Murder of Minnesota father and daughter in 1904 deemed ‘shrouded in impenetrable mystery’
Under the bold headline “Murdered for Money,” a Bemidji Daily Pioneer story from June 8, 1904, broke the news that a father and daughter had gone missing from the tiny town of Quiring, Minnesota.
BEMIDJI — Under the bold headline “Murdered for Money,” a Bemidji Daily Pioneer story from June 8, 1904, broke the news that a father and daughter had gone missing from the tiny town of Quiring, Minnesota.
N.O. and Aagot Dahl, natives of Crookston, Minnesota, hadn’t been seen since early April of that year.
The elder Dahl had originally traveled to Quiring, just north of Blackduck, Minnesota, from Crookston to spend a few weeks visiting his daughter at her cabin. They had planned on heading back to Crookston together around the beginning of April, so when neighbors didn’t see or hear from the pair, no one suspected anything malicious.
But when the Dahls’ mail started piling up at the Quiring post office, townspeople began to think otherwise.
“Mail kept arriving at the Quiring post office for the couple until the postmaster was led to inquire as to their whereabouts when it was developed that they had not returned to Crookston and that their relatives there knew nothing of their whereabouts,” the initial Pioneer story about the Dahls’ disappearance read. “Their mysterious disappearance is still unexplained.”
Rumors quickly arose that the Dahls were robbed and murdered, as N.O. was known for carrying large amounts of cash with him.
Within the next couple of months, search parties were sent out to look for the father and daughter. Concerned Quiring residents searched high and low for the Dahls to no avail.
“During all of the present week searching parties have been in the woods,” a June 18, 1904, Pioneer story noted. “They have scoured the entire country even more carefully than before, but there is absolutely no trace of the missing man and his daughter.”
A small reward was offered in the case, which was later increased by county and state officials to about $1,500 in hopes of motivating searchers or anyone who had information about the disappearances.
Still, aided by thorough investigative efforts by search parties, local law enforcement and even a detective with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, no evidence of the Dahls was found.
In a July 2, 1904, Pioneer story, it was announced that detectives had given up on the case.
"The prospect of bringing the murderers to immediate justice of the discovery of the bodies seems at present to be more remote than ever," the story said. "Until the bodies are found there is no substantial clue to proceed on."
Though the investigation had stalled, rumors continued to circulate about the missing pair. Some townspeople believed that their bodies were sunk in a deep pond, and others added to the theory by positing that the theft of several ax heads from nearby logging camps could have been used to weigh down the bodies.
Just as the hope of solving the case was fleeting, one of the Dahls was found.
Beneath the balsam
On July 26, 1904, the body of N.O. Dahl was discovered under the roots of a balsam tree near his daughter's cabin.
A Pioneer story published the following day reported that the body was found by Eugene Caldwell and Owen French, two neighbors of the Dahls. Though search parties had previously searched the area, the pair stumbled upon the body by accident as they were searching for a cow that had wandered away from Caldwell’s home.
The elder Dahl’s body was in a bad state of decomposition, and there was a large hole in the side of his head.
At the time, the hole was speculated to have been from an ax, but the autopsy revealed that it was a gunshot wound, likely from a .30-30 caliber rifle.
It was immediately suspected that N.O. had been murdered, and authorities posed the possibility that Aagot was still alive and being held captive by her father's killer.
Investigators were quick to name three suspects after N.O.'s body was found — the first being Caldwell, who was soon dismissed as having any connection to the murder.
Another suspect was James “Shorty” Wesley, a laborer and lumberjack who had moved to Beltrami County in 1900 and lived with Caldwell. In the months following the disappearance of the Dahls, Wesley had also disappeared for more than a year, which led authorities to have suspicions about him.
The third suspect was a Frenchman named Paul Fournier, who lived in Quiring and drew the attention of authorities because he had done jail time for robbery in the past.
A Pioneer story reported that Fournier had a “close-mouthed and very shrewd” demeanor that created an air of suspicion around him.
At this time, search parties started going out in full force again in hopes of finding the second Dahl.
"A number of men are engaged in searching for the body of the girl, Aagot, whom it is believed is buried under another stump," a July 28, 1904, story read. "The men of the searching party have a team and a stump puller and are searching under every stump in the neighborhood."
Scraps of evidence
Shortly after N.O.’s body was found, authorities located the first piece of evidence in the case — a small piece of lace from women’s clothing, discovered at Fournier’s cabin.
“The scrap of lace found was small and was evidently torn from the garment upon which it was worn,” an Aug. 9, 1904, Pioneer story read. “It is thought by some that it might have been severed from the girl’s dress during a struggle, but of course this is a mere matter of conjecture.”
Fournier defended himself, saying that the lace was used to wrap around some butter that he had bought from a neighbor. It was also reported that a heap of ashes near Fournier’s cabin had revealed a pile of bones, but it was undetermined whether or not they were human bones.
Less than a month after N.O.’s body was unearthed from the roots of a balsam tree, his daughter’s body was found.
A Pioneer headline announcing the discovery of Aagot's body read, “Most terrible crime ever committed in northern Minnesota still shrouded in impenetrable mystery.”
Like the body of her father, Aagot’s remains were found by accident, when a local man named Thomas Dooher was making hay on the Quiring postmaster’s meadow about a mile east of Aagot’s cabin.
As Dooher was working, he discovered a shoe protruding from a pile of brush. He called to his wife, and when the couple pushed it back, they saw a leg. Dooher immediately contacted law enforcement.
When authorities arrived at the scene, they found Aagot’s decomposed body. Her left leg was detached from her body, with some of the leg bones found about 150 feet away. There was a hole in her chest, and her skull was fractured.
With both bodies found, it became vital for authorities to lock down solid evidence in the case to connect their suspects to the crime.
Just a few days after Aagot’s body was found, a piece of a man’s shirt sleeve and a button were discovered near the scene. The fabric was matched to a shirt in Fournier's cabin, and the button was determined to be from a pair of his trousers.
With the evidence stacking up against Fournier, most believed he committed the murders. Despite public opinion, though, authorities didn’t think a scrap of lace, a shirt and a button would be enough to convict him.
As Fournier sat in jail awaiting his fate, his brother spoke out, telling authorities that Fournier likely had something to do with the killings.
According to a Sept. 22, 1904, Pioneer story, the brother said in a teary-eyed interview that Fournier was a “wild boy,” who likely “had a hand in the murder.”
‘I killed the Dahls’
Both Fournier and Wesley were formally charged with murdering the Dahls.
Wesley’s trial was set for March 1907 in Bemidji, three years after the disappearance of the Dahls broke the news.
According to a Pioneer story covering the trial, Wesley remained calm and collected throughout his trial, “without the faintest show of fear of the outcome of the charge made against him.”
The prosecution relied mainly on circumstantial evidence to convince jurors of Wesley’s guilt, as there wasn’t much physical evidence to connect him to the murders.
One witness testimony revealed that Wesley had access to a rifle at the time of the Dahls' disappearance. Later, a long, white hair was allegedly found on the rifle, and it was reported that “no woman in that vicinity had white hair except Miss Dahl.”
Another focus of the prosecutor’s case was the fact that Wesley had disappeared once the Dahl investigation began, and wasn’t found for more than a year when law enforcement was finally able to arrest him in Green Bay, Wis.
Two men who were in jail with Wesley as he awaited trial also testified that Wesley confessed to robbing and murdering the Dahls with the help of Fournier.
As the trial came to an end, the jury took just 27 minutes to find Wesley guilty of murdering N.O. Dahl and he was sentenced to life in the Stillwater prison.
Days after Wesley’s verdict, Fournier’s trial began — he was also found guilty of N.O.’s murder and sentenced to life in prison but was granted a new trial on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.
The new trial was held in Brainerd in 1907. In a twist, the jury acquitted Fournier of N.O.’s murder.
In 1910, an Aitkin jury also acquitted Fournier of Aagot’s murder after deliberating for just 23 minutes.
Fournier’s success in court was mainly due to his highly successful lawyer, Charles Scrutchin, the first Black lawyer to practice outside of Minneapolis.
Though he was proclaimed innocent, most still believed Fournier was the true murderer of the Dahls, or that he at least had a part in the killings.
During one of his trials, testimony given by the wife of Fournier’s brother alleged that Fournier admitted to the murders in her presence shortly after the Dahls went missing.
“Yes; I killed the Dahls,” the woman testified in the words of Fournier. “I have two killed in these woods, and if these people keep on pestering me, I will kill five more.”
Fournier was officially off the hook for the Dahl murders — but it wouldn’t be the last anyone heard of him.
Paul Fournier was killed in Quiring in March 1912. Before his death, he made a shocking confession.
Earlier in March, an argument broke out between Fournier and another Quiring man named George Cyr over a financial issue.
Fournier showed up at Cyr’s house one day, where Cyr lived with his wife and daughter. After becoming enraged, Fournier pulled a knife out and threatened Cyr’s wife.
“Fournier said ‘I have killed three people and will kill three more right now,’” Cyr testified in his court hearing.
Cyr then took a rifle off the wall and shot Fournier, killing him in what Cyr claimed was self-defense. In court, it was ruled that Cyr was justified in the shooting.
A Pioneer story from March 15, 1912, detailed Cyr’s story about the incident and also discussed Fournier’s past acquittal in the Dahl trials.
“He is said to have been subject to fits of intense anger and that when in such a state, he became almost insane,” the story said about Fournier. “In his trial, for the murder of the Dahls, he was not found guilty, but public opinion in this section generally held that he committed the crime and little sympathy has been expressed to date over his death.”