All posts by Emily Riippa

Flashback Friday: Aiding and Abetting an Assassin

Buildings at fort with lake in background
A view of the officers’ quarters at Fort Wilkins and Lake Superior almost a century after construction.

A young soldier of the losing side sat astride his horse on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Virginia. His unit had surrendered to the Union Army, and the soldier, his cousin, and another comrade-at-arms once again traveled the familiar, well-worn roads of King George County. Now, as the three waited for the scow that would ferry them across the river, a dilapidated wagon “drawn by two very wretched-looking horses,” as the soldier later said, pulled into view. A stranger jumped down from the wagon and, upon learning that the three were Confederate veterans, explained his predicament. He and his brother had just escaped from a Union prison, and the brother had sustained a serious leg injury. The wounded man now sat uncomfortably in the wagon, whose driver refused to carry them any further. Could the soldiers help? 

“I at once said we would help them,” the soldier recalled in his later years. Hearing his agreement but not the rest of the explanation, the injured fugitive clambered out of the wagon “and walking with evident pain, with the aid of a rude crutch, came towards us… as he came forward, he said, ‘I suppose you have been told who I am?’” They had, replied the young soldier, thinking that the man was referring to his brother’s tale of their prison escape. Instead, the wounded newcomer “said sternly, with the utmost coolness, ‘Yes, I am John Wilkes Booth, the slayer of Abraham Lincoln.’” 

Major Mortimer Bainbridge Ruggles held firm to his offer of assistance. His chapter in the Lincoln assassination began on that riverbank.

Image of man in suit
Mortimer Bainbridge Ruggles in his later years. Image courtesy of www.boothiebarn.com.

But this story doesn’t start in King George County, Virginia, in April 1865. It begins in Copper Harbor, where Mortimer Ruggles spent his earliest days at a newly-built military outpost called Fort Wilkins, in the company of his parents, Daniel and Richardetta. His mother had a sister, who also resided at the fort for a time. Her name was Fanny Hooe.  

After the Treaty of LaPointe, signed in 1842 and ratified in 1843, ceded the copper-rich Ojibwa territories of the western Upper Peninsula to the United States government, that same government felt certain that disputes would erupt between prospecting miners and those who objected to the cession of their aboriginal lands. To keep any conflicts at bay, the powers that be authorized the construction of a fort at the fledgling settlement of Copper Harbor and dispatched two infantry companies to garrison it in 1844. After a northward journey of more than two weeks–blessedly undertaken in May rather than in the heart of winter–the soldiers arrived at the harbor. Among them was Lieutenant Daniel Ruggles, a Massachusetts-born graduate of West Point with a decade of military service under his belt. Unlike many of his enlisted men, Ruggles enjoyed the pleasure of being accompanied by his family. Joining him in this new assignment were his young son, Edward, and his wife, Richardetta, who was far from home in more ways than one.

Richardetta Mason Hooe was born on November 19, 1821, according to her headstone; other sources place the year at 1820. A native of Virginia, her ties to the state ran deep. Through her mother, Elizabeth, “Etta” descended from George Mason, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention known for his strenuous objection to the powers given the federal government and the original document’s failure to outline rights intrinsic to citizens. The Bill of Rights eventually added to the Constitution found its roots in Mason’s own 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights. Mason’s influence on Virginia and on the fledgling nation was profound, and while Etta may not have literally lived in her late ancestor’s shadow, she bore his name and his pride in the state.

Image of woman in black dress.
Richardetta “Etta” Mason Hooe Ruggles. Photograph from her memorial at www.findagrave.com.

In addition to her close ties to a Founding Father, Etta found her life intimately bound up with the military. Her father, Alexander Seymour Hooe, served in the War of 1812; her brother George died in naval service in 1845. By enlisting in the Army, her eldest brother Thornton may have changed the course of Etta’s life. Elizabeth and Alexander Hooe had died by the time Richardetta was fourteen. As the oldest son in the family and a man accustomed to leadership, it would not have been surprising for Thornton to take responsibility for his younger siblings. Although the 1840 census recorded only the name of each head of household, the statistics tallying the other members of Thornton’s home offer some possibilities that Etta may have been among them. Residing with Captain Thornton Hooe, his wife, and their two children at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, that year were two young women who would have been the same ages as Etta and her nearest sister, Frances. If they were, life on a military fort on the American frontier would have been a far cry from their family mansion in Virginia–but a taste of what was to come.

Sources offer no verifiable insight as to whether Etta met and was courted by Daniel Ruggles at Fort Crawford or at home in Virginia. When the two tied the knot, however, they did so at this remote outpost. The September 16, 1841, edition of the Army and Navy Chronicle reported under its marriages column: “On the 9th ult. [last month] at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien, Lieut. D. RUGGLES of the U.S. army to Miss RICHARD ETTA BARNES MASON, youngest daughter of the late A.S. Hooe, of King George co. Va.” For better or for worse, young Miss Hooe had yoked her future to that of a career military man. His life and hers–and those of their eventual children–would be forever bound up together and their stories forever linked to the choices made two decades later.

Image of newspaper article
Snippet from a military publication reporting on the marriage of Daniel Ruggles and Etta Hooe.

But all that was still to come. The time of service at Fort Wilkins lay on the horizon first. The soldiers had arrived to a wilderness. Lake Superior, which had been their constant companion for the last leg of the journey, lay to one side; a more tranquil inland lake sat on the other. The fort would be built on the strip of land between them. As Mac Frimodig subsequently wrote, “With a fine stand of construction timber just across the lake and a great profusion of foundation rocks at arms’ length in every direction, there remained for the soldiers only the task of rearranging the two commodities to accommodate themselves.” By late July, the officers’ quarters, where the Ruggles family would reside, were ready for plastering and finishing. Thanks to the steady work of carpenters and soldiers, as well as shipment of windows, shingles, and other supplies from Detroit, the entire fort was prepared to meet the first fall of snow. Everyone had to be thankful for that, but Etta, one reasons, was the most grateful of all.

Already the mother of a one-year-old, she was pregnant again, and the baby was due in December. Many women seek the advice and company of their own mothers during pregnancy, but the late Elizabeth Mason Hooe could offer no comfort to her daughter. Perhaps to spare her sister some loneliness, Frances “Fannie” Hooe traveled north to Copper Harbor. Etta and Fannie saw the new fort buildings rise around them, saw the military community plant a vegetable garden on the east end of the unnamed inland lake. Sadly, the seed potatoes tended over the warm, dry summer yielded fewer to harvest than were planted. The two sisters probably walked along the shore of the lake and maybe down to Lake Superior, taking little Edward with them. Fannie, it seems, captured the imagination of the youthful soldiers who were far from their own sweethearts. An exhibit at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park today quotes a letter from George Saunders who expressed his appreciation for Fannie by sending “some agates… for Miss Hooe.” Of course, the greater honor came when the units christened the lake adjacent to Fort Wilkins after their charming visitor. Nearly two centuries after she left Copper Harbor and went home, the lake still bears Fannie’s name, albeit with the spelling Fanny Hooe. 

Image of lake nestled in hills and trees
Lake Fanny Hooe, as seen from Brockway Mountain.

Those who have not seen the Keweenaw Peninsula in the winter do not know the great hush that falls over the region with the first snow. It is as if the world itself holds its breath in awe and anticipation of what is to come; every sound is muted, every echo swallowed up by the silence. Into this quiet place came Mortimer Bainbridge Ruggles on December 11, 1844. His birth was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak winter. The previous month, provisions shipped to Copper Harbor had disappointed the garrison: only a fraction of the potatoes and pork were edible, if one used a liberal definition of “edible.” The hay supply for the oxen proved inadequate. Faced with the possibility that the draft animals might starve, Daniel Ruggles ordered eight of the draft animals butchered; at least in death, they could provide one last service to the population of Fort Wilkins. Meanwhile, the people–now plus one infant–waited anxiously through the hush of winter, anticipating a second growing season at a more promising garden site and liberation from the cold. 

Political developments thousands of miles south changed the plans of the Ruggles family considerably. War with Mexico loomed, and the Keweenaw mining boom had proven far more tranquil than the government had feared. Military superiors dispatched the two companies at Fort Wilkins southward in 1845, sending replacements to garrison the fort. Daniel Ruggles headed to Texas and then to Mexico itself; he saw action in several battles that earned him a promotion first to Captain, then a brevet (honorary promotion) to Lieutenant Colonel the following year. He and Etta would spend the next decade making a round of the growing United States, including another stay in Texas, where their eldest had been born, and a sojourn in Utah. Mortimer stayed with his aunt for at least part of this time: the 1850 census records him in the Virginia household of Mortimer and Elizabeth (Hooe) Bainbridge, where he found a friend in his slightly younger cousin, Absalom. Finally, with Daniel’s health flagging, the Ruggles family settled down for a recuperative leave of absence near Etta’s Virginia home. 

Image of parlor with organ and furniture.
Interpretation of officers’ quarters at Fort Wilkins State Historic Park.

Then the Civil War came. 

By virtue of his commission and his Massachusetts birth, Daniel’s loyalties belonged to the Union Army. Something else, however, prevailed in his mind and heart. One imagines the intense conversations that must have taken place between husband and wife in those turbulent days. Whether it was Etta’s deep Virginia roots, her family’s history as slaveholders, his own convictions about the war, or some other matter entirely that led him to the decision, Daniel made an irrevocable choice on May 7, 1861. He resigned from the United States Army and received an appointment in the Provisional Army of Virginia shortly thereafter. In August, he became a brigadier general and held that rank until the end of the war, seeing action at Shiloh and at various sites along the Mississippi River. 

Daniel’s devotion to the Confederacy–and probably Etta’s as well–found a home in the hearts of their sons Edward and Mortimer, and so Mortimer Ruggles came to be on the banks of the Rappahannock with John Wilkes Booth that fateful night in April 1865. He, his cousin Absalom Bainbridge, and Willie Jett crossed the river–crossed the Rubicon, really–with Booth and his associate, David Herold, and traveled with them to the town of Port Royal. Together, they searched for a place to shelter the assassin and his conspirator, holding to the story that Booth was a wounded soldier. After they secured a room for Booth for the night, the others split up among friends’ homes and hotels. Mortimer and Absalom reunited Herold and Booth the next morning and headed on their way, only to run into Union troops at the river. Willie Jett was captured soon after. Some sources record that Mortimer Ruggles and his cousin rode back to try to warn Booth and Herold; when he wrote of the incident in an 1890 magazine, Ruggles made no mention of it, instead saying that he and Bainbridge fled homeward when they heard the news of Jett’s capture and, soon after, Booth’s death in a barn standoff. Ten days later, Mortimer said, “I was arrested at night by a squad of United States cavalry,” along with Absalom, and “taken to Washington and placed in the Old Capitol Prison.” Later, he was imprisoned on Johnson’s Island but released a few days later upon agreeing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. 

So the native of Copper Harbor returned to regular life, leaving his days as soldier and accessory behind him. In 1877, he married Mary Holmes in New York City, where he lived out the remainder of his days. Back in Virginia, Fort Wilkins veteran Daniel Ruggles worked as a real estate agent; Etta kept house, as she had in the Keweenaw, and stayed close to her family. Her sister, Fannie Hooe White, died in 1882. Daniel passed away in 1897 and Mortimer in 1902. Upon Etta’s death in 1904, she was buried alongside her husband in a Confederate cemetery in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Whatever choices the family made in the Civil War, they will always be a part of the Copper Harbor story.

Interested in reading more about Mortimer Ruggles’s aiding and abetting of John Wilkes Booth? Blog posts from Boothie Barn and Mysteries and Conundrums were some of the many sources that informed this post. The Internet Archive also makes available the firsthand account Ruggles published in the Century Illustrated magazine in 1890. 


Flashback Friday: Hallowed Halls on Hollowed Ground

Image of Painesdale High School under construction
Painesdale High School under construction, 1909

What high school in the Copper Country is the best? Every graduate has his or her own loyalty. Some might argue passionately for Calumet, others for Lake Linden. Chassell and Dollar Bay would have their boosters, as well they should. No doubt that a fierce debate would break out between ardent supporters of the Hancock Bulldogs and the Houghton Gremlins. Then there are those who would speak up for Jeffers High School, the pride of Painesdale. What other high school can boast such scenic valley views or that its students once rode a special train to classes? Like its peers, Jeffers has always been far more than a building. 

Image of Champion shafthouse
Champion #4 at Painesdale. The success of the mine made Painesdale a logical place for the new Adams Township high school.

Painesdale High School, as it was known in its early years, was not the first secondary school in Adams Township. Public education began in the township in 1871 with a school at Atlantic Mine; the first high school class, a modest eight students, completed its studies there in 1897. In terms of population and economic importance, Painesdale–the heart of operations for the booming Copper Range Company–soon eclipsed Atlantic Mine. In 1909, Alexander Chadbourne Eschweiler designed a larger structure to be erected at Painesdale and to serve the growing number of high school-aged students in the southern range towns. He envisioned a building some 140 feet in length, with shaped parapets on each end of its symmetrical facade. Eschweiler proposed to construct the new high school of rough-cut sandstone, quarried just a short distance away in Jacobsville, and to finish the interior with granite, marble, and tile. Painesdale High School would be a majestic presence in the mining town, a fitting adornment for a prosperous community and an inspirational place for children to learn.

When the students, including the thirteen seniors who would be the first graduates, walked through the doors of Painesdale High in 1909, they found their new school to be well-equipped to educate them. The first floor featured large laboratories for physics and chemistry, a sizable science lecture room, and a number of other classrooms. Upstairs, they could take advantage of an assembly hall with a skylight and stage. The basement boasted a gymnasium, kitchen, and dining room. Subsequent additions, designed by John D. Chubb and built between 1934 and 1935, provided a natatorium (swimming pool) on the lowest level and a study hall and library on the top floor. In the meantime, students could enjoy the adjacent Sarah Sargent Paine Memorial Library, built a few years prior to the high school. 

Children came from miles around to enroll at Painesdale. In the early 1920s, when the Adams Township School District was at its peak, the student population was drawn from primary schools at Toivola, Baltic, South Range, the Michigan Smelt Works, Painesdale, Atlantic Mine, and Trimountain. Children from Elm River and Stanton townships in Houghton County, as well as Ontonagon County’s Bohemia Township, also journeyed to Painesdale for their high school education. 

Image of students leaving a train
High school students disembark the Copper Range school train.

Some of them made the trip in particularly special ways. From 1909 until the mid-1940s, students heading to the high school from places like Freda, Atlantic Mine, and South Range did not board a school bus; rather, they waited for the school train. Copper Range Railroad sent a special train to make the rounds of the range and mill towns where Painesdale High students resided. According to railfan and researcher Kevin E. Musser, the train departed Houghton bright and early each morning at six, leaving an empty passenger coach at Atlantic Mine before making a circuit of Mill Mine Junction, Beacon Hill, Redridge, Freda, and other nearby settlements. When the train returned to Atlantic Mine, students had filled the waiting coach, which was then attached to the rest of the cars. From there, the train hustled down to South Range and Trimountain, pulling into Painesdale at around 8:30. The route reversed at the end of the school day. Legend has it that apple trees sprouted for miles along the train tracks, thanks to students throwing the remains of their snacks out the window. 

In addition to its train, Painesdale High became virtually synonymous with two of its educators. Fred and Cora (Doolittle) Jeffers married in August 1894 and together took up the roles of superintendent and principal, respectively, of the Adams Township School District. When Painesdale High School opened, both Fred and Cora, now principal of the high school, moved into offices in the building, allowing them to better offer guidance, leadership, and discipline to generations of students. And generations, here, were literal. Mr. and Mrs. Jeffers remained at Painesdale together until the late 1940s: Cora, age 77, died in March 1949, bringing their shared tenure to an end. In forty years at the high school, the two educators consistently demonstrated versatility and innovation. A 1947 article praising the couple noted that “the [high school] curriculum has been a constantly expanding, up-to-the-minute thing.” When the swimming pool was installed, “the course of action was clear” to Mrs. Jeffers, who promptly learned the mechanics of swimming herself and began instructing classes for the female students. During World War II, Fred and Cora concluded that aviation education would be valuable to their pupils. Cora “prepared herself as an instructor of aeronautics [and] taught the course herself.” Meanwhile, Fred found time away from his numerous administrative duties to substitute for any and all ill teachers in the school district. High school science courses and elementary classes both found themselves host to the devoted Mr. Jeffers. Asked about their unusual vigor and longevity, Cora quoted Longfellow as her inspiration:

“For age is opportunity no less

Than youth itself, though in another dress.

And as the evening twilight fades away

The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.” 

Image of newspaper article featuring Fred and Cora Jeffers
Local newspapers celebrated the devotion of Mr. and Mrs. Jeffers to education.

For their immense contributions to education in the township, it is no wonder that the high school was renamed Jeffers High in honor of its most faithful supporters. A special ceremony held in 1949, at the first reunion of high school graduates, officially dedicated the new Jeffers High School. Attendees feted the late Mrs. Jeffers with poetic tributes, and Mr. Jeffers received life membership in the Alumni Association. He passed away in 1966. 

While the student population at Jeffers High School has fluctuated over the years, especially as the copper mines that built Painesdale shut down, certain parts of being a Jet have never changed. Graduates–whether they received their diplomas in 1919 or 2019–are proud of their school. They have a beautiful, one-of-a-kind building with a million-dollar view. They compete successfully in basketball, hockey, and numerous other sports. They grow into teachers, doctors, pilots, military service members, engineers, mechanics, chefs. And that sandstone high school in the old mining town will keep calling them home, year after year.


A Murder in Dollar Bay, Part Two

Image of Wilfred Pichette, Marian Doyle, and Laura Pichette

If you haven’t read our prior installment in a Murder in Dollar Bay, you will want to catch up on that before finding out how the story ends. Please note that this blog post describes fatal injuries in some detail.

Marian Doyle was dead. Addison Aldrich didn’t need his medical degree to know that.

The body lying on the table at the Plowe Funeral Home had grown stiff. Dr. Aldrich touched his fingers to Marian’s wrist and found it cold as ice. There was no pulse. His thoughts almost certainly drifted for a moment to his new wife, Geraldine Ann, who was only a few years older than Marian. Aldrich himself was not yet thirty and had been practicing medicine for just three years. As a physician and an assistant to the county coroner, he had long since lost any youthful pretense of immortality, but seeing a person so young and brutally wounded–well, anyone would find themselves unsettled. Aldrich’s training as a doctor took over, however, and he grimly began a systematic examination of the deceased woman before him.

Aldrich described Marian’s injuries later in a litany. She had been dead about eighteen hours by the time he began the autopsy at 4:30 on Sunday afternoon. “There was old blood present about her mouth and lips,” he said. The scalp bore “many puncture wounds,” and significant lacerations on her forehead extended into the skull, which had been fractured. The severe beating Marian’s jaw had endured dislocated it from the rest of her skull. Her neck and every bone in her face were broken, and countless cuts and contusions crossed her chin, chest, shoulders, neck, and back. Aldrich carefully considered the somber list and marked the skull fracture and broken neck as the proximate causes of Marian’s death. The injuries, he said, were consistent with being beaten with two heavy objects, one of which had a pointed end–like a flatiron and a stove poker, the bloody or hastily-washed tools discovered at the Pichette house in Dollar Bay.

Dr. Aldrich’s report became a cornerstone of a coroner’s jury overseen by his supervisor, David Osborne of Laurium, and Justice Charles E. Rouleau a few days after the murder. On Thursday, October 27, the group concluded that “Miss Marian Doyle came to her death on the night of Saturday, October 22, 1938, in the home of Wilfred Pichette… by being struck on the head and face with a flatiron and a stove poker, causing a fractured skull and broken jaws.” With the body now buried and the cause of death established, the two confessed suspects could be brought to trial.

Of course, in the court of public opinion and in the press, the trial of the Pichettes had begun much earlier.

It isn’t often that a man confesses to murdering a woman because she was the devil or a witch; it’s rarer still that his wife insists upon the same rationale. In a town like Dollar Bay–quiet, close-knit Dollar Bay–it’s unthinkable. Yet it happened. The strange story, circulated among neighbors and law enforcement, slowly spread outward. The Daily Mining Gazette picked it up; so did newspapers in Benton Harbor, Marshall, Wausau, Madison, and other Great Lakes towns. Even readers in far-off states like Montana, Texas, and New Jersey could thrill to the latest news of the case, once journalists from the Associated Press had penned their reports. As the tale spread, it grew. New details, of varying degrees of credibility, became part of the legend. Norma Pichette, the seven-year-old daughter, had told her parents to stop hurting Marian but had been forced to watch, helpless, as they beat her to death. The Pichettes had allegedly gone to a priest in Calumet and told him that they “exerted a mysterious power over a victim at their home.” Stranger still was the story of Wilfred and the Gypsies. Depending on which reporter had gotten hold of the rumor, he had paid a fee of up to $2,000–maybe even borrowed from his mother-in-law–to purchase divine powers from them. Who these mysterious traveling salesmen might have been, or how they were supposed to have obtained these powers in the first place, went unexplored.

Image of newspaper headline: "VERDICT OF VIOLENT DEATH RETURNED BY DOYLE INQUEST JURY; Mrs. Pichette, Hysterical, Denounces Her Husband"
One of the many headlines that the Pichettes made during the inquest.

With fertile ground for the imagination laid by these stories, the papers overflowed with detailed descriptions of Wilfred and Laura’s behavior in the jail, at the courtroom, before the press. Each movement, each statement, provided another example to the reporters of the couple’s mental instability and inclination to evil. Ample attention was paid to Wilfred’s apparent confinement in a padded cell at the jail, as well as his methodical removal of his socks and shoes during an appearance before the judge. At the coroner’s inquest, he was reported to have stared straight ahead, flinching only when Laura broke down. The press coverage had attracted some five to six hundred people to wait in the street outside the courthouse, gawking as the Pichettes were led inside from the jail. Until that point, Laura had been remarkably composed, but the crowds apparently pushed her over the edge. “I don’t want to be tortured by him any more,” she cried out in the courtroom, referring to her husband. “He just talks of devils and curses.” She professed fear of the crowds, especially that they were laughing at her. She wanted the trial over and done.

Perhaps Laura’s fear of being before all the people in court, and the Pichettes’ mutual understanding that a lawyer, even if they could have afforded one, would have had a difficult time building a defense, led to the couple’s decision to plead guilty. Witnesses were still called to the circuit court to give their testimony, among them the two deputies who had investigated the crime scene, Dr. Aldrich, Laura’s mother, and, shockingly, seven-year-old Norma Betty Pichette.

Picture little Norma perched in the witness stand, her legs swinging over the edge of a chair too tall for a child of her age. She told the prosecutor that she was going to school but not at that moment, just the kind of response a second grader would give when asked if she goes to school. Her matter-of-fact, innocent answers soon gave way to something darker when the attorney asked what happened on the night of Saturday, October 22, in the family home. Her parents had said that Marian “was full of devils,” Norma replied. “We were all kneeling up by the chair by the window and my father told Marian to keep her hands up in the window. Marian didn’t want to. He knocked her off the chair, broke her neck, and filled her mouth full of tobacco and then he told my mother to go get the irons. If she didn’t he would kill her.” Laura brought the objects that Wilfred had demanded, Norma said, and then they both began to beat the woman until they were certain she was dead. Afterward, all three Pichettes–including little Norma–had to carry Marian upstairs to the bedroom where deputies discovered her the following morning.

Image of courthouse with trees
The Houghton County Courthouse, where justice was to be levied.

A child of seven being called to testify against her parents in a murder case spoke to a deep undercurrent of trouble in the family, and the girl’s eyewitness account of the murder no doubt helped to seal the fate of the Pichettes. On November 16, the couple officially entered their guilty pleas, grimly accepting whatever punishment the court felt appropriate to hand them.

Why did the Pichettes kill Marian Doyle? It does appear that Wilfred, at a minimum, felt a genuine conviction that Marian needed to die. Perhaps, in a moment of shame over his affair with her, he conceived the idea that witchcraft on Marian’s part had led him to the decision and that she was a threat. If nothing else, he certainly insisted to Prosecuting Attorney Frank Condon that Marian had induced him to cheat on his wife, that she had been flirting with him since the start of her employment and that he had been powerless to resist. Condon found the explanation unconvincing. “In reading between the lines,” the attorney wrote, “it would seem that the motive for the crime was his belief that Marion [sic] was pregnant as the result of the intercourse he had had with her and that he wished to dispose of her.” He had not killed her because of insanity nor “any lack of possession of his faculties or reasoning powers except when he got off on to the religious tangent that he was possessed of all power.” Condon maintained that Wilfred had been “perfectly sane at the time the crime was committed,” as well as when he entered his guilty plea. No clemency.

Although Laura Pichette admitted to her participation in the murder, she maintained from the early days of the investigation that she had not killed Marian of her own volition but had only participated out of fear of her husband. Condon also thought Laura’s persistent statements that she had had no choice unpersuasive. “She may have been somewhat afraid of the result of her refusal,” he reported, “nevertheless she admits that she knew that what she was doing but that she was too weak to refuse or to go to her mother who lived in the same town.” Condon deemed Laura to have been “sane and under no duress or sufficient compulsion at the time of the crime to excuse her.” He went even further, speculating that Laura had “joined [Wilfred] in the crime… because of jealousy and having returned from an absence during which she had been living in adultery, she wished to do all that she could to comply with his wishes.” In the end, whether Laura were complicit or Wilfred were sane, Marian Doyle was still dead, and the killers still had to pay for their crime.

At ten o’clock in the morning of November 17, 1938, Wilfred and Laura Pichette were both sentenced to life in prison. Laura was to serve her term in the Detroit House of Corrections, a facility that accepted women, while Wilfred was to be confined to the Marquette Branch Prison. Both journeyed to their new places of residence later that same day, leaving behind their daughter and the home that had become a place of such violence.

Image of stone prison structure
Wilfred Pichette was taken to Marquette Branch Prison to serve his life sentence. Photograph from University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.

True to the drama of the Pichette case, however, a few twists yet remained. In May 1939, about six months after her sentencing, Laura Pichette’s name once again appeared in the newspapers. Her story no longer demanded banner headlines but rather found itself tucked away on the inner pages, banished to the section reserved for head-shaking curiosities. Staff at the Herman Kiefer Hospital, a medical center owned by the City of Detroit, reported that Laura had given birth to a healthy son weighing seven-and-a-half pounds. He would be adopted, according to the La Crosse Tribune, “by relatives of the Pichettes.” Given the timing of the birth, it seems almost certain that the boy was not the son of Wilfred Pichette but of Laura’s former paramour, Russell Cassidy. With any luck, the child was able to disappear into obscurity and happiness under the care of his adoptive parents. After some years in Marquette’s Holy Family Orphanage, his sister Norma Betty Pichette did the same. She changed her name, attended Northwestern High School in Detroit, and married in 1950. In 1998, she died in Phoenix, Arizona, where she had been living for the past several decades.

Although Prosecutor Condon had maintained that both Wilfred and Laura Pichette were sane–or at least sane enough to be considered legally culpable–Laura was transferred to the Ionia State Hospital, which helped to treat felons and civilians alike with mental health problems, in 1942. “Severe hallucinations,” according to her official record, led to the move. At Ionia, psychiatrists diagnosed her with “schizophrenia, chronic undifferentiated type,” per a summary of her files prepared subsequently. Laura underwent an extensive sequence of treatments, some of which reflected the vogue of the day: “individual and group therapy, chemo therapy, electro-convulsive therapy, and occupational therapy. She has shown varying degrees of cooperation and response.” In 1955, Wilfred Pichette also became an inmate at the Ionia State Hospital, for reasons unknown. His time in prison remains distinctly hazier than Laura’s, but it is certain that he died there in January 1969. Whether the Pichettes, who remained married, might have seen each other in their shared captivity is a mystery.

Image of brick prison building
Ionia State Hospital, where both Pichettes were subsequently held and where Wilfred Pichette lived out his life. Photograph from Michigan State University.

The Ionia State Hospital changed in 1972. Patients not held on criminal counts moved to new homes. Laura Pichette took the opportunity of the shift to petition the Parole Board of the Michigan Department of Corrections for commutation of her sentence. Asked what in her life would enable her to make a good social adjustment to the world beyond after so many years, she replied, “The circumstances of my life are changed for the better due to my age and widowhood. I came to my senses and realize my daughter really wants me.” Evidently, Norma had been able to forgive her mother and work beyond the trauma of her early years. Laura argued, as she had in 1938, that her participation in Marian Doyle’s murder had been involuntary, saying that “I was physically forced by [Wilfred] to participate, terrorized to do anything else but follow his orders.” These factors, she said, combined with “ill health and age” that had rendered her dependent on others and thus no longer a threat to society, should justify her release. After some consultation with the Ionia State Hospital, the Parole Board agreed. Laura received her commutation and was discharged on November 1, 1973, to move in with her daughter and son-in-law in Arizona.

With her release, Laura vanished into the mists of time. At this juncture, no verifiable information about her life after commutation can be obtained. The murder of Marian Doyle, too, faded into obscurity. No longer on the lips of Dollar Bay residents or plastered on the front page of the Daily Mining Gazette, it became one circuit court case file among thousands in the Michigan Tech Archives or included in anthologies of alleged witchcraft incidents. The story of Marian Doyle’s violent death, like so many other fascinating and occasionally disturbing annals of Copper Country history, was waiting to be told again.


A Murder in Dollar Bay, Part One

Image of buildings at the Dollar Bay docks
A view of industrial operations at Dollar Bay, J.T. Reeder.

Writers and other storytellers have envisioned murders for profit, murders committed in a fit of passion, murders resulting from some deep-seated flaw of character. Then there are those murders so strange that even twisted minds could not have imagined them. This is one of those crimes.

Imagine the Copper Country in 1938. The mining industry was no longer thriving and vibrant in the way it had been at the turn of the century. Plummeting copper prices after World War I led companies to suspend operations at some of their shafts and curtail their workforce, a problem exacerbated by the Great Depression. As many would-be workers left to find jobs elsewhere, the population of Houghton County declined from a little over 71,000 people in 1920 to 47,631 in 1940. In this environment, envision now a man named Wilfred Pichette. Born in Dollar Bay in 1899, he spent almost all of his life in Michigan. As a younger man, Pichette had followed in the footsteps of thousands of his Houghton County peers and sought employment at Calumet & Hecla, where he was assigned to the stamp mill of its Isle Royale Copper Company branch. In 1924, Pichette married seventeen-year-old Laura Bourassa (or Brassaw), also a Dollar Bay native and the second major part of the story. The two set up housekeeping in their hometown, remaining close to Laura’s parents, and soon had a son, whom they also named Wilfred. While the copper industry remained capricious, life in the Pichette house must have seemed normal and promising for a time.

Newspaper image of Wilfred Pichette
Wilfred Pichette, 1938

It wasn’t long, however, until the Pichette family began a downward spiral, the product of chance, tragedy, and, in part, their own choices. Calamity claimed little Wilfred, Jr., first. In February 1930, he was hit by a car and rushed to St. Joseph Hospital in Hancock, where he soon succumbed to his injuries. As the Depression brought a deeper downturn in the copper market, Calumet & Hecla laid off numerous employees, including Wilfred, Sr. Although he later found a Works Progress Administration (WPA) job, the period of unemployment no doubt shook the Pichettes. In 1931, they had another child, a daughter named Norma Betty; blessedly, she remained healthy and safe. Sadly, their second daughter, Winifred, died in 1935 at the University of Michigan Hospital. Complications from meningitis took her life just five months after her birth.

Whether these challenges pushed Wilfred and Laura Pichette to the brink or whether unstable personalities and a troubled marriage already existed cannot be said with certainty. But the descent into tragedy only accelerated when, in April 1938, Laura left Dollar Bay. She and a man who had rented a room from her, Russell Cassidy, traveled to Newberry together. There, they found a home and began living “as husband and wife,” in the euphemistic words of subsequent court documents.

In his wife’s absence, Wilfred proved to be entirely unprepared to take care of the Dollar Bay house and his little daughter. At the urging of his exasperated mother-in-law, he sought a housekeeper, eventually hiring a young woman from Hancock named Marian Doyle to move into the Pichette home. Wilfred knew what Laura and Russell were doing in Newberry and may have decided that turnabout was fair play. In short order, housekeeper and employer began their own affair, and Marian soon informed Wilfred that she was pregnant.

Image of Laura Pichette
Laura Pichette, 1938

An out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the 1930s would have been difficult enough for all involved, but what began as a crisis in the Pichette household rapidly unraveled into catastrophe and crime that went far beyond those four walls. In October, Laura Pichette abruptly returned to Dollar Bay from Newberry. Her relationship with Russell Cassidy had come to a sudden end. The atmosphere in the house immediately grew awkward, ominous, foreboding as the estranged Pichettes contended with each other and with the presence of the housekeeper. Laura came home on a Wednesday. By Saturday, Marian Doyle was dead.

No one outside the house knew what had happened until Mary Marcotte, Laura’s mother, walked to the nearby Pichette house on Sunday, October 23. Mary would later testify that Laura, Wilfred, and their little girl all met her at the door. Laura blurted, “We killed Marian Doyle.” Terrified into excitement, little Norma Betty repeated Laura’s words, her child’s voice telling a story that none ever should. Mary screamed and ran for home, with Wilfred hot on her heels. He urged his mother-in-law to go to the second floor of his house and see the evidence for herself. When she resisted, he retreated. Soon, someone telephoned the sheriff’s office with news of the murder. Dollar Bay’s idyllic autumn morning had been shattered.

Deputies Ernest “Ike” Klingbeil and Matt Verbanac arrived on the scene shortly after noon and knocked at the back door. Wilfred Pichette answered it and, after frankly and intensely confessing to the killing, marched the two deputies up the stairs to Marian’s bedroom. The scene was gruesome to behold. “The body was cold,” Klingbeil said at the trial. “Her eyes were black and blue. There was blood spread all over her face, hands.” Klingbeil and Verbanac also noted blood on the bed and on the wall. By this time, Wilfred Pichette had fallen silent. He would make no further statements to the deputies as long as they stayed at the house.

After they had taken in Marian’s grisly remains and the bloodshed in the bedroom, Klingbeil and Verbanac investigated the remainder of the house. Verbanac testified that they found drops of blood leading down the stairs and all the way into the kitchen. Splattered on the wall, chair, cellar door, and floor in the otherwise clean kitchen was even more blood, and the deputies discovered matching stains on a heavy flat iron. A stove poker showed signs of having been hastily washed. With Marian’s body, Wilfred’s frank admission at the door, and the apparent murder weapons at hand, Klingbeil and Verbanac knew immediately what had to be done. They bundled the Pichettes into their squad car and headed for the county jail in Houghton.

Image of Marian Doyle
Marian Doyle, undated

On the journey to the jail, husband and wife denied any knowledge of Marian’s death and proclaimed their innocence. Everything had been just fine in the Dollar Bay house the night before. With Norma Betty tucked in bed, the adults had sat up listening to the radio and “having a good time” before retiring. When Wilfred and Laura rose the next morning, they found Marian’s battered, bloody corpse, just the way the deputies had seen it. Someone else must have killed her while they slept and fled the house.

The policemen kept driving.

Prosecuting Attorney Frank Condon, one of his assistants, and a stenographer were called to the jail shortly thereafter; County Coroner Dr. Addison Aldrich was dispatched to examine the body. Under the keen questioning of the deputies and lawyers, the Pichettes’ claims of ignorance eroded. Wilfred began by saying again that he knew nothing. Eventually, as the lawyers pressed him, he conceded that he owned the stove poker and flat iron that had been used to beat Marian to death. The prosecutors pounced. How many times had Wilfred struck Marian with the flat iron? Several times, he admitted grimly. The stenographer’s pen scratched across the page.

Laura Pichette was easier to crack. She stated outright and with little coaxing that she and her husband had killed Marian Doyle together. Wilfred had taken up the flat iron and begun the brutal beating; later, Laura seized the stove poker and joined him, striking the housekeeper ten times. She insisted that she had done so only at his request. The fact remained, however, that both Wilfred and Laura had admitted that they “did strike, beat, bruise, wound and ill-treat the said Marian Doyle in and about the head, neck, and body,” leading to her death.

The police and the prosecutors now had two confessed murderers in their custody, murderers who would soon be brought before the court to plead their case. Marian Doyle’s body lay under examination by the coroner, who had the thankless task of determining which of her numerous injuries had been the fatal one. The local newspaper would not be long in picking up on the story, especially when Wilfred and Laura’s stated reasons for killing Marian Doyle were made public.

She was a witch, they said. She had been “full of devils,” and her death had cleansed the house of “evil spirits.”

The death of Marian Doyle–what the papers called the Witch Murder, the Spirit Slaying–became a circus that drew crowds to wait in the street outside the courthouse and shone a spotlight on quiet Dollar Bay. The story grew only more sensational as witnesses came to the court and as the accused appeared before the judge to make their statements. What happened next seemed to have been taken straight from a soap opera or crime drama, but it was all entirely true.

Next week’s sequel to this Flashback Friday will address the trial and aftermath of the crime. Sensationalism, tragedy, and mystery lie ahead. Be sure to come back and learn how the story ends.

 


Flashback Friday: Thank You, Michigan Tech Nurses

 

Image of nursing students from promotional brochure
Michigan Tech nursing students shown in action for a brochure advertising the program.

Michigan Tech has long been recognized for the excellence of its programs across the board. From biochemistry to forestry to mining, it’s hard to find a field where Huskies haven’t opened up new opportunities and excelled as Crazy Smart professionals.

Many Tech students, however, don’t wait until after they graduate to start blazing trails. Between 1973 and 1982, a group of students–the majority of them women–paved the way for a new brand of nursing education in the Copper Country and laid the groundwork for several top-notch programs in health sciences and medical technology that serve Huskies today. Those who have majored in kinesiology, biomedical engineering, medical laboratory science, and other health and pre-health programs owe a debt of gratitude to the nurses of Michigan Tech.

Image of St. Joseph Hospital buildings
The St. Joseph Hospital campus, circa 1952. The tall building at the center left replaced the one at the far right as the main hospital in about 1951.

From the early 1900s on, nursing education in the Copper Country had generally taken place in hospital settings. St. Joseph’s Hospital (later Portage View/UP Health System Portage) in Hancock established its own school of nursing in 1920 and trained 700 nurses over the course of fifty years. Teachers came from the hospital’s staff, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s marked the beginning of difficult times for many religious orders, however, and in the years that followed the Sisters of St. Joseph began to turn the operation of the hospital over to the local community. As part of the transition, the nursing school would be shuttered; the class of 1974 would be the last to graduate.

The western Upper Peninsula still desired a place to educate its nurses close to home, though, and Michigan Tech stepped up to take the place of St. Joseph’s. It was a logical decision: the hospital’s nursing school had begun to hold some non-clinical classes on the Tech campus in 1965 and to enroll its students in university science courses. By 1972, a St. Joseph’s nursing student could receive a certain amount of financial aid from Tech, reside in its dormitories, and earn 31 hours of credit at the university over the course of a twenty-month diploma program. Michigan Tech proposed to construct an associate degree program in the School of Technology that would conform to university standards and meet state requirements for nursing education. The program was formally announced in August 1973, and students enrolled in pre-nursing science courses in the fall quarter. Nursing classes began the following spring, and the first students graduated with Michigan Tech nursing degrees in June 1975.

Image of nursing profile in alumni publication
The nursing program was profiled for an alumni publication in the winter of 1976. “Typical of Tech,” wrote the article’s author, “it’s rigorous and demanding.”

What were the experiences of these students like? Most enrollees were women, mirroring the demographics of other American nursing programs at the time; an article written in 1976 noted that 114 of the current 120 students were female. They were an elite group: the program had almost immediately attracted enough interest to form a waiting list, and only those who could meet Michigan Tech’s stringent admissions requirements were accepted. The nursing degree imposed an additional condition that reflected the unique demands of nursing: good physical and stable emotional health. Instructors were highly experienced nurses who emphasized strong relationships with their students, creating an effective learning environment. More than 80 percent of students enrolled in those first years graduated; the national average for nursing programs at that time was 70 percent.

The high graduation rate, however, should not be understood as a sign that the program was easy. Courses and clinical work pushed and challenged aspiring nurses. In their first two quarters at Tech, nursing students studied human biology, microbiology, psychology, and sociology, as well as English composition and political science. Nursing coursework, which began in the third quarter, addressed such topics as the health impacts of acute stress, caring for those with long-term illnesses, and providing care to populations with varied needs and health considerations.

Clinical experience and field trips, so vital to any nurse in training, naturally played a significant part in a Michigan Tech education, as well. Nursing students ventured both into the local community and further afield for their practical experience. Calumet Public Hospital in Laurium hosted students for clinicals, as did Portage View Hospital and Houghton County Medical Care, a long-term facility, in Hancock. At this time, the storied Newberry State Hospital–renamed the Newberry Regional Psychiatric Hospital in 1977–was still in operation, and students made the trek across the peninsula to see how medical staff there cared for individuals facing mental health challenges. A second field trip took them to Bay Cliff Health Camp near Marquette, where children with physical disabilities could have fun and receive therapy.

Image of uniformed nursing graduates.
Class photograph for the 1976 nursing graduates of Michigan Technological University.

As at the nursing school at St. Joseph’s, and as it had been hoped, students graduating from Michigan Tech’s nursing program often chose to serve the local community. In 1980, about half of all Tech nursing alums remained in the Upper Peninsula, and approximately one-third worked in the western region. Many returned to the sites of their clinicals to find a job: that same year, nurses educated by either Tech’s program or its predecessor at St. Joseph’s constituted 90 percent of the nursing staff at Houghton County Medical Care, 60 percent at Portage View Hospital, and 57 percent at Calumet Public Hospital. At Baraga County Memorial Hospital in L’Anse, 58 percent of the staff claimed Tech or St. Joseph’s as alma mater.

While the nursing program at Michigan Tech ended with the class of 1982, its influences continue. Graduates, who number a little over 300 in total, continue to faithfully care for patients in hospitals across Michigan and throughout the country, earning professional accolades and successfully pursuing further education in their chosen field. Meanwhile, majors allowing Huskies to contribute to the ever-changing field of health professions continue to flourish: biological sciences, kinesiology, bioinformatics, and other programs remain popular, groundbreaking choices on campus today.


Flashback Friday: Snow Melt, Go Smelt

Group of people with nets
A group of happy smelt dippers near Chassell on April 19, 1958.

Spring in the Copper Country means that–finally!–the snow begins to melt, the songbirds return, and the smelt begin to run. When we talk about smelting at the Michigan Tech Archives, usually we’re referring to the process of turning milled copper into ingots under high heat. Spring brings a different meaning, one that’s more fun and more than a little fishy.

If you’ve lived around the Copper Country, odds are you’ve encountered a smelt or two, in the wild or on your plate. For the uninitiated, a smelt is a small fish about six to eight inches in length, though smelt elsewhere have been known to grow to more than two feet. The story goes that smelt were introduced into the St. Marys River downstate on four different occasions–unsuccessfully–as feed for sport salmon before someone stocked the inland Crystal Lake with them in 1912. It’s hard to find a small lake in Michigan that won’t connect with a Great Lake eventually. The smelt learned this as they traversed the waterways that led them to Lake Michigan, where they were first detected in 1923. By 1925, they had traveled to Lake Huron and by 1929 to Lake Ontario. They wouldn’t make it to Lake Erie until 1932. In between, in 1930, smelt showed up in Lake Superior. 

For a time, the smelt population in the Lake Superior region remained fairly small. Though the first sport salmon struggled, other fish like lake trout found the smelt to be a tasty snack. As Sea Grant Minnesota explains, though, when invasive sea lampreys arrived in the Great Lakes, they went after the fish that had kept the smelt at bay. In classic predator-prey form, the number of smelt soared. Meanwhile, the burgeoning population of smelt contributed to the problem by feeding on the larvae of cisco, or lake herring, which were also food for the lake trout. As long as the trout remained at bay, the smelt could frolic freely in Lake Superior and the streams that fed her. 

People waiting in line at lunch stand
Enterprising Chassell residents raised money for the Panthers sports teams by selling coffee, hot dogs, and sweets to the smelt dippers.

These predator-prey-invasive species dynamics helped to create the phenomenon of smelting, or smelt dipping, in the Upper Peninsula. With the warming temperatures of spring, as Fred Hartshorn explained in his piece for the publication Copper Country Anthem, “the jelly in the egg sack of female smelt starts to break up, telling her she should start up stream to spawn.” This movement, known colloquially as running, occurs when the water hits about 38 degrees Fahrenheit, generally in April. Locals eager to take advantage of the running smelt have descended on streams with hand nets for decades and especially since the population spiked in the middle of the last century, making a fishing trip virtually guaranteed to be successful. For many years, it wasn’t uncommon to see smelting parties of hundreds of fishermen descending on places like Chassell’s Pike River, armed with nets and ready to catch buckets full of the little fish to sell or eat.

Nowadays, the population of smelt is not nearly what it was in the heyday of smelt running, but people still flock to the streams in hopes of coming away with a bucket of the good stuff. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, smelt season goes through May 31, so grab your net and your fishing license, and head on out while the weather is fine!


Flashback Friday: The Sands of Mine

Image of dredge spraying water
A Calumet & Hecla dredge in action on Torch Lake

The Copper Country has its icons: Lake Superior, the Quincy No. 2 shaft-rockhouse, the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, to name a few. Those with a passion for industrial heritage or a penchant for exploring might also point to a landmark on Torch Lake. On the shoreline of the mill town of Mason along M-26, a rusted and decaying hulk looms out of the water. This industrial dinosaur, out of commission for decades and now known simply as “the dredge,” once cut an impressive figure as it and others like it trawled the lake in search of red metal.

Early in the heavy industrial period of the Copper Country, Torch Lake developed as a central location

Image of mills along Torch Lake
Map of Calumet & Hecla smelting and mill works. Notice the immense spread of stamp sand created near the Hecla Mill (right).

for company stamp mills. Copper, of course, does not come out of the ground already processed and molded into shining ingots; it is largely piecemeal, lodged in larger chunks of poor rock from which it must be removed. With steam-powered machines fueled by the abundant waters of Torch Lake, stamp mills crushed that rock into small pieces and sorted the usable copper from it. The sizable pieces of poor rock could be preserved for use in construction of roads or buildings. In the years before about 1910, however, the smallest fragments (tailings) offered little value to companies like Quincy and Calumet & Hecla. For the sake of convenience and cost, they dumped this waste material virtually wholesale into the adjacent lake.

The mining companies, however, kept an eye on and indeed played an important role in the development of innovative technologies that could improve their efficiency and maximize their profits. In the dawn of the twentieth century, however, new processes and devices offered the Copper Country’s bigger players a chance to turn their trash into cash. In March 1913, C&H chief metallurgist C. Harry Benedict received a patent for a procedure that would use ammonia solutions to “leach,” or drain, native copper from the rock containing it. We’ll skip the technical details for now, but interested readers might enjoy a description published in the professional Mining Journal in 1915. The sophisticated and yet logical system suddenly opened up possibilities for what historian Larry Lankton estimated as 152 acres of C&H tailings dumped in Torch Lake. Rather than waste, they were brimming with copper ready to be reclaimed.  

Before the copper could be leached from the rock with Benedict’s ammonia process, it had to come out of the lake. Here’s where the dredge sailed into the picture. Other mining districts, including parts of California, had just begun to adopt these large, multi-story vessels to scoop up river rock in search of gold, and C&H quickly got on board. A report in the Mining and Scientific Press described the proposed operations of the company’s new dredge:

“This old tailing, after passing through the usual pipe-line supported on pontoons, will discharge at a point on the shore of the lake near the regrinding plant, where a second set of suction pumps will pick it up and raise it to a set of classifying and dewatering tanks… the main dredge has a capacity much greater than the rest of the plant… and a portion of the sand pumped will be diverted to fill the excavation [of the lake] made during the winter.”

Image of dredge inner workings
Inside a Calumet & Hecla dredge

The dredge that arrived to begin the reclamation process in about 1915 was the handiwork of South Milwaukee’s Bucyrus-Erie Company, and, according to one Daily Mining Gazette article, weighed some 1150 tons. A second dredge, also with a hull and machine by Bucyrus, arrived in 1924; the company appears to have owned a third only briefly. Until the 1950s, the dredges did exactly what C&H had hoped, scooping up over 50 million tons of Torch Lake tailings that produced 423 million pounds of copper. Men from the mill towns of Hubbell, Lake Linden, and other settlements in particular found employment in the C&H reclamation division, which pioneer Benedict–in a remark that may seem somewhat self-aggrandizing–credited as preventing the complete collapse of the Copper Country when prices for the mineral fell in the wake of World War I.

Dredge submerged in Torch Lake
The sinking of a Quincy dredge

The Quincy Mining Company also got into the reclamation game, but their dredge purchases came much later. Buck Construction in Superior built the house of their first dredge; Bucyrus provided the hull and machinery. Quincy Dredge #1 began its work in about 1943 and sank unceremoniously into the lake on January 15, 1956. It remains there, hidden under the gently lapping waters, to this day. This sinking, however, did not put Quincy out of the reclamation business. Shortly before, C&H had sold its original dredge to the competition. According to the Gazette, Quincy operated this grand old vessel until 1967, when its work was over, and it collapsed, exhausted, on the stamp sand beach.

Thus ended the era of copper reclamation on Torch Lake, and so began the slow decay of an icon. Today, it bears the rust and rot marks of time and the scars left by visitors. In spite of its infirmities, the dredge offers a fascinating testament to the ingenuity and scientific advance of the copper mines and the industrial heyday of the Keweenaw Peninsula.


Flashback Friday: Young at Heart

Elderly woman with birthday cake
Mamie Nelson of Hancock celebrating her 123rd birthday.

On February 3, 1948, Mamie Nelson celebrated her 123rd birthday. For the occasion, she donned a black dress that matched the fashions of an older era and made the journey from her residence at the Houghton County Infirmary down to a photographer’s studio. There, no doubt with great care, she settled into a chair before a painted arbor backdrop and fixed her rheumy gaze upon the camera. One eyelid no longer seemed to open; the other did so after a valiant struggle, revealing a blind eye. She mustered the best smile that age allowed her and made sure her close-cropped white hair had been tucked neatly behind her ears. On a carved stand next to her, someone placed a birthday cake, elegantly scalloped with white frosting for the big day. With the click of a shutter, Mamie Nelson’s birthday entered history. Locally, at least.

If it seems unlikely that a person could live more than 120 years and remain so unknown to the world, it should. Mamie might have celebrated the 123rd anniversary of her birth, but that didn’t mean that she had actually reached such an age. Somewhere along the line, it appears that Mamie started to age more than one year at a time. So, who was this woman who claimed to be a supercentenarian? What was her story?

According to an obituary published in the Daily Mining Gazette–summarizing information that Mamie had offered in a number of interviews–the aged Mrs. Nelson was born in Ireland in 1825. At that time, the writer noted, “James Monroe, fifth president of the United States, was completing the last year of the second term of his administration… the king of the British realm at that time was George IV, son of the king who lost the American colonies.” Mamie described an impressive and interesting childhood. She attested that she had seen Queen Victoria in person on at least one occasion. This was the least of the wonderful sights, however. “Her father was the master of a sailing vessel engaged in trade between England, China, Japan and India,” the Gazette said in her obituary, “and as a girl Mrs. Nelson made many voyages with her father to the land of the Far East.” In total, she would claim a total of 32 transatlantic voyages. The circumstances that had brought this supposed globe trotter across the Atlantic one last time went unexplained.

At some point after her arrival in the United States, according to Hidden Gems and Towering Tales: A Hancock, Michigan Anthology, Mamie said that she resided in Illinois; she moved to the Copper Country in 1863. She described vivid memories of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 and his tragic assassination in 1865; she told of the horrors of the great Hancock fire of 1869 and the loss of the Lake Linden home that she shared with her husband, Carl, to a similar blaze in 1887. Later, the Nelsons operated a pasty bakery out of a residence in Hancock. 

Canoe passing by Lake Linden
Lake Linden in 1898, around the time Mamie and her husband Carl resided there.

As best as we can tell, these tales mix strict truth with colorful exaggeration or misunderstanding. Archival evidence about Mamie is scanty at best and often contradictory. She never deviated in declaring her Irish birth; this may have been a point of pride for her. She was listed in the 1910 federal census at 303 Quincy Street in Hancock, providing her age as 80 and her year of immigration as 1831. By 1920, she had aged to 94, with an immigration year of 1826. These appear to be the earliest instances of Mamie professing an exceptional age. In contrast, when the census taker came in 1900, he found Mamie (listed as Mary) and Carl Nellson [sic] living in Torch Lake Township near Lake Linden. In those days, Mamie gave her year of birth as a more modest 1855 and her year of arrival in the United States as 1856. This would have made her some 93 years old in 1948–a venerable number, to be sure, but not a record-breaking one.

If Mamie was indeed born in 1855, her true age did not preclude her incredible stories from being true. She would have been six when Lincoln was inaugurated and ten when he died; if she lived in Hancock, she would have experienced the great fire at fourteen years old. Such tremendous events as these stick in the minds of even small children and certainly in those of teenagers. Ask someone who was young when Pearl Harbor was bombed, Kennedy was assassinated, or 9/11 occurred about those times, and the memories come back as clearly as yesterday.

And perhaps Mamie’s father really was a ship’s captain who voyaged around the world, taking his daughter with him. Crossing the Atlantic nearly three dozen times was no less a feat if the journey started in the United States than if it started in Ireland. Maybe she truly did see Japan and India, and the wonders of these worlds inspired in her a new appreciation for her tight-knit Keweenaw communities. On the other hand, maybe these stories grew from a colorful and vivid imagination, the result of Mamie’s daydreams as she rolled out pasty crust and chopped potatoes. 

We may never know how Mamie Nelson spent her early days, how old she truly was, or what led her to believe or claim that she was 123 years old. One declaration may be made with certainty, however: whether the tales she told came from reality or from inside her head, this Copper Country woman lived an exceptionally interesting life.


Flashback Friday: The Town’s Not for Burning

Image of town in ruins
Hancock in the aftermath of the great fire of 1869.

April 11, 1869 was a Sunday. Many residents of Hancock woke up and went about their regular routines in the early dawn hours: cooking breakfast, dressing for church, wishing for a little more sleep. Who could have suspected that normal life was about to take a long hiatus?

Others in the flourishing little village hadn’t gone to bed yet. They had spent the time from Saturday night into Sunday morning dancing at a saloon just a stone’s throw from St. Anne’s Catholic Church, on the north side of Hancock. As the rambunctious party broke up that morning, it seems that someone knocked over the stove whose glowing warmth had kept the dancers cozy through the long night. The burning fuel spread across the floor of the bar. “Without attempting to extinguish the flames which at once sprung up,” wrote the Portage Lake Mining Gazette in an article republished by the New York Times, “the party decamped and left the building to its fate.”

The loss of the saloon would have been tragedy enough for its proprietors. Unfortunately, a minor catastrophe quickly escalated into a major disaster. As with most newborn mining settlements, Hancock’s buildings had primarily been constructed from wood. Worse yet, the wind was blowing from the northwest, swiftly fanning the fire east and south into the heart of town. “In less than half an hour,” wrote the Gazette, “there were half a dozen buildings in flames” on the saloon’s side of the street, “and soon those on the other side caught from the intense heat, and burst out with unexampled fierceness.” In modern firefighting parlance, Hancock had flashed over, a particularly vivid and appropriate term for the rapid spread.

Hancock had prepared to fight a fire, but its people had not anticipated a blaze on this scale. The town had a modest water reserve (Portage Lake was frozen) and an even humbler municipal firefighting apparatus, underwhelming even by the technology of the time. Within half an hour, the water had run out without abating the flames that had already engulfed at least thirty-five structures. The fire continued to spread, forcing inhabitants to flee as it consumed building after building. “The air was hot, suffocating, and thick with blinding smoke–now settling down like a pall over the whole town,” explained the Gazette in an attempt to recreate the horror of the scene. When the winds did lift the smoke a bit, the frightened refugees glimpsed “broad sheets of flame from fifty to five hundred feet in length, and reaching, at times, almost the clouds.” No one whose home or business stood in the way of the blaze entertained any hope that the buildings would be saved. Instead, they banded together to try to rescue the contents. Store owners “tumbled their stocks pell-mell into the streets, and hundreds of willing hands conveyed them speedily, if not very tenderly, beyond the apparent danger.” As the fire’s path became even more ambitious, even the safe places where these goods had been taken had to be evacuated.

Town and structures in ruins
The smoldering remains of Hancock after the fire. Photograph looks north.

About six hours after they had broken out, the hungry flames found no fuel left for them to consume, and the roar of the blaze slowly died down to quiet smoldering. “Nearly all that remained of the once thrifty village of Hancock was an immense heap of embers, covered with a stifling cloud of smoke,” said the Gazette. Some modest buildings formed “a small fringe” along the northwest part of town, where the fire had started; two churches (St. Anne’s and the Methodist congregation) and two public halls that still stood among the ashes must have seemed towering by comparison. Among the estimated twelve acres scorched were some 130 houses and “every store in the town.” Rebuilding would be a massive process.

One cannot help but see parallels between the Hancock fire of 1869 and the flash flood of 2018 in the community’s responses to each. “The people seem to have accepted the situation, and have gone to work with a will,” the Gazette explained in 1869. Their words might as well have been written in 2018. Within a matter of days, Hancock residents and their neighbors had erected the beginnings of more than two dozen temporary structures where the burned ones had stood. Photographs taken of Tezcuco Street later in the year showed a maze of new buildings and framework lining each side of the road; piles of lumber in the middle of the route stood ready to finish the work. Although those who had lost homes and businesses no doubt suffered and continued to struggle, they also fixed their eyes on the path ahead and let their persistence carry them through. Neighbor helped neighbor; friend reached out to friend. Slowly, the normalcy that had existed in the early morning of April 11, 1869 returned.

Today, Hancock bears little resemblance to either the town that existed before the great fire nor the town that rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes in its immediate wake. Survivors of Hancock in its pre-1869 infancy remain, however. Along Hancock Street (the southbound portion of US-41 in town) sit the O’Neill-Dennis Funeral Home and a residence bearing a “CELTIC HOUSE” plaque. As the parsonage of the Congregational Church in Hancock and the residence of Dr. W.W. Perry, respectively, both endured the fire and testify to the endurance of the city. The municipal government also makes available the New York Times reprint of the chronicle of the blaze. These, along with archival materials and books available at the Michigan Tech Archives, tell the story of a town that won’t go down without a fight.  

Want to know more about the fire of 1869? John S. Haeussler’s 2014 book “Images of America: Hancock” provides the most complete collection of photographs showing the before and after, as well as detailed captions that helped to inform this blog post.


Flashback Friday: Flashback to the Tamarack


Image of Tamarack shaft-rockhouse

Tamarack No. 2 shaft buildings pictured in 1892.

An employee walking to work at the Tamarack mine in early October 1901 would have seen the same landscape he saw every day: smokestacks coughing fumes into the air, mighty logs waiting to be hewed into shaft timbers, tall industrial structures silhouetted against the autumn sky. Everything would have seemed normal to him, the prelude to another regular day. Yet the Tamarack was not an ordinary place, and joining the employee at work that day were several men about to do something especially unusual, something that would raise eyebrows for years to come.

The Calumet & Hecla Mining Company (C&H) had already proven the richness of the Calumet conglomerate lode when the Tamarack Mining Company was organized in 1882. Hamstringed by C&H’s property holdings, other mining investors desperately spent years seeking some way to tap into the lode and the profits. Time after time, they fell short. Then, finally, one had an epiphany. John Daniell was the superintendent of the competing Osceola Mine and a crafty mining engineer, and the plan he devised was entirely in keeping with his line of thinking. Daniell knew that copper lodes did not follow strictly vertical paths.

Isometric sketch of the Calumet Conglomerate lode
A sketch of the geography of the Calumet Conglomerate lode, 1931.

Rather, they ran under the earth’s surface at angles. C&H might own the land with the easiest–and most economical–access to the Calumet conglomerate lode, but their holdings couldn’t possibly cover the whole deposit, especially thousands of feet underground. With the cooperation of some notable investors, particularly Joseph W. Clark and A.S. Bigelow, Daniell and the Tamarack Mining Company drove five deep shafts at the very western reach of C&H property. Eventually, they hit copper–and paydirt. The Tamarack lands proved to be remarkably profitable, and the mine flourished.

Daniell’s strategy of plunging deep into the earth was also precisely what allowed the Tamarack to become a massive laboratory. In October 1901, scientists and engineers from the company and from a certain local mining school gathered to study magnetic attraction, gravitational forces, and the behavior of pendulums underground. The Tamarack mine shafts afforded them an unprecedented opportunity. How often, after all, did an experimenter have the chance to work with a plumb line over 4,200 feet long? Since the employees of the mine had already done the dirty, backbreaking work of excavating nearly a mile into the earth, the shafts could serve a dual purpose.

To keep the description succinct, in short the experimenters expected that two plumb lines suspended in a mine shaft would be nearer to each other at the bottom of the line than at the surface. The earth is convex (curved on the exterior), so the plumb lines would be drawn together as they descended toward the core, allowing a precise calculation of the angle the planet’s convexity caused convergence. If that line confused you, don’t worry; that’s as technical as today’s Flashback Friday gets. If that line left you wanting a better and more scientific explanation, head over to a post that Donald Simanek, an emeritus professor at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, wrote to analyze the physics and mathematics in greater depth.

Carefully, the engineers present at the Tamarack that October day selected and tested what the Daily Mining Gazette at the time described as “No. 24 piano wire” for their experiment. Once the wire met with everyone’s approval, “it was necessary, of course, that each wire have something attached to it to carry it down. It was not thought best, however, that common weights be used, as it was feared they would in some manner get caught in the timbering [of the mine] and ruin the whole experiment.”

Portrait of F.W. McNair
Fred Walter McNair, one of the men involved in the Tamarack experiment.

Instead, the men fashioned two “balloons… each ten feet long and built entirely of wood… they were two and one-half feet in diameter at the centre, tapering to a point at either end.” Balloons and piano wire descended together into the No. 2 shaft. When they reached the designated stopping point at the 29th level, the balloons were replaced with “50-pound cast iron bobs… then immersed in engine oil in order to kill all the vibration possible.” Now, data could be collected.

The wires had, thanks to the changes in weight as the bobs were replaced and the buoyancy of the engine oil, underground various fluctuations in length. The scientists found these normal, natural, and anticipated. Measuring the distance between the two bobs in the shaft proved more interesting. They hadn’t converged at all. On the contrary, the bobs of the two plumb lines sat 0.07 feet farther from each other than the tops of the lines to which they were attached.

What could have caused the strange result? No doubt, experimenters felt excited by this point. To the layperson, 0.07 feet of divergence might seem insignificant; to an engineer expecting the opposite outcome, it was an interesting problem. Later observers would propose a variety of potential solutions: variations in the density of the crust, buoyancy of the oil, geometric quirks, gravitational effects, or mere misinterpretation. Professor Simanek laid out all of them in turn in the aforementioned Lock Haven article, and those wanting to dig into the nitty gritty may enjoy his piece. Suffice to say, however, it took more than casual spitballing over a few cups of coffee to narrow down the cause.

More interesting, perhaps, to the casual Flashback Friday reader is the way in which the Tamarack mine found itself catapulted into conspiracy theories and weird science. After all, mused some, couldn’t the failure of the plumb bobs to converge mean that there was nothing attracting them in the first place? Perhaps the earth was actually hollow. Maybe, instead of being convex, it was actually concave, curving inward beneath the surface. Surely the Tamarack experiment had shown that more was afoot than met the eye.

Image of men in timbered mine shaft
Underground at Tamarack No. 5, circa 1915.

Of course, in Houghton County in the peak of the mining boom, there was always more going on underground than met the eye. Imagine the thousands of men roaming the shafts day in and day out, carrying tools and lights and conversing in dozens of languages, meeting those just trying to haul rock and those trying to calculate the convexity of the earth. Perhaps the crossroads of the world were not above it at all but instead a mile below its surface.