Hamalainen Brothers Murder ~ Law & Order in Itasca County

2.2.2022 archived [originally published 2.4.2016]

Max Store ~ circa 1930. Following the murder of Victor Hamalainen, Walter walked to the Wuori Store. Frank Wuori then called Albert Anderson at the Max store and post office. Albert notified the authorities.
Quarrel Ends with Murder ~ Grand Rapids Herald Review 6-9-1926

“Walter Hamalainen of Squaw Lake, thirty-two miles northwest of Deer River, shot and instantly killed his brother, Victor, last Saturday evening, as the final act of a quarrel and disagreement which had been long continued.  The killing was done in the presence of the murdered man’s wife and small son, and the wife’s brother and sister.

The two men had disagreed for some months over division of property.  Their mother, before she was committed to Fergus Falls several years ago, deeded the homestead to Walter.  The two brothers divided the large house, which stands at the outlet of Round Lake, into two parts with a partition and Walter, who is single lived on one side, while Victor and his family lived in the other part of the house.  The quarrel became more heated recently and Victor went to Grand Rapids last week to consult an attorney, who advised him to move his family to some other place.  He was preparing to do so and had moved part of his property before the fatal climax of Saturday evening.

Walter came down the stairs in the part of the house occupied by Victor and his family.  The two men resumed their disagreement, and Victor is said to have started toward his brother, who warned him to keep back.  Disregarding the warning, Victor went to the foot of the stairs, whereupon Walter fired the twelve-gauge shotgun striking Victor in the eye and tearing out the back of his head.  Victor fell to the floor, killed instantly.”

Walter immediately left the house, walked to Frank Wuori’s store a quarter mile away and told him what happened.  Wuori called Albert Anderson, the postmaster at Max, who then called the sheriff, Dr. Miners, and the coroner at Deer River.  Within a half hour of the crime, officials were on the way to the scene.  Walter remained at Wuori’s until deputy sheriff Dunn arrested him. 

“Coroner W.A. Herreid called an inquest Monday morning at 9:30. County attorney R.A. Stone conducted the examination of witnesses.  Those called upon to testify were Mrs. Victor Hamalainen, wife of the deceased, her sister, Miss Mary Wentworth, her brother, Wm Wentworth, and deputy sheriff S.A. Dunn.  The jury, composed of Rev J.W. Schenck, Fred Breid, J.T. Miller, Wm Bahr, Andrew Hannula and P.J. Daley, brought in a verdict that ‘Victor Hamalainen came to his death as a result of being shot with a shotgun held and fired by his brother, Walter Hamalainen, and that said Walter Hamalainen was at the time insane.’

The verdict means that a commission will be appointed to examine Walter Hamalainen as to his sanity.  If he is declared insane, he will be committed to the hospital for criminal insane at St. Peter, Minn.  Should the examiners declare him sane, he will be held on a charge of first-degree murder.” [Itasca News 6-10-1926]

The first commission ruled that Hamalainen was sane, but Judge Rhoda McCullough wanted to be sure, so she set a second insanity hearing.  This included two more local physicians and Dr. Charles Ball, alienist from St. Paul.  (Alienist is an old term used for psychiatrist or psychologist.) All three physicians declared that Hamalainen was sane. He appeared before a grand jury in September and was indicted for murder in the first degree. 

Family History

Victor Hamalainen was born in February 1898.  His brother Walter came along two years later.  It was about this time that their parents, John and Minnie decided to travel from Finland to the United States.  They settled in what is now Max Township, Itasca County and on January 24, 1906, John was appointed postmaster. [United States Postmaster Appointments 1892-1930] In fact according to an interview done with Bud Anderson in January 1996, John may have named the community.  Bud explained, “The first post office was over at Squaw Lake where the Harbor is now.  In those days there were a lot of Finnish people that came from Finland and settled around Squaw Lake and Round Lake.  The first postmaster was a Finnish man by the name of Hamalainen.  The story is that he couldn’t talk English very well and he just picked a real short name and it happened to be Max. That is one story.” [Itasca County Historical Society Archives – Anderson, Robert]

Minnie had two daughters Hilda and Embi after her sons.  The Hamalainens were all together according to the 1910 United States census, but shortly thereafter things changed. By the end of the year John went to California, leaving Minnie with two adolescent boys, a toddler, and an infant.  It is unknown why he left, or if the intent was for the family to follow.  Nevertheless, Minnie filed on a homestead.  I suppose she was considered head of household if he had been gone for a certain amount of time or wasn’t sending money to support them. 

Victor was in WWI and Walter stayed to help his mother manage the farm.  The 1920 US census shows Minnie, Walter, Hilda and Embi living in the house with Victor, his wife Ruth, and their son Harold.  I did find John Hamalainen living in San Francisco, California on the 1920 US census.  He was listed as a liquor distributor and a widower.

In the early 1920s, Minnie deeded the house and property to Walter. It should be noted that Walter was the second son and did not yet have a wife or family, but Minnie had her reasons for choosing to deed it as she did. In 1923 Minnie was committed to the Fergus Fall Asylum for the insane.  I do not know where the girls (ages 17 and 13) were living at this time, but there is no mention of them. The discord between Victor and Walter continued, leading to the death of one, and imprisonment of the other for nearly a year.

Not Guilty Was Verdict ~ Grand Rapids Herald Review 12-8-1926

“It took members of the jury which heard the evidence in the Hamalainen murder case but a few moments to decide on a verdict when the evidence was all in and the attorneys had made their plea, and the judge had given his charge.  That verdict was not guilty, and it was reached, so it is said, on the first ballot.

The trial of Walter Hamalainen, charged with killing his brother Victor at their home near Squaw Lake on June 5, was commenced Tuesday of last week and continued without interruption, until Saturday, the verdict being reached early Saturday evening.

No attempt was made by the defense to deny the killing of Victor by Walter, but the plea of self-defense was entered and the witnesses for the defense assisted in bringing out this point at the trial.  Testimony was introduced to show that some six years earlier Walter had been the victim of his brother’s anger when he had been pounded on the head and left unconscious and a pitchfork thrust into his arm.

Testimony was also brought out to show that Walter had since that time lived in constant fear of his brother and also to show that he was a quiet, inoffensive man to his neighbors and relatives.

Apparently, the quarrel which resulted in the death of the elder brother was brought about through ownership of the family homestead.  Walter had received the land from his mother, and had permitted Victor and his family to occupy it for some years, but had of late insisted that the control should pass to himself…

…The jury included six men and six women.   Its personnel were made up of Chas. Olson, Mrs. Peter Wilvert, John McCaffrey, Mrs. Ed Johnson, Howard Helm, A.F. Williams, Mrs. W.W. Fletcher, Chas. Lawson, Mrs. Joe Palmer, Mrs. Gertrude Gates, Mrs. Myrtle Hendrickson and Ewald Younggren.”  [*As you can see by this list, the women are or were, married. Women who were married are referred to by their husband’s name, ex. Mrs. Peter Wilvert. Widows are referred to by their first name and their husband’s name, ex. Mrs. Gertrude Gates. I do not know if a divorced woman who be selected for jury duty at this time.]

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