Outside Looking In

Frida Herness mystery

Of the thousands of stories that I have written in my lengthy journalism career, the one I think about the most often has to do with the mysterious death of a young lady that occurred in 1914.
After thinking about it for several years since I wrote about it for another publication, I have now began writing a book about it. I am currently in the research stages.
The young lady's name was Frida Herness, a Maynard girl who died the night before she would have celebrated her 18th birthday.
Although the county coroner and local law enforcement ruled the death a suicide, it's clear to me that it's nearly impossible that this girl took her own life. Instead, her father is a person of interest.
Frida was born on Sept. 1, 1896 and died on Aug. 31, 1914. Her large gravestone sits in the ninth row of the Wang Lutheran Church Cemetery four miles southeast of Maynard.
An article in the Granite Falls Tribune on Sept. 8, 1914 read: "Herness' death was ruled a suicide by poisoning. According to Chippewa County Coroner F.W. Burns' final report, he surmised that Frida drank an acid, likely carbolic acid, and died.
But many circumstances regarding the death make it appear unlikely that Frida had taken her own life, and her father, Halfdan Herness, may have been involved in her death.
On the same day she was found dead, Burns quickly put together a six-coroner jury, common in those days to help decide if a case should go to court or not. A court reporter was also present. Witnesses were brought in, although several of the key players in this case were not called, including Frida's mother, her boyfriend, and friends that were with her the night before.
The case was quickly and poorly investigated. Often in those days a mysterious death often remained mysterious to avoid an exhaustive investigation and to avoid a lengthy trial as farmers and businessmen could not step away from their work to serve on a jury.
The night before her death, Frida attended an ice cream social near Maynard with her boyfriend that she had been socializing with for over a year. After the boyfriend brought her home by horse and buggy, that was the last time anyone saw her again, other than her father who claimed to have spoken to her the next morning.
The next morning, her lifeless body was found by two members of a search party near a haystack about a quarter of a mile from the house. The two men said Frida was lying on her back, her hands crossed over her chest and she was clenching a cloth handkerchief. Burn marks were visible on her lips, face, hands and above one eye.
A Maynard physician said during the inquest that Frida died of corrosive poisoning and that she also had burns on her tongue, inside her cheeks and had slight ulcers in her esophagus.
During the inquest, Frida's father said he spoke with Frida at 8:30 a.m. that morning. He admitted being upset with her for coming home late the night before because she was to be up early the next morning for chores. He also admitted that her felt Frida should not be associating with "that boy" because "only bad girls stay out late and do things like that" and that he didn't want her have “that kind of a reputation."
Halfdan also claimed to have never been upset with Frida before that. But Frida's best friend, Anna Youngren, contradicted that statement and said Frida admitted to crying often because of her parents' scoldings.
One other doctor questioned said it would be too hard for a person to ingest the poison themselves and to remain calm enough to lie on their back, fold their arms over their chest and clutch a napkin. It's more likely, he said, that the person would be in agonizing pain and convulse and curl up in a fetal position.
Still, when the inquest was completed, all six jurors agreed with the coroner that Frida committed suicide.
A lot of what-ifs center around this mystery. What if Frida's boyfriend or mother would have been called as witnesses? They likely would have been able to shed some light on this case.
What if Frida had told her father that she was pregnant, and because he admitted that he didn't want her to embarrass the family as bad girls do, tried to kill the baby by pouring acid in Frida's mouth?
Halfdan claimed there was no poison in the home. What if the local store owner was questioned as to whether Frida or her parents had purchased carbolic acid recently?
The answer to Frida's death will forever be open for debate.

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