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Unsolved: Chisago County mother, 7 children killed in 1930s farmhouse fire

The Johnson family's remains were all found in a burned-down farmhouse in 1933, except for Albin Johnson, who was never seen again.

HARRIS, Minn. — About an hour north of the Twin Cities is a small, Lutheran cemetery where a mother and her seven children are buried.

Their remains were all found in their Chisago County farmhouse that burned down 90 years ago on April 11, 1933.

But who killed them is a mystery that still divides Harris all these years later.

The small town is known as much for its café, full of friendly faces and home-cooking, as it is for the murders Brian Johnson knows about all too well. 

"When I was a kid, I always thought it was a terrible, tragic accident," said Johnson. "It wasn't until I got older that I became more and more curious about it."

Back then, Brian and his family would often visit the nearby cemetery to pay their respects at the graveside of his grandmother's sister, Alvira Lundeen Johnson, and her seven children, who are all buried together in one casket. 

"It was a great shock to the community, as you might expect, and so it was a very sensitive topic," said Johnson.

Alvira was just 29 years old and a dedicated mother during what was the Great Depression. She was married to a man named Albin Johnson, who had fallen on such hard times that their family would be evicted by her own father-in-law.

Albin's remains were the only ones that have never been found. 

"I believe he did it — I believe Albin did it," said Johnson. "It was a very desperate time, of course, and he was a very, very desperate man and felt like there was no way out and that he somehow got away."

Johnson thinks Albin escaped to Canada where he once worked as a logger.

The news even made headlines there — and across the country. After a months-long manhunt turned up nothing, a grand jury eventually indicted Albin in the deaths. 

But former Chisago County Sheriff Floyd Pinotti will tell you that Albin isn't to blame. Rather, he thinks Albin's own brothers killed him, fighting over their land and then burying him beneath a hill on the old property where a new house now stands.

Pinotti points out what little evidence investigators had back then, including a kerosene can left at the scene, fresh automobile tracks and reports the field was being farmed only hours after the fire was first reported.

"The brothers and the family were at odds over that (the land)," said Pinotti. "Which leads you to wonder at a time like this, at that time in the morning, is that something normal people would do?"

Pinotti still lives across the street from the scene and would go on to be friends with one of the Johnson brothers, who eventually took over the farm.

Pinotti, admittedly, also says he was a suspect in the crime that has long gone cold, 90 years later. Now in 2023, files relating to the case no longer exist.

"It's hard for me to imagine he was involved because he was so nice," said Pinotti about the one Johnson brother. "It could be a repentance, a repentance on his part."

As for Brian Johnson, who isn't related to Albin, he's left to look back on all the pictures he has of his family, gone too soon.

Even the wanted poster for Albin continues to hang in the Harris café, a reminder there's still a search for answers and that those who died will never be forgotten. 

"I feel like he robbed us of getting the opportunity of knowing Alvira and those kids," said Johnson. "If anyone has any information that would shed more light on this case, I would love for them to come forward."

In 2019, Johnson wrote a book about the murders. It's available on Amazon


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