Strongwood: A Crime Dossier by Larry Millett: New Excerpt

Strongwood: A Crime Dossier by Larry Millett, a historical mystery in documentary format, featuring Shad Rafferty and Sherlock HolmesThis is an exclusive, specially-formatted excerpt from Strongwood: a Crime Dossier by Larry Millett, a novel in documentary form about the 1904 murder trial of Adelaide Strongwood, investigated by St. Paul’s sleuth and saloonkeeper Shadwell Rafferty with associate Sherlock Holmes (available March 15, 2014).

The place is Minneapolis, the year is 1903, and Michael Masterson has fallen in love, or so he claims, with Addie Strongwood, a beautiful working-class girl with an interesting past and a mind of her own. But their promising relationship quickly begins to disintegrate before reaching a violent conclusion. Amid allegations of seduction, rape, and blackmail, Michael is shot dead and Addie goes on trial for first-degree murder, a case reconstructed through trial testimony, newspaper stories, the journal of Addie’s flamboyant defense attorney, and her own first-person account as serialized in the Minneapolis Tribune. As the case unfolds in a welter of conflicting evidence and surprise discoveries, a jury must decide whether Addie acted in self-defense or killed her one-time lover with the coldest of calculation.



Excerpts from the introduction to The Trial of Adelaide Strongwood

Few criminal trials in recent memory have produced as great a sensation in the Northwest as that of Adelaide Strongwood, who stood accused of murdering Michael Masterson, scion of one of the wealthiest manufacturers in Minneapolis. Miss Strongwood’s trial, held before Judge Charles Elliott in the Hennepin County District Court in January and February 1904, became a spectacle avidly followed by almost every resident of the city. The many shocking details that emerged during the three-week-long trial, culminating in the dramatic testimony of Miss Strongwood herself, are still the source of discussion, as is the verdict ultimately rendered by the jury of twelve men good and true. It is the belief of the publishers of this book that the question of whether justice was indeed done in this case is best left to the reader, who will now have before him all of the relevant information needed to reach a well-considered judgment.

…Miss Adelaide, or as she preferred to be called, “Addie,” Strongwood, aged twenty-two at the time of her trial, is a character who needs little introduction. Remarkably well spoken, calm of manner, and possessing startling physical beauty, she was at all times the center of attention in Judge Elliott’s courtroom. Usually dressed in a fall suit consisting of an A-line skirt and tailored jacket over a high-neck blouse with a silk jabot, she never failed to present a fashionable yet dignified appearance. Her piercing blue eyes, which suggested great presence of mind, drew much comment from courtroom observers, as did her luxuriant black hair, which was invariably pinned up in back so that only a few loose tendrils curled at her finely formed face. Despite her humble beginnings, she carried herself at all times with a regal air, and not even the faintest shadow of doubt ever seemed to trouble her visage. Only once during her hours on the witness stand did she succumb to the tears that come so easily to many members of her sex.

From the very beginning, Miss Strongwood proclaimed her innocence by reason of self-defense, and even penned her own account of the events leading up to Mr. Masterson’s death. This document, handwritten by Miss Strongwood during her confinement in the Hennepin County jail, appeared in the Tribune in seven parts, beginning on December 14, 1903. It is a measure of Miss Strongwood’s certainty of mind, perhaps the sovereign feature of her character, that her attorney advised against such an account on the grounds that her words could become impeachable at trial. Her response to this concern, as later reported in the Tribune, was characteristically direct: “You cannot,“ she said, “impeach the truth.”

…Tall and gaunt, like a figure from one of El Greco’s paintings, he [Mr. J. Winston Phelps, lawyer for the defense } is fond of flamboyant attire and is considered one of the great “talkers” of the city. He is no popinjay, however, for beneath his colorful plumage lurks a fierce bird of prey. Witnesses have been known to tremble before the force of his cross-examinations, and his skills in this regard were amply displayed during Miss Strongwood’s long trial.2 The presiding judge, the Honorable Charles B. Elliott, was appointed to the municipal court bench in Minneapolis in 1890 at the tender age of twenty-nine. He was elevated to the district court only four years later, and despite his youth he is now regarded as one of the ”wise old men” of the bench by virtue of his profound knowledge of the law and his calm but firm judicial demeanor.3

2. Phelps was unquestionably the most successful, and controversial, defense attorney of his day in Minneapolis, and was especially notorious for his support of radical causes. He was first introduced to readers in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Alliance, which concerns a murder case in Minneapolis in 1899.

3. Elliott was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1905 and went on to a long career that included a stint as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippine Islands. He also authored several law books. He died in 1935.

            * * *

Part One of “An Account of My Life and the Incident for Which I Have Been Unjustly Accused of Murder,” by Addie Strongwood, Minneapolis Tribune, December 14, 1903          

I will begin by stating that I did not murder Michael Masterson in cold blood, as the calumnies of the press would have it, and that I am in every way a woman wronged. If there does indeed abide in this world some measure of justice—a dubious proposition, I am beginning to believe—then it is not I who should be standing trial before the people of Hennepin County but those who in their low viciousness and cruel cunning abetted in the crimes against me. I feel upon me the heavy weight of falsehood, as did the prophet Isaiah: “None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity.”

The truth is that I loved Michael, more than the world will ever know. I gave him my heart, which is the greatest thing a woman has to give, and I gave it to him so completely that I will never be able to give it in that way again. Yet instead of love from Michael I was met only with treachery on that fateful day in room 413 of the Windom Block.6

6. Located at Washington and Second Avenues South in downtown Minneapolis, the Windom Block was a four-story office building constructed in 1882. Once home to the offices of the Pillsbury Company, famed flour millers, the building by 1903 was already in decline, its tenants including a saloon and a barber college. The building was razed in about 1910 to make way for a federal building that still occupies the site.

My trial is now but a few weeks away, and while I am hopeful that the truth in all of its mighty splendor will emerge from the proceedings to come, I have decided to take advantage of the offer made to me by Mr. William J. Murphy7 of the Minneapolis Tribune to write my own account of the events that led to Michael Masterson’s death. My attorney, Mr. J. Winston Phelps, who is well known in this city as a champion of justice, has advised me to remain silent until my day in court arrives, but as I am the only person in a position to tell the truth without prejudice or distortion, I believe that I must go ahead and make my case to the public. Untruths have already been piled upon my good name like dirt slung into a freshly dug grave; I do not propose to let men with shovels bury me in their lies.

7. William J. Murphy was publisher of the Tribune from 1891 until his death in 1918. Murphy Hall, home to the University of Minnesota’s journalism program, bears his name.

Of all the falsehoods that have circulated since that day which changed my life forever, none is more loathsome than the claim that I planned Michael’s killing like some patient spider weaving its web. While it is true that I armed myself before going to the Windom Block, I did so only for the purpose of defending myself should the need arise. My intent was only to convince Michael to do the right and honorable thing. His response to my heartfelt plea was sudden and brutal, and it was in that moment life or death for me. I chose to defend my life, as any man or woman would in such dire circumstances, and had I failed to act I have no doubt that I would today be among the unremembered dead in the potter’s field at Lakewood or some other lonely burial ground.8

8. Lakewood Cemetery, in the lake district of south Minneapolis, was founded in 1871. Many of the city’s most famous business, civic, and political leaders are buried at Lakewood, which is the city’s largest cemetery.

…Even as a young girl, I was not afraid to stand up for myself, and the nuns were no doubt pleased to be rid of me when, at age sixteen, I was sent out into the world to work as a maid. My second place of employment in this capacity was in the mansion of the Van Dusen family.12 It was in that great house, a fairytale castle of round towers and swooping roofs, that I grew to womanhood, faithful in my duties but also anticipating the time when I would be able to find some better opportunity. It is now well known, thanks to the newspapers, that I was dismissed by Mrs. Van Dusen in April of this year for supposedly stealing two silver spoons. What has not been reported is that the real culprit was in fact another maid employed in the household who had long resented me. As for subsequent events at the Van Dusen mansion, I can only state that once I left that vast house under a false cloud of suspicion, I never returned and so know nothing of any criminal acts allegedly committed there.

12. The Van Dusen Mansion, built in 1893 for George and Nancy Van Dusen, still stands at 1900 LaSalle Avenue in Minneapolis and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now used as an events center.

My unjust dismissal from the Van Dusen household caused me much anguish, as might be imagined, but I did not dwell upon it. Instead, I resolved to find some new place where I could make a better life. By this time, working in domestic service had become extremely tiresome to me, and as I had reached the age of majority, I determined to seek some other line of endeavor. Mr. Van Dusen, who was of a kindly disposition and always treated me well, had spoken often of his fondness for Chicago and of the opportunities that city offered to anyone eager for work. I therefore decided that Chicago would be my new home. I arrived there on a rainy morning in late April and immediately began making the rounds of employment agencies. Alas, I found the great city by the lake, with its overwhelming bustle and thick forest of buildings, to be an unwelcoming place, and despite the most vigorous effort on my part I was unable to secure a permanent position as a secretary or clerk.

So it was this past summer that I returned to Minneapolis and soon, to my happy surprise, obtained employment with the well-known manufacturing firm of Masterson, DeLaittre & Sons.13 It was in that company’s offices, on Nicollet Island just above the Falls of St. Anthony, that I first met Michael Masterson, under circumstances that I will relate shortly. Oh, how I wish now that the Mighty Hand which moves us through this troubled world had never seen fit for such a meeting to occur! But our route is not ours to choose, for as the Bible tells us, “Lest thou should ponder the path of life, her ways are moveable, and thou canst not know them.”

13. Masterson, Delaittre and Sons was among several manufacturing firms that once occupied the southern end of Nicollet Island. All of these companies are long gone, and most of the old industrial district is now a park. Several remnants of the island’s industrial past remain, however, including the Island Sash and Door Works, built in 1893 and now the Nicollet Island Inn.

* * *

From the journal of J. Winston Phelps [Defense Counsel], November 16, 1903

… 930 pm—call from Shad26 this evening & had long talk—said he’d heard Addie was my client & found her case most interesting, especially as it was a rich man she killed—offered to be of help—accepted at once as it never hurts to have a bulldog in your corner.

26. “Shad” refers to Shadwell Rafferty, a St. Paul saloonkeeper and part-time detective who was well known in the Twin Cities at the time, especially for his connections to Sherlock Holmes. Rafferty first met Holmes and Dr. John Watson in St. Paul in 1896 during the case later recounted in Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders. The trio also became involved in Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery, concerning murderous events in western Minnesota in 1899. Later that year, they met again in Minneapolis to investigate the case that became the subject of Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Alliance. It was while looking into the doings of the Alliance that Rafferty first met Phelps, and the two men became friends thereafter.

* * *

Excerpt from an article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 8, 1904

… It has been reliably reported that two famous visitors from England, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, passed through St. Paul last night on their way to Rochester to consult with Dr. Will Mayo, the famed surgeon.27 There is speculation that one of the duo is quite ill and will require Dr. Mayo’s services at St. Mary’s Hospital.

 27. Dr. William J. Mayo was the oldest son of Dr. William Worrall Mayo, an English-born physician who established a medical practice in Rochester in the 1860s. By 1904 William J. Mayo and his brother, Charles, had already become renowned surgeons, attracting patients from as far away as Europe. In 1921 the brothers were among seven founders of what is now known as the Mayo Clinic.


Copyright © 2014 by Larry Millett.

Excerpt reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.


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Larry Millett is the author of six mystery novels—all but one set in Minnesota—that feature Sherlock Holmes and St. Paul detective Shadwell Rafferty, most recently The Magic Bullet, also published by the University of Minnesota Press. His nonfiction works include Lost Twin Cities and Once There Were Castles (Minnesota, 2011)

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