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A Gruesome Tale, 1880

A grue is a grisly, short comic poem, with a sadistic bent to it and a twist of some sort in the final line or two. Grues were often called “Little Willies” after the central figure in many of the best known examples. Robert Louis Stevenson dubbed the rhymes a “grue,” deriving the moniker from gruesome. An example:

Willie, with a thirst for gore,

Nailed his sister to the door.

Mother said with humor quaint,

"Now, Willie dear, don't scratch the paint."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word gruesome first entered the lexicon of printed usage in 1570. The alternate spelling, grewsome, is acceptable though somewhat antiquated in the 21st century. Etymologically, it comes to English through Scandinavia, including the Old Danish grue. Farther back its roots trace to the Old High German ingruen, meaning shudder, a deeper Germanic root grauen, to be awed, and the Dutch gruwen, translated as abhorrence. The modern English definition states, “Inspiring fear, awe, or horror; fearful, horrible, grisly.”

As far back as Edmund Spenser, poets have been inspired by things like “grislie ghostes.” Reality, in Mendocino County's past, has its share of tales that go bump or thud in the night.

One such, from April, 1880, involved twelve-year-old Johnny Hammarland, a Swedish born lad who emigrated to California with his parents, Johanna and Nels Hammarland, and his sister, Emily, two years his junior. For a time the family lived in Caspar, but by contemporary accounts Nels physically abused his wife. Apparently, he also made a poor showing at supporting her and the children.

Even though the Johnny and Emily had made friends at Caspar, Johanna moved them to Navarro Ridge. In October, 1879, they took up residence in what had been a shoe shop, renting from the building's owner, Haskett Severance. Mrs. Hammarland made a spare living there taking in laundry.

At some point Nels made his way to the vicinity, but by then Johanna had taken a liking to a local mill employee and fellow native of Sweden, Frank Ollson. On Saturday, April 3, 1880, Emily went off to Caspar to visit with the family of a former classmate.

That evening, Johnny used a man-sized ax to split a box full of kindling for his mother's kitchen stove. As he finished the chore and the sun sunk in the Pacific, several Swedish mill workers, including Frank Ollson, made their way to the little house on the ridge. No one took much notice at the time when Johnny secreted the chopping ax underneath a case of dresser drawers in the front room. The men from the mill drank beer together while Johnny excused himself to the bedroom fairly early.

Around midnight, Johnny woke from a deep sleep to a dim awareness of light and shadow being cast from another room. On the wall above the head of the bed he couldn't help but notice splatters of dripping, fresh blood. His mother lay on the sheet next to him. He prodded her, trying to rouse her from her side, but she lay still as the depth of the wounds to her head sank into the boy's consciousness. He heard Frank Ollson gasping or wheezing just beyond then slumping silent. Next, Johnny caught sight of his father standing in the doorway, a figure made larger than his five and a half feet in height by the back light cast by a lamp in the next room. Nels stared toward the bed while seeming to absentmindedly clean his fingernails with a small knife.

Johnny scrambled from the bed, pushed his way past his father as the latter spoke, “Don't go to the hotel before morning or I will do the same for you.”

Johnny ran straight from the house to the hotel stable where he spotted H.W. Bagley, the hostler. At the news Johnny shared, Bagley dashed to Mr. Severance's house. In turn, Severance gathered four or five men before going to the Hammarland abode.

Opening the door, they spied Nels Hammarland sitting in the front room writing, with several pages of paper already filled. Nels rose and, carrying a lamp in a trembling hand, walked slowly to the bedroom door, where he shone the light inward.

Johanna Hammarland and Frank Ollson lay lifeless on the bed, blood drying in their deep head wounds, as well as on their clothing, all over the bed and nearby wall. One of the men asked, “Why did you do this?”

Nels responded, “It's been going on for a year and I was obliged to do it.”

The men escorted Nels Hammarland to the hotel, where they allowed him to continue to compose letters. They were written in Swedish, one to a brother living near Petaluma, another to a second brother in Portland, Oregon. The contents contained full confessions and implored the brothers to take charge of the children as soon as possible. The letter that had been concluded at the scene of the crime bade a final farewell to life with the intimation that he would soon follow his victims. Indeed, a sturdy halter belonging to Mr. Severance had been found in the sitting room with Hammarland. To all present it appeared suitable to substitute for a noose.

A constable found the ax hidden behind the house. Though it had been washed down with water, traces of blood clung to the weapon.

The bodies were buried in the public cemetery at Mendocino a day and a half later. Two days hence, Justice of the Peace August Heeser, following an examination, held Hammarland over on multiple counts of murder. Testimony clarified that Nels Hammarland had allowed Ollson to share the bed with Johanna Hammarland for some time, with the husband not only condoning the arrangement but sharing the bed, at times, with them.

Constable S.J. Chalfant, a former Mendocino County Sheriff himself, took charge of the prisoner for travel to the jail in Ukiah. Chalfant completed that duty the next day.

At trial in the county seat three months later, a jury found Nels Hammarland guilty. The judge sentenced him to eleven years at San Quentin. In 1882, he was removed to Folsom Prison. Beyond that, his fate remains unknown.

In August, 1880, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors' minutes recorded, “$5 per month was appropriated for the support of [ten-year-old] Emily Hammarland until the further order of the Board, the same to be paid to S.S. Hoyt.”

Johnny's first name at birth was likely Jan. A Jan Peter Hammarlund appears in Swedish birth records in June of 1867, with parents Johanna Johansdotter and Nils Hammarlund. Another slight respelling finds John alive in California's central valley in the 1930 census, working in the real estate business.

(Other grisly, ghosty tales at

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