A cryptic letter – written in Norwegian, mailed from France and addressed to a long-dead person – makes for a crackling mystery

2009-11-06T23:15:00Z A cryptic letter – written in Norwegian, mailed from France and addressed to a long-dead person – makes for a crackling mysteryBy KIM BRIGGEMAN of the Missoulian missoulian.com
November 06, 2009 11:15 pm  • 

Down at the Missoula Cemetery they call it the "loser card letter."

It popped up in the mail the week before Halloween, postmarked Oct. 15, 2009, from France, and addressed to a man who died in 1912.

It's an enigmatic 1 1/2-page missive, shakily handwritten in red ink in rough Norwegian. It begins by professing an admiration for its recipient, Hakon Kristian Hauge.

"You have done much, been part of many exciting events, and been brave to start new things," it says.

But then it lambastes him for deserting his wife and kids in the homeland and leaving them nothing when he died in Missoula.

"You have chosen the wrong card and made the wrong decision, but this card is not mine. Therefore I send it back to you with this letter," the writer says.

It's signed by Annick Drosdal-Levillain, "your great-granddaughter," who included an oval 3-inch shard of corrugated cardboard that looks like it was hacked out of a shipping crate.

"Du Mar Tapt ('You have lost,' in Norwegian ) … I give you the loser card back," it says on one side.

And on the back: "You Lost Loser … Too Bad."

"The card is no longer mine, it belongs to you," Drosdal-Levillain's letter concludes. "I shall now live free and easy without being scared of losing everything, make the wrong decision at the wrong time."

It is, said Mary Ellen Stubb, a "very fun mystery."

The cemetery's sexton, Stubb delights in unraveling the secrets that lie buried in the cemetery. She quickly enlisted the network of history detectives who help her reconstruct stories of graveyard residents for the annual "Stories and Stones" tour each Halloween season.

Her first task: Translate the letter. A number of people chipped in, including deputy county attorney Betty Wing, who teaches a language class for the Sons of Norway; Scandinavian students from the University of Montana; and a couple of Stubb's relatives in Sweden.

The Missoula County clerk and recorder's office provided Hakon Hauge's death certificate. Marcia Porter, supervisor of the county's records management department, rounded up the coroner's register. Porter and Paulette Parpart of the public library each tracked down the account of Hauge's death in the Daily Missoulian on July 13, 1912.

Stubb and cemetery receptionist Jane Plummer worked the search engines, digging up genealogical data and - the icing - Drosdal-Levillain's Facebook account.

Stubb chuckled about that one.

"I've never done Facebook before," she said. "My kids are like, yeah, Mom, you're moving up into the 21st century."

But it worked.

"She didn't accept me as a friend, but once I had established an account I was able to send her a comment, basically an e-mail," Stubb said.

What in sam hill is this all about? Stubb inquired, in so many words.

Drosdal-Levillain replied from Paris the next day.

"Dear Mary," she typed in fluent English. "Thank you for getting in touch with me. I am the person who wrote this unusual letter to Hakon Kristian Hauge, my great-grandfather. So if you have questions or information for me, I will be happy to carry on this unusual 'conversation.' "

That's where it stands, until Stubb has the time to organize all her information, scan it in and send it via cyberspace to Paris. That probably won't be for a week or so, she said.

Meanwhile, the speculation is delicious.

Here's what's known of Hauge. He was probably in his 50s when he died in the rear room of the Stockholm Saloon in Missoula on July 12, 1912. Drosdal-Levillain's letter said the family heard he died of "insolation," or sunstroke. The coroner's report called it a "protracted spleen" due to alcoholism.

The newspaper said Haakon Hauge, "a Norwegian about 55 years of age," had been living in and around Missoula for a number of years and had "of late kept a room in the Western Hotel."

Only a few days before, Hauge had gone to work as a cook on the Deschamps ranch in Grass Valley. Letters in his possession revealed he had a brother, Rev. A.O. Aarem of Minneapolis.

Funeral home records revealed that a Rev. A. Lunde of Great Falls paid the $5.50 burial fee. Death records indicated Hauge was married, but there seemed to be no knowledge of her or any other family back in Norway. Genealogical records on the Internet seem to indicate otherwise.

Hauge married Hanna Svendsbakken in March 1901. They had four daughters - Ella, born in 1902; Karen, who lived only seven weeks in 1905; Anna, born in 1906, and Kirsti, born in 1908.

Anna, daughter No. 3, married Andreas Drosdal in Oslo in 1932. Presumably she was Drosdal-Levillain's grandmother.

Wing translated notes of Hakon Hauge's life off a Rootsweb page and e-mailed them to Stubb. ("Here you go - so much fun," the subject line said.)

They indicated Hauge was born in Skien, a timber shipping town in southern Norway in 1862. He first came to America in 1883 and worked for various railway companies in the western and northern states, and in British Columbia. In 1890, he became the "first engineer" with the Montana Midland Railroad, probably the Montana Central.

In 1895, Hauge traveled back to Norway and ran a stone quarry there. But in 1901 he returned to the U.S. and became a division engineer with the Northern Pacific. In the next few years, he engineered for railroads in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia. In 1905 he owned and managed a mine in Arizona. And in 1906 he went back to Norway, where he operated a peat bog in Hjuksebo.

He returned to America a third time in 1910, and this is where he died.

There are still more questions than answers, about Hauge, his family and Drosdal-Levillain. The birthdates of his children don't always match up with his time back in Norway.

"Jane and I have come up with about a dozen different lives for him," Stubb said.

The loser card opens up a Pandora's box of possibilities.

Drosdal-Levillain "seems to be ridding herself of some sort of bad luck omen that has been with the family for a long time," Stubb said. "Now everyone can move forward with peaceful minds."

"The weird thing," she added, "is why would you hold onto this card forever? We're just not sure what that was all about."

Wing doesn't think the "loser card" has any base in Norwegian tradition.

"It's in anguish, like he got it here in the U.S. and sent it or took it back (to Norway)," she said. "I don't know if it was from gambling maybe, and he ended up losing some kind of gambling deal."

It seems, said Wing, like a card that leads to bad choices.

"Yikes!" she messaged Stubb. "Now you have it!"

To hear of the loser card mystery means to become intrigued with it, Stubb said.

"This man has turned very personal to everyone who has worked on it. They all want to know who he is, where he came from, and exactly what this loser card means," she said. "Everyone just loves this little mystery."

Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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