The mysterious murder of Pearl Osten, Pelican Rapids' 'Lonely Star'
Was it a bungled investigation or just a really tough case? No matter what happened to Pearl Osten on October 2, 1927, her family is still looking for answers.
Listen to the podcast here:
It’s nestled in the rolling hills of Otter Tail County, not far from Pelican Rapids, Minnesota. A tiny church cemetery like many others in the state. Quiet, except for the birds chirping and the sounds of wind coming off a nearby lake. What it lacks in sound, it makes up for in vibrant beauty — luscious green grass dotted with the ruby reds of sumac shrubs and the cotton candy pink blooms of a crabapple tree at the edge of the cemetery.
Sara Sha walked among the tombstones one Memorial Day a few years back to do something she had never done before: lay flowers, in this case geraniums, on the grave marker of her great aunt Pearl Osten. Sha never met her, but Pearl’s life and death had become woven into the family’s DNA like the yarn in grandma’s afghan. Something that changed Sha's family forever.
“This is so strange, because I knew the story. And I don't know how old I was when I realized that Pearl was right under my nose. You know, she was just a few miles away. It was a big realization,” Sha said.
Sha grew up in Anoka, Minnesota, but in the summer she would visit relatives in Pelican Rapids, where Pearl’s story began. It was only after Sha attended college and later lived in Fargo-Moorhead, that she decided to visit Pearl’s grave and, along with other family members, try to unravel the mystery surrounding her great aunt’s unsolved murder.
Could they get resolution for the dark-haired beauty with the bobbed hair, whose photo hung beside the rest of the family’s photos on the wall? They had to try.
“My mom kept all kinds of newspaper articles about the murder. And every once in a while, we’d pull those out and read what we could find,” Sha said.
Another relative had a suitcase full of information all detailing the many theories surrounding that night in October 1927 when Pearl was killed.
“We really focused in on the murder part of it, but as I got to be more of an adult, I realized this was a human being attached to this story,” Sha said.”We wanted to do it for her.”
Who was Pearl Osten?
Pearl Osten was the seventh of ten children born to Andrew and Thea Osten in Norwegian Grove Township, near Pelican Rapids. (Her oldest brother, Ole, on the top left of the photo is Sha’s grandfather).
Pearl was an exceptional student and a talented musician, so it wasn’t surprising that after high school graduation in June of 1926 Pearl chose to study music at a college in Minneapolis, despite never having music lessons.
“But she was established enough that the director of the school wanted her to study under him rather than another teacher,” Sha said.
By all accounts, her first year in college was uneventful. Then after coming home for the summer of ‘27, she planned to start her sophomore year at Minnesota College that fall. Even though, Pearl planned to move into the home of her sister Alma and her husband Melvin for her sophomore year, Pearl’s mother Thea was still was uneasy about letting her daughter head back to the big city.
“Pearl's mother, the second year that she was going to go down, begged her not to go. Because she said if she went they'd never see her again. And she was right,” said Sha.
Oct 2, 1927
Pearl had gotten a job that school year at the Jolly Peasant Tea Room at 218 Eighth Street South in Minneapolis. It was just her second day on the job and she wasn’t even supposed to work that night. But after getting called in and working her shift she left around 12:15 a.m. But sometime after leaving the tea room and arriving at the streetcar stop a few blocks away, she was met by a male companion.
“According to witnesses on the streetcar, they appeared to be friendly,” Sha said. “But her companion kind of encouraged her or maybe forced her to get off of the streetcar earlier than her usual stop. And that was the last anyone saw of her.”
The last time until the following afternoon when a two brothers delivering newspapers stumbled upon her beaten and bloodied body in a woodshed just behind her sister’s home. Just yards from the safety of her front door.
“The coroner's report said she was strangled to death,” Sha said.
The mystery man
Immediately, the police knew they needed to focus on the man last seen with Pearl, the companion who forced her off the streetcar.
“One of the comments by the police was that he was not a big man and that Pearl being a farm child had some strength and they didn't think that he would be able to overcome her. But then where did he go? That's the big question, as far as I'm concerned,” Sha said.
The companion was described as a male between 25 and 28 years of age, about five-foot-seven inches tall and between 145 and 150 pounds with dark hair and dark eyes.
They interviewed passengers who rode the streetcar that night. Many said they easily remembered Pearl because she wore a bright red skirt and Spanish shawl, her uniform from the tea room. One woman named Mrs. Arthur Kampff told police she also remembered the behavior of the companion.
“I couldn’t catch his words, but judged as much by his tone. When they got to the back platform, she seemed to hesitate and he pushed her from the car,” she told a newspaper reporter.
In the days following the murder, the police seemed a bit like a rudderless ship. Early suspects included two men arrested for stealing a car right near the woodshed. When questioned, one refused to say anything, while the other just said he wanted some "dope." They were eventually let go when police realized the two men weren’t in the neighborhood at the time of the murder.
Other police theories pointed to a shunned suitor from Pelican Rapids, or a stalker who kept walking past her house, or even that a serial killer did it.
“It got weird. They started grasping at straws, you know? It was a fugitive from a mental hospital. Yeah,That's who it was. And then they kept contradicting themselves as far as what the person looked like,” Sha said.
By 1928, the investigation even led to Moorhead where a man named Harry Gran was being held in the Clay County jail in connection with a restaurant robbery in Barnesville. Gran admitted he knew Pearl from Barnesville and that he once lived near the Jolly Peasant Tea Room. Yet, witnesses brought to Moorhead from Minneapolis couldn’t identify him.
There seemed to be too many suspects yet not enough or not the right ones. Take the case of “the weeping musician.”
“When the police went to get him, he was sobbing. And he said, ‘I knew you'd come.’ And then a short while later the police said they had somebody under surveillance but was that the same person? And none of it was resolved. None of it,”Sha said.
Police under fire
Sha said she’s been grateful to the Minneapolis Police Department today for helping her dig up some old information about the case, but as the investigation wore on back in those days police themselves came under fire.
In 1929, the county attorney called a grand jury to look into how the police department conducted its investigation.
The police chief at the time was rumored to be connected to the criminal underworld. A grand jury probe even looked into his behavior and while he wasn’t indicted, there was enough distrust to get him fired. The buzz started. Did his alleged connections have anything to do with the inability to solve the case? Was he protecting someone?”
Also puzzling? Why was Pearl called into work suddenly that night? Was she really needed to work in a tea room until midnight? Was the tea room a nice place to get a cup of Earl Grey in the morning, but a swinging speakeasy at night, like many Prohibition-era businesses? Was Pearl hanging out with an unseemly bunch?
So many questions, still unanswered, almost 100 years later.
It was clearly a frustrating investigation for more than a decade. By 1937 some speculated the “mystery man” — the streetcar companion — was dead, while others thought a man named Gilbert Blais was the companion based on some things he said while incarcerated at the North Dakota State Penitentiary on an unrelated charge.
When asked to identify him, the conductor and Mrs. Kampff said they were pretty certain Blais was Pearl’s companion. But how reliable is their memory after 10 years? When questioned later, Blais denied any involvement, refused to take a lie detector test and there doesn't appear to be any evidence he was ever tried or convicted.
At one point, a fortune teller was even hired to look into the case, while the people back home in Norwegian Grove township demanded answers.
“Pelican Rapids had a great big petition drive and they raised $2,000 for anything leading to the to solving the murder,” Sha said.
The reward was never given.
Will answers ever come?
Sha and the family realize solving this crime and getting new evidence might only happen if they exhume Pearl’s body from that quiet little cemetery in Otter Tail County. But that’s something they’re not comfortable doing. Besides, they say whoever murdered Pearl is also long dead.
Even so, they’ll continue to look for answers.
Sha said her family has been quiet about the case for so long. It was too painful for the grandparents (Pearl’s siblings) to even talk about. Her mother, born just a year before Pearl was killed, started to ask questions and now the quest for answers falls upon the next couple of generations who hope others might start talking too.
“Maybe there are other families out there carrying a big secret too. Do they know anything or are they willing to talk about it now?:” she says.
Sha has already had some luck in this regard. Cindy Saba-Stoewer, a niece of the boys who found Pearl’s body in the woodshed, was also always curious about the mysterious murder of “poor, poor Pearl Osten” (as her mother used to say). Cindy and Sara had the chance to meet and even embraced. “It was bone-chilling to me to be hugging an actual relative of Pearl Osten,” Saba-Stoewer recalled.
Sha says she’s okay with it if they never get all the answers to Pearl’s murder. It won’t change the memory of who she was.
“We were just concerned that the story would get lost. And it's such a compelling story. And it's such a sad story, and of course, Pearl didn’t have any children to carry on her story so we kind of took it upon ourselves to make sure that it did continue,” she said.
So Sha compiled all of the research the family has done over the years about Pearl’s case into a book entitled, “That Lonely Star Which Ne’er Shall Fade,” named after a poem written for Pearl and read at her funeral.
“It was such an act of love. This beautiful character was a member of our family,” Sha said, “it's just a loving tribute to her life.”
The family has wondered what would have happened if Pearl had lived. Would the entire trajectory of their family changed? What would it have been like with one more colorful and vivacious auntie at the family reunions. Instead, Great aunt Pearl is forever frozen in time as the dark-haired beauty with the flapper haircut, pursuing her dream of becoming a professional musician in Minneapolis.
“I think she was beautiful, of course, and talented. And when you're beautiful and talented in the 1920s in a big city, I think she had a blast,” Sha said. “I just wish she could have lived her life the way she wanted to. It’s just so infuriating that someone just decided ‘you don’t get to live.’ But that’s why it’s so important that we remember her story.”