By Jim Heffernan
|T. Eugene Thompson in 1963 (Source: CBS News, Minneapolis)|
T. Eugene Thompson is dead. If that means anything to you,
you are getting along in years. I am getting along in years.
I had a couple of unlikely run-ins with the case of the St.
Paul attorney who was convicted of arranging the murder of his wife in 1963. I
was reminded of the infamous murder case reading Sunday’s New York Times
ran an extensive obit on Thompson, who died on Aug. 8, his 88th
birthday. (Read story HERE
Thompson had been accused of arranging the murder of his
wife, Carol, in their home in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. He had
paid a college friend, Norman Mastrian, to do the job, but Mastrian
sub-contracted the actual murder to another man, Dick W.C. Anderson, who botched
the killing in the Thompson home. Mrs. Thompson escaped from Anderson after
being bludgeoned and stabbed and ran into the neighborhood crying for help, but
she died a few hours later in a hospital.
The motive? Thompson had taken out a $1.1 million life
insurance policy on his wife, which it was revealed he had planned to use to
start a new life with a girlfriend, his secretary. Thompson started a new life,
all right. He served nineteen years of a life sentence for first-degree murder
in the state penitentiary at Stillwater before being paroled. Anderson and
Mastrian were also convicted, the latter after a trial in Duluth under a change
of venue from St. Paul due to the extensive publicity connected to the case.
The Mastrian trial resulted in one of my contacts with the
case. The first involved an unexpected encounter with Thompson himself.
Taking last things first (the Thompson encounter), I should
point out that all this was occurring right when I was starting my career as a
reporter with the Duluth Herald and News Tribune in October 1963. By then the
Thompson trial was going on in St. Paul, having no direct connection with
However, Thompson had posted bail and was free during the
trial. One night, heady with my newfound role as a journalist but knowing
almost nothing about journalism, I stopped with a couple of friends at an
all-night eatery after an evening on the town, and there sat T. Eugene
Thompson, taking a weekend break in Duluth from his St. Paul trial. I’d seen
his picture often.
Ohmygosh, I was thinking, here’s the biggest news story in
the state, the Midwest, even the country, right here in my lap. Should I try to
get an interview? What a feather in my cap that would be.
A seasoned journalist would have no such thoughts, and been
content to let Thompson be. The accused murderer wouldn’t be inclined to give
an interview under such conditions. Studying him from across the room, I
hesitated, not knowing what to do.
Soon, I knew exactly what to do: Nothing. From out of the
nearby restroom strode the publisher of the Duluth Herald and News Tribune,
McGuckin Jr., my ultimate boss, who proceeded to join T. Eugene (that’s how
everyone seemed to refer to him) at his table. The two of them chatted warmly
as I sheepishly looked on from a booth some 20 feet away.
So much for my first “scoop,” a term reviled by seasoned
journalists, who know there are almost no “stop the presses” moments outside of
the movies. I found out later that McGuckin had met Thompson at a nightclub
bar, struck up a conversation with him, and the two decided to join each other
for coffee after their evening out.
My second contact with the case came a year or so later when
Mastrian was brought to Duluth for his trial. Unlike Thompson, Mastrian had not
posted bail and was still in custody when the trial was about to begin. At the
newspaper, we’d been tipped that he was to be brought to Duluth by train and
housed in the St. Louis County jail.
I was dispatched to the Union Depot, still in active use in
1964, to cover the arrival of Mastrian. Duluth police were there in force to
assist whatever law enforcement personnel would have ridden the train with the
At the time, the Duluth Police Department had a large van
known as a paddy wagon, capable of holding maybe 15 or 20 miscreants at a time.
This time it was poised for just one, accompanied by a couple of cops, backed
up to the curb at the track level of the depot.
In a matter of minutes after arrival, Mastrian was hustled
from the train, an officer on each arm, and into the paddy wagon for the short
trip to the downtown Duluth county jail. He was housed there throughout his
trial, in which a Duluth jury also convicted him of complicity in the murder of
One more brief anecdote connected to this case: The jury
returned a guilty verdict for Thompson on Dec. 6, 1963, just two weeks after
the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On Nov. 22, the day of the
assassination, the wire service United Press International (UPI) had been
carrying an account of the Thompson trial on its national wire when it suddenly
ended in mid-sentence with the words URGENT…URGENT and reported that shots had
been fired at President Kennedy in a Dallas motorcade.
A bigger story than the T. Eugene Thompson trial had broken
– one that did stop the presses.