Obituary of Peter S. Svenson, Minnesota’s Rogue Historian

August 23rd 1947-January 24th(?) 2022. The historian Peter Sven Svenson died without heirs sometime last week according to his autopsy. He will be buried in Forest Hills cemetery in Duluth after the spring thaw. Speaking as one of his only friends, I have penned this obituary.

A document hoarder, Svenson was practically the state’s analog back-up brain for decades, and its conscience.

He was a popular history professor at UMD from 1973-2002. However, he tussled with the university over the legitimacy of his sources. Then they disavowed his work altogether when issues arose about his statistical analyses. Under pressure, he took early retirement, but sued the university for defamation. He lost.

Svenson went on to self-publish books, monographs, and articles, but struggled to find a paying audience. His most important work was produced during this period. Being his friend enabled my access to his research and unpublished manuscripts.

Svenson at UMD, 1980

I first met Peter S. Svenson on a tour of Fremont in 2003 as we fished its marshy edge in hip-waders, talking about Minnesota history. Many people found him contrarian, but I didn’t. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship benefitting my own independent research.

He cracked the case of Lake Inferior, until then a lost reference in the moldy journals of Sir Duluth. Thanks to his diligence, the timeline of von Bitter’s historic forgotten dives in the underground “lake beneath the lake” was established. Svenson obtained Professor Marrow’s depositions and police interviews, including his delirious exhortations to forget the Lake Inferior Diving Disaster. Marrow’s daughters had died 12 years previously in the SuperiorLab-Marquette disaster, which Svenson archived with his usual flair for obtaining documents and transcripts no one else knew existed.

Svenson provided me with documentation about the construction, launch, and legal history of the Lake Superior ghost ship Janus, and also of the conspiracy theories surrounding the vessel and its disappearance. Subsequently I viewed records at the Karpeles document museum.

It was Svenson who sleuthed a path to Duluth’s peerless role in the Civil War, assembling the history of Buckminster Wilde and the Hillside Irregulars. Svenson discovered Wilde’s fake death certificate, which shed light on the Walt Whitman journals, the Pinkerton files, and the Jay Cooke archives, proving Duluth was built with the so-called “lost Confederate gold.” This discovery alone warrants a bust in City Hall, if not the State Capitol. I am happy to spearhead the project.

Svenson funneled me documents about the victims of the Lake Superior sea monster, plucking the lethal pattern from data hidden or suppressed in first-hand testimonies.

In 2011 Svenson wrote a monograph, “The Forgotten Duluth Painter, Edward Alexander Congdon.” Years later on Halloween he granted me the first in a series of transformative interviews about his research into the Congdon estate and Edward Alexander’s extravagant life. Svenson possessed samples of the charred baby teeth from ancient Phoenicia which he showed me after one too many after-dinner cocktails, in a brass box of inlaid agate. Among his prodigious collection of Minnesota art and historical treasures, he owned a single painting by the master, which he never let me see. But he willed it to me. Since his death I have locked it in a closet, and I blame it for my rapid psychological deterioration.

Svenson, a disclaimed Dylanologist, pioneered study of the early Bob Dylan-Minnesota mafia connections.

He authored the book The First Time Germany Invaded Duluth, Minnesota in 2012, based on his 1995 interview transcript, Deathbed Interview with pilot George Enger III, Duluth’s WWI Fighting Ace.

He wrote articles for local newsweeklies and street sheets, including “The Art Riot: What Do We Know?” in issue #763 of the Northland Reader, Nov. 21, 2012. No other local writer engaged with the incident’s importance.

In 2018 he sniffed out a cache of hitherto unsuspected Shackleton letters.

Just a few months ago he gave me notes toward his next book, Duluth’s Untold World War II Tales. Based on old news clippings, he’d gotten as far as a profile of the amateur sub-hunter known as Duluth’s Granny.

Then I lost contact with him.

I discovered his body at his home last week, crushed beneath collapsed walls of stacked books, files, manuscripts, loose papers, magazines, journals, and newsweeklies which smothered him, burying him alive under the weight of history, including many copies of his own unsold books.

Conspiracy theories of murder spread across the internet. Even I have been named as a possible suspect in these bad-faith rumor mills.

Foul play is out of the question. I was there when they pulled Svenson’s body free from the tsunami of information which drowned him. I saw with my own eyes that he had caused his own death. His hand still clutched the spine of a book, a book I shall not name, for perhaps there is not enough mystery in the world. He’d pulled it from the bottom of an edifice of knowledge along the wall at the top of the stairs. The stairwell, itself choked with teetering columns of encyclopedias and academic journals, became a rushing torrent of books, files, and magazines. He rode the scree until the structurally unsound stacks of hardcover volumes on the landing toppled like cracked cathedrals. The avalanche swallowed him, depositing him in his foyer.

His outstretched hand alone was visible as I arrived through the kitchen some days later. He had kept his grip on the mystery book, and died holding it out like a message. Okay I’ll tell you: it wasn’t some tome of scientific anomalies. It wasn’t Edward Alexander Congdon’s missing grimoire. It wasn’t an old almanac, or a book of maps. It wasn’t a folder of transcripts. It wasn’t a binder of clippings.

It was a photo album, of his own baby photos, that his mom made for him when he was four.

It is with great respect and humility that I honor this true Minnesota legend.

All who knew or met him are invited to leave remembrances in the comments below.

Let the recriminations begin.

An index of Jim Richardson’s essays here.



about 1 year ago

So so so sorry to hear. Rest in peace Pete. I was fortunate to have met Pete early in my Duluth tenure, spring of 2017. I stumbled across a lecture of his in the events section of the Duluth Reader promising to unravel the mystery of Germany's planned American invasion. He claimed the story of the Weltanshauung was just the tip of the iceberg regrading the Luftstreitkräfte's role in a German plot for a full scale American invasion. I was really looking forward to the release of his Duluth’s Untold World War II Tales. Us Americans don't like hearing stories that challenge our sense of American Exceptionalism and Pete was one of the few voices that really just wanted the truth to get out.

Pete was such a great guy. I came up to him after the lecture to thank him for his efforts and expert analysis of "inconvenient history," as he called it. Over the next few years we would meet regularly at Little Angie's. He hated the food, but kept coming back for the Cedar Watermelon margaritas. But that was Pete, he was always searching for those precious bits of life that others would dismiss. I chuckled under my breath the first time we sat down and he ordered one. He caught it, gave me his own special brand of stanky eye, and proceeded to reprimand me for being so quick to judge. He didn't believe in the concepts of "poor taste" or "patently absurd," to Pete, every terrible decision was just a gateway to another fascinating story. (Later we'd come to learn about the history of the CeWa, and it is indeed, fascinating.)

While our chats were initially mostly about forgotten history and the "Historical Industrial Complex," eventually he really took an interest in my life and work and became a tremendous mentor. I will be forever grateful for the time he always made sure to carve out for me. I can only hope that his dedication to the buried truth of Duluth's past, and his relentless obsession with forgotten Zenith heroes, continues to inform and inspire future generations, as it did me. If there is ever an effort to collect and/or distribute his final findings and writings, I would certainly assist in whatever capacity I have available.

Cheers to you Pete! I hope the CeWa's are flowing in whatever far way timeline you find yourself exploring.

P.S. Pete was an open book, except for what I gathered was about a decade spent in Zambia. A few times when our chats went late, he would let slip something about the son of his second Zambian bride. This was only after a minimum of 4 CeWa's, and I could never tell if he was pulling my leg, or if he really did have long lost Zambian progeny. If he does have a long lost son, he should know who his father was, and perhaps could help memorialize his life and work. I would greatly appreciate any leads uncovering the truth here and/or getting in touch with his kin.

Jim Richardson (aka Lake Superior Aquaman)

about 1 year ago

@VJMC: I think Svenson would have loved your tribute. I also called him Pete. "Pete, BABY!" I would say like he was a star. But I normally refer to him in print as Svenson, a habit of mine. Like, you wouldn't refer to Thomas Edison as Thomas you know, not in academia anyway.

Chester Knob

about 1 year ago

The profoundly self-referential nature of Richardson's posts raise questions: is he trying to create some sort of Richardson Output Time Loop? Is he attempting to fold reality in upon itself, so that only the Story of Richardson is left to witness and ponder? What is his ultimate goal?

Chester Knob

about 1 year ago

In the future, there will only be The Richardson. All else will have been subsumed.


about 1 year ago

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Jim Richardson (aka Lake Superior Aquaman)

about 1 year ago

@Chester Knob: I'm sure Svenson would have appreciated your comments, thanks for treating this with the dignity it deserves.

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