In fifth grade, Sam Huseth and I sat at her kitchen table among scattered belongings. We collected prized possessions to “freeze” in a time capsule to later uncover our senior year (thank you, Crossroads). We thoughtfully selected objects that we imagined might predetermine our future—a microphone made of tin foil for me (an aspiring pop star) and a homemade stethoscope for Sam (who is, interestingly enough, now a nurse). After sealing them in Ziploc baggies, we tucked them into a shoe box and placed that in a plastic grocery bag that would surely preserve our memories for years to come.
With our hair soaked and dripping into our eyes like a creepy scene from The Ring, we dug a muddy hole with our shovels in the pouring rain—all in an effort to bury our precious time capsule. It was then that Sam chose to share the local horror story that had been passed down to her from her mother.
It was the tale of carnage that took place just miles away where a girl was slashed by the hired hand, chopped up, and fed to the pigs.
They called it the Ashby pig farm murder.
By the time Sam finished the horrific story, we were both trembling, opting to throw our shovels aside as if they would take on hands of their own—chopping us up and burying us with our memories.
In the many years since then, I have all too frequently revisited the story in my mind—all 26 versions that have skewed over time like the expected outcome of a game of “telephone.” Throughout high school, many friends visited the murder site, claiming to hear the pigs squeal… despite the fact that the farm and any of its remains hadn’t existed since the early to mid-80s.
It was pure curiosity (paired with Halloween anticipation) that eventually led me to Karen A. Field, co-author of The Pig Farm Murder of 1887, seeking answers to the paralyzing questions that haunted my youth.
Who was the girl? Why was she murdered? Was it a stranger who came knocking at her door or the hired hand that fed their pigs? Karen had answers to these questions and many more.
The Real Story
What I found most intriguing in speaking with Karen was not what I didn’t know, but the amount of information I assumed to be true that was not. The girl wasn’t chopped up with a shovel, the murder didn’t take place in Ashby, and it wasn’t just a myth…
On Thursday, May 26, 1887, Priscilla Field and her son, Charles, age 29, left their rural farm near Dalton, MN, and headed on horse and wagon toward Fergus Falls to pick up supplies and run errands. After his father, Alphonso Field—a Civil War veteran—committed suicide just eight months earlier, Charles had become his mother’s right hand man.
Left at the farm that day was Nels Olson Holong, 31, the hired hand, and two of Priscilla’s children: Lilly, 15, who was asked to do household chores (cooking and laundry), and her younger brother (William) Clark, who was 6. Alphonso Field, Priscilla’s husband (and father to their five children), had hired Holong the fall prior to help with farm chores.
On a break from chores, Holong went in to ask Lilly to make him a cup of coffee. Having a lot to accomplish, she told him “no”—and that he could make his own coffee. Additionally, he asked Lilly for a picture of herself. When again she refused, Holong sent Clark to the neighbor’s place to return a scoop shovel and play, leaving him alone with Lilly.
From here, only Holong would ever really know what happened on that dreaded day.
Clark returned home and, unable to find his sister or Holong, fell asleep on the couch. When Priscilla and Charles arrived home around 11 PM, they found Clark on the couch. Checking Lilly’s bed, they found she was gone. Though they worried about her, it was common for Lilly to stay overnight at the neighbors, so Priscilla and Charles went to bed.
It wasn’t until the next morning that the horror set in.
While checking the livestock, Charles noticed the cattle had been unattended by Holong the day before. In passing through the pig pen, he saw one of the most horrific sights: Lilly’s dead body lying naked in the mud.
According to the coroner’s report, her throat was slit with a knife “in such a manner, as if after the knife had penetrated, it had been twisted about. All the principal veins and arteries had been severed.”* There was a cut down her torso that gaped open four to five inches, exposing her internal organs. The hogs had already started to eat a portion of her remains. Although “Lilly’s mutilated body was almost beyond recognition,” the coroner noted that she “was of light complexion, had brown hair and was ‘good looking.’”*
All eyes turned to Nels Holong.
The crime was immediately reported in Dalton and an “urgent telegraph was sent to all points along the railroad.”* It wasn’t long before two men found Holong, having traveled by foot to nearby Wendell, and apprehended him. By Saturday evening, the three men had crossed more than 15 miles of terrain, arriving to Fergus Falls where Holong was finally put in the county jail.
On November 21, 1887, nearly six months after Lilly’s death, the trial for her murder began. By the second day of court, all twelve jurors—despite the defending attorney’s attempt to plead insanity—voted Holong guilty of first degree murder. The prosecuting attorney argued that Lilly’s death was not due to insanity or in self-defense (as Holong had testified), but instead sexually motivated. Three days later, Holong was sentenced to jail for 90 days before being executed—”hanged by the neck until you are dead,”* the judge ruled.
Sheriff Brandenburg used the $500 to build a scaffold, purchase a good rope, and—most importantly — construct a fence around the area to keep curious onlookers at bay. After Holong’s attorney managed to delay the execution by a few days, the date was set for Friday, April 13, 1888. (A little spooky, huh?)
Holong ate a hearty breakfast, met with ministers, and prayed The Lord’s Prayer before stepping onto the scaffold. Sheriff Brandenburg strapped Holong’s arms to his sides and tied his legs together before the noose was slipped onto his neck and the black cap hid his face. Despite the fence, bystanders had still “managed to gain access to roofs of neighboring buildings where they had a view of the hanging.”*
Bidding him adieu, the sheriff said, “Be a man, Nels,” and “pulled the lever quicker than a flash,” according to the Fergus Falls Weekly Journal.* Eleven and a half minutes later, the murderer’s pulse ceased; he was declared dead at 12 minutes. During the examination, Holong’s cap slipped aside and the curious spectators got a peek at his face underneath—“veins swollen about to bursting and the tongue lolling out.”* Holong’s hanging made history as the first murder to be punished by execution in Otter Tail County, MN.
Local Tales & Encounters
Many locals admit to visiting the property at one time or another during their adolescent years. John Kaste is no exception. He grew up just across the road from the old Field farm where Lilly was murdered.
When I spoke with him about the eeriness of the farm, he said, “It doesn’t really bother me anymore.” By anymore, he was referring to the countless nights in high school that he and many others visited the old Field property after dark. But, he’s immune now, despite the horror he knows happened there.
John can recall many instances when the Field farm was an attraction for local thrill-seekers. “Every Halloween there was people that would stop up there,” he said. “We could see it through the window. People would come and have parties.”
Living so close to the property, John had many friends who asked him to show them the way. One eerie moonlit night, John led friends to the then-existent barn and pasture that held horses. As they got closer, John said he could sense a presence from within the barn. Someone was watching them…but who? The barn doors were closed and only the windows gave insight to what was inside.
The landowners today regard the property as a getaway. Residents of Denver, the family uses the land as a place to hunt and relax. Though, as you might imagine, they are often interrupted by nighttime antics of locals trying to find the place and write their own experience of the haunted pig farm. The family knows the tale of Lilly Field, but John says they are unaffected, having no paranormal stories to share. Perhaps, they aren’t close enough to the story like many of the locals are…
My Foray to the Pig Farm
Having never dared to visit the pig farm in my younger years, I felt the need to experience it for myself after researching the story. Unfortunately, what’s left of the farm today is merely the foundation located on private property.
Though we tried hard to get permission from the landowner to investigate where Lilly was murdered, he was skeptical and our time ran short. We were unable to arrange a viewing of the Field grounds. (Can you blame him, though? Who wants a group of strangers parading across their yard in the dead of night?)
Instead, Karen Field (whose husband, Bill Field, is a great-great-grandson of Lilly’s other older brother, George Perry), Shantel Thorson (a local) and her family, V.R.S. Paranormal (based out of Fargo, ND), and I decided to visit the cemetery plot where it is thought that Lilly Field may have been buried. (Though there is no tombstone to mark Lilly’s burial, her sister Esther—having died during childbirth—and her son are buried there.)
Late on a Wednesday night, I met Karen, Shantel, and the paranormal team at the Dalton Corner Store. From there, we drove 12 miles south before pulling off to the edge of the road beside a cornfield.
Our treasure awaited us nearly a mile away. What we didn’t know is that we’d brave muddy fields and what felt like blizzard conditions for 20 minutes to get there. Lugging all of their equipment, the paranormal team followed us, snaking around the corn field and eventually into an eerie wooded area.
Finally, we stumbled upon three gravestones belonging to Esther (Field) and her son, Harry Burns, and two others unrelated to Lilly. The paranormal team began to set up their equipment. To investigate, they used:
- Sony camcorders with night shot. These video recorders with night shot allowed the paranormal team to record in the infrared light range—a “vision range below the range of human vision” as well as “radiation that produces heat,” according to Dennis Volker, the founder of V.R.S. Paranormal.
- Digital audio recorders. Three recorders were held by members of the team (and myself) and one was placed on the gravestone of Esther Field. “When we review the audio later, we look for EVP’s—electronic voice phenomena,” Dennis explained. “That is, voices that we didn’t hear at the time.”
- EMF (electromagnetic field) meters. These meters have temperature readings and a K2 function, which is claimed to be slightly more reactive when an EMF is present. Dennis stated, “One of the theories out there is that spirits produce EMF and when they are close that the meter will detect a fluctuation.”
- Green laser. A laser that projects a grid of star-like dots in an attempt to catch motion. “The theory is if a spirit or shadow passes in front of them, you should be able to see an outline as they pass by,” Dennis said.
After setting up, the team began the investigation with questions like, “Who is here?”, “Can you tell us your name?”, “Who are some of your family members?”, and “Do you know the name of your murderer?” Throughout the hour spent attempting to communicate, they reassured the spirits, “The equipment we have will not hurt you. We just want to know that you’re here.”
The EMF meters flickered briefly at one point, but Dennis was quick to mention later that “a lot of things we use produce EMF fields… from an electric motor to cell phones to power supplies. So if you get a reading, you have to try to debunk it first.” Was it possible that there was a spirit nearby? Yes. Could we be 100% positive? No.
While one of the investigators claimed to hear a whistle and another an eerie moan, sounding like “Eeeeeeeee,” it’s hard to be sure of what we heard until they review the footage.
Were we alone in the cemetery that night or did spirits surround us? Was Lilly present, or was her sister Esther the only one who calls those burial grounds home? These questions will likely remain largely unanswered, as are the questions about what really happened on May 26, 1887.
What paranormal experiences have you had at the Pig Farm? What stories do you have to share?
*Information from The Pig Farm Murder of 1887 by Karen A. Field and Clifford S. Knutson (2015)
A big thank you to V.R.S. Paranormal for conducting the investigation, Karen Field for the expertise she provided and donating copies of The Pig Farm Murder of 1887, and Shantel Thorson and her family for assisting as tour guides.
Feature photo via wikipedia.org