Murder mystery of the ‘little slave girl’
The city of Glenwood has a stretch of bike path along Highway 28 between Golf Course Road and County Road 24. Tucked behind some trees to the north are four houses built during the Great Depression and known once as the Pope County Housing Project. To the south lies a swamp, large and wild, undeveloped except for a small fishing boat tied to a rickety dock
Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve gone astray in this mire. It is a dark December night more than 100 years ago, and you are making a desperate cross-country voyage without the benefit of warm clothing. There are no roads or streetlights or buildings nearby. You are young, not yet a teenager. Transplanted from the south, you are unfamiliar with the nighttime sights and sounds of the Minnesota landscape.
Perhaps it is snowing. Perhaps it is blowing. You are lost. You are cold. You are frightened. You are doomed.
The story begins…
In its infancy, Glenwood was a village of homely wooden buildings scattered between mud paths near the east end of Lake Whipple (now called Lake Minnewaska) in the newly organized county of Pope. Census data reveals barely 200 people living in town when two men arrived from the south in 1870 – the affluent Mr. James B. Peabody and his associate, Mr. Robinson. They built a hotel called the Fountain House Hotel. By running a pipe from the town spring, Peabody and Robinson were able to erect a fountain in the front yard (thus the name Fountain House).
More interesting than the fountain, perhaps, was the fact that Peabody and his wife brought with them a child of about 12, referred to in documents at the Pope County Historical Society as “the little slave girl.” She was, the census declares, the only “colored” person in the county. Known as Emma Ferris (or Ross or Peabody), the youngster was “require to work very hard’”for only room and board.
But wait! This was five years after the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th amendment. How could anybody be enslaved in Minnesota in 1870?
According to the Historical Society documents, the citizens of Glenwood were savvy enough to know that many people kept slaves for years after the Civil War. As Stephen Gross, history professor at the Morris campus of the University of Minnesota (UMM), points out, “Even if the child wasn’t legally a slave, it would have been quite simple to keep her in a state akin to slavery.” Children, he explained, were wards or dependents, and “orphans were often subject to abuse, overwork and severe punishment, particularly in the case of African-American children.
Is that how Emma came to be living with the Peabodys? Was she an orphan? Did she move north with this couple to avoid destitution in the South? Perhaps her parents were newly freed slaves who were too impoverished to provide for offspring. Or maybe the Peabodys were denied their previous income by the abolition of slavery and decided they wouldn’t mind pioneering in the hotel business up north if they could pass off a large portion of the work to a child.
The people of Glenwood did not seem to question Emma’s presence in the Peabody household. But they objected strenuously to the abuse she allegedly suffered, particularly at the hands of Mrs. Peabody, whom they referred to not as her employer or guardian but in slave terminology, as Emma’s “mistress.” “She was whipped severely with a so-called backsnake whip at the slightest cause,” the records note, “and edured forms of torture such as having her palm stabbed with needles.”
If this was true, what a nightmare it must have been for this child, to be overworked, horsewhipped and tortured in the cold, foreign landscape hundreds (if not thousands) of miles from home, completely cut off from her own race. She was likely given the dirtiest, most unpleasant, and perhaps even the most frightening work. Was Emma sent alone into the terrifying presence of such adults to empty chamber pots, change sheets or bring meal trays? What if they attacked her? Was there anyone to whom she could unburden herself in a village where most people probably spoke a gutteral Nordic language quite different from the slow drawl of the South?
Eventually, there was Ingeborg Rigg, a farm girl who came to work at the hotel, and became Emma’s salvation. Described as sympathetic to all who suffered, Ingeborg was a 21-year-old young women who formed a strong friendship with little Emma, often taking her part and saving her from beatings.
Where did this woman, barely out of her teens, find the courage to stand up to affluent southern business owners? While adults of that era frequently interfered on behalf of abused orphans, Gross points out, immigrants would likely have been uninformed about laws and rights, unsure as to what could be done for a suffering negro slave child. Also, as Laura Ingalls Wilder noted in her Little House series, girls who worked in hotels were of low status. How could Ingeborg stand up to her employers, and why did they listen to her?
Ingeborg was the daughter of Ole Rigg (senior), a Pope County pioneer described as “one of the leading and most substantial farmers of Minnewaska Township” in the Illustrated Album of Biography (Alden Ogle & Co, Chicago, 1888). His daughter may have been working and probably living at the hotel to be close to merchant M.A. Wollan, whom she would marry in 1871. Wollan, another influential citizen, held many public offices and was eventually elected to the Minnesota Legislature. Perhaps Ingeborg was an insightful young woman, aware of her family standing and willing to use it to help others. Perhaps she was just courageous and good-hearted. Whatever her motivations, Emma became devoted to the Rigg girl. As Christmas approached, Ingeborg made an announcement that must have terrified little Emma. Ingeborg was leaving the hotel to spend Christmas with her parents on their farm about five miles northwest of town (on County Road 24 between Glenwood and Starbuck). Emma immediately asked a number of questions. Where was the farm located, exactly? How did one get there? Ingeborg found the girl’s questions “puzzling.” On Friday, Dec. 23, Emma was severely punished. Why is not known; the records do not say. After that, no one ever heard from Emma again.
Now the story becomes sketchy. Who was the first to miss her? Why didn’t the Peabodys report her disappearance? Did her absence go unnoticed by the public until Ingeborg returned from her vacation? Was any attempt made to look for her? Might a search have saved her life?
Wild stories began to circulate about the abusive Peabodys and the possibility of foul play. On Jan. 6, 1871, the county commissioners took action, as noted in their minutes:
On motion, county auditor was authorized to offer a reward of $50 to any person who may procure the body of the colored girl known as Emma Peabody, age about 12 years, who disappeared from the Fountain House in the village of Glenwood on Friday the 23rd day of Dec. 1870. Being of the opinion that said colored girl perished on that day. On Motion, a copy of said reward was directed to be published in the Sauk Centre Herald and Alexandria Post for the period of two weeks.
The notices brought no response. It is interesting to note that there was no record of the Peabodys offering a reward. Did they wish to avoid investigation or scrutiny? If they’d accidentally beaten Emma to death, would it have been a crime?
“If the southerners had claimed to be the child’s guardian,” said UMM Professor of History Wilbert Ahern, “they would have had great leeway.” But Emma would have been valuable to the Peabodys. Does it make sense that they would want only to destroy their own “property?” Perhaps Emma was promised a full weekend of punishment as a comeuppance for sheltering beneath Ingeborg’s wing. Might the child have run away, afraid to remain under the Peabodys’ roof without Ingeborg’s protection?
There would have been many things to consider before making the decision to flee. Did Emma have the strength and warm clothing necessary to travel outdoors in Minnesota in December? If not, could she have run to a neighbor’s home seeking shelter until Ingeborg returned? Would she have been taken in?
The townsfolk were sympathetic to Emma’s plight. But perhaps they also feared conflict; Pioneers in close quarters were dependent upon each other and needed to live peacefully together. Emma may have suspected seeking assistance would only make things worse. “It’s difficult to predict,” Ahern admits, “what fate the child would have faced had she run away.” Of course, a fear for her life would have outweighed all other considerations.
Not until the following spring did the residents of Glenwood learn Emma’s fate. Her thinly clad, badly decomposed body was found on May 11, 1871, in the tall grass of “a swamp west of Glenwood,” described in a March 6, 1941, account of the story in the Pope County Tribune as lying between the Pope County Housing Project and “the inlet.” The inlet, said Pope County Historical Society director Merlin Peterson, probably refers to the fishing bridge where the slough behind Torgy’s joins Lake Minnewaska.
A postmortem by the first county physician, Dr. King, revealed that Emma had become lost and froze to death. Ingeborg’s testimony at the May 17 coroner’s inquest about Emma’s questions concerning the location of the Rigg Farm led to the conclusion that the child had perished trying to reach sanctuary there.
When one reviews images of Glenwood in those days, one can’t help but be horrified by what the child must have endured. There were no tidy roads or even definitive wagon trails or cow paths at the outskirts of town. While one account claims Emma had visited the Rigg farm in the past to play with the Rigg children, this seems unlikely. It contradicts not only the documentation describing the Peabodys as ruthless taskmasters but Ingeborg’s testimony that Emma sought specific information about where the farm lay. No, Emma must have set out, poorly dressed and probably without the benefit of a lantern, to struggle across foreign, frigid, rugged terrain, only to perish, alone in the dark, in the icy, crusty murk of a swamp. One can only imagine what went on in the Fountain House that drove her to such a desperate flight.
The Fountain House burned down in 1874, and the Peabodys eventually moved away. Were they driven from Glenwood by the condemnation of their neighbors? If so, the April 3, 1896, issue of the Glenwood Herald still saw fit to mention James’ passing that spring in Oakes, N.D.
Ingeborg died in 1884, on Jan. 6, exactly 13 years after the Pope County Commisioners decided to offer a $50 reward for the body of her friend. But this sad story doesn’t end there. In May of 1902, workmen leveling a hill (where Glenwood’s first high school would stand) uncovered two coffins. Old settlers were called upon to identify the remains. They determined the bodies to be those of James Young, victim of a mill accident, and little Emma Ferris. The coffins, they noted, were in an almost perfect state of preservation, apparently built from native oak. Someone took care to bury Emma well. Who might it have been? The county? Ingeborg? Perhaps it was the Peabodys, hoping to salvage their reputations.
Reports say the two coffins were reinterred “in the city cemetery south of town.” One day, one of Emma’s relatives might venture north, hoping to learn more of her fate and to visit her final resting spot. How pleased he or she will be, to see what a lovely cemetery Emma was brought to. There’s only one problem.
The grave can’t be found. Where do James and Emma lie buried? They don’t appear in the cemetary rolls. Where are James and Emma?
A small cross with scarcely any inscription lies across the road from Ingeborg’s stone. Does it mark the final resting place of the two who died so young? Could they have been buried without any marker and if so, are they not in danger of being disturbed again?
Yes, says city commissioner and cemetery digger Jack Christman. Their absence on the rolls does not mean they’re not there. “Cemetery records are really only accurate for the last 50 or 75 years.” Furthermore, he notes, an unmarked patch of cemetery between two old plots is not presumed to be filled just because it lies between two areas already in use. Unmarked land is fair game for the shovel or the backhoe. “If a section isn’t marked,” he insists, “it isn’t done.”
When Emma was reinterred, a recorder expressed the hope that she and James might rest in peace until “Gabriel’s horn calls them to their Heavenly home.” If she is, indeed, lost somewhere on the hill and is found one day through searching or digging or some miraculous form of technology, this author would like to make a contribution toward a permanent marker.
Surely Ingeborg would have.
The author would like to thank Merlin Peterson, Jackie Gartner, Judi Morton and Donna Quandt for assisting with the article.