In order to take advantage of opportunities farther west, George Morrill moved to Anoka in 1873 with his wife Olive (née Caldwell) and daughter Eliza (Lida) Caldwell Morrill. He began a successful law practice, welcomed two more children, and served as Secretary for the Anoka Library Association for 1879 and as the Anoka County Attorney, 1877-1881 and 1885-1887. For all appearances, Morrill seemed a successful businessperson and happy family man in 1890 — yet, he vanished never to be seen again. What happened to cause his sudden and mysterious disappearance?
On May 14 of 1890, Morrill returned home from a short trip to Minneapolis. He stayed the night and departed the morning of the 15th carrying a “hand satchel with a night shirt and other necessary articles,” according to reports in the Union on May 28, 1890. “He bade his family good-bye, as was his custom, and remarked that he would be back in a short time,” the paper continues, stating that he took the 8 o’clock train to Minneapolis. It was later determined he had been seen in Minneapolis during the day of May 16, the last certain thing that was known about George Morrill. Both the mayor and sheriff of Anoka went down to the city to look for him, to no avail.
The Anoka papers speculated that maybe Morrill left town to escape debts. Both the Anoka County Union and the Anoka Herald indicated he was involved in a mortgage transfer, and perhaps instead of transferring money and a mortgage execution between parties as he had been entrusted to do, he made off with the money himself. Both papers also suggested he might have met with foul play of some sort, while the Herald adds the possibility of suicide.
The newspapers also suggested that Morrill had intended to complete his business with the mortgage transfer and return home but that the speculated foul play prevented him from doing so. This possibility receives further support in an article from the Princeton Union, printed several years later in 1896. This article speculates that on the evening of his disappearance, Morrill took advantage of being in Minneapolis to gamble. He had a good night “sitting beside the greencloth,” the story says, and was known to have had nearly $2,000 on his person.
Unfortunately for Morrill, a man named Harry Hayward also attended this game. A few years later in 1895, Hayward was tried and found guilty of the murder of a young woman and was hanged later that year, so speculation as to other crimes he might have committed soared.
On that May 1890 evening, supposedly “Morrill and Hayward left the place together” after heavy losses on Hayward’s part. They may have been joined by a third man, named Allsop (or possibly Austin), who was later accused of murdering a Duluth woman in 1894. Allsop/Austin was apprehended in Seattle in 1896, and rumors of his prior association with Hayward abounded, but he committed suicide before he could be brought back to Minnesota for trial. The Princeton Union article concluded that Hayward and Allsop/Austin had likely accosted Morrill for the money he was carrying, killed him and disposed of the body such that it was never found.
Which of these possibilities is the truth, or is there some other, even stranger explanation for the mysterious vanishing of George Morrill? We’ll likely never know. Whether Morrill was hiding himself, or whether his murderers hid his body, the responsible party was successful. As the Princeton Union article put it, “if Hennepin Avenue had opened to receive the unfortunate man his disappearance would not have been more complete.”
Audra Hilse is the Anoka County Historical Society’s collections manager. This article appeared first in the March/April 2015 ACHS newsletter.