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Murder and Restoration in 1950s Rural Minnesota: State v. Viola Gavle
On Thursday morning, April 6, 1950, as Oscar Rasmussen sat with his friends Albert Knutson and Truman Gavle in a bar in Emmons, Minnesota – a tiny town a few miles south of Albert Lea, near the Iowa border – he wasn’t planning to die in the next hour. Instead, he and his two friends had a few beers and then decided to go fishing. Gavle grabbed a bottle of whiskey that he kept under the front seat of his car. Knutson drove. Two miles outside of Emmons, Gavle handed the bottle to his friend, Oscar. There wasn’t much left. Oscar tipped up the bottle, said “Here goes!,” finished it off, and threw it out the window. Soon he was not feeling well. They drove back to Emmons. Knutson parked the car outside the hardware store, where Oscar went into convulsions and died. At first the doctor thought it was a heart attack. But when the autopsy revealed a fatal dose of strychnine, folks in the small town began to wonder: Who in Emmons would have wanted to poison Oscar Rasmussen? By the next Tuesday morning, Sheriff Carl Lindahl had an answer. That’s when he visited Truman Gavle’s wife, Viola, who happened to be in the local hospital. And she provided the shocking reveal. The sheriff recalled: I went to the office and asked what room Mrs. Gavle was in, and she told me, and I went down to the room and rapped on the door. She said, come in. I went in. She says, Mr. Lindahl, take me to jail, I did it, and I said, did what? I put the poison in the whiskey bottle and put it under Truman’s seat. She says, can they hang me for it? And I says, no they can’t. Are you sure? I says, I am positive because they don’t hang in Minnesota. Sheriff Lindahl told her he didn’t think she was in this alone, and, in a roundabout way, that turned out to be true. Viola Gavle was born in northern Iowa in 1916 and married Truman E. Gavle when she was 17. By 1950, they had 4 children – two boys and two girls – and a farm a mile and a half outside Emmons. But as the supreme court would later describe it, Mr. Gavle was “notoriously addicted . . . to whiskey.” To help run the farm, he hired a hand named Lawrence Nobles, a small, thin man who had trouble keeping a steady job. He helped Viola tend the chickens and do the dishes. Nobles and Viola began an affair two years before Oscar Rasmussen’s death. The record suggests that the two had considered having Viola divorce her husband, but Mr. Gavle’s life insurance policy influenced them to believe that poison would lead to a better outcome in the long run. In October 1949, they bought the strychnine at the North Side Drug Store in Albert Lea. Viola tested the poison at home, on the dog, and it worked. By April 1950, the affair with Nobles was over, and Viola was in a tailspin. On April 4, she attended a “pressure cooker clinic” in Albert Lea. That day she mailed a letter to Nobles letting him know that it “[c]ertainly was a blow when you ditched me . . . . Your happiness has sure been costly to my heart. I’ll never get over you until I find someone else.” Even though the affair was over, Viola still had the poison. That same day she put it in an almost-empty bottle of Corby’s whiskey and put it under the seat of her husband’s car. She told Sheriff Lindahl that she “got good and mad at her husband after he was drunk Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.” Two days later, Oscar Rasmussen was dead. So far, this story of betrayal and violent death sounds like a very dark day in Lake Wobegon; or a film noirDouble Indemnity, maybe, or The Postman Always Rings Twice; or Hamlet, where, you may recall, Claudius poisons King Hamlet, takes the throne (not to mention Queen Gertrude), and many more deaths ensue. But the Gavles’ story didn’t fit the familiar pattern. For Truman and Viola, time brought a surprising turn. The Evening Tribune for April 11, 1950 reported that before she confessed to the sheriff, Viola Gavle, a “slim gray-eyed woman . . . with clean-cut features, . . . told the whole story to her husband who was visiting her at the hospital.” And Truman Gavle responded that he was “100% behind her”! Viola was moved from the hospital to the jail, where she stayed up through the night reading the Bible. Her paramour, Mr. Nobles, also was reported to be in the jail. Unlike Viola, he “ate a good meal, after which he posed readily for photographers, and then spent the time reading comics.” Mr. Gavle hired two attorneys, one of whom was a former judge, to represent his wife. Sheriff Lindahl allowed the couple to visit in the kitchen of his home, where they, too, posed for photos; the April 12 Evening Tribune reported that the “young farm couple held hands while they had their pictures taken.” They were smiling. Meanwhile, the court process moved quickly. On May 9, a grand jury returned an indictment against Viola Gavle for first degree murder. She was tried in June. The defense argued that she was not really trying to kill her husband; she had just meant the poison to make him sick—like antabuse—so that he would quit drinking. Six neighbors testified to her good character. She was the vice-president of the Ladies’ Aid at the Emmons Lutheran Church, and “a good homemaker, always baking. She baked all her own bread, or most of it.” She had a “Certificate of Leadership” from the 4-H. She could play hymns on the piano. Viola took the stand in her own defense. She testified: I can only say that I don’t know how I could ever have done such a thing. I am truly sorry from the bottom of my heart, but of course that doesn’t help now. She was convicted as charged on June 15. The jury, according to the paper, “asked the court to show mercy.” Truman Gavle told the Evening Tribune that he hadn’t taken a drink since April 6, and that “he loved his wife and wanted her back home again. ‘If I never drank like I did, and had given the attention to her she should have had, this would never have happened.’” On June 24, Viola was sentenced to life in prison. The court stayed execution of the sentence after 13 of the Gavles’ neighbors pledged their property to support a bond so that she could live at home with her family during the summer. One of those neighbors was the doctor who had determined the cause of death. The trial judge, Hon. Martin A. Nelson, felt there was something wrong about Viola going to prison for life, but he couldn’t do anything about it: I have thought a lot about this case, as has counsel for the defense, and the prosecution as well. It is a tragedy, there isn’t any question about it, and if the Court felt it within its power to grant some relief at this point, it would do so. I doubt it has the power at this time . . . . In October 1950, Viola Gavle went to the State Women’s Reformatory at Shakopee. The case went to the supreme court on appeal. Viola’s appellate brief is filled with good arguments about evidence that should have convinced the jury that she never really meant to kill Truman; she just wanted the whiskey to taste bad and make him sick. For example, she had bought a new set of dishes for their son’s confirmation dinner, obviously thinking that Truman would be alive to attend. Of course, the real issue on appeal was whether the evidence of premeditation was enough to support the jury’s verdict of first degree murder, and it was. The decision (by Chief Justice Loring) affirming the conviction was unkind to Viola Gavle. The court found evidence of premeditation in her letters, in the time that elapsed while she kept the poison, and in her thoughts of collecting on Truman’s life insurance. The court added a sense of its revulsion for the crime by gratuitously relating that the medieval English sentence for murder by poison was that the offender “shall be boiled to death.” Then, of course, there was the dog. The court told the story of the dog’s death three times. And, in a strange way, something does seem worse about Viola’s poisoning of the family pet than her plotting to kill the family drunkard. The court also pointed out that Viola’s lawyers had not asked for a jury instruction on any lesser offenses, like third degree murder or negligent manslaughter. The defense went “all or nothing” on first degree murder, an unfortunate strategy because nearly everyone in the small town wanted Viola to be held responsible, but no one wanted her sentenced to life in prison. And the facts would have supported third degree murder: i.e., someone died because a person in a desperate state of mind performed an act that created a serious risk of death. Still, the defense’s all-of-nothing strategy almost worked – after 13 hours of deliberation, the jury was deadlocked 6-6. Viola Gavle was a model inmate in the Reformatory for Women. She never had a disciplinary violation. Younger women there considered her “sort of a mom.” She played hymns. She became the head of a group that translated books into Braille. With “good time” she had a chance to get out after about 17 years. Truman Gavle visited her as often as the rules allowed. The two of them wrote to each other three times a week. Sheriff Lindahl and his wife visited her, too. In 1955 Truman’s lawyers applied for Viola to get a pardon. Truman told the Board of I love Viola. All our four children love her. She was a wonderful mother and a wonderful wife until this tragedy came along. The application was denied. She had served only four years of a life sentence. In 1953, Judge Nelson was appointed to the supreme court. He must have still been thinking about Viola Gavle, because in 1961 he appeared before the Board of Pardons at a clemency hearing for her. The Women’s Reformatory warden, Ruby Benson, described Viola as “a humble, repentant woman…a patient and devoted Christian, always able to be objective and optimistic.” Viola also received support from Sheriff Lindahl, from the prosecuting County Attorney, and from her neighbors in Emmons. All 12 jurors signed the application for clemency, saying they wished they had had the chance to convict her of a lesser offense. This time the application was granted. The Board of Pardons—Governor Elmer Anderson, Chief Justice Roger Dell, and Attorney General Walter Mondale—commuted Viola’s sentence by reducing it to the sentence for third degree murder. The justice system had redeemed itself just as Truman and Viola Gavle had. After 11 years in prison, Viola went home to Emmons. She got along fine. Her 1965 parole report says that “no one in the community has any negative sentiment for the subject.” The 1967 report states that “…she is most amazed with how well she has been accepted both socially and civicly [sic]…Subject’s husband stated that his relationship with his wife has been most excellent, much better than before she was committed to the Reformatory for Women.” In 1967 she was discharged from parole. Truman Gavle died in 2002, at the age of 90. The Evening Tribune (January 22, 2002) reported that he “was survived by his loving wife of sixty-eight years, Viola. He was a member of AA for 44 years, where he sponsored many and enjoyed the good fellowship there…The nurses at the Care Center all enjoyed caring for him because of his good nature and sense of humor.” Ten years later, in 2010, Viola Gavle died, leaving 19 grandchildren and 23 great- grandchildren. She “enjoyed cooking, sewing, playing cards, and most of all, watching the Minnesota Twins on television.” She was active in Al-Anon. For Viola Gavle, the story of Oscar Rasmussen’s murder ends as a story of recovery, redemption, forgiveness, love, and community. In the 21st century criminal justice system, however, the story undoubtedly would bring a very different ending. If 1950s America was a simpler time and place, so too was 1950s restorative justice. Viola heard no victim impact statements. Indeed, nothing in the court or historic record even mentions how the Rasmussen family felt about the lurid events leading up to Viola’s spiking of Truman’s whiskey bottle. Nor did the members of the tiny hamlet seem to take sides between the two families. No court ever entered a Domestic Abuse No-Contact Order, an action that would have cut off the couple’s visits and long-running correspondence. Viola never had to register as a Predatory Offender. No court entered an order for Termination of Parental Rights. Social workers never intervened to remove the children from their drunken father’s home. Instead, the flexibility that came with a simpler time and place allowed the system to find a proper level of justice – an 11-year sentence that with a full view of time seemingly fit the crime. Viola Gavle served her time, went home, and did just fine. John Stuart has been the State Public Defender since 1990. In 1977-78 he worked as a law clerk at the Minnesota Supreme Court, where he found State v. Gavle while researching for a bench memo on premeditation.  


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