Today, when a person is suffering from mental illness, their treatment options are numerous. With the support of family and friends, they can reach out and find the help they need to lead normal lives.
However, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, not so long ago the very idea of admitting that you were struggling with mental illness was enough to get you branded as “insane” and locked up for the rest of your life.
Sometimes what happened to the mentally ill in the early 1900s was even worse. When two brothers from Minnesota learned about a horrible event that happened in their hometown, they knew they had to do something to make it right.
Les and Keith Bergquist grew up in the teeny, tiny city of Dassel in Meeker County, Minnesota. There wasn’t a lot to do in Dassel, but the city still had plenty of its own local mythology. One such tale was about the nearby Steelesville cemetery.
Growing up near the cemetery, the boys didn’t really think much about the place. They knew that it was a cemetery designated for members of the area’s Swedish Lutheran community, but that was about it. That is, until one day their father told them a very creepy story.
The story the boys’ father told them had been passed down, father to son, in Dassel for 100 years. As it went, a father, stricken by grief for the death of his adult son, bundled up his son’s remains and buried them in an unmarked grave just outside the cemetery. But why?
The story upset and confused the brothers. Why had the father decided to dispose of his son’s remains this way? If he was so grief-stricken why didn’t he spend the money required to get the boy a proper burial complete with a headstone inside of the actual cemetery? They couldn’t shake these questions from their minds so they decided to search for the answers themselves.
To do this, Les ventured to the Dassel Historical Society. There, they located a 100-year-old copy of the no-longer-in-print newspaper, The Dassel Anchor, featuring an article that seemed to match up with everything his father had had told him about the eerie tale. But there was even more…
The paper, dated September 7, 1911, told the violent story of how a local blacksmith, named Johan August Lunnberg, had burst into his neighbor’s kitchen. He was described as looking haggard, out of sorts, and totally desperate.
Apparently, after his intrusion, the 34-year-old blacksmith asked a “Mrs. Benson” (the woman of the house) to give him a revolver. When she said she didn’t have one, Johan said any gun would do. Terrified, Mrs. Benson ran up the stairs to her bedroom, where she yelled outside to her son to come and help.
Right away, the boy raced inside and fetched his mother. Together, they fled to the barn, where Mr. Benson was still working. He was unaware of the kerfuffle occurring up at the house, and that Johan had found a gun and was loading it with bullets…
At 5:30pm, the local sheriff showed up on the scene. The Bensons directed him toward the house. When he made his way inside he found Johan up in one of the bedrooms. The sheriff was moving with caution, but he moved too slowly. Johan turned the gun on himself and fired.
When the story made the local paper, it came out that Johan was known to be a very heavy drinker. He was also without a wife or children, completely broke, and had reached a breaking point. That’s when he stormed into the Benson’s house. While the story itself was tragic, the way in which it was told left Les feeling cold.
According to the Dassel Anchor, “It appears that [Johan] became insane in the middle of the night and had an idea that his brother, Carl, was after him with the force of men, meaning to take his life. In a fit of temporary insanity, the maniac placed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.”
Having learned the origin of the unmarked grave outside of the cemetery walls, the Bergquist brothers had solved the mystery. However, they also came face-to-face with a truth about early 20th-century stigmas toward mental illness.
The grave was unmarked and outside of the cemetery due to an old-fashioned rule: victims of suicide were not allowed to be buried inside of Christian cemeteries. Unable to understand mental illness like the one afflicting Johan, they believed the suicide was the work of a possession by a demon or devil. And demons and devils don’t get a Christian burial.
The reason Christians didn’t want “evil spirits” buried in their graveyards was because they believed that this evil would “contaminate” all of the other bodies that lay beneath the earth. It’s crazy to think that such primitive thinking went on not that long ago.
Because Johan had no other family, it was his father’s responsibility to see that he was buried. Worse still, his father had just lost his wife 12 months earlier. It must have been a daunting and awful thing to return to the cemetery to bury another loved one so soon.
Once Les and Keith had all the facts of the story, they knew they should feel at peace, but they didn’t. While it would be impossible for them to change history, they hoped that they could give Johan a little bit of peace in the afterlife.
It just so happened that Keith worked as the Vice President of the Steelesville cemetery. So he reached out to local businesses and was able to raise the funds to have a proper headstone made for Johann, more than 100 years after his tragic death.
Les and Keith decided to place Johan’s gravestone inside of the cemetery itself. They made sure that it was placed so that it was facing the graves of his mother and father in his family plot. It is believed that, under normal circumstances, this is where Johan would have been buried.
Johan’s gravestone was blessed in a dedicated ceremony courtesy of the local Gethsemane Lutheran Church. In attendance was Keith’s wife, Karen Oberg. Oddly enough, the couple have lived in the Benson’s old house, where Johan took his own life, since 1999. Karen claims that before the dedication ceremony, the house seemed to have a supernatural presence within. Now with the ceremony complete, she says the entire house feels more at peace.
If it were not for the curiosity and kind-hearted nature of Les and Keith, Johan might have gone unrecognized forever. Their simple act of kindness in honoring his memory is proof positive that the way we think about mental illness today is truly changing.
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