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The oldest murder mystery in Minnesota

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An oil painting of the Chapel of St. Paul, 1884
Photographs of the St. Paul area in the 1830s are tough to come by, if they exist at all. Pictured is an oil painting of the Chapel of St. Paul, which was built two years after Hays' murder on a portion of land originally claimed by John Hays and Edward Phalen.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The oldest murder mystery in Minnesota begins at Fort Snelling in 1838.

Edward Phalen was a 27-year-old soldier stationed at the fort. An Irish immigrant, he'd come west with the army and was about to be discharged after three years of service. He had a bad reputation amongst his fellow soldiers for being a bully with a hot temper.

'Minnesota's Oldest Murder Mystery'
'Minnesota's Oldest Murder Mystery' by Gary Brueggemann
Courtesy of Beaver's Pond Press

It was a critical time in Minnesota history, and Phalen was in exactly the right place to reap the benefits. Statehood was still 20 years off, but a treaty signed the year before between the Ojibwe people and the United States had made it legal for settlers to claim land between the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers.

"The soldiers who got discharged from Fort Snelling had an early crack at the top land," said Gary Brueggemann, a retired history professor and author of "Minnesota's Oldest Murder Mystery." "Phalen, who probably came from the streets of New York and gangs, was excited about the prospect that he could be a big land claimer."

There was only one hitch: The money.

Phalen was short on the funds he'd need to claim the land, so he teamed up with a sergeant at the fort, John Hays. Hays had the money, but wasn't due to be discharged for another year, at which point the best land claims would already be gone. The partnership made perfect sense: Neither could get the land without the other.

Even so, "they're like the odd couple," Brueggemann said. "Phalen is uneducated, crude, with a criminal past. ... Hays was the opposite: affable, supposedly got along with everybody."

The pair struck a deal and Phalen claimed two tracts of land — they cover nearly all of modern-day downtown St. Paul. Phalen built a cabin at what is now the Xcel Energy Center parking ramp, Brueggemann said.

The next year, when Hays was discharged, he joined Phalen at the cabin. Neighbors remembered the two men's constant fighting, even as they started a farm together and bought cattle.

Then, in September of 1839, Hays disappeared.

That's where time begins to eat away at the details.

Hays' body turned up three weeks later, badly beaten, near Carver's Cave in St. Paul. Phalen was an early suspect.

Henry Sibley, who went on to become the first governor of Minnesota, was called to investigate the case as justice of the peace. Within weeks, Phalen was arrested. He was tried for murder in Prairie du Chien, Wis., but was not convicted.

By the time historians began to research the case — as early as 1870 — the court documents seem to have vanished.

"Fletcher Williams was the first secretary of the Minnesota Historical Society," Brueggemann said. "He did his research on the murder in the 1870s and wrote his book in '75, and couldn't find the documents."

The missing documents left a hole in this dark moment of Minnesota history until 1994, when Brueggemann was researching in the Minnesota Historical Society archives. 

Joseph R. Brown
Joseph R. Brown, one of the founding fathers of Minnesota, tried Edward Phalen for murder in the 1840s.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

There, in the papers of Joseph R. Brown, one of the state's founding fathers, on the top of the very first box he opened, was a court ledger.

Brueggemann realized then that the early history books didn't have the whole story: Sibley had initially investigated the Hays murder case, but he'd later passed it off to Brown because of a jurisdiction issue.

Brown had tried Phalen's case and had taken meticulous notes in his ledger — the ledger Brueggemann now had in his hands.

Using Brown's notes, Brueggemann worked to fill in some of the details on the 150-year-old murder. The ledger included the testimony of 12 witnesses, as well as two separate — and conflicting — accounts from Phalen. In Brueggemann's 2012 book, he attempts to lay out what really happened.

According to the ledger, when Hays first went missing, it was Phalen himself who raised the alarm. He claimed that Hays had gone off to search for a missing calf that he suspected had been stolen by Native Americans.

Phalen organized a search party for Hays but his story didn't seem to hold up. He claimed he'd canoed Hays across the river so he could confront the thieves at a nearby Native American village, but a neighbor on the search party reported seeing no footprints where the canoe would have landed.

Three weeks later, a group of Native Americans visiting Fort Snelling told soldiers they'd found the body of a white man near what's now called Dayton's Bluff. A military doctor and several soldiers went to investigate. Phalen was already there when they arrived.

It was a brutal sight, Brueggeman said, recounting the details he found in the judge's ledger. "Hays' head was bashed in, his jaw was broken, he'd been brutally beaten to death."

When he was tried for Hays' murder, Phalen did nothing to help himself, Brueggemann said. "Phalen's testimony, to be frank, is self-incriminatory. If your partner disappears and you're totally innocent, why would you lie?"

Despite that, Phalen was found not guilty. He was released, and he returned to reclaim his land — both his tract and Hays'.

In the six months he'd been gone, however, a French-Canadian settler had claim-jumped the deceased Hays' tract of land.

Soon, frozen out by his neighbors who believed he was guilty, Phalen sold his own tract and moved farther east. He claimed a new piece of land near what's now called Swede Hollow, where Phalen Creek meets the Mississippi.

Swede Hollow in St. Paul
An early picture of Swede Hollow in St. Paul, several decades after Edward Phalen claimed the land.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Phalen established another cattle farm and made a respectable income. His name entered the history books again in 1848 when he became one of the delegates at the Stillwater Convention, which put Minnesota on the path toward statehood.

But Phalen couldn't escape the specter of guilt. Even when it was reported that a warrior from the Dakota tribe made a deathbed confession in Hays' murder, many continued to believe that Phalen had done it. When researching his book, Brueggemann could only find second-hand accounts of any such confession.

Phalen's own death in 1850 is almost an entirely separate mystery. It's recorded only briefly in Fletcher Williams' 1876 history of St. Paul.

Phalen, Williams wrote, fled west to California to escape a perjury charge. On the journey, he was killed by his traveling companions. They claimed self-defense.

Williams provided no further details.

Lake Phalen, circa 1890
A group of boaters on Lake Phalen in St. Paul, circa 1890. The lake's name was already a source of controversy, 50 years after John Hays' murder.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Phalen's legacy

Despite Phalen's association with the brutal murder of Hays, many modern St. Paul landmarks are named after the early settler. Residents took issue with this as early as 1876.

Williams, the 19th century historian, wrote, "It is a disgrace that the name of this brutal murderer has been affixed to one of our most beautiful lakes."

Hays' name, however, is nowhere to be found around the city — not even on a gravestone. After examining his body, the military doctor and soldiers buried him where they'd found him.

"I still believe the bones of Hays are buried below Dayton's Bluff," Brueggemann said. "Somewhere between Warner Road and the railroad tracks."