The fire that killed Alvira Johnson: Depression-era murder, or tragic accident?

When Unsolved Stays Unsolved

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The following story was inspired by Murder in Chisago County: The Unsolved Johnson Family Mystery by Brian Johnson, who chronicles the investigation of his great-uncle Albin Johnson and the still-unsolved, suspicious death of Albin’s wife Alvira and their seven children in 1933.

Pinkerton’s Persistent PI’s

What, might you ask, does a murder in rural Minnesota have to do with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? 

Here at Crime Capsule, we spend a lot of time looking at the criminals involved in heinous deeds (rather, misdeeds). Occasionally, we’re able to highlight the contributions of specific law enforcement personnel, such as the sergeant who cracked a case based on a single bottle of beer, or the feds who after years of investigation finally rounded up public enemy number one, Alvin Karpis.

We’re proud to honor those men and women. After all, justice work is, at best, teamwork. Sometimes, however, a case needs a little more manpower than the public sector can provide. Such was the situation in Minnesota in April 1933, when a woman and her seven children were found dead on a Chisago County farm, burned to death and nearly cremated in an overnight fire.

In Murder in Chisago County: The Unsolved Johnson Family Mystery, author Brian Johnson describes how almost immediately the case began to baffle investigators. The lead victim, Alvira Lundeen Johnson—the author’s own great-aunt—and her children seemed from the forensic evidence not to have been disturbed from their sleep by the flames, suggesting that they had died prior to the blaze. 

Alvira Lundeen Johnson in front of the house. Author’s collection.

Foul play, residents in the close-knit Swedish immigrant community cried. Most worrying of all was the fact that Albin Johnson, Alvira’s husband, was nowhere to be found. Suspicion doubled when forensics couldn’t identify Albin among any of the deceased, with one theory holding that the farmer—ill-tempered, a known drinker, down on his luck and soon to be evicted from the property by his own grandfather—had sooner killed his own family rather than drag them into a life of even more hardship in days to come.  

With Albin suspected of having fled to Canada, a massive manhunt began, with newspapers as far as Texas carrying the story: but early leads turned up only red herrings and false identifications. At this point, the family called in the cavalry. Alvira’s mother, Christine Lundeen, hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to help locate Albin. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency—none other than the folks who had uncovered the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln in 1861 (one conspirator from which already appearing on Crime Capsule)—sent its agents to join the hunt.

Unfortunately, even the group that took on Jesse James and Butch Cassidy may have met their match. Author Brian Johnson: “But the Pinkertons, for all their guile and experience, were no match for Albin Johnson. ‘Grandma wanted to find him … She contacted them [the Pinkertons]. But they never found him. That was just money lost, paying them for nothing,’ said Jeanette Johnson, Alvira’s niece.”

It’s possible that the number of theories surrounding Albin’s disappearance may have hindered the Pinkerton search, Johnson writes. Apparently the agency was concerned that multiple reports of his movements might influence the Canadian authorities’ interest in the case, or the lengths to which they would go to track the suspect down—even if he had fled across the border. 

The Kaffe Stuga is a popular hangout in Harris. Albin Johnson’s wanted poster is on display. Bill Klotz.

It’s not clear either way. And indeed, ultimately, Albin was never found. It’s a remarkable story, but as Brian Johnson notes, the methods and tools that law enforcement had at the time to trace suspects’ movements or coordinate searches paled in comparison to what they have today. Even so, we can salute the combined efforts of all those searching for the suspect, public and private alike.

And if you happen to find yourself in Harris, Minnesota, make sure to stop into the Kaffe Stuga for a cup of coffee. You can still see the Agency’s wanted poster on the wall!


Read the full details and get insider perspective to the fascinating Johnson Family Mystery in Murder in Chisago County

Murder in Chisago County: The Unsolved Johnson Family Mystery

“In rich detail, he lays out clue after clue…”


More on the Johnson family case:

True Crime Tuesday Podcast – interview with Brian Johnson

“If you pay attention, you can tell when someone’s lying.” – Interview with Brian Johnson – Tom Barnard Show