Minnie in Town

Written by  Glenda Cotter

By 1929 the streets of Salt Lake City had been paved for twenty years. But the snow that filled them in winter still made travel difficult. In summer the heat and exhaust of passing vehicles kept everything at street level in a permanent haze, so that wiping up and wiping off became the perpetual occupation of the streetside merchants. Salt Lake was a bustling crossroads city, the largest between Denver and the West Coast, gateway to both San Francisco and Los Angeles, with only the complication of a desert in between. The lights of the Regency Theatre's facade lit up State Street at night, and nearby Auerbach's department store was a regional destination. In spite of the assiduous efforts of the city's Mormon hierarchy, gambling, illegal alcohol--these were the days of Prohibition--and prostitution continued to thrive within the limits of the downtown area.

The many boarding houses on Third and Fourth South were said to cater to local lonely men. Minnie Mantyla operated one such establishment at 329 ½ South State Street. She had come to the city in September 1928, in the company of her common law husband, Werner Stembeck. Both were Finns and Stembeck, the more recent immigrant, spoke English rather poorly, particularly when he was nervous or under stress. They had moved to town from Minnie's farm in nearby Taylorsville, where her oldest son Walfred (Fred) and his wife Elaine kept house for their own young son and Minnie's three daughters, ages fifteen, eleven, and nine.

Minnie had been happy when she met Stembeck, more than two years after the death of her husband Oskar, killed in an auto-pedestrian accident on First South. Stembeck had helped at the farm for nearly a year, but Minnie was even happier after he'd agreed to help finance the move away from the tedious labor of the farm to the lights and bustle of downtown. Minnie's natural thrift made her a good manager of the Evans Rooming House. She was still only forty-nine and her dark hair had very little gray. The routine at 329 ½ South State was different and desirable. Only Stembeck seemed to find their new living arrangements less than satisfactory.

Over the course of their few months in town he had become increasingly suspicious andjealous. And he had begun to drink heavily. He'd already had too much on that May evening when he saw Minnie walk past the Regent Street pool hall on her way home from who-knew-where. She was meeting Fred and Elaine. The still that Fred kept hidden on the farm was but one legacy from his father, who had also bequeathed his sons his own alcoholism. Fred was happy to make clandestine deliveries to his mother, for her sales of his liquor added welcome cash to his family's coffers. On that night, he and Elaine enjoyed a quick drink with Minnie before they returned to the farm.

Minnie needed the drink. She was in a fury with Stembeck after learning that he had, without her knowledge, collected some of the outstanding rent money. She knew exactly where that money had gone--straight into his pocket so he could go out drinking. It had increasingly become his primary occupation. But drinking the rent money was the last straw for her, and Minnie intended to have it out with him. Both of them, on that warm Saturday night, were ready to explode.

Tenants reported hearing raised voices as the two argued, before they heard Minnie's screams and then the gunshots. And then only silence. A bloody, incoherent Stembeck answered their pounding on the door, and they could see Minnie's still figure on the floor, her blood pooling around her. By the time police answered their summons, Stembeck had collapsed on top of Minnie's body. He was taken to the hospital; she was taken to the morgue.

News of the murder made sensational copy for the front page of Salt Lake's two Sunday papers, the Star and the Tribune: "Local Man Murders Woman, Shoots Self." The Mormon Church-owned Deseret News picked up the story in the Monday edition, after their usual Sabbath hiatus. City residents were outraged by the brutality of the murder, the gun's chambers emptied into Minnie's body at close range. It wasn't know if Stembeck would survive the self-inflicted shot to his face, though consensus opinion held that it would save the state a lot of money if he died. Days passed before it became clear that he'd survive for a trial.

The trial, when it came, was brief. Stembeck was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. It was only on appeal that questions began to arise. Jealousy was involved and it may be that Minnie was planning to leave Stembeck for another man. Premeditation was hard to prove and other factors weighed with greater certainty. Their argument that night was fueled by alcohol on both sides; there was little to slow or stop their anger.

In court documents presented at his appeal, Stembeck claimed that he had shot Minnie in self defense, stating that it was she who had removed the gun from the bureau. But the medical examiner's report found extensive bruising on Minnie's back and buttocks, suggesting that she had been beaten. Perhaps she had pointed the gun at Stembeck, possibly even shooting him in the face in order to stop the abuse, before he wrestled it away and emptied it into her. Lacking sufficient evidence of premeditation, Stembeck was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to a term at the state prison.

Whatever the blurred edges of truth, it seems certain that the relationship between Minnie and Stembeck was one marked by violence, and it ended in a violent and premature death. Life ends, people disappear. I have two pictures of my great grandmother, Minnie. One shows an attractive and hopeful young woman standing next to her tall and handsome husband on their wedding day in Telluride, Colorado. The other photograph is of a fierce, mature women standing between two young children, daughters aged seven and nine. One hand rests on the shoulder of each girl; Minnie appears pragmatic and uncompromising. These photos are not quite bookends of her life, but near enough. Despite searching, I've never been able to find a photo of 329 ½ South State Street. For many years it was a parking lot; that has now been filled by a new office building. I'm haunted by what has disappeared—the people and the places—and the stories they might have told.

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