Haakon Hauge picked a good place to die.
Where else in America could a woman in France address a cryptic letter written in Norwegian to her great-grandfather who died nearly a century earlier, in care of the local cemetery, and get the response she did?
The letter - which came to the Missoula Cemetery - was mailed in October by Annick Drosdal-Levillain of Colmar, France. It came with a "loser card," a 3-inch piece of cardboard that said, in both Norwegian and English, "I give you the loser card back." And on the other side: "You Lost Loser Too Bad."
Mary Ellen Stubb, sexton at the city cemetery, immediately set about unraveling its mysteries. Her work, drawing on a network of local history sleuths, was summed up in a Missoulian story on Nov. 7, but many questions remained, chief among them: Why did Levillain write and send it here?
Stubb located the grave in which Hauge was buried in 1912 at the west end of the cemetery. She compiled the considerable volume of information she'd gathered on the man. Several translations of the letter hinted at a story of a man who had left his family behind in Norway and disappeared.
"You have chosen the wrong card and made the wrong decision," Levillain wrote in the letter sent to the cemetery.
Hauge died, according to an old newspaper article, in a rear room of the Stockholm Saloon in Missoula on July 12, 1912. Days before, he'd been hired as a cook at the Deschamps ranch in Grass Valley.
Stubb initially made contact with Levillain via Facebook, and Levillain e-mailed her back with a short reply, affirming it was she who wrote the loser card letter. Stubb scanned a copy of the newspaper article, along with other clues that Stubb and her "spider web" of researchers produced, and sent them to France, but they ended up in Levillain's junk mail.
Nine days ago, Levillain phoned Stubb out of curiosity, wondering why she'd heard no response. They visited for 45 minutes, and that was how Levillain shed light on Hauge and the loser card letter. Turns out she's an author and professor of literature at the University of Strasbourg, and she speaks fluent English.
"She was a load of fun," Stubb said.
Levillain declined by e-mail to speak to the Missoulian. But through Stubb she expressed her thanks to those who took an interest in her great-grandfather's story.
The letter, it turns out, was an exercise in "psychogenealogy," a field developed over the past 15 years and based on research by another French professor, Anne Ancelin-Schutzenberger. It centers on the belief that each of us is genetically connected to an ancestor. Our lives can run parallel courses to that ancestor, and Levillain told Stubb she'd always felt a connection to her great-grandfather.
To break free from a destructive or negative course, psychogenealogists say, we can disassociate ourselves from that ancestor. Thus the loser card letter, which Levillain told Stubb should properly be burned on Hauge's grave.
Finding that grave has long been important to Levillain, her father (Hauge's grandson) and other family members. Now that they know where it is, they plan to come to Missoula and burn the letter on the grave, Stubb said.
"The letter was very important to do and was written in earnest," Stubb wrote to the people who helped her gather intelligence.
Levillain had no expectations when she wrote it, but found the action "quite liberating," Stubb said. "Everything around her is very positive and exciting things are happening ... so many so that it seems a bit dizzying for her to try to sort it all out."
Hauge didn't intend to abandon his wife and four daughters in Oslo. The family came to America together on two earlier trips, and had done quite well here. Hauge engineered for several railroads and owned a gold mine in Arizona. In 1906, the family returned to Norway and attempted to parlay their success into a business enterprise there. Something went wrong, the family lost everything, and in 1910 Hauge went back to America to recoup his fortune. He promised to be gone for less than a year.
He may have headed to the Arizona gold mine. Family lore has it the mine had dried up and his partner had run off with the money. For some reason, Hauge wound up in Missoula after that. Why remains a mystery. And here is where he died, of what the coroner called a protracted spleen due to alcoholism.
Levillain has letters that Hauge sent to his family from America, but they abruptly stopped. There was no more word from him. Hauge's wife Henna and daughters - including Anna, Levillain's grandmother who was 6 years old in 1912 - eventually learned he'd died. They were left in dire straits, and presumably with a century's worth of questions that Levillain is trying to unravel.
With Stubb's help, she's got a start. But Levillain acknowledges she's very much at the beginning of the process of getting to know Haakon Hauge.
"She has shared our discovery with her father and other members of the family," Stubb said. "All of them thank us and wish to express how precious everyone's efforts (in Missoula) have been to them.
"She said she certainly would have expected us to read the letter and throw it away as some kind of Halloween crap, but instead the letter was taken to heart and treated with such personal care. That realization was very touching and meaningful for them."
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.