Becketwood Cooperative
An Active, Independent 55+ Community of Owners in Minneapolis
 

The Sheltering Arms Mystery, Part 1

By Iric Nathanson, Becketwood Member

We are posting Iric Nathanson’s latest discovery as a two-part series.   Watch for Part 2 in our next post.

Editor’s Note

Several years ago, when I was researching the history of the Sheltering Arms Orphanage at the Minnesota Historical Society, I came across a journal entitled Brick House Days. It was an account by a man named Ned Lilleveld of the time he had spent at the Sheltering Arms as a young boy in 1917.

More recently, just before the pandemic shutdown, I discovered another manuscript dealing with events at Sheltering Arms, this time in the files of the Special Collections at the Minneapolis Central Library. No author was listed for the work, but I assumed a local journalist, probably working for the Minneapolis Tribune or the Journal had written it. Most likely, the writer had planned to publish the story in serialized form in a local magazine.

For some unknown reason the piece was never published. I am surprised that the manuscript has been hidden away in the library all this time since it deals with a dramatic event, a murder that occurred at Sheltering Arms in 1940. The murder took place during a tumultuous time at the outbreak of World War 11 in Europe.  At home, world events cast a shadow over this city as Minneapolis contended with a troubling episode of anti-Semitism.

Interestingly enough, this new story serves as a sequel to Brick House Days. More than two decades after the events described in Ned Lilleveld’s boyhood journal, several of the people who were at Sheltering Arms in 1917, including Ned, were back on scene there in 1940 at the time of the murder.

Since Becketwood Cooperative is built on the site of the former Episcopal orphanage, I thought my Becketwood neighbors might be interested in learning about this dark chapter in the history of Sheltering Arms. -- Iric Nathanson, June 2020

 

Chapter 1 House of Doom

Ned Lilleveld was ready for a break.

He had been working since 6 AM on the plans for the new bank building. Now, he was ready to sit back, relax, have a smoke and check the Tribune to see how the Millers had done in their double header with Louisville. On his way to the sports section, Ned happened to glance at the story on the paper’s front page about the arrival of a distinguished newcomer to Minnesota. The Tribune reported that Dr. Helmut Von Lansdorf, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, had joining the faculty at the University’s Medical School. The story noted that Von Lansdorf had purchased a home not far from the University at 4554 Edmund Boulevard.

Ned smiled. The “house of doom” he thought to himself. All those years ago, that’s what he and Jimmy had called the substantial brick and stucco house just a block from Sheltering Arms.

Back then, the two 12-year-old boys had dreamed up a story about a huge vault under the house, where a mad scientist was conducting evil experiments. Jimmy and Ned were going to build a tunnel from Sheltering Arms to the House of Doom, so they could capture the devilish scientist and save the planet.

Ned would have to call Jimmy and remind him about the story. He was sure Jimmy would get a kick out of knowing that a world famous German scientist was living in the House of Doom. The two of them were always ready to reminisce about the old days at Sheltering Arms—the Brick House, they called it—where they had both lived when they were young boys.

Ned thought about how far they had come since then. In 1917, when he first arrived at the Sheltering Arms Ned had been a frightened little boy, away from home for the first time and dreadfully lonely. Now, in 1940, he had a family, an imposing home overlooking Lake Nokomis, and a partnership in one of the city’s largest engineering firms.

Jimmy had come even farther. Ned’s long-time friend had lived on the streets of Minneapolis for a while after being kicked out of the Brick House when he was caught smoking behind the garden shed once too often. Now he was Dr. James Patterson, the chairman of the University’s Epidemiology Department and a new colleague of the eminent Helmut Von Lansdorf.

Over the next few weeks, the Tribune was filled with stories about the German scientist and his flight from Europe as a new world war was about to begin. The paper told how Von Lansdorf, a prominent member of Germany’s aristocracy, had denounced Nazis after the Kristallnacht attacks on the country’s Jews in 1938. The doctor and his family fled to Sweden where he resumed his research on human enteroviruses. Then, after being wooed by several major American medical schools, he chose to come to Minnesota.

Unlike other refugees streaming out of Europe, Von Lansdorf’s move to the U.S. entailed little in the way of personal hardship. According to the Tribune, the doctor had brought with him an entourage that included his daughter, Elspeth Schroeder, who served as his personal assistant, an au pair to look after her 10-year-old twin sons and a nurse to care for Von Lansdorf’s invalid wife, Eva. The new university faculty member had even brought over his own chauffeur to drive his Mercedes Benz limousine being shipped from Stockholm.

“This German guy is a big deal. Everyone is talking about him,” Jimmy told his friend Ned during their weekly handball game in the Norris gymnasium. “Prexy is throwing a big shindig for him next week when they open the faculty club in the new student union. You should come. I’ll wrangle an invitation for you and Martha. You’re entitled to be there. After all, you are an adjunct prof in the engineering department.”

“Jimmy, Martha can’t come,” Ned replied as he returned Jimmy’s volley. “She and the kids will be in Milwaukee visiting her parents. My sister, Mary, is flying in from New York on her way to Fergus Falls to see our folks. I’ll bring Mary. She will like that. She’ll cause a stir like she always does.”

Ned’s younger sister was something of a local celebrity. A statuesque blond over six feet tall, Mary Lilleveld had been working in London during the Blitz as an assistant to Edward R. Murrow, the American journalist who broadcast his warzone dispatches for the CBS radio network. Mary even had her own profile in the Tribune as “Murrow’s Minnesota Connection.”

The following Thursday night, as the reception for Von Lansdorf hosted by President Guy Stanton Ford was getting underway, Ned strode into the elite gathering on the top floor of the Coffman Union with his sister Mary on his arm. All eyes turned to look at Mary, who was dressed in a black silk pants suit.  Jimmy Patterson, Von Lansdorf’s new colleague, was there to introduce Ned and his sister to the famous German émigré and the attractive young woman next to him, his daughter Elspeth.

Paying no attention to Ned, Von Lansdorf was immediately captivated by the glamorous Mary. As they chatted, Mary mentioned that she had just come from London where she had helped produce Morrow’s recent broadcast.

“Ah, Mr. Morrow, a great man,” Von Lansdorf responded. “Fraulein Lilleveld, we must talk of him some more, when I am finished greeting my guests.”

Later that evening, when Ned and Jimmy were out on the terrace for a smoking break, they could hear Von Lansdorf and Mary engaged in a lively conversation. A group had gathered around them. At the edge of the crowd a young woman was scribbling in her notebook.

“Mr. Murrow is doing good work, alerting the American people about all that is happening in Europe,” the German doctor was telling Ned’s sister. “But I fear there are some who do not want to hear what he has to say. Your Colonel Lindbergh is one of those. He is a friend of Herr Hitler. Is he not?”

Mary fumed, “Lindbergh is an ass. He was flying blind when he flew solo to Paris. He is flying blind now when it comes to world politics. The man doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

That evening, as Mary and Ned were leaving the Coffman Union, they saw a black Mercedes Benz parked out in front on Washington Avenue. As they walked past the limousine they could see the chauffer glaring at them angrily. Von Lansdorf’s daughter, Elspeth, was sitting in the back seat. She appeared to be sobbing quietly.

“That guy in the black cap gives me the creeps,” Mary whispered to her brother.  “And there is something about that woman, something ….” her voice trailing off.

“Sis, you were a little hard on the old fly boy, weren’t you?” Ned said, chiding his sister as they drove home. “After all, Lindbergh has a lot of friends around here. Look at all those American Firsters who showed up at his rally last week.”

“Ned, Lindbergh is no joke,” Mary responded angrily. “There is even talk the Republicans might run him against Roosevelt this year. Don’t you understand what a horror that would be if Lindbergh got elected?”

Ned, who never liked getting entangled in political discussion with his sister, decided to drop the subject so they drove the rest of the way home in silence.

The next morning, as Ned feared, the lead story in the Minnesota Daily barely mentioned Von Lansdorf. Instead it focused on Mary, with a headline that read. “Morrow aide blasts Lindbergh.”  Ned groaned. He had always known there was nothing much he could do to reign in his outspoken sister.

That evening, as they were finishing dinner, they heard a knock at the front door. Opening it, they found a large envelope on the front steps addressed to “Murrow’s woman.” Inside there was a note in large block letters that read, “You are not welcome here. Leave.”

Mary shuddered. “How did they even know I was here?”

“I suppose they have their ways,” Ned responded, not sounding too concerned. “At least they didn’t toss a rock through the front window.”

The next day, Mary and Ned had planned to have lunch at the Forum Cafeteria before she caught the afternoon train to Fergus Falls. Just before noon, Mary burst into her brother’s office “I can’t believe what just happened,” she told Ned in a rush. “I was just crossing Marquette when a car jumped the light and nearly ran me down. First that poison pen note and now this!”

“Come on, Sis, I am sure it was a coincidence. Do you really think there is some kind of a plot to get you? You’ve been reading too many Agatha Christie novels. And, anyway, you survived the Blitz. You can survive this. Let’s have lunch.”

 

Chapter 2  Another Highland Park

That afternoon when he was back in his office, Ned’s secretary rang to tell him that Ethel Lings was waiting to speak to him. Ned and the director of the Sheltering Arms Orphanage had been good friends for more than 20 years, ever since he had lived there as young boy. But he had never thought to call her by her first name. It had always been “Miss Lings.”

“Miss Lings, how nice to hear from you,” Ned said, greeting her warmly.

“Ned. I know how busy you are, but I need to ask you for a favor.”

“Of course, Miss Lings. I can never say no to you.”

“As you know, we have closed the orphanage. The last of the children left just a few weeks ago. Now, our board needs to determine what we will do with our property. That real estate man, Douglas Martin, wants to buy our land. I think he is related in some way to that horrid Horace Martin who treated your friend Lionel so badly.

“Our board members don’t want to sell, but their husbands are pressuring them to do just that. All the men care about is the money.

“Ned, you are a businessman. Can you talk to Mr. Martin and see if he will withdraw his offer? Then we can go ahead with our plan to set up a rehabilitation center here on our campus.”

Ned told his long-time friend that he would do what he could to help her, but privately he doubted that he could budge Martin, a prominent real estate developer who had just completed a new subdivision in Highland Park.

Later that week, a large, balding man with a pencil thin moustache stood up to greet Ned when he was ushered into Douglas Martin’s private office in the First National Bank Building.

“Mr. Lilleveld. Please have a seat. I don’t think you and I have met before, but I do believe we have worked with your firm—on the Pendleton development, as I remember.”

Without waiting for Ned to respond, Martin dispensed with pleasantries. “Mr. Lilleveld, I know why you are here. That Lings woman has sent you. She tells me her people don’t want to sell. Mr. Lilleveld, they need to sell. They have to sell. I want that property. It will be another Highland Park.”

“My family has had a long connection with Sheltering Arms,” Martin continued.  “You may know that my great uncle, Richard Martin, bequeathed the land to Sister Annette for the orphanage. I have made a very generous offer to buy back that land. Those ladies on the board need to take the money and do whatever it is they want to do, but do it someplace else.”

Ned realized there was nothing he could do to change Martin’s mind, so after a few minutes of face-saving small talk, he shook hands with the rotund real estate developer and left.

That brief exchange brought back a flood of memories for Ned. He wondered how much Douglas Martin knew about the scandal involving that other Martin, Horace Martin. And what were Douglas Martin’s real reasons for wanting to buy the Sheltering Arms property? Had he known about the box of family heirlooms that his great-uncle had buried somewhere on the orphanage grounds? For all Ned knew, the box was still there.

 

The following Monday morning when Ned got to his office, an attractive young woman was waiting for him. He recognized her immediately.

“Mr. Lilleveld, I am Elspeth Schroeder, Dr. Von Lansdorf’s daughter.  We met at my father’s reception last week. I am sorry to barge in here without an appointment. Jimmy—Dr. Patterson—we work together at the hospital. Dr. Patterson said you might be able to help me.

“It’s my two boys, Wilhelm and Manfred—they are having a terrible time. I have been sending them to Hiawatha School, near where we live, so they could meet other children in the neighborhood. But the other boys at the school have been taunting them on the playground, calling them Hitler’s babies. Wilhelm and Manfred come home in tears every day. They say they don’t want to go back to school. Dr. Patterson tells me that you work with the neighborhood boys at the park. Maybe you could talk to the boys!”

At first Ned wasn’t sure he wanted to get involved, but he realized that he needed to do what he could to help this woman who was so distressed about her two young sons.

Later that afternoon, at their weekly practice, Ned gathered together Hiawatha School’s fourth grade softball team, the Hiawatha Tigers.

“Boys, I want to talk to you about something very important. There are two new students in your class. They have strange names and they don’t talk the way we do.  Some of you have been saying hateful things to these new boys. A long time ago, when I was boy like them, I went to Hiawatha School.  I know what it is like to feel you are not wanted.

“You should know that the boys’ grandfather, Dr. Von Lansdorf, is a famous scientist who came here to get away from Hitler and the Nazis. Now that he is here, he is doing important research—it will help this country combat serious illnesses like polio. We should be very happy that Dr. Von Lansdorf and his family are here. We should welcome them.”

The following week at Longfellow Park, the Hiawatha Tigers had two new team members, Willy and Manny Schroeder.

 

Chapter 3  The Bloody Shirt

On the last Sunday in April, the pews were filled at Rev. Luke Rader’s Deliverance Temple, as they had been all year long. A fiery preacher who laced his sermons with anti-Semitic diatribes, Rader had developed quite a following. He had made a name for himself as a radio evangelist. Each week his sermons were broadcast on KSTP radio from his church at 46th and East Lake. With a radio audience exceeding 80,000, Rader’s following was starting to approach that of another radio personality, Detroit’s Father Francis Coughlin.

On that April morning, Rader added a contemporary reference to his message, taken from the Gospel of John. “We must cast the Jews out of the temple,” he told his audience. “They are a stain on our American republic.”

Again that week, Rader was surrounded at the pulpit by members of the Aryan Militia. Known as the Silver Shirts because of the distinctive color of their military tunics, the men served as Rader’s bodyguards. Each week, after the service, they marched down Lake Street carrying their banner, depicting a thunderbolt over an American eagle.

Elspeth Schroeder and her sons were just coming out of St. Albert’s Church as the Silver Shirts marched by. Elspeth had to restrain the two boys, who wanted to join their classmates chasing after the marching men. The Silver Shirts thrilled the fourth-grade boys from Hiawatha School, but they horrified Elspeth. They reminded her of other men marching in the streets of her hometown, after Hitler had come to power.

Minneapolis had not yet experienced its own kristallnacht, but some in the local Jewish community thought it could happen in a city known as the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.

 

 

Later in the month, Ethel Lings returned to Sheltering Arms, after being away for two weeks.  With all the children gone, Miss Lings had taken a long-delayed vacation before coming back to close down the orphanage. That day, she had expected to find peace and quiet waiting for her when she returned home. She never could have imagined what she found instead.

Gasping in disbelief, she recoiled in horror at the sight in front of her. There was a man sprawled on the ground at the entrance to the chapel. He was dead—with a bullet hole in his forehead. His face was badly bruised and his silver shirt was covered with blood. Ethel Lings recognized the man immediately. He was her long-time handyman, Walter Jencks.

How could a dreadful thing like this have happened here? she asked herself, at a place that had been at the center of her life for more than 40 years. Right away, she called the police. Her next call was to her friend Ned Lilleveld.

By the time Ned got to Sheltering Arms, Lieutenant Jocko Delaney from the Minneapolis Police Department was already on the scene. Sheltering Arms was familiar territory for Delaney. Like Ned and Jimmy, Delaney had lived at the orphanage as a 12-year-old. And like the other two men, he had transformed himself after he left there. At Sheltering Arms, when he was known as Kermit, the future police lieutenant was a lazy, overweight preadolescent who spent his free time sprawled on his bunk reading comic books. But Delaney pulled himself together after his time at the orphanage. In high school, he became a body builder and emerged as strong, tough athlete. At the University, Delaney made a name for himself as a tight end on Bernie Bierman’s championship Gopher football team.

“Well, well; If it isn’t my old buddy,” Delaney greeted Ned, as he slapped his boyhood friend across the back. “Just like old times, you, me and Jencks. Except he’s dead.”

Ned was dumbfounded. Back when they had lived at Sheltering Arms, he and the boys all hated Jencks. They may have joked about trying to murder him, but Ned never would have imagined that could actually happen right here at the Brick House.

“Miss Lings, what was he doing here? I thought you fired Jencks years ago,” Ned asked his long-time friend, incredulously.

“Ned, I did, but Jencks came to me a few months ago, saying that he needed work. So against my better judgment, I let him do some odd jobs. And then, when I decided to take some time off to visit my sister, I told him he could stay in the room below the chapel if he agreed to look after our campus while I was gone. That was a terrible mistake.”

“Don’t worry, Miss Lings,” Delaney told her. “We will find the man who did this. We always do.”

The next day the papers were filled with news of the Sheltering Arms murder. Ned knew how the notoriety must have pained Miss Lings. He hoped it wouldn’t derail her plans to set up a polio rehabilitation center in the orphanage building.

On Friday, Jocko called Ned and asked to meet him at the Schooner Bar on 27th Avenue.  Over a beer, Jocko gave his former Sheltering Arms roommate an update on the murder investigation. The MPD team had learned that Jencks had worked as a runner for the local crime boss, Isador “Kid Cann” Blumenfeld, but the two men had had a falling out when Blumenfeld learned that Jencks had joined the Silver Shirts. On the night of the murder, Jencks and the Silver Shirts had been drinking heavily at their hangout, a bar on Lyndale Avenue, the Green Lantern. Earlier in the night, Jencks had gotten into a fight with a young Silver Shirt recruit named Danny Simmons.

“The brawl was all about a dame,” Jocko told Ned. “It always is. Danny told our boy Jencks to keep his hands off her, that he was old enough to be her father. And, here’s the clincher, that if Jencks ever touched her again he would kill him. The ‘her’ was a barmaid at the Lantern named Doris. Danny says he was with Doris the night Jencks was murdered. But we can’t find her.

“Well, anyway, the story gets even better,” Jocko continued. “When the Lantern was closing, one of Blumenfeld’s men, Chickie Berman, was seen dragging Jencks out of the bar. Down at the station we all know Chickie. We brought him in for questioning.  Chickie admitted that he had roughed up Jencks, drove him back to Sheltering Arms, and kicked him out of the car when they got to the orphanage gate, but Chickie told us he didn’t kill the man. Chickie said Blumenfeld told him to deliver a message to Jencks that he didn’t want ‘Silver Shirt scum’ working for him.  I think Chickie is telling us the straight story. Blumenthal is already mixed up in one murder. I don’t think he wants to get tangled up in another one.

“Right now, Danny is our main suspect. He has a motive and an alibi that doesn’t hold up. Bix, the bouncer at the Lantern, told me that Danny has a short fuse. He is always getting into brawls. What I don’t understand is why Danny got mixed up with the Silver Shirts. They don’t seem like his kind of people. Maybe they made him feel like a tough guy. We’ll have to check out that connection.”

 

 

Back at the office that afternoon, Ned got a call from Elspeth Schroeder, asking if she could come to see him about what she said was “a confidential matter.”  The next day, Dr. Von Lansdorf’s daughter was waiting when Ned got to the office.  “Mr. Lilleveld, I know I can trust you,” she told him. “I don’t want Father caught up in this horrible situation at the orphanage, so I couldn’t go to the police. But I thought there was something you should know. Last week, my boys brought me over to the edge of the orphanage grounds on 44th Street to show me a patch of wild strawberries. When we got there, I could hear two men arguing in a garden shed nearby. One was telling the other one that “the price had gone up.” The other man was quite angry. I heard him say he would not pay. Then he stormed out of the shed. I got a quick look at the angry one. He was a large bald man with a pencil thin moustache.”

Elspeth did not have to identify the “ the large bald man.” Ned knew he was the overbearing real estate developer who had been pressuring Ethel Lings to sell the Sheltering Arms property.    One more piece of the puzzle, Ned thought to himself, as he passed the information on to his friend Jocko, while not revealing his source.

 

Douglas Martin was not at all pleased when Jocko Delaney showed up at his office. “Lieutenant, I am a busy man and I resent this intrusion,” Martin responded angrily, when Jocko flashed his MPD identification.  “If you are here because of that business at Sheltering Arms, I don’t know why you are wasting my time. I want you to know that Marvin Kline is a personal friend. I have a mind to lodge a complaint with him.”

Jocko yawned.  He had heard it all before. Every time he had to question one of the city’s bigwigs, they were always personal friends of the mayor. “Relax, Mr. Martin. I just want to ask you a few questions. One of our witnesses overheard you talking to Walter Jencks at the orphanage the week before he was murdered. Are you denying that you were there?”

“Well—ah… yes, I did see that Jencks man briefly,” Martin responded haltingly, his face turning red. “I had him show me around the orphanage grounds. He said something about the orphanage board raising the price for the property. I didn’t think the man knew what he was talking about. I was annoyed so I left.”

 

To be continued…

 

Would you like to read the Brick  House Days series?

Brick House Days - Part 1

Brick House Days - Part 2

Brick House Days - Part 3

Leave a Reply

  • becketwoodblog June 30, 2020, 3:26 pm

    I so enjoyed reading about some of the history at Sheltering Arms and look forward to reading more…..a murder! Oh no!

    Reply
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