Carol and Cotton revisits notorious Twin Cities murder

Catherine Johnson Justice.
Catherine Johnson Justice.
Photo by Louis Longpre
Next Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most notorious murders in St. Paul's history. It was on March 6, 1963, that Carol Thompson was brutally murdered in her Highland Park home. It didn't take long for suspicion to fall on her husband, T. Eugene, who was known as "Cotton."

Playwright and director James Vculek was long fascinated by the story, and brought his Carol and Cotton to last year's Minnesota Fringe Festival. The production earned plenty of positive reviews, and is now back for a run at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage to coincide with the anniversary of the murder.

"I grew up in St. Paul, and I was a little kid when it happened. It was just a huge story for that entire year. It was in the news virtually every day," Vculek says.

The story also fits into Vculek's interest in true crime stories. Previous works have included a look at what happened to a member of Charles Manson's "family" and another about Lee Harvey Oswald.

"Maybe it's the '60s," Vculek jokes. 

For Carol and Cotton, Vculek first turned to William Swanson's Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson as a starting point. From there, he followed up with reports from the time, a book written in the 1960s, records from appeals, and other sources.

Surprisingly, no one had used the story as a film or play in the past.  "It's possible that the crime inspired the Coen brothers to do Fargo. That's the closest anyone has come to doing the story as far as I know," Vculek says.

The evidence pointed to "Cotton" Thompson from the beginning, especially as he had taken out a considerable amount of life insurance on his wife in the year previous to the murder. That the hit man hired by Thompson bungled the crime only made it more clear.

"I went in wondering, 'Why did he do the crime, and why did he think he could get away with it?' After all of this, I'm no closer. He was a comfortable, middle-class guy with a beautiful house in Highland Park. He hired some low-life guy to kill his wife. Everything pointed to him," Vculek says.

Two actors -- Catherine Johnson Justice and Steve Sweere -- play all of the roles in the play. The pair were also in the original Fringe edition of the production. Vculek has expanded the work into a full-length piece. The structure remains the same. 

"It's a combination of monologues and dialogues between two characters. Part of it is like storytelling," Vculek says. "The very first image of the play is Carol onstage, alone, describing her murder."

The full-length version allowed Vculek to add more pieces to the script, such as the family dynamics -- especially for the children, who lost both parents -- and the actual investigation. 

"Nothing like that had happened in the Twin Cities. In the middle of the day, in a middle class home, a woman was brutally slaughtered. At first they thought it was a maniac. Everyone started buying guns and locking doors, because they thought there was this monster randomly killing people. I wanted to get that whole aspect into the show," Vculek says.


Carol & Cotton
Through March 10
Minneapolis Theater Garage
711 Franklin Ave., Minneapolis

$15 suggested donation
For information, call 952.657.3574
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Minneapolis Theatre Garage

711 W. Franklin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55405


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