Viola “Vivi” Widegren was born on May 2, 1931. She was a health care assistant and grew up on a farm in Västerbränna, Sweden. Her parents had previously run a small business and moved into the area after her mother became seriously ill through diabetes and tuberculosis. Viola’s father, Karl Widegren, worked as a timber surveyor and carer, looking after both his daughter and sick wife, his single income no doubt making life difficult. She died in 1937 when Viola was six, and he subsequently remarried in 1938, having another daughter, a half-sister to Viola. Despite limitations, the family was able to buy a new property in 1944 and a few years afterwards even added a second, renting it out to a mother and her two children. Viola described her father as strict and pious.
“She was pretty quiet by herself. She was dark and handsome, but there was never any talk of any guys. We went to the movies sometimes or just checked the shop windows in town. But I never saw her look at a boy.”
Former Roommate, Expressen
Widegren had been studying for her high school diploma since 1946. At seventeen years old, she was expected to complete her studies in the spring of 1949. According to one friend, Viola had confided in her that they were not going well. In early 1948, she became interested in healthcare work after a stay in hospital and by October had gained a temporary position as a medical assistant at the Garrison Hospital in Sollefteå. The job was a live-in position, and Viola moved into the dormitories at the hospital, promising to continue her school diploma and return home when she had the opportunity. Everyone there had their own bed, with a desk and dresser to share. The other rooms were likewise shared, including a kitchen, bathroom and separate toilets.
On December 3, 1948, Viola received her salary, a modest income of 365 Swedish Krona, around £600/$800 in today’s money. The job ended the day afterwards, but she was given a week’s extension starting on Monday 6. Calling home, her parents agreed to the new week but believed she was beginning again immediately. Viola seemingly spent the day buying Christmas presents for her family, enjoying her time in the city. Here she had more freedom than at home and a more active social life. Her trips home were becoming more and more infrequent. On December 5, Viola got into an argument on the phone over the issue, her father believing she had lied to him about the date and demanding that she return immediately. Viola had seemingly asked if she could go to a party, exposing that she wasn’t starting work till Monday. Whether she had deliberately deceived her father or the whole affair was merely a misunderstanding isn’t apparent.
Frightened of her father, Viola told co-workers at the hospital that “if I get beaten up when I get home, I will not come back.” She added that if her father found out about her poor school performance, she would also be beaten and banned from returning to the hospital. These statements all point to a controlling and abusive relationship in the household. However, there are no reports of prior violence or controlling behaviour beyond these incidents, and it seems likely that Karl Widegren was overprotective of his daughter, being widowed and having raised her from a young age without her real mother.
Returning home that same day, Viola was the victim of a violent confrontation with her father and, as she predicted, was beaten. According to the account of the family, it was viola who started the fight, bursting in without greeting and acting “hysterical”, shouting and waking Karl from a nap. The father was enraged at the verbal attack in his home, stating that Viola had no right to say such things after being away for a month. He demanded that she quit the hospital and dedicate herself to her diploma, her step-mother backing her husband. A police report from the time says that viola was dragged by her hair into an alcove and had her pants pulled down. The father would smack her buttocks as if she were a child and then slapped her about the head, causing a nosebleed. After sitting a while to stop the blood flow, Viola reportedly exited the front door without her hat or purse.
“I saw that she was bleeding. And the next day there was blood on the ottoman. Her little sister had also told the school the next day what had happened. The last thing I saw was that Vivi was lying on the couch bleeding. He scolded her as she lay there on the couch, threatened and held her. But suddenly Viola sat up, got up and ran out of the house”
Viola’s Step-Mother, Expressen
Some while later, Karl Widegren decided to go and search for his daughter, realising that it was December and freezing cold. He searched the immediate area and found nothing. Over the coming days, friends were called, but also with little luck. The parents left it until Wednesday, December 8 to contact police, believing Viola had likely gone back to the hospital, perhaps asking her friends not to reveal where she was. However, this wasn’t the case, and the police began a more extensive search. Fearing the worst, the police checked nearby bus stations and searched both rivers and lakes. They questioned her family. Officially, the police said they had no suspicions of foul play, yet people in the village began to gossip that Viola had been murdered in her home.
Viola was under an immense amount of stress and pressure. She was, by her own admission, failing in her studies which her family expected her to pass. The position she enjoyed was coming to an end. After spending much of her salary on Christmas presents for her father, step-mother and half-sister, she had been violently assaulted with nobody seemingly standing up for her. Police began to work, at least publicly, on the theory that the young woman had either committed suicide in her despair or, attempting to scare her family, had died of exposure or had an accident. While the weather was around two degrees, it had recently reached minus levels and would do again in the coming days. The area around Viola’s home was close to the Faxälven river, noted for its strong and rapidly changing currents. However, the police searched both the river and local forests, finding no trace at all of the missing girl.
In the years since 1948, there were sightings of Viola Widegren in Stockholm, Malmö, Spain and in Vancouver, Canada. These sightings were reported right up until the 1980s. The veracity of these reports is uncertain, but some believe that Viola decided to leave her abusive household and problems and never come back. One bus driver questioned in 1948 said that he’d seen her on his bus in the hours after she disappeared, but he would later recant his story. From Helgum, trains had departed for Stockholm and Östersund during that evening. There were even more places that could have been a destination if she had indeed taken a bus. This is, after all, what she told friends she would do if she was beaten again. There was a rumour that Viola had gone to Finland with a doctor who had got her pregnant. Over the years, letters have even been sent claiming to be from Viola, and whether these are genuine or the work of a prankster or even a killer, are open to conjecture.
However, if she was going to make a new start with her life, it seems unlikely she would have left without her possessions or money. Equally, she would likely have told friends of her plan. Speaking in 1998, police investigator Janne Sundin cast doubt on this theory, stating that it was not in her personality to take such a course of action, with Viola being inexperienced and somewhat timid. Sundin prefers the view that Viola committed suicide.
The other theory is, of course, that Viola was murdered. While it is possible, she may have met a stranger following her departure from her home, perhaps seeking comfort or shelter, most theories down this avenue point toward Karl Widegren as a likely culprit. Some of the claims are quite gruesome and possibly show how disliked the father was amongst the local community. One witness swore that she had seen mason jars containing body parts in the Widegren’s basement. Another said that thick black smoke seen coming from the home was clear evidence that a body was being burned. Another neighbour suggested that Viola had been cannibalised and fed to the pigs at the farm. Despite these lurid claims, police extensively questioned the family, including the eight-year-old half-sister, none raised any suspicions. However, it was noted that the father was reluctant to be fully honest about the argument with his daughter, toning down the violence. His lack of complete honesty got around the village and was one of the factors that led people to take against him. At the time, police privately thought that Viola had been the victim of a crime rather than succumbing to an accident or committing suicide, and until the day he died, Viola’s father believed that he had already been convicted of a crime in the eyes of his peers.
Viola was declared legally dead in 1970, and the case has fascinated generations of Swedes. Indeed, this morbid curiosity has often pushed the boundaries of taste, with Viola’s house in Västerbränna becoming a dark tourist destination. The house, “Villa Viola”, was a bed and breakfast where you could spend the night before the building was sold to a private resident, a former childhood friend.
It is 72 years since anyone saw Viola Widegren alive and, despite the sightings, it seems unlikely that anyone would have been able to hide their identity for that long, particularly a young woman with no access to resources to aid her. Sadly, it seems likely that Viola died the very same night she vanished into the cold Swedish air. Whether that death came through a tragic and undiscovered accident or through more sinister events and a subsequent cover-up, is likely never to be known. Perhaps, one day, bones or other remains may be found from Viola, finally putting to rest one of Sweden’s most notorious disappearances.
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