said that he only had some strychnine.

Also, in those days, carbolic acid came in a thick-glassed bottle. But no bottle was found near her body, and no one bothered to search for it, even though it would likely be nearby if she administered it herself.

Retired physician Dr. L.A. Johnson explained during the inquest that someone drinking acid would possibly still be able to walk a few rods (a rod is 16.5 feet) if she hurried, depending on the quantity of acid ingested. He also doubted “from the way she laid there that she had taken any chances on walking very far, because probably she expected it to happen right away.”

Each of the men who found her body said there was no sign of a struggle, and no tracks out to the haystack were visible.

When the inquest ended, the six jury members unanimously agreed with the coroner’s report that the death was suicide.

Following Frida’s death, Halfden and Josephine eventually moved back to Norway. Halfdan died in 1943, and Josephine in 1950. Both are buried in Oksness, Norway.

What is left of the home where Frida and the Herness family lived. Photo by Scott Thoma

Johnson was able to connect with a distant relative of Halfdan via ancestry.com and communicated through email.

“I was told that when the Hernesses moved back to Norway they told family members that Frida was killed,” Johnson said. “That seems like a strange thing to say.”

So why would anyone have an interest in this mystery that happened over a century ago?

“I just want her to be remembered,” said Johnson, who placed flowers on Frida’s gravesite, as did Harvey. “I think we owe it to the people of Wang Township and also to (Frida). One hundred and four years have gone by, and her story disappeared because no one knew about it.”

There are numerous what-if’s to this case, including:

  What if Frida was pregnant and, upon telling her father after returning from the ice cream social, he became so enraged that to save public embarrassment, poured acid in his daughter to kill her and/or the unborn child?  And so as not to be heard or seen, her father could have taken her lifeless body out to the nearby haystack late the next night? And because it was his daughter, instead of just dumping the body somewhere, laid her peacefully on her back, folded her arms across her chest and placed a handkerchief in her hands.

  What if Mr. Loftsgaarden had been questioned during the inquest? He might have been able to shed some light on Frida’s demeanor the night before her death.

  What if the general store owner had been questioned as to whether Frida had purchased an acid or had asked him about various types of acid.

  What if the physicians were questioned as to why she would have burns all over her face, hands and forearms, similar to defensive wounds, if she drank the acid on her own? If she spat the acid out of her mouth because of intense burning, would she have been able to lie down peacefully and fold her arms across her chest in the manner she was found?

No one will likely ever learn the truth about Frida’s death. But the mystery of her death will forever be open for debate.