Grisly history

Former legislator Seifert to release novel based on real-life ax murders that took place in southwest Minnesota a century ago

Photo by Deb Gau On Friday, Alex Petersen and Marty Seifert were among the visitors to the former site of a farmhouse in rural Clements where five people were murdered in 1917. Petersen, who farms the property now, learned that Seifert was writing a novel based on the story. The book, titled “Sundown at Sunrise,” will be released this month.

By Deb Gau

dgau@marshallindependent.com

CLEMENTS — There isn’t much left of the old farmstead. There’s a grove, an abandoned chicken coop, a stone house foundation, and a long driveway that’s turned back to grass. But the farm site north of Clements in Redwood County has a story that’s stuck with Marty Seifert for decades.

Seifert grew up just a few miles from the farmstead, and he can remember seeing the place as his family drove past it.

“I’d ask my dad why no one lived there,” Seifert said. At first, his father would only say, “Something bad happened there.” Then, as Seifert grew older, the story became more detailed. He was told someone had died there, then that some people were murdered there. Finally, the full story was that a farmer, William Kleeman, had killed his wife and children with an ax and then hanged himself.

It was a chilling story, but a factual one. Local newspapers reported on the murders, which took place in March 1917. But almost a century later, Seifert said it seemed few people knew about this dark piece of Minnesota history.

However, that could change, with a new book Seifert has written. “Sundown at Sunrise,” a historical fiction novel based on the 1917 murders, is being released this month. It will be the former Minnesota legislator’s first novel.

Seifert said telling the story of the Kleeman murders was a way to show respect for the victims of the crime, as well as a chance to share some local history.

“We’re pretty proud to get this story told,” Seifert said.

Seifert began writing “Sundown at Sunrise” in October 2015. He said it took a lot of research, with the help of sources like the Minnesota Historical Society’s newspaper collection, to make the book a reality. Reports in different local newspapers brought out different details in the story, Seifert said. A teacher at a nearby country school who had been boarding with the Kleemans returned to the farm after a weekend away, only to find the bodies of William Kleeman, his wife Maud, and their four young children. At the time, the farm was isolated by mud and standing water after heavy rains.

Area community members came together in response to the murders, Seifert said.

“They had kind of a makeshift grand jury,” Seifert said. “They quickly determined in the inquest process that (William Kleeman) had done it,” and the investigation ended.

There are still things that can never be known for sure about the Kleemans’ deaths. Seifert said writing a fiction book allowed him to flesh out the story of the Kleeman family leading up to the murders. Some characters and story details are invented, while others, like an affair between William Kleeman and the schoolteacher, were rumored but not verifiable.

“It’s based on a true story,” but it’s not a strictly historical account, Seifert said.

On Friday, Seifert visited the former site of the Kleeman family’s home, along with some of the farm’s neighbors and the current landowner, Loren Jacobsen.

Jacobsen bought the farm, including the former homestead, in 1988. The property’s past didn’t bother him, he said. However, his mother, who as a girl had attended the country school near the site, had a different reaction to the place.

“I did bring my mother up here once, when I bought it,” Jacobsen said. “She said, ‘I want out of here.'”

Jacobsen’s grandson Alex Petersen, who farms the property now, said he heard about the murders from his family, but he didn’t know all the details. He learned about Seifert’s book project through posts on social media.

“For my generation, the story is almost lost,” Petersen said.

“It’s kind of an eerie feeling,” he said of learning about the ax murders. Petersen said he was especially struck by the fact that the William and Maud Kleeman were around his own his own age when they lived on the farm site.

“That part of it started to hit home,” he said.

“Sundown at Sunrise” will be available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble later this month. Copies will also be for sale at Hy-Vee in Marshall and Becker’s Super Value in Morgan. Seifert will also be doing a book signing tour, with several locations around southwest Minnesota. Seifert will be at the Hitching Post in Marshall on Dec. 19, from 4-6 p.m. Other stops on the tour include the Redwood Falls Public Library on Dec. 21, and the Wabasso Public Library on Jan. 6.

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