September 29th, 2011


Alfred Sorenson, Mae Sorenson and the Lemberger case

My great great grandfather was Nels Sorenson (born in Denmark, emigrated to Madison in 1883, died in 1931). His son Alfred came to the U.S. with the family. Digging up information on Alfred has been a pain in the ass. Mae Sorenson was his wife, and the most sordid parts of the story involve her.

At first, what I knew about him was two census listings for him. In 1900, he was living with Nels in Madison, and listed under the name Albert. In 1905, it’s the same. However, I couldn’t find any other mention of Albert Sorenson for the longest time. I managed to dig up a copy of his mother Katherine’s obituary in 1947, which mentions a son named Alfred B. I found a 1910 census entry for an Alfred and May Sorenson (with son George) in Madison. For the longest time I found nothing else, and I wasn’t sure if his name was Alfred or Albert.

I got the bright idea to search the Forest Hill Cemetery burial records for him, and found an Alfred Sorenson buried there in 1958. I wasn’t sure if it was the right Alfred though. (I didn’t notice that his burial location was adjacent to Nels and Katherine Sorenson, which should have been a clue.)

When I subscribed to, I tried to look up his obituary. Unfortunately, the 1950s are more or less a black hole on that site for Madison newspapers. They never got copies of most of those issues. Later, I searched for Sorenson more generally. It took a lot of weeding, but I found an article that referenced him. You’ll notice his name is hyphenated across two lines, so the O.C.R. didn’t make Alfred out of the text. It’s an interesting story:

Scan of article on May Sorenson - Alfred Sorenson divorce, text below
Bond No. 1 Broken as Much Married May Fries Fish for Mate No. 2

Here’s the text of the article from 1 Jan 1933 in the Wisconsin State Journal:

Bond No. 1 Broken as Much-Married May Fries Fish for Mate No. 2

Mrs. May Sorenson, 47, Madison, has been a muchly married woman these last five years, it was brought out in circuit court Saturday when her husband, Alfred, 52, was awarded a divorce by Judge A. G. Zimmerman.

Sorenson recalled that they were married on Nov. 3, but he couldn’t tell the year, except that it must have been about 19 years ago.

Left, Came Back

After a number of years of married life, in which they didn’t get along any too well, Mrs. Sorenson obtained a divorce from bed and board and went her way. Her way eventually led back to him, in 1927, but before that she was married to two other men, Sorenson testified.

Herman Sachtjen, divorce counsel, told the court that in 1927 the Sorensons came to him and wanted the bed and boarddivorce judgment set aside. This was just before it would have become final after the regular five-year period required.

Enter Mate No. 2

Two days after the judgment had been set aside and the Sorensons had resumed relations as man and wife, Sachtjen was visited by William Baker, South Madison, who wanted to know:

What do you mean by taking away my wife?

He exhibited a marriage certificate from a county in Iowa. He was informed that the marriage was illegal, because Mrs. Sorenson had not received a final divorce decree.

Well, I’ll have her back again in two months, Sachtjen said Baker told him.

Baking for Baker

However, Sorenson saud he and his wife lived together until three months ago, when his wife went out to a rummage sale. He said he hadn’t seen her since.

Deputy Thomas Watson was called to the witness stand to testify as to where he served Mrs. Sorenson with the complaint in the divorce suit.

He said he found her in the home of William Baker, South Madison, frying a mess of fish.

Now, that’s likely to be the same Alfred Sorenson as in 1910, as there weren’t likely to be two couples in Madison with the names Alfred and Mae Sorenson. I’m not certain of the exact timeline, because I’ve found conflicting reports on the divorce dates and marriages and whatnot.

Searching for Mae Sorenson (and May Sorenson), I then pulled up some really interesting newspaper accounts from the early 1920s. Here’s the background, but you can search on Lemberger case or Martin Lemberger to get more information. In September 1911, a girl named Annie Lemberger disappeared from Madison. Several days later, her body was found in Lake Monona. Suspicion fell on a local black laborer, James Johnson. He was arrested and locked up. He confessed under questioning and plead guilty. He recanted shortly thereafter, claiming that the police threatened to turn him over to a lynch mob if he didn’t confess. After his conviction, he was moved to a state facility, where he wasn’t in danger of extra-judicial mob killing. For ten years he maintained his innocence, but to no avail.

Here’s where Mae Sorenson comes in. In 1921, she came forward to testify that Annie Lemberger’s family told her in 1911 that the father, Martin Lemberger, had done it. Mae also said she saw a bloody nightgown on the floor of the Lemberger washroom. The police arrested Martin Lemberger (in court, Perry Mason style) and freed James Johnson. The charges against Lemberger didn’t stick though, because the statute of limitations had passed.

Article on Mae Sorenson testimony in the Lemberger case, text not transcribed
Mrs. Sorenson's Conscience Is Clear After Ten Years

Things got stickier another decade later though, according to reports. Mr. Johnson’s lawyer was Ole (O.A.) Stolen. He used the notoriety to wrangle himself a judgeship, but resigned in disgrace over corruption. A newspaper decided to do a 10 year retrospective of the case in the early 1930s, and uncovered that Stolen had paid Mae Sorenson for her testimony.

The article linked above says Mae’s husband is George. So it might not be the same Mae Sorenson that married Alfred Sorenson. I haven’t found any other Mae Sorenson’s in Madison either. So I saved a few of the articles and noted the connection as inconclusive for the moment.

I found a burial record for a Mae Sorenson in Forest Hill Cemetery that lists her as being buried in 1958 (the same year as Alfred). That record has her birth date as 10 Mar 1884. When I visited Madison in June, I spent some time at the Madison Public Library and the Wisconsin Historical Society, looking through issues of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times on microfilm. I found both of their obituaries. Neither mentions the ex-spouse, which isn’t surprising. But both mention a daughter Evelyn who lives in California, which confirmed to me that the two burials are for the former spouses. And that Alfred is the one related to me, because it’s in the same plot as my great great grandfather.

Today a major piece of the puzzle fell into my lap. It’s an affidavit made for a moot court competition in 2004 about the Lemberger case. It’s not the real thing, but it has details that aren’t easily dug up, so they had access to the actual case materials. And it has other details that definitively connect Mae Sorenson to the Mae Sorenson who married Alfred Sorenson, my great great uncle. The preparers either filled in blanks with information from the Mae Sorenson connected to me, or that information was in the case materials. The former is possible, but I consider the latter more likely. If they needed to fill in blanks, they could have used any old information, as it wasn’t germane to the Lemberger case.

What are those details? (They have male/female variants of names in case the people who play these characters in the mock court don’t match the original genders.)

1. My name is Mae/Mark Sorenson. I was born on March 10, 1884 in Sparta, Wisconsin. I was an orphan and grew up as a ward of the State of Wisconsin. I moved to Madison around 1900. I joined St. John’s Lutheran Church in Madison when I moved here and have been a member since that time.

3. I married Alfred/Freda Sorenson in November of 1907 but we divorced years later. I lost everything in the divorce and even lost custody of my one dear child to Alfred/Freda.

The points of connection are: Mae’s birth date is the same as that given in her burial record, her husband is named Alfred, and their marriage date matches the approximate date in the 1910 census and the marriage date given in the newspaper article on their divorce.

Now, to be really an truly certain, I need to find a lot of confirming records. But at this point I’ve moved it from uncertain to pretty likely.

Things to obtain:

  • marriage record for Alfred and Mae Sorenson on 3 Nov 1907 from Madison, either from the state, Dane County, or possibly the Wisconsin Historical Society
  • death certificate for Mae Sorenson from 16 Nov 1958 from Dane County or the State of Wisconsin
  • copies or transcriptions of Mae Sorenson’s affidavits and testimony from the Lemberger case in 1921 and 1922

Some nice to have items, but aren’t completely necessary to confirming the connection:

  • records from the Sparta State School for Dependent & Neglected Children from the Wisconsin Dept. of Health and Family Services and/or Wisconsin State Archives
  • death certificate for Alfred Sorenson from 17 Feb 1958
  • copies of the news articles in the 1930s that revealed the payments to Mae Sorenson
  • divorce case record from 1922 bed and board divorce
  • divorce case record from the second divorce in 1931
  • copy of Crime of Magnitude by Mark Lemberger (out of print, but looks like there’s a Kindle edition !) (got the Kindle edition. list of characters at the front lists the husband as Alfred.)

And to make this unnecessarily long article unnecessarily longer, here’s the photos I took in June of Alfred’s grave marker and the plot where Mae was buried. There’s no marker for her grave.

Mae Sorenson plot (no marker)
Mae Sorenson plot (no marker)
Grave marker for Alfred Bernhard Sorenson
Alfred Bernhard Sorenson

crossposted from King Rat.