Case file 'misplaced' in 1940 murders at Freedom farmhouse

Aug. 23, 2013
The May 13, 1940, edition of the Appleton Post-Crescent led with the murders of Annie and William Van Camp.
The May 13, 1940, edition of the Appleton Post-Crescent led with the murders of Annie and William Van Camp. / Post-Crescent Media

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Marcel Van Camp still struggles to grasp the horrific details surrounding the death of his great-grandmother at her farmhouse in Freedom in 1940.

“It was a grisly murder,” Van Camp, a Waupaca resident, said of Annie Van Camp, 77, who died of a blast to her face from a heavy-gauge shotgun while she lay in bed. Her son, William, 31, also was shot in the face and died in the home on the evening of May 11, 1940.

Given the passage of 73-plus years since the murder, Van Camp isn’t optimistic that the killer will be brought to justice. Still, he was disappointed to learn last week that the Outagamie County Sheriff’s Department can’t find the official case file on the slayings.

“That’s totally strange,” Van Camp said. “I think it merited more careful preservation because of the notoriety of the case and the horrible nature of the crimes.”

Sheriff’s department Capt. Mike Jobe, in an email to Post-Crescent Media, said a recent search for the Van Camp file came up empty.

“We have searched all records, and have located none that pre-date 1945,” Jobe wrote. “I have seen the newspaper articles that suggest the case went cold after a main suspect was not charged, but we have no official record of the investigation.

“It is unknown to us what happened to the file, but it was apparently misplaced 40 or 50 years ago.”

Marcel Van Camp said he isn’t livid about the file being lost, but is upset that it effectively eliminates any chance of the killer being identified.

“Whatever chance they had to track something down is lost,” he said. “It’s a double murder, and people are deeply affected by this. There is no closure.”

Gruesome scene

Aurella Coenen has a detailed recollection of the day she learned Annie Van Camp, her grandmother, had been killed. She was 9 years old at the time.

A neighbor stopped by her home on the morning of Sunday, May 12, 1940, and told Coenen’s father, Jake Van Camp, that something was amiss. William Van Camp hadn’t stopped by the neighbor’s farm to help with chores.

The family became concerned and drove to Annie Van Camp’s farmhouse at State 55 and County W in Freedom — roughly five miles north of Little Chute.

When they reached the home, Auerella noticed William Van Camp’s lifeless body lying in the doorway leading to the residence. She stayed in the car as her father went inside and found Annie Van Camp dead in her bedroom. Authorities believe William Van Camp was shot first.

“It is still so vivid,” Aurella Coenen said of the murder scene. “I’ll never forget it.”

She also remembers relatives descending on the farmhouse before police arrived. They “traipsed” throughout the crime scene, disturbing evidence that the killer left behind, she said.

“The place was contaminated before police got there,” said Coenen, a mother of 13 children who lives in Freedom. “The relatives were rummaging around until (the sheriff’s department) got there. How could they have found any evidence? Everything was trampled by the family.”

Investigators in the decades-old case think the shootings occurred between 9 p.m. and midnight on May 11, 1940, according to Post-Crescent archives. Robbery was a suspected motive since an empty purse and a leather sack were found on a dresser.

Marcel Van Camp said his review of newspaper clippings over the years revealed that inquests were conducted as part of the murder investigation and the Outagamie County Board offered rewards ranging up to $2,000 for information leading to the arrest of the killer.

Suspects, including one person who moved from the Fox Cities to the West Coast, were identified during the course of the investigation, but no charges were ever filed.

'She trusted everybody'

Aurella Van Camp said the case caused “quite a commotion” back in 1940. The news was announced at a church service on Mother’s Day and people flocked to the farmhouse.

“The road was filled with cars,” she recalled. “We still talk about (the murders) every so often.”

She said the killings weighed heavily on the mind of her father, who died in 1996.

“I know it bothered him all his life,” Aurella Van Camp said. “He always thought he’d know who did it before he died.”

Marcel Van Camp, who was born eight years after the killings, said the case has been a topic of discussion and debate in the family for generations.

“It was something my father talked about,” he said. “My parents lived at that house when I was born, and my sister and I were in that house as young toddlers.”

Aurella Van Camp remembers her grandmother as “a very nice old lady” who treated others with respect.

“She trusted everybody,” she said. “That’s just the way she was.”

— Andy Thompson: 920-993-1000, ext. 257, or; on Twitter @Thompson_AW

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