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Museum finds photos used in murder trial, lots of misinformation

These four pictures were discovered a couple years ago when the Becker County Historical Society started a photo digitization project. If studied closely, the photos show ‘X’ and ‘O’ in all of them, which marks the locations of the Walter Voght murder. Voght was shot on Thanksgiving night in 1909, after an argument over a girl. The photos were enlarged and used at the murder trial of Tony Malfeo, who was found guilty of first-degree murder. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BECKER COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

A couple years ago, when Becker County Historical Society staff members were working on a digitization project, they came across some oversized pictures of the north side of town.

At first glance, the pictures weren’t anything too interesting. The empty street scape from 1910. A man kneeling alongside the gravel street. One or two lonely looking buildings.

There were even some pen markings on the photos, with an “X” here and a circle there.

Then staff members flipped over the photos, and the story got much more interesting.

“Scene on north side: A murder was committed here around 1910. These photos were used as evidence in the trial. X marks the spot of the murder,” is typed on the back of one the matted photos with the date Aug. 4, 1943.

Another photo has in handwriting, “1909: Patrick Voght, age 19, killed by Joe Turitto age 26 at a dance at Alfred Anderson — one block west of the Washington School, Detroit Lakes, Minn.”

Well, with information like that, staff members decided to do some research.

Executive Director Amy Degerstrom said the staff found the birth and death certificates for Patrick Voght, but his death was much later than 1909 as the picture stated. Thinking there may have been a mistake, they decided to look for family members that may have died around that time period instead. They found Patrick’s brother, Walter, who was killed in 1909.

So they turned to the Becker County Record, the only newspaper around at that time.

In the Nov. 26, 1909, issue, there was a headline that read, “Quarrel fatal to Patrick Voght: Detroit Young man is victim to bullet fired by parties yet unknown — five young Italians and three girls in custody.”

“There was this big headline on the front of the paper, and this was the incorrect name,” Degerstrom said.

The front page story went on to talk about “liquor was freely indulged in and a quarrel started a short time after the festivities began.” It also talks about the Italians, Sam Mosea, Joe Turitto, Joe Arlita, Tony Mafaeo and Alberta Rigo being in custody.

Degerstrom said that back during that time period, there were Italian boarding cars, which were train sleeper cars that were pulled off on a spur of the tracks, and railroad workers would stay in those cars while working in town.

She said they never found any history on if Voght worked on the railroad or not, but that would be her assumption.

The article also talks about how Patrick Voght came and asked Joe Turitto to come play the accordion at Alfred Anderson’s house. Turitto brought his friends with to the party.

At the party, the paper says “Voght accused Turitto of playing for coin and struck him.”

The two men took the fight outside the house, and Voght was shot. It was not known at the time though who fired the shot.

So researching the newspapers more, the next issue the museum could find changed the victim’s name to Walter, age 21, not 19, and gave it a very small mention somewhere inside the issue. Location, and likely motive, also changed.

This one states that Walter Voght was killed on the doorstep of his sweetheart’s home by an Italian rival named Dick.

“Now the story is changing,” Degerstrom said. “And the follow-up is this teeny-tiny story.”

The Dec. 3, 1909, issue of the Record has a story about how Tony Malfi (a different spelling than what was first printed) killed Walter Voght on Thanksgiving evening, and it was now before a grand jury.

The gun that murdered Voght was found in Malfi’s boarding car, and attorney M.J. Daly came from Perham to defend Malfi. Malfi was claiming self-defense in the case “and with Attorney Daly in charge, it will occasion no surprise if he escapes punishment for the killing of Voght,” the article states.

It’s in this article that Degerstrom said the two men were “apparently after the same girl,” not whether or not Turitto was getting paid for playing accordion. The girl they were fighting over was Olga Anderson, at whose house the murder occurred.

In the final April 6, 1910, issue, the story says that Tony Malfeo (spelled differently again) was found guilty of first degree murder of Patrick Voght (which was meant to be Walter, even after it had been stated in last couple stories that it was in fact Walter that had died and not Patrick).

 “Besides that we have the photos, which is interesting, it was so misreported, so muddled,” Degerstrom said. “Until you piece it together, you have no idea what happened.”

She added that while this was a fun research project for museum staff, it was also a lesson to check your facts. In an era with no television or radio, news was what was heard on the street and then printed in the newspaper. She said there weren’t a lot of updates throughout the trial either because maybe it was because the town was small and most people knew about it already.

Eyewitnesses aren’t always reliable either, she added.

“We chose to remember what we want from those stories. Sometimes that causes problems,” she said.

So besides the unreliable sources and wanting to get the news out quickly, the newspapers back then also had a style of writing to them that is long gone. Newspapers were used for entertainment purposes years ago because there were little to no other resources.

“They are so specific,” Degerstrom said of the way the articles are written. “Like tabloid journalism. That’s really awesome (to read now).

“There are volumes of these interesting stories.”

And interesting pictures as well.

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