Book review: ‘Murder in Wisconsin’ by Larry Scheckel

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

Larry Scheckel is a former science teacher who writes a newspaper column called “Ask a Science Teacher” for the Tomah Journal and Monitor-Herald. Many of those columns have been collected in two previously published books. Scheckel is originally from Seneca, Wis., and has written about his childhood in “Seneca Seasons.” “Murder in Wisconsin” also is set in the Seneca area of Crawford County. It is a well-researched true story.

Clara Olson was 21 and in love. In 1925–26, she had been courted by a local boy, Erdman Olson (no relation). He was the son of a well-off tobacco farmer neighbor. Erdman was a college boy; he always had plenty of money, and he had a car. Clara was so much in love that she succumbed to his charms to the point of becoming in a family way, as it was often called. The usual response was to save the girl’s reputation with a hurried wedding. Erdman was too much of a man about town for that.

Knowing full well that he would soon become a father, Erdman went back to Gale College. Desperate, Clara wrote both Erdman and his parents, asking them to do the right thing. Erdman’s parents knew their son wasn’t that kind of person and felt he was being made a scapegoat for someone else, probably because he had money. Erdman said as much.

Because Clara and her family were so persistent, Erdman felt he wasn’t going to get free of the situation and changed tactics. In a letter to Clara, he gave directions for a late-night rendezvous for an elopement. Clara’s father saw her leave and didn’t interfere because he thought the boy was finally doing the right thing. Clara left a vague note hinting at marriage and said she would contact them soon with good news. When she didn’t contact them after a reasonable time, the family became concerned, especially when Erdman reappeared. When confronted, he said he had given her money and sent her to the Twin Cities. But that didn’t explain why she hadn’t contacted her family, and her father began to fear the worst.

Believing that Clara had been murdered, he began organizing search parties of the area. Erdman knew what was coming. Writing letters to both sets of parents, he admitted no guilt but did say he was leaving and they would not see him again. Eventually Clara’s body was found in a shallow grave near Erdman’s parents’ farm.

The back cover of the book indicates it reads like a novel. This is especially true prior to finding the body, as Scheckel manages to build suspense even as the reader knows Clara’s fate. The remainder of the book is morea description of the workings of the 1920s legal system in rural Wisconsin. When applied to this case, that too is interesting.

“Murder in Wisconsin: The Clara Olson Case” is available in local libraries. It also may be ordered from Amazon.

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