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The Mysterious Death of John C. Paulsen

Updated: Jan 27

On Saturday, September 12, 1891, John C. Paulsen arrived in Boise to oversee one of his most important designs as an architect, the Boise Natatorium. This was Paulsen’s second grand indoor swimming pool, having also designed the Broadwater Natatorium in Helena, Montana, which had opened a year before. The design of the two buildings was very similar and included exterior towers, several floors filled with bathhouses, dining rooms, gymnasiums, barbershops, and other amenities. The main feature of both was “The Plunge” or a large pool heated by natural hot springs. Granite boulders were placed at one end of each Plunge to act as a man-made waterfall.

Boise and Broadwater Natatoriums, exterior

Paulsen was German by birth, having been born near Hamburg, he studied architecture in Hanover, Stuttgart, and Berlin. He joined the German Army and served during the Franco-Prussian War in military construction. After serving for about 10 years, he took a furlough to England, and then on to the United States, eventually sending his resignation to the German Army. He worked briefly as a newspaper correspondent in Texas before moving to Montana where he resumed his life’s work in architecture. He was described physically as being, “very large and of heavy build.”

Left: Interior of Broadwater Nat

Right: Interior of Boise Nat

There were a few issues under Paulsen’s watch during the construction of The Nat, starting with the placing of the first of 13 roof beams. Stiff winds made the beam sway, and fall into the granite boulder, causing the beam to crack. It was quickly mended and put in place. And then on the very day the Plunge was first filled with water, a workman named Frank Dymond drowned after sneaking in for a swim despite the order of the superintendent to stay out of the building.

Despite these problems, the Natatorium was completed and Paulsen was hired for several more important jobs in Boise. He designed the City Hall, Mayor Pinney’s Columbia Theatre, the Eastman Mansion, a 26 room behemoth located at 1215 Warm Springs Avenue, as well as a couple of other residences and an apartment block known as the R.Z. Johnson or Davies Ried Building which is the only surviving Paulsen design in Boise today, located at 515 West Idaho Street.

R.Z. Johnson Building

Columbia Theatre

The year 1892 brought with it much controversy for Paulsen. He was traveling between Boise and Helena regularly and working on several buildings at once in both cities. In February, it was revealed the cost to build the Helena High School had ballooned from a voter-approved $70,000 to more than $120,000. Several changes by Paulsen and a lack of oversight of contractors by the superintendent were blamed for the increase in cost. Boise’s City Hall was supposed to be complete by June, but by October it was still far from finished, so the Boise City Council decided to end their relationship with Paulsen because of his failure to complete the terms of the contract.

Boise's Old City Hall

Despite the controversies surrounding him, Paulsen was hired by the Montana Board of Education, designing such buildings as the Montana School of Mines and Montana Deaf and Dumb Asylum. This job gave him the title “state architect”, which he is often referred to as in the newspapers of the day, but that title was not one that was authorized by state law. After building design work for the state ran out, his monthly salary was reduced from $200 to $50. This, coupled with some bad mining investments put Paulsen in financial straits, which he hoped to alleviate by submitting a design for the Montana State Capitol Building. Unfortunately, his design was not accepted, and then in early February 1897, he received a letter informing him he would no longer be working for the state.

At the same time he was let go from his job, a grand jury was investigating the capitol building commission. On April 1st, 1897 Paulsen was scheduled to testify before the grand jury and was expected to provide evidence that could be used to indict several members of the commission, who were state legislators, on charges of graft and corruption. When the grand jury report was released, it confirmed that Paulsen’s testimony would have clinched some indictments in the matter, but Paulsen died suddenly in his home in Kenwood on the same day he was to testify.

The physician who signed his death certificate listed the cause as apoplexy, but rumors began to swirl that Paulsen had shot himself to avoid testifying. Still, other people said that he faked his death. The very private nature of his funeral, which barred even his closest friends from seeing him lay in his casket fueled these rumors. Some said he had been spotted in Nevada, while another report said he had been seen in Great Falls, Montana boarding a train for Canada after his alleged death.

Paulsen had a couple of insurance policies so it would make sense for him to fake his death for a payout to erase some of his mounting debt. To shut down the gossip mill, the coroner, a county commissioner, and another man went to the receiving vault that held Paulsen’s casket and cracked it open. Two weeks after the man died, the three men confirmed that the body in the casket was in fact the former architect. On May 8th, Mrs. Paulsen left Montana with the body of her husband, stating intentions to bury him in Danville, New York.

Several lawsuits were filed in the wake of the capitol commission scandal, but it was during a jury trial that a witness on the stand uttered some testimony that really brings the death of John Paulsen into question. The witness, a former friend of Paulsen, stated that Paulsen was not dead. He asserted that Paulsen and his wife were now in Germany, living off insurance money and kickbacks Paulsen allegedly received for helping contractors get jobs on his projects. This was all very sensational, and the story was printed in newspapers all over the country. Some even claimed he was actually in his own casket, playing dead when the coroner and county commissioner went to check.

The Anaconda Standard March 27, 1902

Whether Paulsen died in 1897, or faked his death and fled to Germany will probably never be known. Unfortunately, neither of his two grand Natatoriums survive to this day. The Boise Natatorium experienced a catastrophic failure during a windstorm in 1934 that saw one of the 7500-pound roof beams crash into the Plunge, perhaps the same beam that was damaged during construction. Since the Great Depression was in full swing, funds to repair it could not be secured, and it was condemned and torn down. A little over a year later, an earthquake struck Helena, which caused damage to the roof beams of the Broadwater Natatorium. Supports were added that extended the life of the building, but the thermal vent that filled the pool with warm water was destroyed in the quake, making filling the Plunge difficult and expensive, which led to its demolition in 1946.

The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho) September 13, 1891

The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho) September 25, 1891

The Independent-Record (Helena, Montana), August 24, 1886

The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho) April 1, 1892

The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho) October 4, 1892

The Independent-Record (Helena, Montana) April 1, 1897

The Butte Miner (Butte, Montana) April 1, 1897

The Independent-Record (Helena, Montana) April 3, 1897

The Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana) April 16, 1897

The Butte Daily Post (Butte, Montana) April 27, 1897

The Independent-Record (Helena, Montana) May 9, 1897

The Independent-Record (Helena, Montana) June 27, 1897

The Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana) March 26, 1902

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