SLAYTON, Minn. — It seems likely now that no one will ever know for certain what happened to Martha Larson, 52, of rural Garvin, who died on Dec. 19, 1962, and the body of Leona Jean Larson, 62, of Tracy, hasn’t been found since she went missing in October 1980.
The two women who lived along the Highway 14 corridor west of the historic town of Walnut Grove did share something in common, however: both of them married Clarence Larson, Martha first, in 1928, and then, after Martha’s untimely death and Clarence’s acquittal for her murder, Jean married Clarence in 1964.
The power take-off
At the time of her death, newspapers still referred to a married woman with her husband’s first name, so the Worthington Daily Globe’s writeup of the incident stated that “An inquest into the death of Mrs. Clarence Larson, 52, of rural Garvin was being planned today by the Murray County Coroner Dr. H. D. Patterson. Mrs. Larson was killed early Tuesday (Dec. 19, 1962) when she was caught in the power take-off unit of a tractor.”
While Sheriff Bill Neumann noted the details on the “mishap” weren’t complete, that early account did state the Larsons were using a tractor in order to move about 10 bushels of grain into a crib.
By the time that story made it to print, the Minnesota State Crime Bureau had already been called in and an investigation was underway — an investigation that would end in a trial for first-degree murder and a mystery that persists to this day.
Clarence told investigators that his wife had slipped in the snow and fell into the whirling shaft of the power take-off, a mechanical part on a tractor usually used to power other machinery. Power take-offs can be very dangerous, as they move fast and forcefully, and can strip clothing, snap limbs and kill almost instantly if clothing, hair or fur gets caught in the moving pieces. It’s a common farm hazard Extension groups and safety groups still warn people to look out for it today.
Clarence claimed the power take-off had killed Martha that day.
A coroner’s inquest soon began, and was then reconvened in August, following the exhumation of Martha’s body and a second autopsy.
Clarence testified he had gotten up around 4:40 a.m. and went to start the car and the tractor. He headed back to the house at 5 a.m. and told his wife they’d better get that 20 bushels of corn elevated so they could return the equipment to a neighbor. According to Clarence, Martha wanted to help, so the two went out together and finished up in about 10 minutes. When it was done, he climbed up to the top of the corn crib to check on it, and when he got back down, he found his wife’s body caught in the power take-off.
Clarence said he hadn’t even heard her cry out.
He couldn’t find a pulse, so he called a neighbor and a doctor. The neighbor arrived first, followed by the doctor, who couldn’t find any signs of life in Martha and called an ambulance. The ambulance picked Martha’s body up and delivered it to Swenson Funeral Home in Balaton, where the funeral home operator told the ambulance attendants that Martha’s wristwatch had stopped at 4 o’clock.
Later, Martha’s body was exhumed and an autopsy found that the cause of death was multiple head fractures, including a three-quarter-inch, circular indented fracture on the back of the head. The pathologist also said he couldn’t find any evidence of bleeding from Martha’s arm fracture and rib fractures.
The coroner’s jury ruled it couldn’t definitely establish either the exact time or the means of death for Martha Larson, and Clarence Larson was charged with first-degree murder in connection with her death.
There were questions about the case — the lack of bleeding from Martha’s fractured arm and broken ribs, for example. Sheriff Neumann said he noticed most of the corn that was elevated the day of Martha’s death had fallen back to the ground because the corn crib was already overflowing.
But the Daily Globe also noted that Neumann never said what he thought happened at the farm the morning Martha died. “He has said only that he has felt that the woman did not die accidentally.”
The Larson trial was the first in the area since 1958, when Jack Hoskins of Rock Rapids, Iowa, was tried for the killing of his wife.
Larson had difficulty finding an attorney, and Judge L.J. Irvine entered a not guilty plea for him. Then Judge Charles A. Flinn of Windom granted a motion for a change of venue, moving the trial to Windom, because “news accounts in Murray and Nobles county newspapers might make it impossible to find a jury without previous knowledge of the case.”
Flinn particularly objected to a Daily Globe article that stated “Officers have said they believe the woman was dead before her body became caught in the shaft,” and another that quoted investigators as saying they were suspicious of Larson’s story “from the very beginning.”
Flinn said the statements were prejudicial to the chances of the defendant getting a fair trial in his home county because the Daily Globe had wide circulation there, but Flinn also had an objection to an article in the Murray County Herald, which quoted the testimony of the pathologist as having “dealt the most damaging blows to Larson’s case.”
The trial began in Windom, with Larson dressed in a “conservative grey business suit.” He “showed no emotion as the indictment was read in court” and took notes as the questioning proceeded.
Larson’s jury consisted solely of men, and all but one of the 12 had farm backgrounds. Every single one of the eight women drawn on the original panel was excused for duty. They weren’t even questioned as the defense lawyers challenged them, Lew Hudson wrote in the Globe. Two women were questioned the following day, but they weren’t selected.
The trial began, and witnesses began to speak. Michael Jost, the former Murray County engineer, spoke about the line of sight to the Larson farm. John Kuhlman, the telephone company manager from Slayton, said that the Larsons’ phone had been disconnected due to an unpaid bill, but that three calls were made to the doctor on the morning of Dec. 19.
Arvid Anderson, the neighbor Clarence had called to the scene, gave a complete account of events that morning, and then the doctor spoke. Another neighbor said he’d stopped at the Larson house the previous day to tell them he wanted his elevator machine returned. The men who had helped remove the body by ambulance gave their testimony, and so did the mortician who noted the 3:50 a.m. time on the watch, which showed no signs of damage.
Sheriff Neumann and the coroner both testified, as did a jeweler. The watch had started running again, but the jeweler said it wasn’t uncommon for an inexpensive watch of that kind to stop when struck and start again when struck a second time.
Crime Bureau Agent John Barry said Clarence had told him he’d connected his phone so Martha could call the person who gave her rides to her job in Marshall because their plans had changed.
Pathologist Dr. John Alexander said he believed Martha had died of head injuries, and that her other injuries were sustained after death. He said the lack of bleeding was likely due to a post-mortem injury, and that most likely, her head injury was caused by a moving object striking a stationary skull rather than a moving skull striking a stationary object.
Pathologist Dr. John Coe said the cause of death had been a skull fracture and that death would have likely occurred in minutes.
The final witnesses for the prosecution were an International Harvester dealer and two members of Martha’s carpool.
Defense lawyer O.T. Bundlie, Jr., gave an opening statement that “we shall prove how this could not have been anything else but an accident and that Clarence Larson is as much a victim… as was Martha Larson herself.”
He called Clarence to the stand, who described his marriage as “happy” and noted he “got along good” with his wife. He also said he spent a “couple of nights a week” at the home of Mrs. Jean Sande of Tracy, who he described as a friend of the family, and also said he’d moved into the Sande home the month after Martha’s death.
His attorney asked him if he killed his wife.
“I did not, so help me God,” Clarence said to the jury.
Clarence’s daughter Janet spoke, telling the jury she believed her parents loved each other. Others testified too, including neighbor Russell Anderson, brother-in-law Herman Hatton and Gertrude Olson, a member of his wife’s carpool. Olson said Martha had suffered from headaches.
The defense rested its case at 3:47 p.m., and then the defense counsel petitioned for a directed verdict on the grounds that a “reasonable doubt exists on the basis of law.”
Flinn called the jury back and explained that in a criminal case the state must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” He said that after hearing the testimony, if he were to allow the case to go to the jury and it returned a guilty verdict, he would have to set the verdict aside because the state had failed to prove any basic inconsistency in the defense testimony.
“The motion for a directed verdict of not guilty is hereby granted and the case is closed,” Judge Flinn said.
Even Bundlie was surprised.
“I never expected the judge to grant the motion when I made it,” he said.
It was the first criminal case he'd tried.
“Can I go home now?” Larson asked the bailiff.
He was assured that he could.
Clarence married Jean in 1964, and she disappeared some time in October 1980.
Tracy police, Lyon County sheriff’s deputies and state law enforcement conducted a search for her after Clarence filed a missing persons report on Oct. 29. Searchers checked roadside ditches, ravines, wooded areas and abandoned rural buildings in about 30 square miles, but they didn’t find her.
She was last seen around Oct. 2, when she was said to have left for a trip to the Twin Cities, Wisconsin and California to visit relatives.
Police Chief Tom Healy said Larson had expressed optimism that she would turn up sooner or later.
A blood-stained pillowcase was found at a farm north of Currie, according to unofficial reports.
A helicopter search near the entrance of Lake Shetek State Park yielded nothing, nor did an excavation of two portions of Larson's lawn.
Law enforcement conducted dozens of interviews and searched the Larson home twice. The second search found bloodstains on three walls in the kitchen, according to “Victims of Foul Play: A True Story of One Man’s Dark Secrets,” an account of the Larson incidents.
At one point, a psychic was even brought in, but the psychic, additional searches, more interviews and even a reward have failed to lead to the location of Leona Jean.
She was declared legally dead in 1995.
Clarence died in 2002. He is buried next to Martha.