James Chapman walked out onto the porch to greet the mailman. They smiled and talked a little as the mail carrier took John’s mail out of his bag. To James’ surprise, there was a package for him, wrapped in brown paper.
Although he was a bit surprised by the package, James pushed it out of his mind. It was only a few days after Christmas, so it only made sense that someone had sent him a late Christmas gift. Thanking the mailman, he turned and went back inside.
James wondered who it could be from. He couldn’t think of anyone in the family who might have sent it; they had already done all of that earlier that week. Maybe they had ordered something, and it had arrived late? That still didn’t seem right.
He looked at it, curious. It had been postmarked at nearby Marshfield, Wisconsin, but had no return address. Maybe it was from someone around town. He’d been on the County Board of Wood County, Wisconsin, for more years that he could remember. His service had been justly rewarded, and he was now serving as the Chairman of the same board.
Without looking up, James asked his grandson, James Tarr, if he had any idea who would have sent him a package. The young man shrugged his shoulders and replied that he didn’t know. Walking over to his wife, Clementine, he showed her the parcel. She didn’t have any ideas, either.
By this point, the three of them were curious to see what was inside. Carefully, James pulled the string binding the package.
Suddenly, there was a rush of heat against his face, followed by a deafening roar. His ears rang in a high-pitched squeal, and his whole world went white, then faded to black. After a few moments, the world slowly returned to Chapman.
Pain wracked his body, and he cried out involuntarily. He realized he was on the floor, and he could smell something coppery. Looking over at his arm, his eyes widened. It was a shredded, red mess. Blood streamed freely from his torn flesh.
James moved his eyes away from the ruin that was arm and scanned the room. Nearby, his wife lay unmoving, blood oozing from a hole in her side.
Nearby, James Tarr was screaming into the telephone. One moment he had been sitting quietly and the next the room had literally exploded. He had seen his grandparents go down in a heap, splinters of metal and wood soaring through the air, and blood spraying where they found their mark.
He had been just far enough away to be mostly unaffected by the blast, save for a few scratches. Tarr was terrified, but he had the presence of mind to run to the telephone. He called the first person he could think of – Ole Gilberts, the owner of the Klondyke General Store about a mile away.
James screamed into the telephone, quickly telling Gilbert what had happened, and that his grandparents were hurt. He shouted for Gilberts to come and help them.
Gilberts dropped the phone, ran out of the store, and got to the Chapman farm as fast as he could. Opening the front door, he saw John and his wife lying there in pools of blood. Two doctors had also been called from Marshfield, and they began to treat the Chapmans as soon as they arrived.
John’s hand and left leg were badly damaged. At first, Clementine didn’t seem to be too badly hurt. It only took a few moments for the doctors to realize that wasn’t the case at all.
An ambulance took James and Clementine to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Marshfield. Doctors were able to save James’ leg, but they had to amputate his hand and a certain amount of his right arm; the trauma was just too severe to repair.
When Undersheriff C.W. Bluett arrived at the Chapman farm, it was obvious that a bomb had gone off. Investigators counted nearly forty holes from where bomb shrapnel had torn through the home. It was also obvious that the bomb had been in the unexpected package sent to Chapman. From the very first, their investigation focused on gathering as much evidence of the bomb and the package it had come in as they could. The more they could discover about those things, the more likely they could find a clue to who the bomber was.
Because the bomb had been shipped through the mail, the United States Postal Service was notified. They sent three postal inspectors from Chicago to Wisconsin to assist with the investigation.
An examination of what was left of the bomb showed that it had been home-made. The explosive itself was picric acid, a common explosive that had seen widespread military use for the past several decades. In rural Wisconsin, farmers commonly used it for stump and rock removal in their fields.
The craftsmanship used in the assembly of the bomb indicated an individual who had worked with explosives enough that they were comfortable with their use. The device itself consisted of a length of metal pipe with caps at either end.
A string had been attached to a trigger on one of the end caps, then used to tie the package shut. When the parcel was unwrapped, the tension holding the trigger in place was released, allowing it to fall off and detonate the explosive.
The police quickly got a list of farmers who had bought picric acid through the county government. While there were a lot of names, it still narrowed their list of suspects.
The postal inspectors began to work at tracing the package back to its source. They sequestered themselves away at a nearby hotel with local postmaster Fred B. Rhyner, working together to find any and all clues that would point them towards the identity of the bomber.
They discovered that the rural mail carrier who had unwittingly delivered the bomb to the Chapman home had picked up the parcel from the designated drainage district east of Marshfield. Drainage districts were started in the 1800’s throughout the Midwest to drain marshy lands of water so that it could be used for farming.
Some theorized that the Chapman bombing was connected to a controversial drainage project for the city that had started earlier that year.
As Marshfield grew, more and more factories began to be built in the city. Many of them would wash away their production waste into the surrounding waterways. Marshfield already had an issue with standing water, and the residents didn’t want to have this wastewater polluting the area.
To deal with this problem, the city, under the guidance of James Chapman in his role as the Wood County Commissioner, developed the Mill Creek Dredging Project.
Mill Creek, a creek that wound through town, would be widened and deepened. Wastewater from the factories and standing water in the city would be diverted to it and then be carried out of town. While this solved the city’s problems, the farmers in the surrounding area were upset because all of that pollution was ending up on their farms and, subsequently, in their crops.
To make matters worse, the farmers, as residents of Wood County, would be taxed for the project. For some, it was almost like adding insult to injury. Not only did they have to have all of this water dumped onto their land, but they had to pay for it to happen.
There were several arguments over the project, but things finally came to a head when the dredging machine that was being used for the project was blown up with dynamite in July 1922. No arrests had been made in connection to the crime.
Around the same time of the Chapman attack, a local farmer’s barn was burned. The farmer, a man named Olm, was a key figure in the Mill Creek project. It was thought that the arson was in retaliation for his role in the project.
Rumors ran rampant in the wake of these events. There were stories that there was a second bomb delivered to a local business that were found to be untrue. Still, people were nervous. Blowing up a piece of equipment was one thing, but killing people was another entirely. Anyone who had openly supported the project could be a target.
As a precaution, the district attorney, Frank Calkins, warned the other members of the drainage commission to not open any packages they might receive, Instead, they should be turned over to his office immediately.
Meanwhile, authorities went to the home of a local farmer named Knute Moen. The rural mail carrier who had delivered the bomb to the Chapman home said that he had picked it up from Moen’s farm.
Moen told them that he had no idea what they were talking about. Until they had asked him about it, he didn’t even know a package had been placed in his mailbox. Satisfied with his story, the authorities left.
On the afternoon of December 30, 1922, two days after the Chapman bombing, Wood County Sheriff Walter Mueller and the three postal inspectors working on the case – J.A. Niles, R.M. Bates, and E.L. Jackson – went to the farm of a local man named John Magnusson.
The 40-year-old Magnusson lived there with his wife and three children. Born in Sweden, he had immigrated to the United States and eventually settled in Chicago, running his own garage there. He had come to Wood County six years prior, purchasing an 80-acre farm about six miles outside of Marshfield.
Mill Creek ran directly past his barn, and he was adamantly against the drainage project. He had been very vocal in his opposition and was convinced that the runoff from the factories were going to damage his land and crops. Allegedly, someone had asked Magnusson why he didn’t get rid of Chapman the same way that they had gotten rid of the dredging machine, implying blowing him up.
In addition to his mechanical expertise, he had at least a working knowledge of explosives. Authorities also found sawdust and wood shavings that showed a grain and consistency the same as the block of wood that had been placed in the explosive.
After the bombing, a local banker had provided the police threatening notes that had been given to him by Chapman. Handwriting samples from Magnusson were compared to the notes and to the remnants of the hand-written address on the bomb package.
English was a second language for the Swedish-born Magnusson, and he was known to speak broken English. As such, certain misspellings and wordings were present on both the package, the letter, and in samples taken from the Magnusson household.
John Magnusson was arrested for the murder of Clementine Chapman and taken to Marshfield. He was taken before a judge and pled not guilty without hesitation. Afterward, he was put into his own cell at the county jail.
For the next several days, he stayed there while the police and postal inspectors looked for more evidence to support their case. When questioned, Magnusson stayed calm and collected. He told authorities that while he was opposed to the higher taxes the drainage project would bring, he held no personal ill-will towards Chapman or his family.
Magnusson’s trial date was set for March, during the next session of the circuit court. Until that time, he would stay in the county jail.
In spite of everything, James Chapman was doing his best to show a determined, positive mood. He asked friends to bring him his glasses from home so that he could read the newspaper while he recovered in the hospital. His wounds were healing well, and the doctors expected him to make a full recovery.
When interviewed by newspapermen, Chapman declared that he believed the bombing had happened because of his connection to the drainage project. He also thought that all of the recent acts of violence in the county – the Olm barn burning, the dynamiting of the dredge equipment, and the bombing of his home – were all connected, and were most likely the work of one individual.
After a brief interlude where two jurors suddenly fell ill on the same night, the Magnusson trial began in late March 1923.
The first goal of the prosecution was to present evidence showing that Magnusson had made several threats against not only the Mill Creek project itself, but also against the board who oversaw it.
The doctors who had been called to treat the Chapmans after the blast talked about what they had seen and done, and Eugene Fehrenbach, a rural mail carrier, described how he had picked up the package from the Moen farm. He was also able to positively identify the brown paper wrapper that had been found at the Chapman home as the same one that had been on the package. John Heaton, the rural carrier who had delivered the package to the Chapman home, was also to identify the wrapper as the same he had seen on the bomb.
Several other witnesses were also called who remembered Magnusson making threatening remarks to them regarding either Chapman or the dredging project itself.
Perhaps some of the most damning testimony of the day came from James Chapman himself.
He stated that Magnusson had been making threats since early in 1922. In relation to the drainage project, he said that he had hired the best lawyer in Chicago to argue his case for him, and if that wasn’t enough, then he wasn’t afraid to “use his gun.”
Another time, Magnusson came to the Chapman home and accused James of assessing his taxes for the project out of proportion with his neighbors. He claimed that his were higher, and wanted to know if Chapman was begin crooked in dealing with him. Chapman assured the irate Magnusson that everything had been assessed fairly, and if there was a discrepancy, then he and the other board members would correct it.
Chapman double checked the numbers in regard to Magnusson’s taxes, and found that everything was in order, and that Magnusson wasn’t being charged anymore than anyone else.
On a second occasion, after the dynamiting of the dredge equipment, Magnusson had shown up at Chapman’s house and, more or less, accused him of taking bribes. He told Chapman that he had heard that “certain persons” were accepting bribes from the city in exchange for supporting the Mill Creek project.
Chapman was incensed at the accusation. In response to Magnusson, Chapman told him that he knew exactly who had blown up the dredge equipment, and that the police were going to track them down and hold them accountable.
Chapman testified that when he said that, Magnusson looked embarrassed and guilty, and let the matter drop.
The next day, the prosecution sought to support the hypothesis that Magnusson built the bomb in his machine shop.
Undersheriff Cliff Bluett talked about the wood shavings that had been found there. The shavings were introduced into evidence, and he stated that those were the ones that had been found. The shavings had been examined by Professor Arthur Koehler at the University of Wisconsin, who also gave his testimony that day.
Koehler said that the chips that he had been given had also contained white elm shavings. These kind of shavings had also been found underneath the wood lathe in Magnusson’s shop.
Walter Mueller, who had retired as sheriff, along with two of the postal inspectors who had assisted with the investigation, testified about procuring the handwriting samples from Magnusson. They said that the farmer had kept his head down while giving them the samples and wouldn’t look up or speak to them.
Magnusson had claimed that the authorities had held him at gunpoint in order to get him to give the samples. Both Mueller and the postal inspectors denied his claim.
Other experts were called, including explosive and handwriting experts. Three handwriting experts testified that the address on the bomb wrapper had been written by the same pen held in the hand of the same man.
Finally, the defense put John Magnusson himself on the stand.
After walking step by step through his life up to moving to Wood County, Magnusson denied having made the bomb. He also denied having anything to do with blowing up the dredge equipment.
He talked about being arrested, and how the sheriff and the postal inspectors had mistreated him. They had placed his chair close to a large radiator in the interrogation room, and then had questioned him about the bombing for hours. The heat from the radiator began to get to him, and he finally asked for a glass of water. He said that the police said they would only give him water if he signed a confession.
Magnusson said that when he was giving the handwriting samples, the police told him how to spell Marshfield because he wasn’t sure how to make some of the letters. They showed him how to print them, suggesting that any spelling similarities between the address and his handwriting was their fault.
After the defense attorneys and the prosecutors made their closing arguments, the case was handed over to the jury for a verdict. On the morning of March 31, 1923, they presented it to the assembled court: John Magnusson was guilty of first-degree murder.
When he heard the verdict, Magnusson collapsed. He began to moan, and his body began to shiver and tremble as he began to move his head from side to side.
When interviewed later, he maintained his innocence. He told reporters that he had been framed because when police couldn’t find the real culprit, they had made up evidence to convict him. Magnusson’s family declined to make any comment.
A few days later, Magnusson was sentenced to life imprisonment at Waupun State Penitentiary. When questioned about his sentence, he once again stated that he was innocent and that, one day, he would be proven to be so. In the meantime, he said that his time in prison would give him “a chance to learn a new trade.”
Unfortunately for him, his innocence was never proven, and he lived the rest of his life in prison. James Chapman died seven years later and was buried next to his wife. He lived long enough to see the Mill Creek project completed without any further incident.
John Magnusson was a man of strong opinions. He didn’t believe in the Mill Creek project, and he was determined to stop it at any cost. Unfortunately, his violent acts escalated until it ultimately maimed one person and killed another.
While his opposition can be understood, the ends that he went to would never justify his means.
Bomb Received Through Mail Injures Man and Kills Wife. Wood County Reporter, 12/28/1922
Marshfield Woman Killed by Bomb. Kenosha News, 12/28/1922
May Have Clue to Bomber. Marshfield News-Herald, 12/29/1922
Expect Arrest of Bomb Slayer Today. Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, 12/29/1922
Arrest Farmer in Bomb Case. Marshfield Daily News, 12/30/1922
Leonhardt, Kris. Marshfield, July 1922: The explosive Wood County Drainage Feud – Part I. Hub City Times, 7/2/2016
Leonhardt, Kris. Marshfield, July 1922: The explosive Wood County Drainage Feud – Part II. Hub City Times, 7/13/2016
- Magnuson Charged with Bombing. Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, 12/30/1922
County Officers Push Inquiry in Bomb Death Case. The Daily Tribune, 1/2/1923
One Death Toll Christmas Bomb. The Marshfield News-Herald, 1/4/1923
Bomb Suspect Bound Over to Circuit Court. Marshfield News-Herald, 1/5/1923
Many Marshfield Persons Called to Testify in Opening MagnussonTrial. Marshfield News-Herald, 3/21/1923
Bomb Victim Called to Testify in Magnusson Case. The Daily Tribune, 3/21/1923
Explosives Expert Takes Stand in Murder Trial at Wisconsin Rapids Today. Marshfield News-Herald, 3/23/1923
Magnusson Address Bomb, Experts Say. The Daily Tribune, 3/24/1923
Magnusson Case May Go to Jury for Verdict Thursday Defendant Took Stand Today. Marshfield News-Herald, 3/28/1923
Hold Magnusson Guilty. Marshfield News-Herald, 3/31/1923
Magnusson Sentenced; Off for Prison. Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, 4/4/1923.
Whetstone, Rhonda. Unpopular board decision linked to fatal bombing. Marshfield News Herald, 12/19/2016