Crawford County murder told in new book

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Larry Scheckel

A posse of searchers found Clara Olson’s body near Rising Sun in 1926.

Pictured is the 1926 burial site and some of the posse that searched for her. Also shown is how it looks today: a depression Larry Scheckel outlined with sticks.

By Correne Martin

Ninety-two years ago, a young woman was tragically murdered in Crawford County. She was pregnant with her lover’s child and the couple planned a secret elopement, when, suddenly, she disappeared. 

This story has the makings of a novel. It happened in 1926 near Rising Sun in the northern part of the county. It was worldwide news at the time, especially for rural Wisconsin. It happened before the Lindbergh kidnapping and murder of 1932, and before the criminal villainy of Baby Face Nelson and Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s.

“It was the crime of the century,” according to Larry Scheckel, author of the true crime he’s retold in his latest book, “Murder in Wisconsin: The Clara Olson Case.” Scheckel, who was born and raised in Crawford County himself, published the non-fiction title, his first, in September, and has already sold over 1,000 copies.

It took three years of research, local interviews and paging through microfilmed newspapers Scheckel received at the La Crosse Public Library to bring this paperback to readers. 

Growing up on the family farm outside Seneca, on Oak Grove Ridge, Scheckel was just 10 miles from where 22-year-old Clara’s body was found bludgeoned. Being something people talked about often, the murder initially sparked Scheckel’s interest when his dad told him about it around the age of 9. 

“My grandma went to the funeral. My dad or grandfather were in the posse who helped look for her,” he recounted. “So I always wondered about it. How was she found? Where did she come from? Who was her killer? It was a fantastic story. It had romance, sex, intrigue, murder.”

Clara Olson was a pretty, devout Norwegian Lutheran farm girl who met the younger, handsome, smooth-talking college lad, Erdman Olson, at a church picnic. (Though they had the same last name, they were not related.) The two dated for 18 months. She dreamed of marriage and a family, and he promised her a wedding. They planned to elope. However, when Clara instead disappeared, a search ensued and her hidden grave was discovered by chance. The whole country was ultimately horrified by the shocking details of the tragic betrayal and murder. 

“Murder in Wisconsin” lays out all of the suspenseful details: the inquest, the funeral and the subsequent search for Clara’s killer. Scheckel said the inquest, or witness interrogation, took place in Prairie du Chien on Dec. 6, 1927, during very bad winter weather. Over 500 people attended and 15 were called for questioning throughout the day. 

The girl’s father was a suspect because, people, at the time, believed he did not want his daughter having the shame of being an unwed mother. Erdman’s father was also considered, as was his hired hand. Erdman’s mother also carried suspicion, as she claimed Clara was after her son for his money.

Yet it was Erdman who was last seen with Clara alive. The boyfriend had agreed to pick her up from a dance at the Neil Tollefson Hall in Seneca, the night of Sept. 9, 1926, which he did around 11 p.m. She was never seen alive again. 

“He agreed to pick her up from the dance, and they were eloping, so she had visions of family and of civility, yet he dug a grave for her that afternoon. We’ll never know what happened in that car,” Scheckel said. “The interesting part is the dichotomy of what the two people were thinking.”

Weeks later, Erdman, who would be accused of murder, left college and was never seen again. 

On Dec. 2, Clara’s body was found. After an inquest four days later, the sheriff and the district attorney determined the killer as Erdman without any body, any weapon, no testimony and no physical evidence, Scheckel noted. 

The next day was Clara’s funeral at the Utica Lutheran Church, which still stands to this day. The funeral hosted 600 mourners in a church for 200 people. She was laid to rest in the cemetery there. It was freezing and snowing. 

The search continued for Erdman in the ensuing weeks, months and years. On multiple occasions, men who were thought to be him were taken in for identification and questioning. But no one was ever confirmed as the accused.

“Murder in Wisconsin” tells all these facts and more in greater detail. Of course, a lot of it is based on circumstantial evidence that Scheckel combed over in his research. He has even visited the site where Clara was found, thanks to friend Roger Forde, who wrote the book’s foreword. 

“He took me into the woods and showed me the little defile on private property—about a mile south of Rising Sun, around 300 feet off Highway 27.

Scheckel adds to the true crime story with descriptions of the culture of the 1920s and 30s—tobacco farming, the weather, movies of the time, cars and roads, and the differences between what city folks and farmers had—such as no rural electrification.

Since Scheckel’s book was released in September, feedback has been positive for what’s turning into his most popular publication. “It has a lot of appeal,” he said, “and people are telling me the story keeps building. Some have said they started reading it and couldn’t put it down.” 

The book is published by the author’s own imprint, Oak Grove Press. He had it edited, and laid out by Adept Content Solutions, of Illinois. 

“Murder in Wisconsin” is for sale locally at Johnson’s One Stop in Seneca, The Local Oven in Prairie du Chien and Paper Moon in McGregor, Iowa. Or, those interested may contact him directly at lscheckel@charter.net. It’s offered online as well, at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

Scheckel plans upcoming book signings at the Onalaska Barnes & Noble, Dec. 8, from 9 a.m. to noon, and at Johnson’s One Stop on Dec. 15, also from 9 a.m. to noon. 

Also, watch for information about a presentation he plans to give at the Prairie du Chien Memorial Library. 

Scheckel is also the author of “Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers,” “Ask Your Science Teacher,” “I Always Wondered About That: 101 Questions and Answers about Science and Other Stuff,” and “I Always Wondered About That Too: 111 Questions and Answers About Science and Other Stuff.”

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