On a cool late September day I stand near Paul Kraby’s grave and speak briefly about his journey to America, his life in Stoughton and his murder while on patrol. How did fate lead me to this spot?
As a child I would sit quietly in the kitchen and eavesdrop on my grandmother Leda as she and her sisters gossiped, in English. This was an entertaining pastime until my little brother came noisily inside, and the ladies switched to Norwegian. One topic of their conversation which puzzled me concerned a man they were close to. He was murdered, and the killer got away with murder. All the “I never should haves” and “if only we had nots,” uttered when they discussed the murder of their friend, made it seem they felt guilty. How could these ladies be involved in a murder? It made no sense. My unease disappeared as I ran outside to play on the tire swing and hunt for the latest batch of kittens hidden in the barn.
In 2014 my husband and I moved to Stoughton full time. I read Duane Thorsen’s 1998 book The Chalk Ring. Duane and I share cousins, so I had the opportunity to socialize with him and discuss Paul Kraby’s murder and the trial of the man accused of it, Joe Pliner. The puzzling, guilty conversations Grandma had had with her sisters all those years ago began to make sense. Paul, cousin to Grandma and her sisters, lived in their home when he came from Norway at age 17. The sisters were close to their Norwegian American “brother” all his life. They would have shared the juiciest Stoughton gossip with Paul and, in the 1930s, they would have known all the gossip, which was potentially dangerous information in the hands of a Stoughton policeman.
The gossip shared by Stoughton women at weekly gatherings of groups like the Happy Hour Club, which exposed the foibles and misdeeds of husbands and businessmen alike, threatened no one as long as that gossip remained in the parlors of the clubs’ ladies. In January 1934, those secrets began to find their way to a straight-arrow Stoughton policeman. Those secrets could be told to Paul Kraby in front of the very subject of that gossip, so long as that subject did not speak Norwegian. Dangerous indeed. That gossip and the hard times of the Great Depression are the settings for the drama of this revealing book—a tainted slice of Stoughton history.
Steve Fortney chronicles those hard times in his beloved hometown, hard times which led to a heinous crime that many in town preferred to forget. Fortney’s lesson is that facing the past need not diminish one’s affection for Stoughton and, in this book, his affection for his hometown is unwavering.
Granddaughter of Leda Burull Sperle,
one of Paul Kraby’s three American “sisters”