A Moorhead doctor and a Fargo carpenter walk into a bar and walk into the 'Wagon Wrench Murder'
The major players in the crime and courtroom drama include a prominent doctor, a volatile carpenter and a future opera singer.
MOORHEAD — No doubt Moorhead was rowdy the night of Sept. 6, 1909. Just across the Red River, Fargo’s first-ever Labor Day parade had just wrapped up. Along with parade participants and viewers, there were hundreds of single, young men in town helping with the beginning of harvest.
Many of the people out and about that day, either in the parade or working the fields, spent their evening in one of the many saloons scattered throughout the city. In 1909, Moorhead’s population was about 4,000, but the city was home to a staggering 44 saloons — bolstering the city’s infamous, wild reputation.
One popular saloon was run by a man named Hollie Walter. It was located at 518 Center Ave., close to what is now the Moorhead Center Mall. The mood was no doubt boisterous that evening, with the young farmhands trying to cool off from a hard day’s work — but perhaps, even more so, because of an argument between two successful middle-aged men, one of whom would end up dead just a couple of hours later.
'Drinks all around, except for the doctor — not him!'
Frank Kethman was in a celebratory mood that night. The 44-year-old German-born carpenter was still wearing what he wore when he marched in the parade when he offered to buy drinks for everyone in the place — everyone except Dr. Thrond Egge.
What was Kethman’s problem with Dr. Egge, a Norwegian-born, well-respected physician in Moorhead?
Clay County Archivist Mark Peihl, who has done extensive research on the murder and contributed to our the podcast on "The Vault," said Kethman held a grudge from something that happened years earlier, when Kethman did a job in Egge’s house.
“Kethman and Egge had a long history of bad blood between them. When Egge's house was under construction in Moorhead, the contractor hired Kethman to work as a carpenter. At one point, Egge complained to the contractor that Kethman just spent all of this time sharpening his saws and never did any work. Kethman took offense at that and they had confrontations over the years after that,” Peihl said.
Fast forward to that fateful Labor Day night in 1909 when the drinks and the words started to flow. Kethman continued his taunting.
He shouted out to Dr. Egge, “How many cases of glanders are you treating now?” Glanders is an infectious horse disease. According to Peihl, Egge didn’t much like being called a horse doctor, and eventually the verbal barbs escalated into a physical altercation.
“Apparently, Egge pushed past Kethman at one point and Kethman, who had been drinking heavily, fell backward and landed on the floor,” Peihl said. “Hollie Walters, the saloon owner, got them to shut up, but then Kethman accused Egge of taking his wallet. It went back and forth like that for quite awhile.”
Both men were said to have left the bar around closing time, 11 p.m., and they went in opposite directions — Egge to the east on his bicycle and toward his home on Third Avenue and Sixth Street South, while Kethman was seen walking “briskly to the west.”
Why briskly? Kethman might have had a plan. It appears he wasn’t ready to go home to Fargo or leave the confrontation with Egge at Hollie Walter’s bar. For him, it was just beginning.
What did Lillian see?
About the time Egge and Kethman were leaving the bar, a young Moorhead woman named Lillian Wright was reportedly enjoying a night with friends.
But by 11 p.m., 18-year-old Lillian knew it was getting late and while her walk home wasn’t long, Peihl said she was a little nervous with all of those potentially unruly young men in town for harvest. But it wouldn’t be the young farmhands that caused trouble for her that night.
She left her friend’s place and walked to her house at 602 Second Ave. S. The home sat near the family business, the Beck-Wright Funeral Home, which is now just the Wright Funeral Home. It is still located on the block and run by cousins of Lillian's.
When Lillian got home and walked up the porch steps, she found the door was locked and saw that all the lights were out. Instead of waking up her family, she chose to wait outside for her father, Albert or A.J. Wright, to come home from his other business a few blocks away. (Peihl said like many undertakers, A.J. Wright was in the furniture business — which included making coffins).
As A.J. walked home, he noticed a tall, thin man in a white hat. He didn’t think much of it, but when he got home and found Lillian waiting for him on the front porch, she remarked that she noticed the same man and that she thought he was acting suspiciously, repeatedly walking up and down Sixth Street like he was waiting for something.
“So they kind of compared notes above what they had seen with this character,” Peihl said. “And they're sitting there when all of the sudden they heard a crash and a series of thuds from the north. Then they saw a guy in dark clothes and a white hat get up and start smashing something against some trees, and walk down across Sixth Street. They thought it was peculiar, but just assumed it was probably just another raving drunk.”
A brutal scene
It turns out it was far more serious than that. A while later, two brothers, Harry and Leroy Larson, walking to their home on Sixth Street saw firsthand the results of the thuds the Wrights had heard — a man either dead or dying was halfway on the sidewalk and halfway in the yard of the home across the avenue from the Wright home. The Larsons called the police.
Officer William Crossman went to see what was going on. But on the way, he spotted a guy coming right toward him, heading west on Center. His demeanor wasn’t threatening, just a little odd. Officer Crossman wondered why the man was walking with his hands held over his face.
“Crossman asked, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and then he pulled down his hands and they were covered in blood,” Peihl said.
As shocking as it might seem to run into a man with blood-covered hands in the middle of the night, Officer Crossman wasn’t that shocked. He knew this guy. It was Frank Kethman, a troublemaker well-known to the police. Just a few months earlier, he had been arrested for setting up a gambling parlor in the back of a barbershop. And there were more run-ins with the law. Crossman figured Kethman probably just got bloodied up and stumbled away from another bar fight.
“I’m sick and I need a ride home.”
-Murder suspect Frank Kethman talking to Police officer William Crossman after being found with hands covered in blood.
For his part, Kethman didn’t seem overly concerned to run into a police officer in the middle of the night. Instead, he sought help, telling Crossman, “I’m sick and I need a ride home.”
Officer Crossman told him to hang tight. He had to respond to the call of the downed man, but he’d send a carriage to take Kethman back home to Fargo.
Crossman left Kethman and arrived at the site of the man on the sidewalk to discover that the man was indeed dead. The victim was the beloved Dr. Thrond Egge, and his murder had been brutal.
“He was hit right square across the bridge of the nose with what turned out to be a wagon wrench about 14 inches long and 7 or 8 pounds,” Peihl said. “So it's a pretty formidable weapon, and he was killed instantly. But as he lay there on the ground, dead, the perpetrator hit him in the face another eight times. People were quite shocked at the violence of that.”
Egge’s pockets were also turned out and his watch taken. The pieces started falling into place pretty quickly after examining the victim and the crime scene — it seemed possible that Kethman might have been involved after all.
Not only were they hearing about the confrontation at the bar between Egge and Kethman, but it appears the murderer might have left an important clue at the scene of the crime. Laying beside the body was an old pinback celluloid badge with a ribbon.
The police figured out it was the exact badge worn by the carpenter’s union in the parade earlier that day. And police found out the carpenters in the parade were wearing the same dark overalls, white shirt and hat that the Wrights had seen on the suspicious man in their neighborhood — the same clothes Kethman wore at the parade and at the bar.
Suspect arrested in bed
Police didn’t need much more to make an arrest. They set off for Kethman’s house in north Fargo where they pulled him out of bed and took him to the city jail. According to the Fargo Forum, by the morning, he was transferred to the Clay County jail “in an exceedingly nervous condition as the result of excessive drinking,”.
He refused to talk about the case. But when a Forum reporter contacted Kethman’s wife, Clara, the next day, she backed him 100 percent and claimed that her husband and Dr. Egge were the best of friends and that Frank, father to their four children, was a good man. (They had five children, but one died in infancy).
Kethman would need the support of his wife — both emotionally and financially — as the effort to convict him would start just three days later on Thursday, Sept 9.
Where is the star witness?
On Monday, Sept. 13, the prosecution expected their star witness, Lillian Wright, to take the stand. She, after all, was the person best able to identify Kethman as the man she saw walking suspiciously near the crime scene, hiding from the light in the shadows of the trees and rising up from the ground (where Egge’s body was later found). But according to Sheriff Archie Whaley, she was out of state recovering from “nervous prostration.” In other words, she was so nervous and emotionally distraught she became exhausted and unable to work.
Christine Trost, Lillian’s granddaughter, says while reports say Lillian was initially overwhelmed at the thought of testifying, Trost says knowing what she knew about her strong and vivacious grandmother, she’s not surprised she eventually took the stand.
“I think she would have felt that it would have been her duty. She wouldn't have shirked away from that,” Trost said. “I think she had a very clear idea of what was right. And what she was obligated to do.”
“I think she had a very clear idea of what was right. And what she was obligated to do.”
- Lillian Wright's granddaughter Christine Trost on what her then teenage grandma was probably thinking before testifying at a murder trial.
Christine Trost was right. Lillian Wright eventually took the witness stand. She testified that a man in dark overalls and a white hat appeared to be trying to hide from the street light that night he was lurking around. But she was still able to identify him as the man sitting in court, Frank Kethman.
She also detailed hearing the crashes and thuds and seeing a man on his knees hammering something on the ground. (It doesn’t appear that she could tell it was a person). She later saw that man in the dark overalls and white hat rise from the ground and run off.
When the prosecutor asked Wright if Kethman was the man she saw enter the murder scene and come out again, she replied, “Yes sir. He was the only one there.”
According to the Fargo Forum, that caused a "visible stir in the courtroom,” with more than one person blurting out, "that settles it for Kethman."
The Forum seemed impressed with the soon-to-be college freshman, Lillian Wright. The reporter wrote, “She showed not the least hesitancy in making her replies. She detailed distances and the lights at different points of the view at her command and during the rather severe cross examination by Mr. Barnett she did not display any sign of uncertainty as to what she saw and heard.”
In addition to her eyewitness testimony, and testimony from people who heard the two men argue, the prosecution pointed out that blood splatters were found on the clothes Kethman wore that night.
They also brought up Kethman’s violent past — charges in other counties and even a story about him once brutally killing an innocent small dog.
But what about the weapon? If Kethman really did do it, where did he get the wagon wrench?
According to the prosecution, when Kethman left Hollie Walter’s bar and headed west, he stopped at the nearby Lamb Coal Co., where he grabbed the 14-inch wrench from the wagon. Then, prosecutors said, he hid in the shadows of Sixth Street waiting for Egge to ride by on his bike to his house.
Prosecutors say Dr. Egge stayed at the saloon just a few minutes later than Kethman, so as he pedaled his bicycle down Sixth Street, Kethman was already waiting for him. Just a block from his home, Kethman jumped out at him from the shadows of the street lamp, swinging the wrench at Egge. The blow was so hard it crushed the doctor’s face and killed him instantly.
But Kethman, prosecutors said, wasn't done. He kept wailing on Egge’s face until it was almost unrecognizable. The newspapers of the time described Egge’s face in gruesome detail.
But what became of the wagon wrench? Authorities found it later put back in the same wagon where it was taken — but this time, it was covered in blood.
The jury was went out at 4:30 on the afternoon of Dec. 1 to decide on a charge of first-degree murder for Frank Kethman. They came back by 8:30 the next morning with a verdict of not guilty of first-degree murder, but guilty of second-degree murder. That verdict was rendered because two members of the jury vehemently opposed the death penalty and if Kethman were convicted of first-degree murder, he would be sentenced to death. They compromised with a second-degree murder verdict and a sentence of life in prison.
What happened to everyone?
Kethman stayed at the Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater until he was 73 years old. Because of failing health, he was eventually moved to the St. Cloud Reformatory where he died in 1945 at the age of 79. He professed his innocence of the crime until the very end.
What about his wife who backed him 100 percent? Clara Kethman ended up divorcing Frank. She moved to Montana with her children and eventually remarried. She died in 1946.
Dr. Egge’s wife, Petra, raised their two young sons after her husband’s death. She remained in the same Moorhead home she shared with her husband, just one block from where he was murdered. She died in 1947 and is buried beside her husband in Moorhead’s Prairie Home Cemetery.
As for Lillian, the teenager and star witness, she did more than OK for herself. After graduating from Concordia College, she had a prolific career in music, teaching at schools in Chicago and Texas and singing opera at venues around the world. She married Edward Trost and had two sons.
One of those sons, Jim, is Christine Trost’s father. Christine has become the family historian and proud keeper of her grandmother’s memory. Lillian even willed her baby grand piano to her granddaughter. Trost also uncovered a rare recording of Lillian Wright singing at the dedication of the Mayo Civic Auditorium in 1939. She was asked personally to do so by the Mayo brothers who helped found the clinic.
Moorhead's Lillian Wright sings at Mayo Clinic Dedication in 1939:
For Lillian, what could have been a traumatic experience that Labor Day so many years could have haunted her for years... watching a man lose his life and standing up to the man accused of doing it. Facing him in court and speaking her truth without intimidation. It could have isolated her, or made her scared of her own shadow.
Instead, for the woman her granddaughter called “fiercely independent,” the wagon wrench murder seemed to be just one sad early chapter in a very rich and full life. She died at the age of 90 in 1981.
In her nine decades, you wonder if she looked back and felt satisfaction that she helped get justice for her neighbor. We can’t know what she was thinking. But according to her granddaughter Christine, Lillian’s day in court was nothing she bragged about. Instead, for the rest of her life after that chilly September night, she chose to lose herself in her music and use her voice not to convict, but entertain.
“Oh gosh,” Christine Trost said with a big smile. “I’m so proud of her.”
Here is a closer look at where the Wagon Wrench Murder took place.