Silent night, deadly night: 75 years ago, a girl survived Glyndon's Christmas murders
A harrowing holiday the Minnesota community will never forget ends with two dead and Betty Lou Hanson fighting for her life.
GLYNDON, Minn. — Linda Mayfield remembers the day well. She and her husband, Leonard, were living in Seattle, when her mother-in-law, Betty, complaining of migraines, made an appointment with a doctor at the University of Washington Hospital. Linda went to the appointment with Betty.
“When we were in there, the doctor came back in and said, ’Do you know you have a bullet lodged near your neck?’” Linda said.
Not something most daughters-in-law would expect to hear about their mother-in-law. But Linda wasn’t totally surprised.
“I had known about it, but I didn't know any details,” she said. “But when he said that, and I was with Betty, then she opened up and told me the story.”
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The story behind the bullet in Betty’s neck goes back to the earliest morning hours of Christmas Day 1947. It would be a holiday like no other for the tiny Minnesota town where it happened and one that still resonates today.
Karen Nelson was just 9 years old that Christmas when she learned about a murder at the Hanson house.
"After spending such a comforting Christmas Eve and Day with my family, I could only think about the horrible happenings in the Hanson home during that time. Had the presents been opened? Where did the children go? Who took care of them?," she said.
Nelson is 83. She moved away from the area, but never forgot.
"These murders have returned to my mind occasionally, especially over the Christmas holidays," Nelson said. "Of course I always wondered what happened to the surviving children."
So Nelson reached out to The Forum to dig into the story.
The story is indeed tragic. But it’s also one about a little girl's courage, strength and perseverance, and how good people from Minnesota farmers to Hollywood movie stars rallied to bring light to the darkness.
'Happy' Christmas Eve turns to tragic morning
Our story begins in Glyndon, Minn., on the western edge of the state. Alvin and Hilma Hanson were living in a modest house behind what is now Seventh street, near the school. Money was tight. Alvin worked as a laborer — some reports say he had done some bricklaying with the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. But into the mid-'40s, work for Alvin was sporadic.
Hilma did her best to make a home for Alvin and the children: 14-year-old Phyllis; 13-year-old twins Donna Mae and Betty Lou (who went by Betty later in life); 7-year-old Ronald; and 4-year-old Richard. Another daughter from Hilma’s first marriage, Agnes Lorraine, was no longer living in the house.
No one quite knows what led up to the tragic events of Christmas 1947. According to newspaper reports at the time, Hilma had served Alvin with divorce papers earlier in the year. But by summer, the divorce proceedings had been stopped. However, on Christmas Eve, a restraining order had been served against Alvin, which forbade him “from occupying the home or molesting the family.”
Oddly enough, the restraining order served that very day didn’t stop Alvin from spending time with his family that Christmas Eve. We don’t know whether Hilma was just appeasing Alvin by letting him at least eat dinner and open gifts with the family or if Alvin somehow threatened her to let him stay. Either way, Hilma later said Alvin seemed happy and even joined their two sons in playing with their new toy train.
But trouble was brewing as the Hanson children settled down for the night, all in the living room surrounding the warm fire. Hilma said Alvin began “an uneasy pacing.”
Around 2:30 a.m., Alvin moved the boys out of the room, got out his .22-caliber pistol and headed toward the girls, who were still sleeping soundly, Donna Mae in her own bed and Phyllis and Betty Lou sharing one.
Linda said this is how Betty described what happened next.
“They were head to foot. Phyllis was against the wall against the window, and Betty's head was at the other end on the outside. And so he came over and put the gun right to Phyllis’s chest and fired. And when he did that, she (Betty) rolled off and went under the bed and he fired under there three times and hit her. She had a bullet near her heart, a bullet in her neck and then a bullet in her side somewhere,” Linda said.
One newspaper report filled in more details from the shooting, claiming that Alvin was angry that Phyllis had received a wristwatch from someone for Christmas. He demanded to know who it was from, but he shot her before she could answer. Betty reportedly screamed “Stop it! Stop it!”, before he shot her too.
According to newspaper reports, Hilma was able to escape into the cold night wearing just her nightgown. She ran to her neighbors three blocks away to call for help.
Word spread quickly in the small town that Sheriff W.T. Curran might need some help diffusing the situation.
Lloyd Seter Jr. was just 9 years old that Christmas. He remembers a call coming in the middle of the night.
“My mother was really frightened because we have a farm right close by and she was afraid that maybe this guy would run into the barn and hide or something,” Seter said.
Seter said his father, Lloyd Seter Sr., and a couple of neighbor men joined the sheriff as they walked the short distance to the Hanson house. Seter held up lights so the men could find their way in the pitch-black country night. As for Alvin Hanson, he was now on the second floor of the home, watching as the men were approaching. Step by step, the sheriff and the men made their way to the house, not knowing what to expect.
“And then when they got there, they heard the shots, and they were afraid of what was happening but he shot himself,” Seter said his father told him later.
Hanson had taken a sawed-off shotgun upstairs with him after shooting his daughters downstairs.
It’s hard to even imagine the chaos the sheriff and the neighbor men faced that night. Phyllis and Alvin were both dead, Betty was badly injured, and Hilma and the other children in shock.
Betty and Hilma were taken to St. Ansgar Hospital in Moorhead while the other children were taken to the home of that older half-sister, Agnes Lorraine, now married to Clarence Jensen and living in Fargo.
By the next day, a reporter and a photographer from The Forum were let into Betty's hospital room for an interview. The photo, which seems pretty odd by today’s journalistic standards, shows Betty laying in her bed with the caption, “despite her bullet wounds, Betty Lou Hanson was able to manage a cute smile.”
The reporter wrote that Betty’s memory of the shooting was hazy. She told the newspaper she was “awfully frightened” when her father “chased mommy and Donna Mae round and round after he came in with that gun.”
While her doctors were concerned about her injuries, they also expressed amazement at “the cheerful youngster” and how she was handling everything.
Outpouring of support
In the days to come, the community of Glyndon poured out its love and support to Betty and the entire Hanson family. Lloyd Seter Sr., the man who held up the lights for the sheriff that night, was now heading up a committee to raise money for the Hansons. He and others were going door to door to collect money.
Moorhead businesses donated as well, and kids got into the act, too. Linda showed us the old tattered and torn red scrapbook that she believes Hilma started for Betty all those years ago.
It contains a list of the people who visited Betty in the hospital along with letters from her classmates at the Glyndon school. But the letters weren’t just from classmates —at least one movie star wrote to her.
When Betty’s story hit the national news, including newspapers in California, Mickey Rooney read it and penned a postcard of his own. It reads:
“Dear Miss Betty Lou. Just read in our San Fernando Valley News of your terrible misfortune. And I do hope you are better by now. I just wanted to write a card to cheer you up. Our valley today is 84. Boy, it's hot. How is the weather down your way? I would like to hear from you.”
Linda said she wasn’t sure whether Betty wrote back, but she knows how proud she was of that little postcard.
What became of the family?
So what happened next? Alvin and little Phyllis were laid to rest. The survivors, including Betty, Hilma and the rest of the children, moved out of Glyndon. The house they once lived in was eventually torn down.
City directories show the Hansons moved to Fargo where they attended Fargo Central High School. All of the Hansons, except for Betty, stayed and worked in the Fargo-Moorhead area. But shortly after Betty married fellow Minnesotan Leonard Mayfield in 1956, the couple moved to Walla Walla, Wash., where he worked for the Army Corps of Engineers.
She built her life there, having four children and running a day care out of her home. Nonetheless, Linda said the demons from Christmas 1947 never quite went away.
“She was tormented her whole life. It was a hard life. She had some mental illness because of it, we’re certain, and it was tough,” Linda said.
Through the years and the distance, Betty managed to stay in touch with her mother, two brothers and her older half-sister Agnes Lorraine, called “Tootsie” back in Fargo. But she had some conflicts with her twin sister, Donna Mae, and they didn’t maintain a relationship. One relative of Donna's was interviewed by The Forum, calling Donna "an amazing lady."
Betty's mother, Hilma, died in 1980. The Hanson children all lived relatively long lives — the boys, Ronald and Richard, lived into their 60s, Betty and Donna into their mid-70s and Tootsie lived to 89.
With Tootsie's death in 2014, no one from the family is left to recall that horrific holiday 75 years ago. The memories that tormented Betty all those years were buried with her.
And for her family, maybe it's a good thing that all that remains now is the torn and tattered scrapbook, with postcards, letters and well-wishes for brighter days ahead.