This case reminds me a bit of the Sodder Children disappearances on Christmas Eve 1945.
It was Christmastime 1949, and children worldwide anxiously awaited Santa Claus’s arrival. Families planned to gather for delicious home-cooked food, opening gifts, and spending precious time with loved ones on Christmas Day. But for one family, tragedy would destroy the peace and joy of Christmas, perhaps for a lifetime.
The small community of Mauston, Wisconsin, is 75 miles northwest of Madison, the state capital, and an hour’s drive from the Minnesota border. One chilly afternoon, a fire destroyed a home, and a little girl seemingly disappeared. Did someone kidnap her, or did she perish in the fire as the police believed?
Who Were the Bryants and the Halversons?
Raymond John Bryant married Opal Naomi Halverson in 1940, and the couple had five children together – Sharon (1940), Forrest (1944), Ricky Jean “Jeannie” (1945), Elizabeth (1947), and Sandrea (1953).
Opal’s family on her mother’s side originated from Norway. Her parents were Casper Halverson, born in Minnesota in 1871, and Bergitte Helene “Helen” (Krogh) Halverson, and they resided with the Bryants in 1949. Casper, 17 years older than Helen, was in poor health, and he and his wife moved in with Opal and her family two years before.
Helen’s parents, Abel and Guri Krogh, were Norwegians; her five siblings were born in Norway. The Krogh family relocated to America in Spring Grove, Minnesota, shortly before Helen’s birth in 1888.
Her father’s online memorial says she was born in 1885. However, her headstone states “1888,” and her memorial says she was born in Spring Grove. For whatever reason, her memorial is not attached to her siblings or parents. However, her siblings are connected to Able and Guri’s memorials.
Casper and Helen married in August 1922 while she was pregnant with Opal, and both had previous marriages. Casper had a son, Clifford Halverson, born in 1908, from his first marriage to Laura Leyese Halverson, whom he wed in 1895. Laura died in 1915 at 39 years old. Helen married John A. Crowther on November 11, 1912.
The Byrants resided three miles outside Mauston on County Road G. Raymond worked as a truck driver, and Opal was employed at a Mauston garment factory. While they worked, Helen watched Forrest, Jeannie, and Elizabeth at home, and Sharon attended school.
Fire Breaks Out One Crisp Afternoon, a Little Girl Vanishes
The only people who know what happened that day are all deceased, save one, Elizabeth, who was only two years old and likely does not remember anything. But the circumstances are questionable, leaving many to wonder what happened to Jeannie.
On December 19, 1949, Raymond, 39, and Opal, 27, were at work, and Sharon, 9, was at school. Helen, 61, watched the remaining three children, who were too young to attend school.
At 3 p.m., a fire broke out in the Bryant Home, although it is unclear where it originated and how it started. According to a December 1949 article in The Capital Times, Helen was outside when the fire was discovered. She climbed a ladder to a second-story window to rescue Casper in an upstairs bedroom, carrying him down the ladder on her back to safety. Helen suffered burns to her face and hands.
An article in The La Crosse Tribune dated December 21, 1949, states that Helen claimed she saw Jeannie on the stairs when the fire erupted.
However, The Charley Project (TCP) reports something different. Forrest, 5, said he, Jeannie, and Elizabeth stood outside after the fire was discovered. A blond woman drove up in an expensive-looking car and urged Forrest to get help, directing him to a house down the road instead of the one closest to the Bryant house. Forrest did as directed, and Jeannie and the woman were gone when he returned, never to be seen again.
TCP also states Helen took Forrest and Elizabeth outside of the home and then went back inside to look for Jeannie, calling for her numerous times but never finding her. There is no mention on TCP of Helen rescuing Casper.
According to The Capital Times, volunteer firefighter W. E. Kastner said he heard Jeannie screaming while he fought the fire and searched for the little girl but never found her.
Authorities said in 1949, they believed the three children were playing in a closet under the stairs leading to the second floor and that Jeannie ran upstairs to a closet, where she became trapped once the fire started.
Firefighters discovered two small particles of bone in the charred ruins and theorized they belonged to Jeannie and that they were all that remained of the little girl. Sheriff Myles Clark of Juneau County sent the fragments to the state lab at Madison. However, they were not identified as Jeannie’s after testing, according to TCP.
The Bryants lost everything in the fire and did not have home insurance. Raymond belonged to the Truck Drivers Club, which collected $250 and some food and clothing from the Red Cross for the family.
Authorities never determined a cause for the Bryant fire, and Jeannie’s siblings never believed she perished that day.
I believe someone intentionally started the Bryant fire to kidnap Jeannie.
Per TCP, Jeannie’s siblings thought their missing sister had been conceived out of wedlock. The fire was “a diversion so someone could take Jeannie away from her home and to the care of her biological father.”
I do not know why they think Opal had an affair. If so, did Raymond find out? Sharon highly resembled Jeannie, and Jeannie would have looked similar to Sharon at the age of Sharon in this picture. (See photo below) So, I’m not sure about the affair, but the siblings would know, of course.
I believe Forrest’s version of events because I think Helen and Opal might have planned the fire, with Helen being the one who ignited the flame. The fact that she put the other two kids outside and rescued her husband before supposedly looking for Jeannie is a huge red flag.
And then there is this:
Per The Doe Network: “The neighbor said she [Helen] put the children in the family car and then went inside to look for Jeannie. She found the grandmother in the kitchen collecting canned goods, and she said that Jeannie was gone. As the house continued to burn, the neighbor kept searching for Jeannie. Finally, the grandmother told her to stop worrying about Jeannie because she was with relatives.”
That also supports Forrest’s statement and that Helen had knowledge of Jeannie’s fate. However, the different versions of events are strange. There is no mention of this neighbor in the 1949 articles I found, so I don’t know who this person was.
That blond woman was either related to Opal or Jeannie’s biological father. Opal’s family came from Norway. According to World Population Review, “an estimated 75% of the population has blond hair.”
However, Forrest did not recognize this woman, so who was she? If his memory was correct, no doubt someone started the fire.
Raymond and Opal divorced sometime after Sandrea’s birth. Raymond married Susan in 1962. He died in 1980. Opal married World War II veteran Ralph Davis in 1966. She died in Seattle in 1992 and is buried in Burlington, Washington. Ralph preceded her in death in 1986, and he is buried in Mauston.
Jeannie’s brother, Forrest Bryant died in 2018 in Washington state. Her oldest sister, Sharon Bryant Mattson, followed in 2020. Sharon still resided in Wisconsin at the time of her death and is buried there. Sandrea Bryant Albrecht, the youngest Bryant sibling, died in 2021 in Washington State. I believe Elizabeth Bryant Wiley is still alive and living in Washington. She would be 76.
Helen Halverson died in 1979 at age 90. She and Opal are buried in Skagit County, Washington.
Suppose the siblings were correct about Jeannie being born out of wedlock. In that case, it’s possible relatives on her mother’s side or her biological father took her to Washington State or elsewhere and raised her under an assumed name.
Jeannie could still be alive. If so, she would be 78. I want to think that she did not perish in the fire and is out there somewhere. The screams the firefighter heard that fateful night could have been an animal if the family had any. I also think that if she had died that day, her remains would have been found, not just fragments.
“Abel Gustav Sørensen Krogh.” Online Memorial, Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/230796150/abel_gustav-s%C3%B8rensen-krogh
“Bone Particles May Be Those Of Child Lost in Mauston Home Fire.” The La Crosse Tribune. December 21, 1949.
“Bergitte Helene “Helen” Krogh Halverson.” Online Memorial, Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/197045903/bergitte-helene-halverson
“Casper Halverson.” Online Memorial, Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/146913022/casper-halverson
“Forrest Ray Bryant. Online Memorial, Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/64846490/forrest-ray-bryant
Good, Meaghan. “Ricky Jean Bryant.” The Charley Project. https://charleyproject.org/case/ricky-jean-bryant
“Opal Naomi Halverson Bryant Davis.” Online Memorial, Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/197045846/opal-naomi-bryant_davis
“Raymond John Bryant.” Online Memorial, Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/49344478/raymond-john-bryant
“Ricky Bryant.” Wisconsin Department of Justice Clearinghouse for Missing and Exploited Children and Adults. https://www.missingpersons.doj.wi.gov/missing/ricky-bryant
“Ricky Jean Bryant.” The Doe Network. https://www.doenetwork.org/cases/1756dfwi.html
“Seek Body of Girl in Ruins of Farm Fire.” The Capital Times. December 20, 1949.
“Sandrea Albrecht.” Image: Facebook profile. https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008938080953
“Sandrea G. “Sandi” Bryant Kaymia-Albrecht.” Online Memorial, Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/259878089/sandrea-g-kaymia-albrecht
“Sharon Louise Bryant Mattson.” Online Memorial, Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/214950472/sharon-louise-mattson