On April 29, 1946, a judge ordered 25-year-old Edna Larrabee to serve time in the Shakopee State Correctional Facility for committing grand theft in the second degree (writing bad checks) in St. Paul. It wasn’t her first time in prison. She had served time for a separate robbery charge between 1940 and 1942, when she came under scrutiny for her “puerile behaviour” and sexual relations with other prisoners. The task force reported that Larabee was “proud of having an issue that she believes is quite unusual” and criticized the parole board for focusing on her sexuality rather than her chances of parole. One supervisor noted that she “didn’t feel there was any reason to punish her in the first place”.
When Larrabee began her second term in Shakopee in April 1946, she met Paula Brunel, a 21-year-old Ojibwe woman also serving a sentence for grand theft (in her case, stealing clothes, shoes, and a ring). They eloped three times over the next two years. After the failure of the third escape on November 22, 1948, Larrabee attempted suicide, but survived. The next morning, I tried again. She then turned her frustrations on the institution that held her, doused her cell with water from her toilet and used a spring mattress to break a window. The staff quickly responded by moving it to Saint Peter State Hospital Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, also known as shock therapy) and a 60-day psychological study.
Larrabee’s time in Saint Peter leads her and Brunel to elope again. Disguised in work clothes and farm jackets, they crept into the basement of Sanford Cottage on February 2, 1949, opened a bolted window, and escaped. They wandered west in search of jobs, introducing themselves as a married couple named Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Farrell.
Shakopee’s manager, Clara Thune, guessed the pair were headed to California. After eloping in 1946 with her then-boyfriend, Larrabee fled to San Diego. Moreover, during World War II, she worked as an arc welder for Western Pipe and Steel Company in San Francisco. Thune wrote to four sheriffs and chiefs of police in California asking them to search for the fugitives. It stated that Larabee “was familiar with the gay colony [sic] in Los Angeles” and is likely to appear in that city.
However, Larrabee and Brunel were not headed to Los Angeles but to Sacramento, where Larrabee’s sister, Vida, took them in. Three months later, they traveled to Seattle and visited Larrabee’s parents. William Larrabee gave his daughter a black 1936 Plymouth coupe. The women then made moves to settle down, renting an apartment and opening a bank account together. To pay the rent, Larrabee ran a gas station and Brunel tailored a clothing store.
By late summer, they traveled again and visited a friend from Minneapolis. Afterwards, Brunel brought Larrabee to meet her mother on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Meanwhile, a Minneapolis friend notified the police, telling them to look for a black Plymouth coupe with a missing hood. Police identified the vehicle in Sioux City, Iowa, on October 3, took the two women into custody, and returned them to Shakopee. Eight months of their freedom are over.
Larabee and Brunel eloped together one last time in late 1949 but were found and returned to prison within days. They made no further attempts. By 1952 they were both paroled and starting new, separate lives – Larrabee in Washington and Brunel in Minnesota as the wife of a man named George Fenn. Shakopee’s case files contain one last record of their relationship: a note stating that in 1953, Brunel left her husband in St. Paul and traveled more than 1,600 miles to Seattle, where she reunited with Larrabee.
Editor’s note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help another person. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255. You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741. Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860) and The Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386) offer special hotlines for LGBT people.
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