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Fargo: A Show Based on True Crimes—Or Is It?

Sifting through fact and fiction.

red-faced man in silver winter coat with hood up staring at camera
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  • Photo Credit: Polygram Filmed Entertainment

In 1996, the Coen brothers swept the Cannes Film Festival with their black comedy crime film, Fargo.

The movie opened with a title card indicating that the events were based on a true story, setting a grim tone for the horrific events that followed. But that introduction is where things get interesting. 

Initially, the Coen brothers stated that the movie was based on actual criminal activity, but the events surrounding the crimes were fictionalized. That’s typically what we expect when a movie or series indicates that it’s based on true events.

The main beats will be true, but the details might be wildly different in order to fit the narrative of the story. It was speculated that the movie was based on a St. Paul attorney convicted of trying to hire a hitman to murder his wife. The Coens’ hometown neighborhood was near where the arrest occurred. 

That crime makes sense given the timeline of events. The attorney was arrested in 1963, when the brothers would have been six and eight. Young, but old enough to have events like that make an impression.

The brothers denied it was based on that crime, however, specificizing that the events they were inspired by didn’t take place in Minnesota.

To further complicate the truth, in 2015, Joel Coen came out and said everything in the film was entirely fictionalized, and they only added the title card as a prank. 

But Was That The Truth?  

In the special edition release of the DVD, the story changed again. This time, they referred to a 1986 murder where a man disposed of his wife’s murdered body by feeding her through a woodchipper in Connecticut.

Joel Coen also told the HuffPost that William H. Macy’s character was loosely based on a General Motors employee who tried to defraud the company by changing the serial numbers on the automobiles. 

So, while they’ve remained adamant that the television series is entirely fictionalized despite using the same true events title card at the beginning of each episode. We couldn’t help but wonder what crimes may have inspired the events that unfolded in each season.  

Be warned. As we speculate on what crimes may have inspired each season, we may reveal spoilers for the show. Read on at your own risk. 

The Crimes Behind Fargo, Season One 

The first season follows contract killer Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) after he lands in a hospital in Fargo, Minnesota thanks to a car accident. While in the hospital, he encounters insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), who while being mild-mannered, has some serious repressed anger issues that Malvo unlocks. 

As we were researching, we stumbled on Glennon Engleman and couldn’t help but notice a few similarities.  

First, he was a contract killer who helped several wives become widows and split the insurance money with them. One of the main plots revolves around Lester killing his childhood bully and the wife collecting the insurance money. Lester them kills his wife with a hammer, a situation Malvo has to help him get out of by killing a police officer.

While those could be coincidental events, particularly because the events are spread out between two characters under wildly different circumstances.

But one of the couples that led to Engleman’s arrest was a double murder involving a hammer and a gun. There are also the linked names of Vernita, the wife murdered by Engleman, and Vern, the police officer shot by Malvo. 

It's plausible that the field the movie and the show reference in the middle of nowhere near Fargo could also be referring to Route 83, which became known as a “mafia graveyard” after several missing mob associates who had gone missing were found buried.

The show opens with a naked man running out of Malvo’s trunk when he gets in the accident, and is later found frozen to death by Deputy Molly Solverson.

There’s also the buried sack of money, which the film deposits in the snow and season one shows Stavros Milos finding the satchel when his car runs out of gas as Stavros is running from his mounting debts. 

The Crimes Behind Fargo, Season Two 

In season two, we meet young couple Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) and Ed Blumquist (Jesse Plemons). Peggy accidentally hits and kills a man (Kieran Culkin) who ends up being the son of the Gerhardt crime family.

Their subsequent attempt to cover up their crime while the mob family hunts them down leads to all kinds of murder and mayhem. 

The obvious inspiration for this season seems to come from the disappearance of John Favara. Favara was the neighbor of up-and-coming crime boss, John Gotti. He went missing four months after he hit and killed Gotti’s 12-year-old son.

While the details have been changed, the similarity of someone killing the child of a prominent crime family in a hit and run lines up.  

Before he’s killed, Culkin’s character is seen in a Waffle Hut trying to extort a judge on behalf of the family. When things go awry, he ends up murdering the judge and two employees before fleeing and meeting his subsequent doom.

This bears a striking resemblance to the 1978 Burger Chef murders in Speedway, Indiana. Four employees were murdered right before closing in a case that authorities haven’t been able to fully prosecute due to insufficient physical evidence.

In the show, the Waffle Hut murders also remain unsolved. 

The Crimes Behind Fargo, Season Three

Season Three follows a complicated series of events starting with two twin brothers (both played by Ewan McGregor) living vastly different lives. Emmit is a successful and wealthy parking lot mogul and Ray is a parole officer.

Believing he was cheated in the inheritance, Ray blackmails one of his parolees into breaking into his brother’s house to steal the last valuable stamp in Emmit’s inherited collection, but loses the address and kills the wrong man. 

This one is trickier to find obvious crimes that could have been the basis of inspiration for the season. While many of the plot lines are shocking, an air conditioner used as a bludgeoning murder weapon, the truth is air conditioners fall and kill an alarming number of people.

The other plot line revolves around tax fraud, another very common criminal enterprise that is difficult to tie any one case to the season. 

The Crimes Behind Fargo, Season Four

This was one of my favorite seasons, probably because it was steeped in so much realism, it’s impossible for me to believe it wasn’t largely based on real events. 

The season follows two crime families as they vie for control of the underground syndicates. One is the Kansas City mafia and the other is the African-American Cannon Limited.

The head of Cannon Limited is Leroy Cannon (Chris Rock), who is trying to get his new idea of the credit card launched. Meanwhile, across the street is the quiet and cheerful nurse, Oraetta Mayflower (Jessie Buckley), also known as the angel of mercy. 

We know that the Kansas City mafia was real. They were an Italian-American family that began when two Sicilian mafiosi fled Italy to Missouri. It’s possible that the Cannon family was based on the Black Mafia, or the Purple Capsule Gang, a crime ring that was one of the most infamous Black gangsters in Kansas City history.  

Executive producer Noah Hawley does acknowledge that the Union Station Massacre of 1933 inspired a major shootout later in the season. He also talks about researching the history of Kansas City and making sure the history of the stockyards and the animal processing industry was true the area at the time. 

Another plot point is Cannon attempting to launch his idea of the credit card. He’s mostly laughed at and while we know credit cards did eventually become a thing, Cannon’s idea was hinted at being taken from him when he drove by a billboard announcing a new Diners Club card.

The Diners Club was launched in 1950 in New York City and later spread across the country as the first independent credit card.  

Finally, we have Oraetta Mayflower. You’d think this would be based on a single criminal profile, but disturbingly, there have been numerous angels of mercy throughout history.

One shot of her trophy collection indicates she has a large number of victims, she appears to be an amalgamation of some of the more prolific cases of Harold Shipman and Dr. John Bodkin Adams, who combined are suspected of murdering over 300 patients over the course of their careers.  

The Crimes Behind Fargo, Season Five 

The most recent season introduces to a modern-day Fargo where a quiet housewife, Dorothy Lyon (Juno Temple), ends up arrested and kidnapped, before freeing herself from both and making her way back home to a very confused husband (David Rysdahl).

But things are never what they appear. Sheriff Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm) has hired the henchmen who tried to kidnap Dot believing her to be his wife who disappeared over ten years earlier. Let the murderous games begin. 

This is another mixed bag of incidents that feel true without necessarily pinpointing any one source of inspiration. There are allusions to the opening PTA squirmish alluding to the January 6 insurrection with the vocal complaints triggering the riot a nod to the right-wing politics taking over school boards and districts all over the country.

That might simply be loose speculation, but when paired with election fraud references and the zealous, patriotesque justice meted out by Hamm’s character, it makes a lot more sense.

In fact, there are a lot of right-wing extremist comments strewn throughout the season, making it feel like we know exactly what was on the minds of the writers as they devised their violent plots. 

Is Fargo Truth or Fiction? We May Never Know 

Of course, there are myriad murders that could have been inspired by any number of crimes sprinkled throughout the seasons, but these are the ones we thought might have helped provide inspiration for the fictional events the writers created.  

Again, these are purely speculation. At the end of the day, there is no way of knowing which criminals or crimes could have sparked the ideas that led to each character and plot line woven throughout the show.

Hawley reveals little in the way of inspiration and the Coen brothers have already changed their story several times on the true elements in the movie, let alone commenting on the show. But given that truth is often stranger than fiction, their assertion of reality works rather effectively.

We dismiss the outlandish, accept the mundane, and wonder at the audacity presented in each episode. With clever tie-ins to past seasons, the show works a quirky sort of magic. One I hope we see more of in the future.