Falling, Falling, Falling

The Curse of the Hotel Brunswick

Architect Oliver Traphagne's sketch of the Hoppman Block, c. 1890. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
Architect Oliver Traphagen’s sketch of the Hoppman Block, c. 1890. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Two weeks before he died in December of 1915, 87-year-old Edward J. Hoppmann changed his will. Previously, it had stated his wife Christina would receive one-third of his estate and the remaining funds would go into a trust for his two adult children. Now, Hoppmann’s widow would get it all.

Perhaps this decision was caused by the Duluth family’s declining fortunes. After early success, Hoppmann’s forays into real estate had left him with $41,400, which in today’s dollars wouldn’t quite get him to millionaire status. His legacy, the Hoppmann Block, began as a beautiful architectural masterpiece, but it had become just another seedy hotel in the Bowery.

The elder Hoppmanns may have also decided that their two children—both now approaching middle age—were not demonstrably responsible enough to inherit. Their oldest, Theresa Olive Hoppmann, remained unmarried and lived at home in the family quarters behind the Hotel Brunswick. As her father became ill, he entrusted her with landlord duties.

Theresa fumbled the handoff, attempting to rent the Hotel Brunswick to notorious madam Jeanette Palmer, which resulted in scandal and a year during which the upper floors of the building remained dark. This fiasco didn’t change Theresa’s course, however. The next year she rented to another madam, Julia Wallace. By that time the elder Hoppmann was already dead and ensconced in a new marble crypt on Forest Hill Cemetery’s millionaire’s row.

Their youngest had turned out to be of questionable character as well. Carl Hoppmann, a portly blond and blue-eyed sports fan, had achieved moderate success as a dentist. But he had also earned a reputation around town as a bombastic bully and bounder. He repeatedly embarrassed the family with his reckless driving, careening pell-mell down Superior Street at a time when automobiles were rare and the streets were full of horses. This behavior got him ticketed by the police at least once, and in 1905 he managed to knock himself unconscious in a one-car accident at Thirteenth Avenue East and Superior Street.

Old Hoppmann’s will was disputed by one or both of the Hoppmann children, and resolved in private. Whatever the outcome, tragedy came to the two Hoppmann children within five years of their father’s death, leaving their mother to live out her remaining years alone.

Carl Hoppman (Image: Zenith City Press)
Carl Hoppmann (Image: Zenith City Press)

Around the Corner

In 1918, Theresa Hoppmann died at age fifty, likely a victim of the 1918 flu epidemic, joining her father in the family crypt. Then on February 22, 1920, forty-three year-old Carl Hoppmann was shot on the corner of Fourth Avenue West and Superior Street, just down the street from his dental office in the Phoenix Building. The sidewalks were full of theatergoers, but two of the six shots fired at Hoppmann met their mark, one going through the back of his head—tearing off “half the skull”—and the other grazing his chest. No one else was injured. The shooter was a Norwegian immigrant and barber named Casper M. Nelson, who was immediately apprehended and disarmed by some of the many bystanders. Hoppmann died eight hours later in the hospital. 

At his indictment, Nelson claimed he acted in self-defense, alleging that Hoppmann harassed and threatened him. He said that the trouble between them began some years before, when Nelson courted Theresa Hoppmann.

A month later, Nelson’s trial began. The Duluth News-Tribune especially noted the large number of women spectators who crowded the courtroom, making up fifty percent of the crowd and hanging around outside waiting for vacant seats. Nelson’s demeanor was described as showing “little interest in the progress of his case… staring straight ahead, his feet and hands occasionally moving in the nervous jerky fashion which marked his demeanor on the day after the shooting.”

Witnesses agreed that the night of the murder, Hoppmann and his friend Michael Fitzmaurice had dined together at Lanigan’s restaurant in the Bowery. Nelson had come in and silently sat at a table facing the two. When Hoppmann and Fitzmaurice left the restaurant, Nelson followed them soon after, noticeably transferring an object from an inside pants pocket to his coat pocket.

Fitzmaurice testified that after they left the restaurant, he and Hoppmann stopped and talked on the corner of Fourth Avenue West and Superior Street. When they then crossed the street, Nelson passed them with another man going eastward. Hoppmann allegedly told Fitzmaurice, “There’s that man again.” A few minutes later, Nelson passed them once again, seeming to hesitate. Hoppmann addressed him, and “waved an arm at him, saying ‘Go on there. Go on there.’” Fitzmaurice took his friend’s arm and urged him up the street to the dental office, where they went to play a phonograph record in the waiting room. Hoppmann went to the window and stared out for several minutes, and declared his intention to go out and confront Nelson, who was leaning against the wall of the Palladio Building across the street, staring up at the office.

Hoppmann walked down and crossed the street with Fitzmaurice following close behind. Hoppmann demanded to know what the man wanted, while Fitzmaurice warned him that the man was armed, saying “Look out doc: that fellow has a gun in his hand.” Nelson started to sidle down the sidewalk toward Superior Street, not responding to Hoppmann. Fitzmaurice quoted Hoppmann as saying, “You’re going to get me, are you? What are you chasing me around for? Why are you watching me all the time?” When they reached Superior Street, Nelson started shooting. At the second shot, Hoppmann fell and swung around, hit in the chest. A third shot through the head dropped him. The time was 9:12 p.m.

A female witness recalled that she was within three feet of the shooting and had heard Nelson demand loudly and angrily, “Have you anything in your pocket?” before shooting. As she ran away, bystander Edward F. Gills ran toward Nelson as he began to flee and took Nelson’s gun away. J. R. Burdash, a deputy sheriff who was also nearby, ran to the two men as they struggled, and saw Nelson reach toward his hip pocket. There, the officer found another revolver. The first statement Nelson made, to Police Chief John Murphy, was that he shot Hoppmann because “he threatened to knock my block off” and “called [me] vile names.”

Casper Nelson. (Image: Zenith City Press)
Casper Nelson. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Don’t You Come Around Here No More

On the second day of the trial, Nelson took the stand in his own defense. The headline was sensational: “Bertha Named Mystery Girl in Nelson Trial. Accused Man Testifies That Mrs. Hoppman Wanted Him to Find her Son’s Inamorata. Origin of Hatred Shown by Dentist Dated From This Incident, He Declares.” According to Nelson, Carl Hoppmann’s enmity toward him began when he was boarding with the Hoppmanns from 1902 to 1909. Christina and Theresa had tearfully asked Nelson to find Carl’s paramour, a young woman by the name of Bertha. The women were allegedly concerned that Carl would “ruin” her. When Nelson found the girl, they visited her at her boarding house. Afterward, Hoppmann didn’t return home for some time, and when he did, he told Nelson ,“if [you] ever interfere in [my] affairs again [I will] beat [your] block off.”

Nelson testified that he courted Theresa for some years, and that Carl never openly objected to the relationship. The two had attended theater performances together and Nelson gave her jewelry, including a diamond ring and a diamond locket. After the incident with Bertha, Hoppmann threatened Nelson whenever they met on the street. In 1909, Nelson moved to the Iron Range to escape Hoppmann, returning in 1912. He resumed his relationship with Theresa, but in 1915 married another woman. Within two years, his wife had left him and moved to live with her family in Wisconsin, taking their infant son. After Theresa died, her mother phoned Nelson and urged him to retrieve the expensive jewelry he’d given her. When he went to do so, however, Christina met him at the door and said her son had confiscated the jewelry and instructed her not to give it back to Nelson.

Nelson recounted that he was again planning to leave town because Hoppmann’s hostility was “unbearable.” He consulted his lawyer about resolving some debts before he went. The lawyer sent him to a doctor, concerned for his mental health. Nelson also produced for the court some letters he wrote to his wife, in which he told her his plans for suicide. The Duluth News-Tribune noted that the letters were “written in large, scrawled characters, hardly legible, and so disjointed in construction that they convey[ed] no connected train of thought.”

On the day of the murder, Nelson went out to Minnesota Point to test two guns he’d recently acquired, returning downtown at 2 p.m. After eating lunch at a restaurant on Lake Avenue, he went home to his room on Fourth Avenue West. He stayed there until dinnertime, planning to go to Superior with friends. He admitted to having drunk three or four whiskies over the course of the day, an illegal act in dry Duluth. After arranging a taxi, he unsuccessfully tried to find one of his friends before entering Lanigan’s for dinner. He said nothing to Hoppmann and Fitzmaurice, and left the restaurant when he was retrieved by the taxi driver.

Nelson stated that when he and the cabbie first passed Hoppmann on the sidewalk, Hoppmann struck Nelson in the ribs, almost knocking him down. Nelson became nervous and frightened, but allegedly resolved to take the guns back to his room. He passed Hoppmann again, who threatened him “in low tones,” so he crossed the street. He stood on the corner for ten minutes wondering what to do, but didn’t know where Hoppmann had gone.

Nelson reported that as he started up the avenue toward home, Hoppmann came out of his office and he heard him say, “I’m going over and beat that fellow’s can off.” Nelson denied that he’d been lurking or looking up at the office window. He said Hoppmann was “pulling at his hip pocket as though reaching for a gun” as he came toward him. When Nelson demanded to know what he had in his pocket, Hoppmann allegedly said, “I’m going to kill you.” It was only then that Nelson fired. “When he said that, he made a jerk at his hip pocket and I fired—at the ground. He kept coming and I fired again—twice—and as I backed away from him I may have fired some more. I was so nervous I don’t remember.”

One sidewalk witness said he heard Hoppmann say to Fitzmaurice after Nelson and the cabdriver passed them that “he could lick both of them.” Others testified, “Hoppmann was a man who always wanted to be tough” and was “quarrelsome and mouthy.”

A written statement by Dr. C. J. Wallace was entered into the record. It noted that the doctor had met with Nelson three times in 1919. Nelson had been concerned about the loss of some jewelry because he needed it to square up his debts. He also told the doctor of his “mortal fear” of his former girlfriend’s brother, who had threatened to kill him. He told the doctor that the brother carried a gun, and wondered if he shouldn’t arm himself as well, which the doctor urged him not to do. The doctor’s statement noted that at each visit, separated by several months, Nelson remained obsessed with his tormentor.

During closing statements, prosecutor and assistant county attorney Mason Forbes didn’t dispute that Hoppmann “may have called the defendant vile names…. It has been shown that Hoppmann was more or less of a talker, a bluffer. But he was a false alarm. Throughout all these years that Nelson claims to have been hounded and abused by Hoppmann…[Hoppmann] never actually laid a hand on Nelson.”

Nelson’s lawyer, G. A. E. Finlayson, countered that Hoppmann “terrorized” Nelson with “systematic threats.” Nelson had not intended to kill Hoppmann, but believed his life was in danger. “The constant drop of water will in time wear away the hardest stone…. The constant hammering into a man’s mind of the impression that another is going to ‘get’ him, will break down the strongest will.”

“Morale may mean life or death to a man. Our government spent millions of dollars to keep up the morale, the courage of our soldiers. Nelson’s morale was broken by Hoppmann’s constant threats. He crossed the street when he saw the man coming; he tried to leave Duluth to get away from him. On the other hand, Hoppmann was a braggart, and a drinker of ‘moonshine’ booze. He had been drinking shortly before he walked up to Nelson, unarmed, and, facing Nelson’s ‘cannon,’ said he would kill him. He was filled with a false courage, he was propelled by the ‘moonshine’ he had drunk.”

On April 2, 1920, Casper M. Nelson was convicted of murder in the third degree, with an indeterminate sentence of between seven and thirty years. After an unsuccessful appeal, he was taken to the state penitentiary at Stillwater. He died at St. Peter’s Hospital for the Dangerous Insane on January 28, 1930. His grave is marked by only a number, 1045.

The Curse of the Hotel Brunswick

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