Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Shadow of Matti Hietanen


“Edla, darling, I fear we’re in for rough times. All I know is, if anything bad happens, deputy sheriff Rasmussen will be at the bottom of it.”

Matti Hietanen, Jr. (1883-1921)
“Matti, what are you telling me? What do you mean ‘if anything bad happens’?” Lately Edla had an almost constant dread of something bad happening to her husband. Up until two weeks ago Matti had walked the night patrol beat in Fairport Harbor. Every morning she’d thanked the good Lord above when he stepped safely once again through the doorway of their home.

“The trial is next week and I mean to tell the truth—the whole truth. There are men in this county that won’t like that. And Rasmussen is one of them.”

“Maybe you won’t have to say anything, Matti. Maybe Alex and Steve will be enough.”

Matti frowned at the floor. “Edla, I can’t fail to back them up. Alex is my partner.”

Edla didn’t know exactly what secret police work Matti was involved in, but she knew something had already gone wrong. Two weeks ago he'd been arrested with his fellow patrolmen, Alex Southerland and Steve Forks, for receiving intoxicating liquor. All three had been suspended from the Fairport Harbor police force and were awaiting trial. The trial was supposed to have been before the end of October, but for reasons that Edla couldn’t fathom, it kept being postponed.

Edla sighed. “This Volstead Act—this Prohibition—it’s brought nothing but trouble. I wish . . . I wish . . .”

“It’s no use wishing, Edla. Things are as they are. Our parents brought us here to the United States from Finland in hope of better things. But trouble is the same all the world around. There are Rasmussens everywhere.”

“But Rasmussen is deputy sheriff. He can’t be a bad man.”

“He’s an ambitious man. His father was famous in this town. The son means to outdo him. He has his eye on being sheriff of Lake County. One big case can make his career. I’m afraid he means for Alex, Steve, and me to be that case.”

“But that charge isn’t true!”

“Doesn’t matter to a man like Rasmussen. He’ll take whatever opportunity he can find—and woe betide the man who stands in his way.”

“Then you must stay out of his way, Matti.”

“I’m already in it, Edla. That’s why I’ve got to go talk things over with Alex and Steve. Don’t sit up for me—you need your rest. I won’t be long.”

“Be careful, Matti. The children can’t do without you. I can’t do without you.”

Matti gave her a quick kiss and then he was out the door and gone. Edla parted the window curtains just a little and watched her husband vanish into the Thursday evening twilight of late October.

She turned back to where she’d left her darning. The children wore holes through their stockings so fast, even little Ruth, who was only three and a half. Edla adjusted cushions and settled herself into the sturdy rocking chair. Seven months of pregnancy made it difficult to sit comfortably for a long time. Thank goodness her eldest daughter Elsie would be around to help when the baby came—especially if “anything bad” happened to Matti. But she mustn’t think about that.


Matti hadn’t come home all night. Edla had a hard time concealing her frantic worry as she got her five older children up and off to school. She tried to get through the housework, but Matti’s words of warning echoed in her head all morning. Then, just before noon, when she’d finally made up her mind to walk over to the police station and ask about her husband, two police officers had knocked at the door. She recognized them, but didn’t know either of them well.

Edla Sussanna Salo Hietanen (1884-1961)
They’d told her the news—Matti was dead, shot once through the heart. Edla had hardly been able to keep from collapsing. She had to see Matti, prove to herself that it was true. She’d dropped little Ruth and baby Dorothy at the neighbors. Then the policemen had brought her here to the Lake County hospital.

Now Edla stared at her husband’s dead face. The room was gloomy, full of harsh shadows cast by the single light bulb. Matti’s body lay on the table. Matti—her dear, darling Matti. He was gone. He’d never speak to her again, never take her hand as he always used to in that shy way when they were alone. She didn’t know how she’d make it through the next hour, much less face the rest of her life without him.

She let them lead her back into the ugly gray hallway. People bustled by—people who had no idea who Matti was. People who didn’t care that he was dead.

How had this happened? The officers wouldn’t tell her anything. Was Rasmussen responsible as Matti had hinted last night? Edla didn’t dare mention Rasmussen’s name—didn’t even know whether she could force the word past her lips. There were forces in play here that were far stronger than she was. Money and power and what else, she didn’t know. She couldn’t fight the men involved in Prohibition—neither the men who smuggled liquor across Lake Erie from Canada nor the men who fought them. She just wanted to go home. The older children would be arriving from school soon. She’d have to break the news to them. She would need all her strength just to do that.


Edla was resting in her upstairs bedroom, lying in the bed she and Matti had shared since their marriage just over eighteen years ago. Her insides felt scraped empty. Telling the children the awful news had been almost too much on top of her own sorrow. Without seventeen-year-old Elsie, Edla didn’t know how she would have even made it this far.

Elsie Emilia Hietanen Austin Behm (1904-1990)
Someone rapped softly at the bedroom door and stepped inside. It was Elsie. She sat down beside Edla on the bed. “Mother, how are you feeling?”

“Don’t worry, Elsie. I was born a stubborn Finn. I’ll go on.”

“Mother, I don’t know how to tell you—but you’ll need to see it soon. I suppose all of Fairport is already talking.” Elsie held out the evening newspaper. “Here. Read this.”

Edla took it. It was the Friday evening edition of the Painesville Telegraph. Why was Elsie bothering her with the newspaper? Edla had no room in her head for anything beyond her own family’s trouble. She held the paper toward the dregs of daylight falling through the window. She could just make out the headline.



The newspaper slipped from her fingers. She felt as if someone had punched her in the stomach.

"Mother?” said Elsie. “Mother, are you all right? Oh, I’m sorry I let you see it.”

“No, Elsie, don’t be silly. Read it to me. You know I don’t read English well. I need to know what it says.”

Elsie read aloud.

The newspaper was crazy. It told a story about a Matti that she’d never known. Last night he’d been down at that new pool hall over on High Street, Szabo’s, drinking with Alex and Steve. Then early this morning Matti and Alex had gotten into an argument. Matti shot Steve twice then turned the gun on himself. Sheriff Ora Spink had come over from Painesville to deal with the aftermath. And with Spink had come deputy sheriff Rassmussen. Edla couldn’t listen any longer. She laid a hand on Elsie’s arm.

“Is this true, Mother?” asked Elsie. "What the newspaper says?"

“No, Elsie. Burn it. Don’t tell your brothers and sisters. Your father’s dead—that’s all they need to know. I’m going to tell you what your father said to me last night, but you must never breathe a word of it to any living soul.”

“Yes, Mother. I’ll do exactly as you say.”


Saturday had been a blur—arranging for the funeral, arranging for the casket, and the delivery of Matti’s body. Alex Southerland had died in the hospital, and Steve Forks was nowhere to be found. But Sunday—already Edla could feel how Sunday would drag. All day they’d be at Zion Lutheran. Church service in the morning was first. The afternoon would be Matti’s funeral and then burial in the church cemetery. Leaving the house was the last thing Edla wanted to do, but the idea of staying home was absolutely unacceptable.

They owed it to Matti to show themselves, show that they were coping with tragedy. They’d hold their heads high in order to say that Matti wasn’t a drunk, wasn’t a murderer, hadn’t committed suicide—even though the whole Finnish community of Fairport Harbor knew those things already. Everyone knew what sort of man Matti Hietanen was, no matter what the newspapers were saying. But Edla and the children had to show them that right to the end Matti had been the man everyone knew. And the only way to do that was to show that she and the children were still the same, too.

Suomi Zion Lutheran Church and parish house, Fifth and Eagle Streets, Fairport
Morning service was a torture. She could feel the eyes on her, but when she raised her own, so many other eyes refused to look back. And the ones that did held looks she’d never seen before—looks of pity, looks of disapproval, and blank looks shielded by an impenetrable wall.

The pastor’s sermon had deplored the way that crime could ravage a community. He’d prayed for a blessing on Edla and the children. But the only time Matti’s name crossed the pastor’s lips was when he announced the funeral for the afternoon. Matti’s siblings and their families, even her own sisters, had been strange. They had spoken to her, true, even murmured words of consolation. But there had been a distance, almost a coldness, that Edla could barely bring herself to acknowledge was there.

Six-year-old Everett had run up to her after the service ended. He was crying because a friend had refused to play with him and called him a dreadful name. As they all walked back home to the house on Third Street, Everett’s older brothers Et and Al had teased him back into a better mood. But Edla’s mood had only grown darker.

Elsie carried baby Dorothy. Karl and Et were kicking through piles of dead leaves. Al was lost in dreams as usual. Once home they would just have time to see the casket with Matti’s body put onto the truck for the funeral, maybe eat a quick meal, and then they’d be on their way back to church to sing a few hymns and watch Matti being lowered into the ground. Edla’s back hurt—her pregnancy was really starting to show.

Was this the way it would be from now on? A shadow cast over them? Family and friends holding them at arms’ length? Why couldn’t everything go on the same way as before—only without Matti? She knew he hadn’t killed himself. He would never have pointed a gun at his own heart and pulled the trigger. But the world was saying different.

Today she had the funeral to think about. But tomorrow she needed to find paying work. She had seven children who needed her and an eighth was on the way. She couldn’t change the world—Matti was right, trouble was everywhere—but she would not let it defeat her. In her heart, where it really mattered, she would fight, and she would conquer. She would put this all behind her and simply go on.


The foregoing is a fictionalized account of the death in the early morning hours of October 28, 1921, of my great-grandfather Matti Hietanen, Jr. (1883-1921). No one can say for sure whether his death was a suicide, as the official story goes, or whether it was murder, as family tradition has it.

“Family tradition” may be a glorified term. Matti Hietanen’s death has been an established fact since 1921, but the circumstances surrounding it were suppressed within the family. My mother Karen Hietanen Shanower grew up knowing nothing of the events surrounding her paternal grandfather’s death. Then in the 1970s while doing some genealogical research she ran across the Painesville [Ohio] Telegraph article of October 28, 1921, the article referred to in my story above. Some high points of the article are as follows:
“An argument on politics and socialism, conducted in Andrew Szabo’s pool room . . . ended tragically . . . when Matt Heitenan [sic], Fairport policeman, shot and twice wounded Alex Southerland, . . . and then turned his revolver on himself. . . .

“At the time of the shooting five men were in the establishment. . . . In addition to Heitenan [sic], Southerland, Forks, Szabo, there was a man who is said to be John Merk, Szabo’s partner.

“Sheriff Spink and Deputy Edward Rasmussen arrived about 20 minutes after the tragedy took place, and proceeded to place Szabo under arrest. The latter is being held in the Lake county jail on a charge of possessing intoxicating liquor.

“Four chambers of the revolver were found empty by Sheriff Spink and Deputy Rasmussen when they arrived. The fourth shot can not be accounted for.

“Later in the morning, Prosecuting Attorney Ralph M. Ostrander and Deputy Rasmussen searched Szabo’s establishment for evidence of liquor. Empty bottles were found strewn about the place, but no liquor was discovered until they looked into the trap of a sewer. Then, they say, they found a quantity of liquor which had evidently been hastily poured there.

“Heitenan [sic], Southerland and Steve Forks were arrested October 13 on a charge of receiving intoxicating liquor. Their trial was to have been held some time this month.”
When my mother discovered this article she asked her father about it. Everett J. Hietenan (1915-1998) had been six-and-a-half when his father died and hadn’t been aware of the circumstances. But one of his siblings had since told him this: their father, Matti Hietanen, Jr., had told their mother, Edla Sussanna Salo Hietanen (1884-1961), that if anything happened to him, it would be deputy sheriff Edward Rasmussen’s fault. In-the-know family members believed that Matti Hietanen hadn’t committed suicide, but that he’d been a victim of murder.

Everett Hietanen’s eldest sister, Elsie Emilia Hietanen Austin Behm (1904-1990) had been seventeen at the time, old enough to remember what had happened. At first Aunt Elsie agreed to tell my mom what she knew about Matti Hietanen’s death. But then she changed her mind. Eventually all knowledge she had went to the grave with her. As my mom once wrote, Aunt Elsie died following her mother Edla’s advice to “put it behind them and get on with their lives.”

So the “official” story of suicide remains in conflict with the “family tradition” story of murder. No one knows how the truth might be discovered at this point. I prefer the "family tradition" version, however lacking in detail it may be. But I suspect that the truth may lie somewhere between the two versions.

There was a major split in the Hietanen family a couple generations ago, and those “stubborn Finns” wouldn’t talk about the reasons for it. Some of us in the more recent generations wonder whether the split had anything to do with Matti Hietanen’s death. Into my story above I put implications to support that possibility, but I want to make it clear that I have no idea whether that was actually the case.

I believe the bedrock of Matti Hietanen's death was Prohibition. The National Prohibition Act of 1919, known as the Volstead Act, was enacted by the US Congress to prohibit intoxicating beverages in the United States of America. Organized crime took over the illegal importation and distribution of liquor. Violence among rival gangs escalated as their influence grew. Many politicians either caved in to gang intimidation or, tempted by power and money, joined the illegal activity. But by 1933 public opinion had overwhelmingly condemned prohibition. In December 1933 the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was repealed. Prohibition was over. But not before many lives had been affected.

Edward T. Rasmussen, circa 1927, during the Velma West case
After Matti Hietanen’s 1921 death, Edward T. Rasmussen went on to achieve a degree of fame, surpassing the local Fairport Harbor fame of his father, seafaring captain N. W. Rasmussen. After serving as deputy sheriff of Lake County, Ohio, Edward Rasmussen ran for sheriff in 1924 against Arta Spink, sheriff Ora Spink's wife, and won election for the term 1925 to 1928.

In 1928 Rasmussen was peripherally involved in investigating crimes surrounding the 1926 gangland murder of Donald Ring Mellett, editor of the Canton [Ohio] Daily News, slain for his newspaper crusade against underworld activity during Prohibition. Mellett's bravery is still celebrated today in journalism circles.

However, the case that brought Rasmussen’s name to national attention was that of “Hammer Killer” Velma Van Woert West’s 1927 murder of her husband, Thomas Edward West. Young socialite Velma bashed in T. E.’s head with a claw hammer in their Perry, Ohio, honeymoon cottage. This murder had nothing to do with Prohibition, but more to do with a bridge party given by Velma’s lesbian lover Mabel Young. Associated Press articles reveled in the lurid details of the case, spreading sheriff Rasmussen’s name across the country from Florida to Washington state. Rasmussen's fame, though wide, seems to have been brief.

Velma West (right) with her legal team
Family tradition doesn’t implicate Lake County sheriff Ora Morris Spink in Matti Hietanen’s death, but as Rasmussen’s immediate superior at the time, if there was corruption in the sheriff’s department, Spink could have been involved. Like Rasmussen, Spink also had later career highlights. On October 25, 1922, nearly a year to the day after Matti Hietanen’s death, the body of Hazel Burns was found dead in a shallow grave near Painesville, Ohio. Hazel’s husband Harry Burns was charged with the murder. Sensational clues turned up around the marshy countryside—a pistol, a raincoat. The newspapers duly quoted sheriff Spink’s opinions.

I have little idea what happened to the other men mentioned in the Painesville Telegraph article about Matti Hietanen’s death: pool hall owner Andrew Szabo, his partner John Merk, policeman Steve Forks, and prosecuting attorney Ralph M. Ostrander. Alex Southerland evidently died from his two gunshot wounds, whoever inflicted them. Town Marshal John Werbeach seems to have lived in Painesville until 1980, and there are Werbeachs still living in Lake County.

I wonder whether any of these men have family who could shed any light on the three shots that rang out during those fateful early morning hours of October 28, 1921.

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