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April 23, 2019

2/28/2019 3:09:00 PM
80 year old mystery-fire deaths, topic of book

Few headlines on the Chisago County Press front pages from the 1930s ran all the way across the width of the paper, but this one did.  A mother and her seven children died in a house fire in April 1933 and the magnitude of this tragedy warranted the top of page one.  

The victims:  Alvira Johnson and her babies Harold, Clifford, Kenneth, Dorothy, Bernice, Lester and James perished in a fire that had taken hold of their woodframe dwelling and left very little of the structure recognizable when it was finally extinguished.  

But, no remains of Albin Johnson could be located.  

Without giving away the storyline, the father/husband was indicted for murder in absentia, not long after the tragedy for the eight deaths.  

The Chisago County attorney managed to convince the court the children and mother were not living when the fire started. Local searches and even Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency were put on Albin’s trail, but were unsuccessful.

The farmstead was south of 470th and north of 460th, out in the country east of Highway 61 (or #30 now.)  

The family was on its way somewhere else, though.  Looking into the family’s circumstances, trying to piece together what might have happened, local authorities reported the Johnsons had been told to move out.  A wagon piled with household goods also burned, the Chisago County Press reported.  Albin’s father owned the farmstead and had reportedly been evicting his own son’s family.

Generations of relatives would speak of this mystery.  Where did Albin go, what kind of misery had the victims endured...but there were never any satisfactory revelations.  

Brian Johnson, Albin and Alvira’s great nephew, listened to some of these stories at family functions.  He would visit the First Lutheran Cemetery in rural Rush City to honor the deceased relatives on Memorial Day weekends.  

As a writer he had always wanted to go after the truth himself.  He started a series of interviews with old timers, and neighbors to the Johnsons in 1992.  He made time for researching newspaper archives and government records.  

His version of the family’s life and the fire tragedy itself, comes out in softcover book form next week.    The Unsolved Johnson Family Mystery “Murder in Chisago County”  is offered by Arcadia Publishing and History Press,  in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.  

Author Brian Johnson lives in Richfield, MN.

He says his mother recalls that Alvira was a good cook,  although Brian’s grandmother would remind Jeannette (Brian’s mom) to not eat each much when visiting the Johnson house because they were poor.  Jeannette, who was 12 when the fire happened,  also remembers Santa Claus didn’t visit the Johnson house when she was a girl.
Brian Johnson has lifted the rocks and dusted off county documents to piece together a story that he hopes will give a face and form to Alvira and her seven children. He desires that they are remembered as more than just the listed victims in an historic incident.  

Johnson muses, “Who knows, maybe someone will read my book and come forward with information about Albin Johnson’s fate. Maybe the great mystery will someday be solved.  That would surely provide some closure for loved ones on both the Johnson and Lundeen sides of the family; but more importantly I hope the lasting impact of the book will be to keep the memory of Alvira Lundeen Johnson and her seven children alive in the hearts and minds of future generations.”

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