Deadly Charm: The Murders at the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, Minnesota
Eighty-nine-year-old Marjorie Congdon has been called both a sociopath and a psychopath. The terms are not interchangeable. Sociopaths have a conscience, but their moral compass is weak. Psychopaths are without a conscience. They are cold-hearted, deceitful, manipulative, and cruel. In addition, they are charming, charismatic and engaging. People are drawn to psychopaths like moths to a flame. Sociopaths are rarely so engaging.
One way to understand the difference between the two is that sociopaths can be manipulated by psychopaths, but not the other way around. Psychopaths live in a world of their own, a world that is all about their wants and needs. They care nothing about anyone else, although they are often good at making it seem as if they do. They are consummate actors, and the role they play is of being human when, in fact, they are something less than human, and dangerous because of it.
Born a Psychopath
One other big difference stands out. No one is born a sociopath. Sociopaths are shaped by their environment. A traumatic childhood can turn a person into a sociopath.
But psychopaths are different. The literature has noted cases where children demonstrate psychopathic behaviors as early as age two, and in environments that are perfectly sound. It appears someone can be born a psychopath, and it also appears that psychopathology can run in families.
Marjorie Congdon has been diagnosed a psychopath. But her mother, who was murdered in 1977, was not. Nor was anyone else in the Congdon family. In fact, the Congdon family was one of the most accomplished, distinguished and generous in Minnesota. What happened to them was a nightmare. But it didn’t stop there. What they inadvertently let loose on a summer day in 1932 destroyed many lives, and it all began with an act of generosity.
A Tour of Glensheen Mansion
When you tour Glensheen Mansion, the 39-room Congdon family home on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, the docents try to avoid talking about the murders. The Congdons are notable for many things, and the docents don’t want those accomplishments overshadowed by the taint of Marjorie Congdon’s behavior.
The mansion itself is beautiful. A nineteenth century masterpiece of hand-carved oak, stained glass, damask wall coverings and handmade rugs, it sits on twelve acres of land that slopes gently to the shores of Lake Superior. It’s one of America’s great houses.
Still, it’s a little awkward when you’re standing in the bedroom where Elisabeth Congdon was murdered with a satin pillow over her face, and it’s not even mentioned. You want to raise your hand and draw attention to it, even if it might be considered a bit crass. It’s a significant part of the mansion’s history, even if it is a bit unsettling, especially in light of the fact that the likely murderer is still alive and not in prison.
Later in the tour, as you pass the landing where Elisabeth’s nurse Velma Pietila was brutally bludgeoned to death with an iron candlestick holder, where blood had soaked the rug and dripped off the banisters, you want to ask them to stop and acknowledge it. After all, it should be part of a complete picture of the mansion’s history, which also includes the remarkable story of Chester Adgate Congdon, Elisabeth’s father and the builder of Glensheen.
Rags to Riches
Chester Adgate Congdon was a go-getter. Born in 1853, the son of a Methodist minister, Chester showed ambition and drive at an early age. He worked in a lumber mill from the age of fifteen to support his family after his father’s death. Then he graduated as class valedictorian from seminary school before taking a law degree at Syracuse University. He passed the bar and took a job as a high school principal in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Dissatisfied, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota with $31 in his pocket, passed the Minnesota bar, and joined a law firm. His was the classic American rags to riches story, and he was just getting started.
He befriended the US District Attorney in St. Paul and got a job as his assistant. In 1883 at the age of thirty he started his own practice and traveled to Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior where he became interested in mining. A deposit of iron ore had been found sixty miles to the north in the Mesabi range, and Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie had shown an interest in it. Partnering with a friend, Congdon obtained leases for iron ore properties that contained ore mixed with sand. At the time, it was not possible to separate ore from sand, so the ore was worthless. But Congdon was betting on the come.
At great personal expense, Congdon hired a mining engineer to develop a washing mill that could remove the sand. Suddenly his ore was worth a fortune. Overnight, Congdon became a very wealthy man.
In the early years of the twentieth century as the demand for iron ore increased, Chester Congdon’s wealth grew. It was then that he decided to build his dream home on the shores of Lake Superior. He would call it Glensheen after the ancestral home of the Congdon family in Sheen, England. Sadly, he was only able to enjoy his home for seven years. He died in 1916.
In his will Chester Congdon bequeathed his home and fortune to his wife and children, and by succession to his grandchildren. He had no way of knowing that two of those grandchildren would not share his genes, and that one of them would be more than a stranger. She would be strange.
The Child was Different
Elisabeth Mannering Congdon, Chester Congdon’s third daughter, didn’t prefer the company of men, at least not to the extent that she would marry one. After breaking off an early engagement, she settled into the life of a spinster. However, that didn’t mean she didn’t want children.
In an act brazen for the time, Elisabeth traveled to New York City on a summer day in 1932 and adopted a child. As a single woman, this bordered on the scandalous, but Elisabeth’s regrets would have little to do with the social opprobrium her action invited. Her regrets would be of a different, more vexing nature.
The child she’d adopted was olive skinned with straight, black hair and was so nearsighted she had to wear thick glasses. From the beginning, the child was different. She was introverted and spent most of her time reading alone or playing by herself in the nooks and crannies of the vast mansion. The staff rarely saw her. Elisabeth named her Marjorie.
When Marjorie was three, Elisabeth adopted a second daughter who she named Jennifer. Jennifer was bubbly and outgoing, a treasure to all those who knew her, except perhaps to Marjorie whose behavioral problems got worse after her arrival. Withdrawing further, Marjorie began to act strangely, pulling out her own hair and laugh in an odd manner.
A Warning Sign
At the age of twelve Marjorie began spending her mother’s money with a vengeance, running up her charge accounts at local merchants. As her personality emerged from behind a wall of introversion, it was aggressive and unpleasant, and she made people uncomfortable. Then at the age of thirteen she did something that would’ve been a warning sign to any criminal psychologist, had there been such a thing in 1945.
Elisabeth Congdon’s way of dealing with Marjorie was to appease her. She bought her things. Accordingly, when Marjorie was thirteen, Elisabeth bought Marjorie a horse she had been demanding. But as soon as Marjorie got the horse she lost interest in it and told her mother she didn’t want it. Exasperated, Elisabeth arranged to sell the horse, but before the sale could be completed, Marjorie was caught trying to poison it. If Marjorie couldn’t have it, nobody would. It was a pattern that would repeat itself throughout her life.
When Marjorie was sixteen, Elisabeth sent her away to a boarding school in New England. Marjorie got good grades but was considered something of a weirdo by her classmates. She made few friends. When she returned home at age eighteen, she began stealing money again. Alarmed, Elisabeth sent her away to a clinic in Topeka, Kansas for a psychological evaluation. Whatever the diagnosis revealed was something Elisabeth would never tell anyone. Then in 1951 Marjorie became someone else’s problem.
Marjorie Congdon’s sudden magnetic appeal to men is remarkable in light of the fact that she was in no way conventionally attractive. She was short, wide at the hips and bookish looking. Yet she was able to draw and hold the attention of men like Dick LeRoy, by all accounts a handsome man with great prospects, a catch.
Nowadays, criminal psychologists recognize the allure of psychopaths as practiced behavior. Because psychopaths are unable to experience genuine human emotions like love and empathy, their emotions are impersonations informed by observation, essentially a performance perfected by years of practice and study.
In this light, Marjorie’s difficulty in making friends at school can be seen as trial and error, a long learning curve that resulted in her emerging as an engaging, charismatic young woman at the age of nineteen, enough to snare a man like Dick LeRoy. Sadly, Marjorie’s mother neglected to mention Marjorie’s psychological problems to her new husband before he married her.
Marjorie Congdon became Marjorie LeRoy on June 30th, 1951. The marriage lasted twenty years and cost Dick LeRoy an estimated $1 million in debt and liabilities. The elderly Elisabeth Congdon did what she could to help lessen the damage by covering at least $350,000 of her daughter’s indebtedness, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Dick LeRoy from being ruined.
Compulsive spending was Marjorie Congdon’s modus operandi. It was as if she was determined to spend every last penny of Chester Congdon’s fortune. From the outside, it may have looked like her spending was out of control. But in reality it was just the opposite.
Psychopaths are driven by their need for control. Their manipulation of others is symptomatic of that need. In the world Marjorie Congdon grew up in, wealth was everything. To control that wealth must’ve been very enticing to someone like Marjorie. She wanted the money, and she was not content to wait for her inheritance. If she could not get it by lying, cheating and stealing, she would find some other way.
In 1975 Marjorie Congdon met Roger Caldwell at a Parents Without Partners meeting in Colorado. They married two months later.
Caldwell was a bad alcoholic. When he drank, he turned violent. But if anyone thought Marjorie was the victim in this relationship, they had another thing coming.
Marjorie kept on spending, writing bad checks and driving her new husband deeper and deeper into debt. Marjorie’s mother and the rest of the Congdon family put their foot down and refused to send her money to bail her out.
That’s when Marjorie got an idea. She decided to ask the trustees of her estate to lend her $750,000 to buy a horse ranch in Colorado. She knew they were unlikely to front her the cash, so she sent Roger to make the plea. They turned him down flat. Marjorie could not have been pleased. Psychopaths are at their most dangerous when their manipulations are thwarted.
The Murders at the Glensheen Mansion
On the morning of June 27th, 1977 the day nurse arrived at Glensheen to take over for the night staff. Partially paralyzed by a stroke for more than a decade, eighty-three-year-old Elisabeth Congdon required around the clock care. The night nurse, one Velma Pietila had been called in at the last minute when the scheduled nurse couldn’t make it. As the day nurse entered the house that morning, something seemed off, the mansion was unusually quiet.
As the nurse climbed the stairs, she stopped dead in her tracks. She saw Velma’s legs hanging off the bench underneath the landing’s stained glass window. She went up to the prone figure. Velma was covered in blood. She took her pulse. Velma’s body was as cold as concrete. An iron candlestick holder lay discarded nearby. The nurse hurried up the stairs to Elisabeth’s bedroom.
A satin pillow was lying over Elisabeth’s face. The nurse picked up a corner and peeked underneath. Elisabeth’s face was purple, her mouth hanging open. She had been smothered to death.
When word reached Jennifer Congdon, Marjorie Congdon’s younger sister, the first thing she said was, “Marjorie did it.” But proving that was going to be difficult.
Antabuse is a prescription drug that reacts badly with alcohol. The combination of Antabuse and alcohol can produce seizures, congestive heart failure and even death. One month before the murder Marjorie got a prescription for Antabuse. She warned Roger if he wouldn’t do something about his drinking, she would. Her ability to coerce him in this way hinted at deeper implications.
The murders at Glensheen mansion were sloppy. Roger Caldwell was identified by a Duluth cab driver who remembered taking him out to Glensheen on the night of the murders. After the murders, someone stole Velma Pietila’s car and left it at the airport, suggesting the killer had fled the city. Dumbest of all, a rare Byzantine coin that had been taken from Elisabeth’s Congdon’s room on the night of the murders turned up in Roger Caldwell’s home in Golden, Colorado. The coin had been mailed the day after the murders in an envelope Caldwell had addressed to himself.
It took the authorities less than two weeks to arrest Roger Caldwell, but not before he wound up in the hospital after having collapsed at breakfast with seizures. He was treated for a possible heart attack but released after doctors couldn’t determine the cause of his illness. He was taken into custody and arraigned on charges of first degree murder.
After a long trial, it took the jury just twenty-four hours to convict Roger Caldwell. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Asked if he had anything to say before sentencing, he claimed he did not committed the murders. Curiously, he never said who did. Marjorie did not attend a single day of his trial.
Two days after Roger Caldwell was sentenced, Marjorie was arrested and charged with conspiracy. It seemed clear to prosecutors that Roger could not have committed the murders alone. What’s more, investigators found a dark hair near Velma Pietila’s body. Roger had gray hair. The evidence pointed toward Marjorie.
But Marjorie had something going for her that Roger didn’t. These days few Americans find it cynical to observe that our justice system is vulnerable to the influences of wealth and celebrity. Marjorie Congdon Caldwell had enough notoriety as an heiress that she could hire one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Minnesota. The promise of a big pay combined with plenty of publicity may have been factors that led Ronald Meshbesher to take her case. He did a masterful job.
In spite of the fact that it came to light during the trial that Marjorie had attempted to poison her mother on a previous occasion, Marjorie was acquitted. She eventually paid her lawyer out of the income from her $750,000 trust fund.
For a woman whose motivation appeared to be greed, this might have come as a disappointment. But psychopaths are not greedy in the same way sociopaths are. They are not trying to get money to feed a desire for things. Rather, they seek money as a means of control. Marjorie used her inheritance to acquit her of the murder of the person who controlled her inheritance. It was perfect. She won. Now she was free to do whatever she wanted.
A Burning Compulsion
Marjorie had a penchant for arson. As early as 1966 when she was married to Dick LeRoy, the family garage mysteriously burned to the ground. Marjorie did not call the fire department. When she was alerted to the fire, she was nonchalant. Only the quick action of Dick LeRoy prevented the fire from spreading and burning the neighborhood down.
Eight years later in 1974 after arranging for the remodeling of a house she’d purchased, Marjorie was slow to pay the contractor, so the contractor placed a lien on her property. Shortly thereafter, the house burned to the ground. Just before the fire, Marjorie was seen carrying valuables out of the house and loading them into her car. In spite of the evidence, prosecutors did not pursue a case against her.
Two years later, after having moved to Englewood, Colorado, Marjorie was identified in the vicinity of the First National Bank Building shortly before it caught on fire. The cause was arson, but her presence there could not be connected to the crime, and she was not arrested.
Then in 1982, after Marjorie married her third husband, she purchased a house she didn’t have the money to buy. Before the contract came due, she sold the house but didn’t immediately vacate. She told the new buyers she wanted to do some work on the house before handing it over to them. They agreed. When the new buyers inspected the house just days before they were to move in, they noticed the floors had been varnished, and there was a strong chemical odor. The next day the house caught fire. When authorities called Marjorie to tell her what had happened, she said nonchalantly, “It isn’t our house. We sold it.”
Getting Along Swimmingly in Prison
This time Marjorie had overplayed her hand. With her history of arson, she was immediately a suspect. She was arrested and convicted of second-degree arson and insurance fraud. It looked like justice was finally catching up with her. Even her attorney Ronald Meshbesher couldn’t get her off. She was sentenced two and a half years in prison and fined $10,000. She appealed, was let free on bond and, after a year of setbacks and delays, she was finally remanded to Shakopee Women’s Prison in Shakopee, Minnesota.
She wasn’t there long. Twenty months later she was released for good behavior. It turned out the prison authorities loved her. She was charming and talkative. She got along swimmingly with the other inmates, and she sent a bouquet of flowers to the warden every week. When she left, they told her they were going to miss her.
Back at home, her third husband, Walter Hagen, was delighted at her return. To celebrate they bought an Airstream trailer and traveled the country, eventually settling in Ajo, Arizona, a town of 2,500 persons near the Mexican border. Two years later, the town experienced a rash of forty-three fires, at least fifteen of which were attributed to arson.
One Last Visit
In March 1991 Marjorie was caught red-handed setting fire to her neighbor’s house with him inside of it. She was arrested, tried and convicted. She was sentenced to fifteen years in an Arizona prison.
As before, she was not considered a flight risk, so she was permitted to visit her husband one last time before being escorted to prison. The officers who dropped her off found her quirky and engaging, a charming old lady. They never suspected what was about to happen.
The next morning Walter Hagen was found dead, the victim of an apparent suicide. Marjorie admitted as much, saying she and Walter had made a suicide pact, but that she had lost her nerve at the last minute and couldn’t go through with it. A garden hose was found running from the gas stove in the kitchen to their bedroom.
The investigators weren’t buying it. Marjorie was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. But the charges were dropped after prosecutors failed to get a grand jury indictment. An autopsy subsequently revealed Walter Hagen had died of a drug overdose. Whether or not he had taken the pills of his own volition was never determined.
In January 2004 Marjorie Congdon was released from prison after serving ten years of her fifteen year sentence for arson. She was seventy-one years old.
Three years later on March 2, 2007 she was caught trying to forge the signature of a recently deceased friend on an inheritance check. Before she was arrested, Marjorie arranged to have the body of her friend cremated. As a result, no autopsy was possible. Marjorie pleaded guilty to the crime of forgery and was given probation. Later it came to light that her friend had thought the world of her. He used to call her, “My Angel.”
The Problem with Psycho
Today, Marjorie Congdon is eighty-nine years old. She resides in Tucson, Arizona. Those who know her find her friendly and engaging. They cannot believe the things people say about her.
Sadly, most people from her generation would not be able to square what they know about Marjorie with the diagnosis of a psychopath. To them, a psychopath is a person like Norman Bates in the classic 1960 Hitchcock thriller “Psycho”, a deranged maniac with little control over his mental state, a twisted monster made that way by abuse and trauma. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Norman Bates, as depicted in the film, was a psychotic. A psychotic is someone who is out of touch with reality. That’s different from a psychopath. Psychopaths are in complete control of reality. They know exactly what they’re doing. They are not creepy. They are friendly and engaging. They dazzle and captivate. They win people over, before bending them to their will.
An Idyllic Upbringing
Psychopaths are not shaped by their upbringing. Marjorie is a text book example. Adopted by one of the wealthiest families in Minnesota, she was brought up in lavish surroundings with all the comforts money could buy, Marjorie had an idyllic childhood. Yet she destroyed the lives of all those around her. Marjorie’s problem wasn’t caused by others. It happened because she lacked a conscience.
Psychopaths are born without consciences, the way some people are born without sight or sound. You cannot fault them for that, but neither should you give them sympathy. Sympathy is a dangerous emotion in the hands of a psychopath. They will use it against you if it suits them. Better you should stay away from them. Avoid being drawn in. Yet even now somebody is sitting down over a friendly cup of coffee with a psychopath somewhere.
It is estimated that 1% of the population are psychopaths. Female psychopaths are rare, occurring at half the rate of men. Most psychopaths are not violent, but all are treacherous. If they want something from you, they will stop at nothing to get it. They may charm you, they may trick you, or they may put you in a difficult position. They are callous and opportunistic and care nothing about you. Some psychopaths are highly successful, exercising wealth and power, but no less dangerous for all that. The public needs to be educated.
But at the Congdon Mansion in Duluth, Minnesota they want to avoid discussing Marjorie. They consider the legacy of Chester Congdon and his family too important to be tainted by the troubling story of her atrocious behavior. But in the big picture a greater public service could be done by acknowledging the tragedy and handing out information on psychopathology. It might help visitors better understand Marjorie’s behavior, and raise awareness about these dangerous people among us.
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Hare, Robert D. Phd. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. The Guilford Press, 1999
Hendry, Sharon Darby. Glensheen’s Daughter: The Marjorie Congdon Story. Cable Publishing, 2014
Mansion with blood red sky, by Toa Heftiba
Figure at window, Isai Ramos
Glensheen Mansion exterior, Public domain
Glensheen bedroom where murder took place, Damien Enwhistle
Chester Congdon by Daniel Haas, CC by-SA 4.0
Stained glass, Shellgame
Elisabeth Congdon young, Alchetron
Glensheen stables, Damien Enwhistle
Appealing smile, Alexander Krivitskiy
Hallway in Glensheen mansion, Damien Enwhistle
Elisabeth Condon in her eighties, Popular Bio
Staircase landing at Glensheen, Damien Enwhistle
Roger Caldwell mugshot, John DeSanto, Zenith City Press
Marjorie Congdon Caldwell walking with attorney, Art Hagen, Minneapolis Start Tribume
Candleholders on nightstand in murder bedroom, Hansen Family blog
House on fire, Esri Esri
Marjorie Congdon mug shot, Pima County Sheriff’s Office
Striking a match, Erick Zajac
Smiling Marjorie in her seventies, Arizona Department of Corrections
Psycho movie still, RobertEbert.com
Lake Superior shoreline, by Taylor Friehl