Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Historic Rocklin death a puzzle for early pathologists

Photo Credit: William Tatum 

There was a chill in the air on a cold December day in 1891 when a coworker of Albert Bertelsen came calling at his home two miles east of Rocklin. Bertelsen’s friend knocked and, after no response, entered inside to stumble upon a corpse sprawled across the floor.

Bertelsen had lived on a ranch near the Lee Drift Mine. According to the Sacramento Daily Union newspaper, clues around his homestead suggested that he might have been attacked outside. His wounds appeared to have been caused by buck shot from a gun hitting his face, chest and the side of his body. The marks on the ground also led the authorities to wonder if he had then been dragged into his home.

The citizens of Rocklin wanted to know who could have done this? And why? Newspapers all around Placer and Sacramento counties ran with the story, detailing the condition of Bertelsen’s body and creating a community mystery around the question of foul play.

A native of Denmark, Bertelsen was born in 1850. He immigrated to the United States in the late 1860s. A decade later, he was living in Lincoln and working on a farm. State records show that on Feb. 21, 1872 he filed an official “Declaration of Intention” to become a U.S. citizen. Bertelsen soon married Jane Gray of Coloma. The two remained together for nearly 14 years until tragedy struck and Jane passed away. 
Photo Credit: Little Orange in the Big Apple

The cause of her death is not recorded, though documents confirm she was brought to the Siebenthaler Home for funeral services at 20th Street in Sacramento, and was later taken to the Masonic Cemetery for burial. Bertelsen worked managing the Lee Mine at the time. Just weeks before his own death, Bertelsen quit his longstanding position and went to work at the local quarry. It was his failure to show up to this particular job that prompted his friend to come over and make the grisly discovery.

Questions continued to swirl around the topic of whether Bertelsen was murdered. After investigating, the coroner shocked many in the community by ruling the death “accidental.”  Archives from the Placer County Herald newspaper shed light on what apparently took place that cold December day. It seems that around the one-year anniversary of Jane’s death, Bertelsen decided to start removing the tree stumps from his property by blowing them up.

The coroner ascertained that he was using blasting powder while working in the field, and somehow ignited an explosion prematurely. Bertelsen was hit by the force of the blast. Not dying immediately, he dragged himself back to his house. Closer examination of his body proved that it was gravel and dirt debris that was embedded deep in his skin rather than buck shot. The fact that it took several days before his body was found, and its state of decomposition, suggests Bertelsen might have been killed on the one-year anniversary of his beloved wife’s death. His longtime friend Phillip Siebenthaler traveled to Rocklin to recover his body and bring it back to Sacramento to be buried next to Jane at the Masonic Cemetery. Unfortunately, Bertelsen doesn’t have a marker or headstone, but grave maps show he is next to his wife in Section H, Block 60.

In the end, what was originally believed to be a murder turned out to be a terrible accident; but if Bertelsen did actually die on the anniversary of his wife’s passing, some may wonder if it was entirely a coincidence. Could the ranch manager have been so caught up in his emotions that day he made a careless mistake? The only thing that is known for sure is that he and his wife were reunited once and for all at their final resting place.

Photo Credit: Lin McNamara

(Originally published on August 7, 2015 in the Placer Herald)

Publisher/Editor's Notes: This is one of a series of articles that I wrote for the Roseville Press-Tribune/Placer Herald several years back when I used to write the historical articles for them.  According to my old editor, since I wrote the content I can repost the articles. I have also obtained permission by Gold Country Media a few years back to republish my stories, too. 

Photo credits to: Lin McNamara (Findagrave), Little Orange in the Big Apple (Findagrave) and William Tatum (Findagrave). 

Extra Sources:
Sac Daily Union—December 9, 1891

Sac Daily Union- December 8, 1891

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