The Slaying of Dr. J. J. Eklund

This diagram of the murder scene appeared in the Duluth News Tribune the day after the murder/suicide. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Groping in Utter Darkness

With his assailant dead, in the wake of Dr. Eklund’s death the primary public cry was to find the motive for this heinous crime. How could this have happened? Why? Who was John Magnuson?

Sparse information was to be found in regards to Magnuson’s identity. First, the murderer’s ready-made suit was examined and thought to be second-hand. Only a few coins were found in his pockets. The address he’d given at the doctor’s office—a boarding house in the West End—turned out to be a former residence; he hadn’t lived there for some years. Rather, he’d been an indigent resident at the Bethel home for at least a year, but had left the facility two weeks before the killing. No one could say where he’d been in the interim. (Contributing to the confusion was the fact that there were several John Magnusons living in Duluth at the time. In addition, Duluth’s population of unmarried Scandinavian males was fairly transient.)

An estranged brother, Andrew J. Erickson of Superior, came forward to say that he hadn’t seen John for many months, but that Magnuson had lost his job as a section hand for the Northern Pacific Railroad the previous January, and until the murder Erickson presumed his brother was farming in west-central Minnesota.

There was speculation that Magnuson targeted Dr. Eklund because of some encounter with the doctor in his professional capacity. During his ten years as county coroner, the doctor was frequently called to evaluate the scene of tragic accidents, suicides and murders. He was responsible for determining the causes of death in many puzzling or controversial cases, which might have brought him into contact with Magnuson or people Magnuson knew. Sometimes, the doctor determined that a death was due to misadventure or accident rather than, as believed by the victims’ friends, murder.

On occasion, the doctor was quoted in the press as a court witness defending companies against employee injury lawsuits.

Dr. Eklund had had previous run-ins with the mentally ill. In 1906, a former Fergus Falls asylum inmate named Eric Larson suffered paranoid delusions that Dr. Eklund was trying to kill him and was arrested for publicly threatening to kill the doctor. Larson was subsequently released, and Eklund told the News Tribune he was afraid to go out after dark in fear of his life.

Neither the press nor the police explored the connection between Magnuson and Dr. Eklund’s medical practice. Rather, they pursued their immediate suspicions: the killing was revenge for Eklund’s financial and political activities.

Many of Dr. Eklund’s friends and associates appear to have assumed that Magnuson was a crazed and probably socialist foreigner who was seeking revenge on Eklund for sending him off to war. A. C. Weiss, who served on the state public safety commission during the war, spoke to the newspaper to that effect, saying that Dr. Eklund was one of the most-conscientious medical examiners involved with the wartime draft boards, and he hoped this competence hadn’t led to his death.

The idea of Magnuson as a political assassin seemed probable in the eyes of Eklund’s allies. As a Swedish community leader, Eklund was frequently called to defend his Swedish brethren in the political arena, as they were often feared by “real Americans” as disloyal socialists who were inherently unpatriotic. Eklund had felt compelled to declare in the press that Swedes were also “real Americans” who would vote Republican if they only knew better.

Eklund was probably perceived as a bit of an uppity outsider in his own ethnic community. He had never lived in the Swedish enclave of the West End and it is probably significant that he didn’t choose to bury either his Lutheran wife or himself in the Scandinavian cemetery (Park Hill), but rather to place himself forever amongst his more wealthy Presbyterian friends in Forest Hill Cemetery.  However, Magnuson’s brother denied the idea that the murder was over politics. He repeatedly declared that his brother did not have “socialistic tendencies.”

So was it Eklund’s leadership on the draft board that made him a target? In the immediate aftermath of the murder, this seemed to be everyone’s pet theory. Some recalled that Dr. Eklund was once threatened by a war-resister, and perhaps Magnuson was that man. Perhaps Magnuson, a resident alien, was forced to fight against his will and returned to take his revenge. Magnuson’s brother again denied this theory, saying Magnuson had duly registered and was never called up. The record supports this assertion.

Erickson believed that his brother was acting in revenge over money he lost in the stock market. He said his brother had returned from working “somewhere in the Rocky Mountains” with $10,000 and promptly lost it all in dubious investments. He possibly blamed Dr. Eklund as a bank president or because of his ownership in various western mining projects. A local broker told the police he remembered engaging in some business with a man named John Magnuson who matched the killer’s description, and that he hadn’t seen the man in a year. While it is true that at least one of Eklund’s mining projects began to fail after the war, it was never established what stocks Magnuson invested in or whether he’d truly lost a fortune.

In the end, the police denied all theories of revenge as a motive for Dr. Eklund’s murder. Instead, they declared Magnuson was intending only to kill himself. He opened the door to the elder doctor’s office thinking it to be empty, was surprised to find it occupied and simply fired for no reason. Eklund’s death was caused by Magnuson’s insanity, and that was that.

The community was at a loss over what to do in the face of such a senseless death. A letter to the Duluth News Tribune’s “Answers to Your Queries” column two days after the murder read, “Please tell me and my friends if the man who murdered Dr. Eklund had a permit to carry his revolver.” The succinct answer: “He did not.”

Two days later, the newspaper published an editorial calling for a state law banning firearm ownership by people who had been formerly convicted of a crime, violation of which would draw four years in prison. The authors wondered which candidates for state office would be brave enough to pledge their support for such a law. “Surely the menace of the criminally-inclined revolver or pistol-carrying class was all too vividly exhibited by the murder of Dr. J. J. Eklund. Is such a situation a thing about which legislative aspirants feel they are justified in pussyfooting?”

Despite the article’s implication, it’s unclear whether John Magnuson had a record that would have prevented his end as a “gun-toting maniac.”

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.