The Slaying of Dr. J. J. Eklund

J. J. Eklund (Duluth Public Library)

August 19, 1922, was an unusually hot and dry Saturday in Duluth. That morning Mrs. C. M. Peterson and her daughter Marie had traveled by train to Duluth from Deer River to see the well-respected allopath Dr. John J. Eklund in his office in the Long Block at 7 East Superior Street. The women sat knee-to-knee in the sweltering consultation room, facing the sixty-one-year-old, bewhiskered Dr. Eklund at his desk. Suddenly, the door behind the doctor sprang open, a clean-shaven man in a cheap-looking suit entered and—without uttering a single word—pointed a .32 caliber German automatic pistol at the doctor’s back and fired three times. Without a second’s hesitation, the man then shot himself twice.

One of the women screamed and in shock both fled the gruesome scene. Almost immediately after the final shot, Dr. William J. Eklund—the junior physician in the office and John Eklund’s son—was at his father’s side, only to witness the man’s last shuddering breaths. Both murdered and murderer died almost instantly. In his grief, the junior Dr. Eklund dragged the murderer’s corpse into the hallway, so his dead father wouldn’t have to lie in the tiny room next to the man who killed him.

Just minutes before, his father’s killer had been in the junior doctor’s examination room across the hall, behaving strangely. He had noted the man, John Magnuson, appeared to be suffering from some form of dementia, possibly a result of Bright’s disease (chronic nephritis, an affliction of the kidneys). After saying he was “sick,” the patient refused to say anything more beyond answering “yes” and “no” to any questions. He was given a prescription and the younger doctor was leading Magnuson to the exit when the shots rang out, only to turn and find the man hadn’t followed him, but instead had immediately entered the elder doctor’s office.

Duluth was stunned at the apparently senseless tragedy. As the editors of the Duluth News Tribune wrote two days later:

Never has Duluth been so shocked as on Saturday when the information went from mouth to mouth that Dr. J. J. Eklund had been shot down in cold blood by a man supposedly irresponsible. It was next to impossible to believe that Dr. Eklund was dead. The practically instantaneous ending of his career was and is painfully distressing to the entire community. The people of Duluth grope in utter darkness for a motive for such a shocking crime.

The Swedish Surgeon

Dr. J. J. Eklund was born in Sweden in 1861, and came to Minnesota in the company of his parents when he was five years old. He grew up on a successful pioneer farm and attended Gustavus Adolphus College and then Minnesota Hospital Medical College (which later was absorbed by the University of Minnesota). Immediately after graduating in 1885, he set up shop in the up-and-coming city of Duluth. Three years later he left town for a few days and surprised everyone when he returned with a new wife in tow, Nannie Asp Eklund. She bore the doctor one son, William J. Eklund.

Mrs. Eklund died in 1905 when William was just reaching his teens, leaving the elder Dr. Eklund a widower for the rest of his life. Only a few years later, father and son moved into their dream home on 24th Avenue East, designed by popular local Norwegian architect John J. Wangenstein. (William and his eventual wife Helen subsequently lived in the house until World War II, when they moved their primary residence to the longtime Eklund vacation home on Pike Lake.)

The elder Dr. Eklund was arguably the most prominent Swedish citizen of Duluth, and served as a frequent toastmaster at Swedish civic and fraternal gatherings. He was active in the First Swedish Lutheran Church, and was chairman of the huge Midsummer Day celebrations held every year in Lincoln Park, which drew Swedes from miles around and was considered “their day,” akin to the Irishmen’s St. Patrick’s Day, but with more choral singing and less alcohol. (Swedes of the West End tended to be ardent prohibitionists.)

Politically and professionally, Dr. Eklund was a well-respected community leader. He was very active in the local Republican Party, and was honored with election as party delegate in support of Presidents Taft and McKinley. He was president of the St. Louis County Sound Government Association, whose primary declared aim was to fight against socialism. During World War I, while his son was off serving as a medical officer, the elder Dr. Eklund served the war effort as the chairman of the Fourth District federal draft board, overseeing ten northern counties. All during wartime, the newspapers frequently reported his efforts to produce more men for the War to End All Wars, and he was known to have no tolerance for slackers or draft dodgers, even going so far as to criticize “quack doctors” who enabled able-bodied men in avoiding their patriotic duty.

For three terms encompassing the entirety of the 1890s, Dr. Eklund served as the St. Louis County Coroner. More than once his friends attempted to persuade him to run for mayor, but he demurred. At the growing St. Luke’s Hospital, he was a leading surgeon, president of the advisory board, and at the time of his death, the hospital’s Chief of Staff. He was frequently called upon to teach his supposedly benighted fellow Scandinavian immigrants how to raise healthy babies and defeat tuberculosis.

As if all these honors and responsibilities weren’t enough, he was also a shrewd venture capitalist, real estate investor and banker. After serving on the board of a few banks, he had opened a bank of his very own, the elegant new Duluth National Bank in the West End. He served as its first president, succeeded by his son after he was killed.

Read more of this story: 1 2
Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.