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Shocking double-ax murders a century ago

Billings has witnessed a surge in violent crime in the past century, but it’s not as if the Magic City was a Mayberry-like place a century ago. One crime late that year seemed to prove that Billings was no longer a town but becoming a city, with city problems.

On December 8, 1924, readers of the Billings Gazette awoke to news of a double-ax murder that claimed the lives of a married couple at their business on Minnesota Avenue. The victims were Nels and Anna Anderson who were slain at the barber shop and “marcel parlor,” as beauty shops were called then. The business was either at 2911 Minnesota, on the north side of the street, or 2912 Minnesota, the south side. News accounts over the years have given both locations.

The Gazette reported that the murders were discovered on a Sunday afternoon when police went to the establishment to investigate the Andersons’ failure to return to their home at 738 Custer Avenue.

Mrs. Anderson, wearing a hat and fur coat, was found lying in a shed at the rear of the shop. Next to her was the murder weapon, the ax used to commit the crimes. Mr. Anderson was found sitting in a barber chair with his overcoat and one glove on, the other glove lying on the floor.

Mrs. Anderson apparently had been killed in the marcel parlor where blood was found throughout and on groceries she had purchased to take home. She had been dragged into the shed.

Investigators believed that the Andersons had been killed the previous Saturday night when they were closing the shop and getting ready to go home.

The crime was discovered after Mrs. Anderson’s sister grew worried about the couple’s failure to come home to their four children. Patrolmen Charles Heagney and William Laurella went to the shop and saw the Anderson’s car parked at the curb.

The officers peered through the drawn shades of window and saw one of Nels Anderson’s hands dangling over the edge of the chair. Police broke in the front door and discovered the tragedy.

Robbery wasn’t a motive. The store’s cash register was undisturbed, and the pockets of both victims contained money.

Police started their investigation with no clues to work with. The ax handle apparently was wiped by a glove, erasing fingerprints, but police were puzzled by signs that someone with bloody hands washed them at shop bowl, seeming to rule out the theory that the crime was committed by a gloved slayer.

A young woman who walked by the shop at about 9 on the night of the murder heard loud talk inside “as if an argument were underway between Anderson and a dark man of Mexican resemblance,” the Gazette reported. Billings had experienced an influx of Mexicans who came to the city to work in its sugar-beet factory, now two decades old, and as farm hands who weeded and thinned beets on fields near the city.

Prejudice against people of Hispanic descent was widespread and persisted at least into the 1970s in Billings, perhaps to this day. So it’s not surprising that the Gazette said, “But as Mexican crimes run to the petty and their killings usually are with pistol or knife, the police are not satisfied with any hypothesis that a Mexican slew the couple.”

This left the first-day reporting of the crime to conclude: “The nature of the crime suggests rather a degenerate—and one of great activity.”

Two days after the initial report, on December 10, 1924, the Gazette reported on an inquest into the Andersons’ deaths. Testimony “brought out nothing to throw light upon the mystery of their death while officers have no developed no additional clues as to who committed the crime.”

The jury verdict stated that Nels and Anna “came to their deaths as the result of wounds inflicted in their heads by an ax, said ax being in the hands of some person unknown to this jury, the place of death being in their barber shop at 2912 Minnesota Avenue.”

Authorities had rounded up three “suspicious characters” for questioning and to take their fingerprints.

A few additional details came out at the inquest. John Hedlund and Joseph Shupak, neighbors of the Andersons, testified that Mrs. Anna Erickson alerted them at about 7:30 on Sunday morning that the couple hadn’t come home. She asked the men to go to the shop.

Hedlund and Shupak found the shop locked and the Anderson’s car parked with its radiator drained. They tried to look inside the shop through an opening of about six inches in the window shade, but it was too dark for them to see anything.

They reported the mystery to the police, and Heagney and Laurelle went to the shop. Heagney used a flashlight to look inside, and that’s how he spotted Nels’ hand hanging from the chair as well as a dark spot on the floor that he thought might be blood.

Mrs. M. P. Flakum and Mr. Starr (no first name given), sister and brother of Anna Anderson, from Harvey, North Dakota, arrived in Billings on the Thursday following the murders. They made arrangements to hold funeral services for the couple at Smith’s Funeral Home. The Rev. Raymond Walker officiated, and the Andersons were buried at Mountview Cemetery, on Central Avenue in Billings.

No obituary for the Andersons was published in Montana. One paragraph in the inquest story said Anna was born in Pelican Lake, Minnesota, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Starr, on September 23, 1883. That made her 41 years old when she was killed. She was of Norwegian descent.

Various theories about the killer circulated throughout Billings and Montana, including the possibility that the Andersons had enemies in Miles City, where they once lived. That notion was disproven.

Looking through digital archives of the Gazette, I found occasional references to the murders on anniversary dates, such as five, ten and 20 years after the crime occurred. The most recent reference to the crime in the Gazette came in a May 6, 2007, article written by my former colleague, Lorna Thackeray.

So far as I know, and I plan to double-check with the Billings police department, this crime was never solved. Does the department include a capital crime committed 100 years ago in its list of cold cases? I’ll ask and let you, my readers, know.

Until I stumbled on Lorna’s story and did some further research, I didn’t know about this crime. It’s fascinating enough that I may use it as the basis for a novel, a piece of historic fiction set in Billings from the 1920s through perhaps the 1950s. If I follow through, it will be my second novel, joining my 2022 coming-of-age book for middle-school readers, Sky Dreamer.

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Jamie Larson