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A Killer of a Beer Garden

John Tischer, whose purchase of a license to sell beer on Sundays led to murder. (Image: Zenith City Press)

As one might imagine, where beer goes drunkenness often follows, and that can lead to trouble. Subsequently, Duluth’s pioneer brewers often found themselves at the center of conflict. In fact, the Zenith City’s first murder—the 1869 stabbing of George Northrup—resulted from an argument that started in brewery owner Nicholas Decker’s Superior Street saloon.

Since the town had no jail, the accused—Philadelphian Thomas Stokely and friends—were incarcerated in the cold caves dug behind Decker’s brewery where the beer was aged, perhaps the most secure and best protected facility in town. The Atlantic Monthly’s John Townsend Trowbridge happened to be in town and wrote that the suspects were “imprisoned in a lager-beer brewery…where they spent a thirsty night—lager, lager everywhere, and not a drop to drink. To prevent a rescue, the streets are patrolled after dark by a strong guard of citizens…. ‘Who goes there?’ is the challenge. ‘Lager!’ is the bold response; followed by the rather unmilitary rejoinder, ‘Advance, Lager, and give us a drink, will you?’” Duluth’s first brewery was also its first jail. Stokely, the son of Philadelphia Republican mayoral candidate William Stokely, was convicted—and then set free. In the wake of the Civil War even the victim’s father, notoriously reckless Indian fighter Ans Northrup, thought it in the best interest of the Republican Party that scandal not interfere in the upcoming election. Stokely won.

In 1880 St. Louis County experimented with issuing licenses for Sunday beer gardens as a way to raise money. The 1880 county ordinance restricted Sunday liquor sales to outside the borders of the Village of Duluth, which then extended to about Twenty-First Avenue East. The Urs and Elizabeth Tischer family had established a farm immediately east of the mouth of a creek named for them. Their son John purchased a license, and on a Sunday in late June many Duluthians, particularly those of German extraction, headed to Tischer’s Beer Garden. Those in attendance included brewery owner Michael Fink and Nicholas Decker Jr., whose family leased the brewery to Fink. Decker and Fink supplied the beer. Also in attendance was their friend Herman Oppel, son of prominent pioneer grocer Christian Oppel.

According to one witness, there was also “a good deal of drinking going on there.” James Brennan, an official with the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad, quarreled with Alexander McGinnis. The Lake Superior News reported that Brennan’s brother Edward tried to break up the feuding pair when Oppel, “partially under the influence of liquor and apparently desirous to have the fight go on, followed up a threat against the separation by striking [Edward Brennan] behind the ear with a loaded cane…. He fell and three minutes later was dead.”

Oppel was arrested the next day and sent to St. Paul for a brief incarceration—authorities couldn’t very well hold him at his good friend’s brewery. But they did delay his trial for almost two years. St. Louis County’s Sunday liquor license experiment was stopped. Daniel Cash and J. D. Ensign, both respected pioneers of the St. Louis County judicial system, defended Oppel at his January 1882 trial, arguing that he had struck Brennan in self defense. Witnesses said Brennan had unlinked his shirt cuffs, preparing for a fight. He approached Oppel, who warned him to keep back. Brennan kept coming. Oppel struck him a one-handed blow close to the left ear. Brennan stumbled backward and fell. The blow had only raised a bruise—since there were no lacerations or broken bones it was highly doubtful it could have killed Brennan. (We know much more about head injuries today than we did in 1882.)

A jury of land-owning males—most of whom traded with Christian Oppel and had known Herman since he was a boy—came back with a verdict of not guilty. Days later the Duluth Weekly Tribune announced that Oppel had finally married Mary Mannheim, whose faith in Oppel’s innocence never faltered. Since he could have been hanged for murder, they had postponed their wedding until after the trial.

The murder at Tischer’s Farm occurred on June 27, 1880. In 1903 Chester Congdon purchased the Tischer farm site and built his grand estate, Glensheen, on the grounds. On June 27, 1977, the bodies of the Congdon’s daughter Elisabeth and nurse Velma Pietila were discovered at Glensheen. Like Hermann Oppel, suspect Marjorie Congdon Caldwell—adopted daughter of Elisabeth Congdon—was acquitted of the crime. Like Thomas Stokely, Caldwell’s husband, Roger Caldwell, was found guilty and later released.