SAINT PAUL, MN - Locals were shocked when Saint Paul butcher and prominent local citizen Louis Arbogast was murdered. Arbogast, his wife, and four daughters lived a seemingly mundane, uneventful life in a large home near the city’s downtown. From the outside, they appeared to be nothing short of a happy family that loved each other a lot.
In the early morning of May 13, 1909, everything changed, and the once-unified family was torn apart. In the end, the death of the family patriarch left both the authorities and the community with infinitely more questions than answers.
The murder of Louis Arbogast
The tale began with the smell of smoke emanating from the second floor of the house. Ida Arbogast found her unconscious father lying in bed in her parents' bedroom. His mattress was engulfed by flames. Despite the help of a sixteen-year-old newspaper boy and neighbors, Mr. Arbogast, who had suffered a series of blows to the back of his head, died on the way to the hospital.
Police discovered a blood-stained ax in the basement of the house during their investigation. Because the windows and doors were locked, the initial assumption was that the murderer had open access to the home. The police questioned everyone who was in the house at the time. Authorities found it impossible to get information about the crime from the family. They were baffled by the family's unwillingness to cooperate.
Arbogast's murder was particularly gruesome. He was repeatedly struck in the back of his head with a four-pound ax. His kerosene-soaked bed was set on fire while he lay on it covered in blood and feathers. Sadly, death didn't occur until well after firefighters removed him from the flames.
The two primary suspects
Based on evidence discovered in the house, the police soon zeroed on wife Minnie and daughter Louise. Both were charged with first-degree murder, and if either was convicted, would likely face death by hanging.
Since the murder was so brutal, the authorities believed that the crime was committed by a crazy person. They began to investigate Louise. They weren't the only ones looking into the matter. Her mental health became a focus of everyone involved in the case. Although her father clearly regarded her as his favorite child, she had not been considered mentally sound for several years.
In addition to her long-time fascination with fortune-tellers and clairvoyants, Louise believed a mysterious man was pursuing her and her sister Ida with the intent to hurt them. Due to her condition, she spent the previous winter away and only recently returned home.
As soon as authorities put mother and daughter in the same room, Mrs. Arbogast, who had initially asserted Louise's innocence, went on the offensive. Louise told her daughter that since she didn't kill her husband, Louise must have murdered her father. Mrs. Arbogast, who claimed to have been in the bathroom when the crime happened, confessed that Louise was in the bedroom when she exited the bathroom.
“Louise, it is either you or me! Tell the truth — tell the truth. You were outside father’s door when I came from the bathroom. You must tell the truth!”~ Mrs. Arbogast to daughter Louise (reported in the May 19, 1909 New Ulm review.)
Four days before her father was killed, Louise had returned home from an extended stay at an Eau Claire sanitarium. Her mother told authorities that Louise had attacked her with a hammer the night before the murder occurred, and doctors had warned Mr. and Mrs. Arbogast not to bring their daughter home too early. Upon further investigation, police concluded that Louise had developed some kind of 'demonic frenzy' due to her interests.
As a result, she went temporarily insane and killed her father.
Mrs. Arbogast wasn't exactly in the clear. The ever-changing stories she told weren't necessarily incriminating, but they didn't exonerate her either. Initially, she testified that she was in the bathroom for five minutes while the crime was being committed, but people were skeptical. She later said she was in the bathtub. According to a neighbor, Mrs. Arbogast had told her that she was making breakfast when the murder took place, not in the bathroom as she had previously reported. Ida said she had pulled her mother from the flaming bed, but she did not mention the bathroom.
There was also a question about the intensity of the relationship between Mr. Arbogast and his daughter. The papers reported that he had recently told his wife he was leaving the family to go to Alaska with Louise and her fiance. There was soon talk of a father and daughter having a secret sexual relationship. If Mrs. Arbogast had learned about it, she may have attacked her husband and killed him in anger. The police had to consider it as a possible motive.
The trial and the aftermath
Both ladies pleaded not guilty and the trial was set for the fall of 1909. The first case to go to trial was Mrs. Arbogast's. After two weeks of evidence and witness testimony by the prosecution and defense, a jury of twelve men ruled that she was not guilty of first-degree murder. A lighter sentence was proposed to the judge by the jury - possibly justifiable homicide; however, he refused, saying that the first-degree murder finding was all-or-nothing.
After the case against Mrs. Arbogast was acquitted, the prosecution dropped the case against her daughter a little over a week later. Ramsey County Attorney felt that the evidence against the girl, similar to that used against her mother, wasn't enough to secure a conviction.
The case was eventually relegated to history books, unsolved.
People were shocked when none of those responsible for Louis Arbogast's gruesome death would be held accountable. Clearly, someone who lived in the house caused his death. The local authorities agreed. In newspaper interviews following the end of the trial, the police stated they believed they had found the killer or killers but did not achieve the conviction they had hoped for.
Eventually, life in the Arbogast household returned to normal - or at least as normal as possible considering the circumstances. Even though the killing of the family patriarch likely haunted each of the surviving members, they refused to discuss it.
- Los Angeles Herald. "Woman is Acquitted on Indictment for Murder." November 5, 1909, 35.
- The Minneapolis Tribune. "Arbogast Murder Still Unsolved." May 17, 1909, 5.
- The Minneapolis Tribune. "Louise Arbogast May Face Murder Charge." June 4, 1909, 6.
- The Minneapolis Tribune. "Murder of Butcher Solved by Police?" May 14, 1909, 8.
- "On This Date in Minnesota History: May 13." Minnesota Family History Research. Last modified May 13, 2017. https://pjefamilyresearch.blogspot.com/2017_05_07_archive.html.
- Rivenes, Erik. "The 1909 St. Paul Murder of Louis Arbogast - Part One -A True Crime History Podcast." Podcast audio. October 4, 2018. https://www.spreaker.com/show/minnesotas-most-notorious-where-blood-ru.
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