Not all forgotten Duluthians were model citizens. Fifty years ago this spring, Duluth-native Norman Mastrian was convicted of first-degree murder for his role in one of the most famous crimes in Minnesota history.
The Mastrians were early residents of the Zenith City. Norman’s grandfather Pasquale Mastroianni (the family later shortened the name) first came to Duluth from Italy about 1889. He worked as a laborer and on January 28, 1890, filed his Declaration of Intention to become a U.S. citizen. In November of 1891 in Duluth, he married fellow Italian immigrant Retina DiSalvo. They moved to a house at 23 E. 4th St. and over the next eight years had six children.
In the 1890s, Pasquale was reportedly well known on the streets of Duluth as he plied his trade as a scissors grinder. But in 1901 he became ill with dropsy (now called edema) and died at the age of 41 on November 18. The family collected a $1,000 insurance policy on his life, but that was quickly spent on medical expenses and other bills. So Retina was left to support six children between two and ten years of age. The Duluth News Tribune ran a story in May 1902 about her struggle to support her family and to keep from giving the children up to the state.
Retina was saved from that fate on November 6, 1902, when she married Michael Capra, a railroad worker from Cumberland, Wisconsin. She would raise her children there. Joseph, the youngest, would grow up to marry Helen Strohmeyer, of Benoit, Wisconsin, on April 5, 1923 (his older brother Joseph had earlier married Helen’s older sister, Elizabeth, and moved to Duluth). Joseph and Helen also moved to Duluth and she soon gave birth to their first son, Norman Joseph Mastrian, on December 7, 1923.
Norman spent his first fourteen years growing up with his family at several addresses in Duluth’s Central Hillside neighborhood. His father worked as both clerk and stockman at Marshall Wells Co., the giant wholesale hardware dealer on Duluth’s waterfront. Norman attended parochial schools through the eighth grade. When he was fourteen years old, the family moved to Northeast Minneapolis.
There Mastrian attended Sheridan Junior High School, 1201 University Avenue. A classmate, Norman Midthun, in a 2006 Minnesota Historical Society interview, remembers Mastrian as a bit of a troublemaker, recalling incidents of him stealing money from a teacher’s purse and insulting and punching a male teacher.
Mastrian next attended Thomas Edison High School, where he earned the nickname “Punchy,” likely for his proclivity for fighting. During high school he participated in Golden Gloves boxing and was a sectional champion. He graduated from Edison in June 1942; that September he enlisted in the Navy, where he remained for the duration of World War II.
When he was discharged from the Navy on January 11, 1946, Mastrian moved back with his parents and entered St. Paul’s Macalester College on the GI Bill. With an IQ reportedly measured at 150, Mastrian probably had an easy time with the classes. A fellow student, Howard Huelster, remembers him as quite a dramatic figure walking around campus wearing an open army officer’s trench coat that would flow behind him like a cape.
Mastrian attended Macalester at the same time as Tilmer Eugene Thompson and Carol Swoboda, people who later would become important in Mastrian’s life. They may have known one another on the relatively small campus, although Thompson later claimed not to remember Mastrian from his Macalester days.
At the same time he attended Macalester, Mastrian tried a career in professional boxing. Muscular but only 5’ 7” tall, he fought in the featherweight division for about two years. While most of his fights took place in the Twin Cities, he also fought in Chicago, Omaha, and Des Moines. In a total of twelve fights, Mastrian won six (four by knockouts), lost five, and had one draw. In his last professional fight—against Glen Flanagan on January 15, 1948—Mastrian lost in a technical knockout after seven rounds. Newspaper accounts of the fight say he was knocked down eleven times. Following the fight he announced his retirement.
Mastrian graduated from Macalester with a degree in journalism in 1952. He didn’t practice his chosen profession, however, until much later in his life. In late 1952 he was arrested with two other men during a break-in at the National Food Store at 4301 Nicollet Ave. S. in Minneapolis. This began Mastrian’s life of large and small crimes and run-ins with police. He held some regular jobs in the 1950s (he sold air conditioners for a while), married twice and had four children. But he always seemed attracted to the life of the Twin Cities underworld.
In 1962, Mastrian was arrested as a suspect in the execution-style murder of Twin Cities restaurant owner Eddie James, who had been a police witness. Mastrian hired T. Eugene Thompson, a fellow student at Macalester, as his attorney. Mastrian was eventually cleared of the crime.
On March 6, 1963, T. Eugene Thompson’s wife Carol (Swoboda) Thompson, mother of four, was murdered in their home in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul. The crime made headlines around the country. Thompson had an alibi for the time of the murder, but police suspected he was involved because, among other things, he had recently insured his wife’s life for over $1 million.
In the weeks following the murder, investigators learned more about the events leading up to the crime. On April 19, 1963, Mastrian was arrested in his home in Spring Lake Park, north of Minneapolis in Anoka County. On the same day, an alcoholic former Marine named Dick W. C. Anderson was arrested in Phoenix, Arizona, where he had recently fled from the Twin Cities. Anderson was charged with the murder of Carol Thompson. Mastrian was charged with hiring Anderson to murder her.
On June 20, 1963, a first-degree-murder warrant in the death of his wife was issued for T. Eugene Thompson. He was arrested in the early-morning hours of June 21 at his in-laws’ summer home on Forest Lake. Bail for Thompson was set at $100,000, and he spent about a week in the Ramsey County Jail before his attorneys could arrange his release. He was forced to cancel his scheduled speaking appearance before the Minnesota Bar Association annual convention in Duluth during the last week in June.
Thompson’s trial began on Monday, October 28, 1963, in the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. After a week of jury selection, the trial commenced and continued for five weeks. Norman Mastrian was not called as a witness. A verdict of guilty was given on December 6, and Thompson was sentenced to life in prison.
Mastrian was the next to stand trial. He had spent the previous eight months in the Ramsey County Jail because he wasn’t able to raise enough to cover his $100,000 bail. His attorneys, John A. Cochrane and Douglas W. Thomson, had requested the trial take place outside of the Twin Cities because of publicity from the T. Eugene Thompson trial. (Doug Thompson would later become well-known in Minnesota as the attorney for Roger Caldwell during Caldwell’s trial for the murders of Velma Pietila and Elisabeth Congdon). On January 9, 1964, the Minnesota Supreme Court granted the request, and that brought Mastrian back to the Zenith City.
Mastrian was flown to Duluth for his trial on February 13, 1964. Accompanied from the plane by two St. Paul detectives and two Ramsey County attorneys, the diminutive Mastrian, in sunglasses and trench coat, resembled Joe Pesci in the movie Goodfellas. He was delivered to the 1923 St. Louis County Jail to await the start of his trial on Monday, February 17.
The trial began on schedule in the St. Louis County Courthouse before Judge Donald C. Odden. It took attorneys ten days to select 12 jurors from a field of 91. The jury included Duluthians John Butalla, William Gemuenden, Kathleen Abernathy, Isabel Snyder, Edwin H. Eider, Mary E. Robinson, Ardyne Nelson, Marilyn Vann, Lester T. Magnus, and Franklin Westman as well as John Prindle of Saginaw and Glenn Johnsen of Brookston. The alternates, Mary K. Zanko and George M. Priley, were both Duluthians.
The Mastrian trial lasted nearly six weeks. At the time, it was said to have been Duluth’s longest on record and ran as daily front page news in both the Duluth News Tribune and Duluth Herald. Three witnesses testified that Mastrian had tried to hire them to kill a church-going lady with four children and they had turned him down. Dick W. C. Anderson testified that Mastrian had hired him to kill Carol Thompson for $3,000—and Anderson admitted to killing her. Final arguments were made by the attorneys on April 9. Prosecutor Stephen Maxwell called Mastrian a “merchant of death.” During the eight-week trial, court reporter Cyril E. Rogers had filled 21 notebooks with shorthand that equaled 850,000 words.
The case went to the jury at 3:30 that afternoon. After over 13 hours of deliberation covering two days, the jury found Mastrian guilty of first-degree murder on April 10, 1964. Newspapers reported that after the verdict was read, Mastrian turned to his parents, embraced them, and said “Hold on; when the high court gets this thing, I’ll be out.” Both Joseph and Helen Mastrian reportedly left the courtroom sobbing. Asked by Judge Odden if he had anything to say, Mastrian replied, “I am innocent of the charges.” Like Thompson, he was given the mandatory life sentence.
Norman Mastrian spent the next twenty years in Stillwater State Prison. There he finally put his journalistic training to use as the editor of The Prison Mirror, the oldest continuously running jailhouse newspaper in the United States. Mastrian was released on parole in February, 1983. While in prison, he wrote an autobiographical manuscript he called Presumption of Guilt. He had hoped it would be a popular book, but it was never published.
In February, 1986, Mastrian was arrested again by Minneapolis police on suspicion of dealing in stolen fur coats and trying to exchange them for a large amount of cocaine. He was sentenced to six years in prison on those charges.
After completing that prison term, Norman Mastrian returned to Northeast Minneapolis to live out his remaining days. He spoke to a Pioneer Press reporter in 2003, still arguing his innocence in the Thompson murder. He was 80 years old at the time, looking younger than his age and still physically fit, although he walked with a cane because of bad knees. He died in Minneapolis on July 11, 2007.