In March 17, 1906, a woman named Johanna Augusta Knudson née Larson died and was buried, but something was not right, even though the physicians who attended her said her death was due to natural causes.
Her sister Sarah Weiser (Weisser) went to the coroner's office with suspicions about her brother-in-law Knute Ole Knudson, especially after something her sister said on her deathbed. The coroner said her suspicions were groundless, but this did not stop Sarah.
Knudson had her arrested for slander, but the story reached the state attorney's office who had the body exhumed. The dead woman's stomach contents were analyzed, and found to have enough arsenic to "kill half a dozen persons."
Her husband claimed the arsenic found in his wife's body was from the embalming fluid used to preserve her body for burial.
In August 1907, Knute Knudson, who was a wealthy contractor was charged by the coroner's jury with poisoning his wife. Knudson said that he was innocent, and everything was trumped up by his sister-in-law and her husband, Charles, who were jealous of him.
A judge refused to release Knudson on bonds of $100,000 which was the largest bail offered in Cook County in years.
By September, Knudson, perhaps in a ploy to better his reputation declared that if hanged for his wife's murder he would bequeath his body to "experimental scientists in the hope of destroying the value of circumstantial evidence in capital cases."
... if they should find that the arsenic in the embalming fluid did reach the stomach then these medical 'experts' would see wherein they erred. Perhaps it might cause them remorse; perhaps they might be honorable enough to make amends by committing suicide. That is what they would if they viewed their honor as a Frenchman does.
It was not surprising that at his arraignment he pled not guilty.
The trial started in January 1907. The prosecutors charged that Knudson a Norwegian, and a resident of West Pullman had killed his wife because "she had become unsightly in his eyes."
There were hints that the prosecution were calling at least two women who would testify of their relations with Knduson. One of them claimed he would give her sums of $100 or more, and asked her to live in his home after the death of his wife.
The state also claimed that the accused stood by the bedside of his dying wife as she lay writhing from the effects of the arsenic, and mocked her saying, "There is no use to send for a physician for you have got to die anyway."
It seemed that Mrs. Knudson foresaw what her husband's intentions were towards her, and brought into her home Helen Hesselfeldt to act as her spy. She allegedly saw him administer poison to her, and her sister Mrs. Hylander also had damning evidence to provide. Mrs. Knudson had hired them as housekeepers since she was sick. In total 43 witnesses were called by the state.
At the beginning of the trial it was shown that Knudson had bought a life insurance policy for his wife in 1905, worth $2,000 then in July 1906, increased it to $25,000.
Ethel Van Ossenbruggen who worked a the home for 13 days during September 1905, said, "The last days I was there Mrs. Knduson became ill at the supper table, falling back in her chair and saying she was sick. Knudson and I carried her into the bedroom, bu the he did nothing more to relieve her."
Knudson would tell his neighbors that his wife was not very sick at all.
Also he did not call a doctor for her until she lay on her deathbed, telling his sister-in-law, "If I see she is dying I will call a doctor." She asked him to get a doctor for her sister but he refused. She testified, "Then he stood by the bed and shook it and laughed at her. She was suffering and turned in the bed. He shook it again and said: 'I will shake you up a little. You won't get well anyway. You are going to die." Then he gave her a red liquid medicine.
Mr. Barbour the prosecutor outlined the following circumstantial evidence:
- Indecent haste to have his wife buried
- Trickery in getting Mrs. Knudson to sign blank deeds for property and putting false dates on the deeds.
- Preference for an undertaker who used embalming fluid that contained arsenic
-The presence of rat poison in the house, which was removed as soon as Mrs. Knudson died.
-Books of Knudson at the house with turned-down pages dealing with arsenic and other poisons.
-The finding of arsenic in the body of Mrs. Knudson by experts and the report that the organs of the body otherwise were normal.
-False reports as to the cause of death.
-Hiring detectives to get evidence for slander suit
Five neighbors of the Knudsons testified that Mr. Knudson never called a doctor to attend his ailing wife.
During the trial it came out the Knudson for two years prior to his wife's death had been "friendly" with Helen Westberg, and asked her to become his housekeeper only a few weeks after Mrs. Knudson's death. He had met her in a saloon in the red light district. She testified that he paid her from $2 to $150, and had visited him several times at his home after his wife's death. He even called her on the day his wife died, and asked her to attend the funeral which she refused to do.
The judge in charge of the case in order to push the trial with all possible speed held several night sessions of court.
Three doctors testified that the death of Mrs. Knudson was due to arsenical poisoning.
The defense had the two older Knudson children testify. Gustave, 11 cried out from the stand, "Papa did not kill mamma. He is innocent." His sister Anna told of a happy home life, and kissed her father on her way out of the courtroom.
The prosecution persisted that the motive for the murder was that Knudson had fallen in love with Helen Westberg, and had even brought his children to meet her even though she worked in a brothel.
On January 19, 1907, the jury found Knudson not guilty of poisoning his wife. Many credited the testimony of his children with saving his life.
During the trial the prosecution compared him to Johann Hoch who the Chicago police dubbed "America's greatest mass murderer." A bigamist, he married at least 55 women between 1890 and 1905, taking all their money and killing some of them, many times using arsenic. He was thought to have killed at least 50 women, but ultimately was convicted of only one murder. Unlike Knudson, he did not escape the gallows and was executed on February 23, 1906.
In 1911, Knudson remarried. The newspapers while announcing the nuptials, also made mention that he had been acquitted of killing his wife in 1907. He told the newspapers that he had regained the fortune he lost when defending himself.
Knudson was 42 years old. and his bride was 23.
One of the strangest declarations made against Knudson by the prosecution besides being a murderer was that he was a "devil-worshipper", however this was never explained further. Just as strange was that he married Addie Morris of Hopkinsille, Kentucky at midnight on January 17, 1911.
What became of Knute Knudson and his young bride Addie who moved to Chicago after their marriage fades from history.
The three children born of Johanna, at least two died of old age. Gustave (b.May 27, 1896 - d.November 16, 1970), Anna Olive (b. October 5, 1906 - death unknown), Wilfred "Willie " Leonard Knudson (b. September 24, 1898 - d. July 28, 1991, in FL).
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer