WHITE BEAR LAKE, Minn. — Century College Prof. Gary Brueggemann has written a history book that reveals new information about Edward Phalen, the man after whom Lake Phalen and at least two dozen other St. Paul landmarks were named.
While researching a different subject, Brueggemann uncovered 165-year-old documents that indicate Phalen may have murdered a man he shared a house with – though he was tried and acquitted of the crime.
Brueggemann found hand-written documents labeled “An inquiry into the Phalen murder case” amidst material about Joseph R. Brown, a founding father of Minnesota and a justice of the peace. After analyzing these documents, and drawing from decades of his own study of Minnesota and St. Paul history, Brueggemann believes he has solved the crime.
“These documents were the most exciting thing I ever found in my life,” said Brueggemann, a St. Paul resident who lives in the West 7th Street area and also teaches history at Inver Hills Community College. “I decided I owed it to the people of St. Paul to tell the story.”
As Brueggemann notes in his book Minnesota’s Oldest Murder Mystery,” published by Beaver’s Pond Press, Edward Phalen lived in St. Paul from 1838 to 1850, a time and place where there were no newspapers to record his deeds. Phalen claimed land in St. Paul before there was a St. Paul. He was a wilderness frontiersman whom others described as “immoral, cruel, revengeful and unscrupulous.”
Brueggemann’s well-sourced book is the first comprehensive coverage of the Phalen murder case, and the first comprehensive coverage of Phalen’s life.
Brueggemann’s research of Joseph Brown took him to the Minnesota Historical Society library, where he found a box of Brown’s papers that included the long lost record of the Phalen murder case. Other historians had searched in vain for the records, which apparently were buried in an antiquated docket book of Brown’s.
Brueggemann’s exhilaration gave way to frustration when he discovered how hard it was to decipher Brown’s handwriting. He then made another important discovery – a complete transcription of Brown’s 1839 casebook was included in a book published by the Washington County Historical Society.
In his book, Brueggemann does not rush to judgment about the Phalen murder case. Instead, he carefully lays out the evidence and lets the reader decide. “My only goal was to uncover the truth,” said Brueggemann. “I had no strong predisposition for or against Edward Phalen.”
Near the end of the book, Brueggemann departs from the historical recounting of the Phalen murder case and includes a fictional account of what might have happened with the case.
“In putting this book together, I was working with some very unusual material,” said Brueggemann. “Really, the material sort of wrote itself. I went into this with an open mind, not sure of where the facts would lead me. It is a fascinating story.”