History Theatre brings sensational killings to life in 'Glensheen'

The fountain, balconies and grand staircase
A view of the fountain, balconies and grand staircase of the Glensheen Mansion. A new musical at the History Theater tells a story of murder at the mansion.
Derek Montgomery | For MPR News

In 1977, a pair of sensational murders in Duluth seized the attention of Minnesotans.

The murders of Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse, Velma Pietila, at the waterfront Glensheen mansion made instant household names of the people accused: Marjorie Congdon Caldwell and her husband Roger Caldwell. But it was just the start of a bizarre tale.

Now the History Theatre in St Paul will present the story as a musical, calling it "Glensheen."

How do you make a musical out of murder? You start like this: "This is the story, a tale we know well," sings the cast, "Of greed and murder as foul as we've seen."

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Jeffrey Hatcher
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher says he has been discussing a "Glensheen" show with History Theater Artistic Director Ron Peluso for some time, but struggled with the form due to the story's complexity.
Euan Kerr | MPR News 2009

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher said he can't remember if it was he or History Theatre Artistic Director Ron Peluso who first suggested a show about the Congdon murders. But they never quite got around to it.

"I think some of the hesitancy some years ago had to do with the fact that Marjorie Caldwell was still prowling the earth with her matches," Hatcher said, "and Ron and I both have houses."

Matches? If you are not familiar with the story, this takes some explaining. As Hatcher tells it:

"On a summer evening in 1977, someone broke into the Glensheen Mansion on Lake Superior's shores and murdered Elisabeth Congdon, who was 83, the matriarch, and her nurse, Velma Pietila."

Elisabeth's daughter Marjorie Caldwell stood to inherit millions. But police arrested her and her husband Roger for the murders. A jury convicted Roger. Then another acquitted Marjorie, who many believe masterminded the killings.

Actres Jennifer Maren
Jennifer Maren as Marjory Congdon Caldwell in the History Theater's world premier production of "Glensheen."
Courtesy of History Theater

The acquittal forced a retrial for Roger. He cut a deal and walked free, having served only five years. He later killed himself.

Trouble followed Marjorie, including a number of mysterious deaths, for which she was suspected but never convicted. Ultimately she went to jail for insurance fraud after properties burned to the ground in Arizona. Hence Hatcher's concern about matches.

Jokes aside, Hatcher said his real concern was finding a form for a play. Then it hit him.

"If we do it as a musical we've got leeway," he said. "We can shift things, in style, in perspective. And that really lit it up."

Hatcher said this is a pain-filled story, steeped in absurdity.

"We often say it's Agatha Christie written as 'Fargo,'" he said. "One of the weapons used to commit the murder is a candlestick. People are killed on the staircase.

"And yet the motives, the desperation, the foolishness, is straight out of Bill Macy in 'Fargo.' 'Oh! I gotta get outta this,'" he mugged. "'This is a real problem.'"

Hatcher heard that, after years of refusing to talk about the killings, tour guides at Glensheen are now answering questions if asked. Hatcher uses the tour as a foundation for the musical. But it's a tour unlike any offered at Glensheen.

"And it's got some real down-the-rabbit-hole surrealism going for it," said actor Wendy Lehr with a laugh.

Lehr plays both murder victims, Congdon and Pietila, as well as a number of other characters who appear on the tour. Jennifer Maren plays Marjorie Caldwell and Dane Stauffer her husband, Roger.

Chan Poling
Chan Poling wrote the music for "Glensheen."
Nate Ryan | MPR file

Musician Chan Poling, known as a member of the Suburbs and now the New Standards, wrote the music for "Glensheen." He says it's been challenging, but fun.

"The difficulty is, the kind of elephant in the room is, these are real people and some of their family is still alive," he said.

The cast and crew have already heard about family members who plan to attend the show. In fact, a lot of people plan to attend. The History Theatre reports very strong sales at the box office, even before this weekend's opening.

The show opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 25.