All posts by Emily Riippa

Flashback Friday: The Church in the Wildwood

Image of church with cars parked out front
The Central Mine Methodist Church at the 1914 annual reunion.

“The lands of the Central Mining Company… are bounded on the north by the Copper Falls location, on the east and south by the North Western, and on the west by the Winthrop location, and are four and one half miles from Eagle Harbor… These lands are well timbered with pine and sugar-maple, and have a soil well suited to the wants of a mine, and mine force.”

Optimism overflowed in the opening words of the first annual report of the Central Mining Company, the corporate body responsible for the eponymous Central Mine. Such hope was well-founded. Initial explorations at the mine in 1853 had suggested that copper deposits on the property would be particularly rich, and, just one year after commencing operations, dreams turned to boasting. “The Directors will state that the Central is the first mine yet opened in the Lake Superior district, which produced and sold copper enough, during the first year of its operations, to more than pay all expenses of the Company; and further, no other one has produced so much copper the first year of working.” Central had done the virtually impossible: turned a profit right from the start. In an environment and at a time when the average copper mine would best be described as a failure, Central was remarkable. It always would be. The reasons simply changed.

Image of tall building with others in the background.
The Central #2 shafthouse after the mine ceased operations.

A mine needed workers. Men arriving on their own–either bachelors or those living apart from their families–constituted the bulk of initial employees. Since mining was marked by unpredictability, and it seemed unfair to drag a wife and children unnecessarily from pillar to post on a frontier, men drifted in, stayed for a while, and moved on to greener pastures when the exploration faltered. Accommodations for the workforce at most mines were sparse: some rough boarding houses or bunkhouses, which could be repurposed when operations wound down, typified an early mine location. At first, Central was no different. The annual report for 1855 described surface improvements as “light.” Along with shafthouses and horse whims, only three houses had been built, thanks, in part, to the struggles of the neighboring Winthrop and Northwestern operations. These rentals would “give accommodation to our force, and render the erection of houses for families… unnecessary” for the time being. 

It became apparent quite quickly, however, that Central was not bound to go the way of its neighbors. In 1855, owing to the success but yet the infancy of the mine, “twenty-six miners and twenty surface men” constituted the entirety of the workforce. By 1860, Central began to outgrow the stamping facilities it had rented, was starving for men to keep up with its production, and had to boost wages. Workers responded favorably, and, in the annual report for 1862, the board of directors described the construction of twenty houses “for the accommodation of our mining force,” with an imminent need for homes to be built for “three or four times the present laboring force.” At the end of 1868, an estimated 845 workers and families, largely Cornish, resided at Central; the following year, their number swelled to over 900. Central had become a real town. 

As Central transformed from frontier outpost to mining village, its people sought to bring the comforts and soul of nineteenth-century life to their new home. John Wesley’s Methodist teachings had spread like wildfire across Cornwall, wooing skilled miners and their families away from the Church of England through simple doctrine and revival preaching. The emigrants who crossed the ocean from Kernow to the Keweenaw brought with them a deep faith that wove through every aspect of their lives, and they devoted themselves to establishing a Methodist presence in Central. A small schoolhouse near the Central Mine-Northwestern Mine boundary held early services and Sunday Schools, but, as the mine and town flourished, the congregation’s attention turned to the construction of a proper church. The time came in 1868. “Divine services continue to be regularly held, and some progress has been made toward the erection of a church,” wrote the agent of the Central Mining Company that year. As he penned his report, a wood-frame chapel was rising near the heart of Central. Like most Methodist churches, especially in rural communities, its builders sought simplicity and durability in construction.

Image of church on a sunny day.
Central Mine Methodist Church, built 1868. Note the distinctive crenelation.

A poor-rock foundation was the logical choice. Long pieces of narrow wooden siding gave the outside an appearance of crisp uniformity. Six tall, plate-glass windows–three on the north side of the building and three on the south–cast patterns of sunlight across rows of pine pews. Their high, straight backs discouraged cat naps during Sunday sermons. Cleanly whitewashed walls provided cheer without adornment and a marked contrast to the preacher’s black suit as he stood before his parishioners to exhort them in virtue and faith. Alongside him on a platform spanning the width of the church sat the choir, a pride of Central Mine. These men and women, nestled in spindle-backed chairs, came from a proud Cornish tradition of singing; rich voices soared through the mines of Cornwall, carrying the melodies of beloved hymns, and now they did the same in the Copper Country. On Sundays, a bell in the church tower called the people of Central to worship. The crenelation topping the belfry was the congregation’s great concession to elegance: its sawtooth appearance hearkened back to English castles and made a wilderness more like home. 

“A church has been erected at the mine (with the aid of the company), in which services are regularly held,” read the 1869 annual report. It was true that the mining company played a role in constructing the Central Mine Methodist Episcopal Church, but credit for building its vibrant community and its life rested on the shoulders of the people. In the basement, they gathered for Sunday School classes or to peruse the circulating library that its people carefully compiled. Before the new Central school was built, scholars who had overflowed the old schoolhouse studied in the basement, as well. To celebrate Independence Day, the Sunday School–whose attendees regularly numbered over 200 in the 1880s–threw picnics with candy and the enthusiastic Central Cornet band as entertainment. The Saturday before Christmas, Santa Claus visited to distribute “mittens, suspenders, pocket knives, mouth organs, knitted hoods, scarfs [sic]… straight brass horns, circular brass horns, jumping-jacks, dolls, jack-in-the-box… china dolls, sailor dolls, rag-baby dolls… that squeaked, cried, and laughed,” as long-time Central resident Alfred Nicholls remembered. After Christmas carols from the choir, the children were let loose to enjoy their gifts. “From every quarter of the little church,” Nicholls said, one heard “the baa of the sheep, the squeak of the doll,” the “full and active operation” of slide trombones and “fluttering fingers on tin whistles.” The Central church was a place of joy, at Christmas and throughout the year. 

Many buildings spreading out on a hillside
Central Mine industrial and residential buildings near the peak of Central’s population.

Yet the heyday of Central Mine, brilliant as it was, faded too soon. The mine sat upon an uncommonly good deposit of copper, but practicality, accessibility, and profitability eventually dictated that the mine would have to close. After fits and starts, it did so for good in 1898, having produced almost 52 million pounds of copper. “In like fashion,” wrote Central historian Charles Stetter, “did the Central Mine Church close its doors, presumably for good.” But the sense of belonging to Central persisted in the hearts of its people, now scattered to Calumet, Hancock, or Painesdale; the memories of those Christmases, Sunday worship, or Fourth of July picnics did not fade. When, in 1907, the Keweenaw Central Railroad built track that ran as far north as Mandan, Alfred Nicholls saw an opportunity. Why not use the new ease of transport to bring people home to Central? They could gather in the old church for a “Sunday service… strictly religious in character” and conforming “as nearly as possible to the order of worship as was observed in former years,” in the words of Stetter. On July 21, 1907, the first Central Mine reunion was held at a church packed to bursting. Throughout the day, visitors sipped coffee and tea, chatted with friends, and walked down paths they had trod so often in Central’s earlier life.

Time passed. The old residents of Central passed, too, and the buildings at the old mine fell into increasing disrepair. Dozens of houses that had formed the neighborhoods of Central collapsed or were torn down. Heavy snows claimed the roofs of the powderhouse, the engine house. Trees crept back onto the deforested hillside. Yet the church remained, its bell tower still proudly proclaiming Central’s Cornish heritage, and the children and grandchildren returned on the last Sunday in July, year after year. Even as war raged in Europe–not once but twice–and as the country plunged into the throes of the Great Depression, even as the greatest mines of the Copper Country fell silent, for good, Central’s people came back. The records of the church note no interruptions from 1907 on.

Image of plain church interior with central aisle and pump organ.
Inside the Central church, undated. The appearance has not changed much since this photograph was taken.

The character of the service changed, growing more ecumenical, and responsibility for leading worship was laid in the hands of a series of ministers. One man, however, left his mark on the church in the wildwood more than any other preacher. In 1984, and then annually from 1990 to 2018, the Rev. Dr. Daniel “Dan” Rosemergy’s boisterous laughter and contagious enthusiasm flooded Central. Like the men who had played Santa Claus at Central Christmases, he distributed gifts to children in the form of Cornish flags and currant cookies; he sang in a quartet of Cornish voices in the midst of each service and beamed as the congregation burst into “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” the Diadem setting. His messages encouraged fellowship, compassion, kindness, and joy. Every attendee at the reunions left richer for having met him. And when Dan Rosemergy went to join his Central ancestors in 2019, he left behind a deep conviction in their hearts that the reunions would continue. July 26, 2020 will be the 114th year

What brings people back to Central? What makes them feel that they belong to this place, even if they have never lived there, and their last family member moved away a century or more ago? Is it the stillness that one feels on a winter afternoon, standing in the doorway of the powderhouse? Is it the view that spreads out from the front porch of an old red house? Is it the peace that settles on a person, looking north from the poor rock pile? Is it the rustle of leaves on a summer day, the wind whispering through them like it has a secret to tell? Is it the music of the old pump organ and the Cornish voices raised in song on those July mornings, the chime of the bell calling all into the church? Is it the sense that the gap between today and yesteryear is much narrower on the dusty streets of Central? Perhaps what defines Central cannot, itself, be defined. Perhaps it can simply be lived.

Come to the church in the wildwood,

oh, come to the church in the dale;

no spot is so dear to my childhood,

as the little brown church in the vale.

–William S. Pitts


Flashback Friday: Michigan’s Highwayman

Mugshot of man with small mustace
Reimund Holzhey’s mug shot, 1889. Photograph from the Archives of Michigan.

“Donate,” Reimund Holzhey said. “I’m collecting.” He raised a revolver in each hand and cocked them at the stagecoach. It was late August in Gogebic County, and although the coach had been traveling along the road from Lake Gogebic, cool breezes were hardly guaranteed. If the four stagecoach passengers had not already been sweating, they certainly were now. On their journey to Gogebic Station–a stop along the Milwaukee, Lake Shore, and Western Railroad twelve miles east of Marenisco–they had crossed paths with the type of criminal more common to the Wild West than the western Upper Peninsula. Holzhey, a young man in his twenties, had made his move boldly and confidently, like someone with experience in theft. 

Image of stagecoach being pulled by horses
Stagecoaches were common in mining districts like Gogebic County, as this photograph from Arizona shows. Image from www.tucson.com.

One man, however, kept a cool head. The would-be victims were mostly Chicago residents; violence marked that city more than most American towns. Unfortunately, his hand was not as steady as his head. “All right,” he said. “Here’s mine.” He drew his own revolver and squeezed off a round, which flew wide of Holzhey. That was enough for the stagecoach robber, who emptied his guns in the direction of the men. Two more reports from the first passenger’s revolver missed Holzhey, though he stood just five feet away. One of the others aboard, however, took bullets to his face and his leg, wounds that the Ontonagon Miner described as “not necessarily fatal.” Adolph Gustavus Fleischbein was not as lucky. The bullets that hit him in the left thigh traveled upward, entering his bowels. Fleischbein fell from the stagecoach, landing in the dirt. Spooked by the shooting and by the driver’s belated attempts to hurry them away, the horses hitched to the coach bolted, wildly dragging the vehicle down the wooded path. As they faded into the distance, Holzhey crept over to the gravely-injured Fleischbein, seized his pocketbook and jewelry, and left him to die in the road. 

Two long hours later, help returned for Fleischbein. The rescuers took him to the hospital at Bessemer, where his wounds were cleaned and dressed. It was clear to everyone, however, that he had lost far too much blood to have any hope of survival. “He cannot recover,” as the Miner put it. Telegrams flashed over the wires to Belleville, Illinois, notifying Mrs. Fleischbein of her husband’s imminent demise. Meanwhile, County Attorney Howell took Fleischbein’s sworn statement about the robber and his actions on the road from Lake Gogebic. Fleischbein said that, as the stagecoach disappeared from view, Holzhey had come up and held a gun to Fleischbein’s face, threatening to kill him then and there. Fleischbein, no doubt thinking of his wife and teenage daughter, “pleaded hard for mercy,” according to a summary of his testimony published in the Chicago Tribune. The robber agreed to spare his life–a gesture rendered moot by the fact that his bullets had already ensured Fleischbein’s death. At six o’clock the next morning, “Dolph” Fleischbein–a Civil War drummer boy, former public servant, and enthusiast of hunting and fishing–died. 

With Fleischbein’s death, the manhunt for Holzhey went from a search for a thief to a search for a murderer. Deputies had already been posted along roads and at train stations in Gogebic County, their eyes peeled for a man “small in stature, with a dark, curling mustache, of medium height, slight build, and dressed in light clothes.” The description Fleischbein and the others on the stagecoach gave confirmed the lawmen’s grim suspicions: the robber, whose true identity me remained unknown at the time, was “Black Bart.” Black Bart had bedeviled Wisconsin highways and railways for months, brazenly making his criminal forays under the noses of lawmen. Two months before he ventured into Gogebic County, the Wood County Reporter of Wisconsin reported that the highwayman had robbed three stage coaches, a Milwaukee and Northern passenger train, the sleepy general store of Bonduel, and a man traveling by buggy back to the reservation where he lived. He also had the nerve to rob the home of a judge. Despite the promise of a $500 reward offered by the Milwaukee & Northern general manager, the posse that pursued him through Shawano County had no success. After the Gogebic robbery and Fleischbein’s murder, the railroad offered a new reward of one thousand dollars, along with contributions from Gogebic County and Fleischbein’s home county. 

Members of the manhunt tracked Holzhey that night for six miles from the stagecoach road to a stream, where they lost the trail. Two bloodhounds and a local Ojibwa man with tracking skills joined the search the following day. It was clear that Holzhey had headed north from Gogebic Station, but his whereabouts grew murkier after that. In fact, Holzhey had turned east, heading for the iron mines of Marquette County. 

Image of newspaper headline: "HOLZHAY IN 'HOC'"
Headline from the Ashland Weekly News proclaiming the arrest of Reimund Holzhay [sic].

On August 31, a Mr. Glode, City Marshal for the town of Republic, and Justice of the Peace E.E. Weiser left their homes early, strolling in the direction of the railroad depot. As they walked past the building, “a man dressed roughly and apparently anxious to escape attention” caught Glode’s eye. As a lawman, he had been apprised of the hunt for Holzhey and of the thief’s appearance. The stranger in town was short, slightly built, and possessed of a dark, curling mustache–Glode knew immediately that he needed to be approached. The Ashland Weekly News reported that he blocked the other man’s path, saying, “I want you.” Down went the stranger’s hand for the gun that he wore. Marshal Glode was faster, though, and he struck the smaller man with his billy club. Glode and Weiser carried the suspect to the Republic jail. 

As the stranger came to, Glode searched his pockets. He removed “three revolvers, three gold watches, four pocket books, and other articles” of value. Holzhey’s name was etched on one of the pocket books; Fleischbein’s was there, as well. Clearly, Glode and Weiser had found their man. Holzhey strongly resisted their questioning at first, but he gradually began to crack. Yes, his name was Reimund Holzhey. Yes, he had been the man who robbed the Gogebic stage and one in Wisconsin. Eventually, he conceded obliquely that those crimes had probably been carried out by the same man responsible for the others attributed to Black Bart. In the presence of the sheriff and marshal, he prepared a statement outlining his lawbreaking past. 

Even while Holzhey was being escorted back to Bessemer to face the music, newspapers treated him as something like a celebrity. At least one published a detailed and literary biography, describing his prosperous farmer father back in Germany, Reimund’s desire to make his own fortune, and his interest in the lumber mill where he had worked upon arriving in America. He was said to be a man of few words, little proclivity for alcohol, and a general aversion to trouble–unless someone crossed him. The writer placed blame for Holzhey’s descent into lawlessness on reading too many stories about criminals like Jesse James. He had been so fascinated with tales ripped from the headlines that he was determined to become one himself.

In a fall 1889 trial, the Archives of Michigan reports, a jury convicted Reimund Holzhey of murder. Holzhey served the first part of his sentence in the Marquette branch prison, where he was a disorderly inmate. The American Citizen of Ironwood wrote that he seized a knife from the prison shoe factory and took a guard hostage, demanding his release in exchange for the guard’s life. “In an unguarded moment, Holzhay [sic] dropped his right hand, still holding the knife, on his leg only to have every finger shot off with a bullet from the warden’s gun. This settled the matter for that time and reduced Holzhay’s ability to harm by one hand.” 

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

After nearly four years of increasing difficulty, Holzhey was taken under strong guard to Ionia, home of “the asylum for criminal insane.” There, he underwent some sort of procedure that left him transformed. He came back to Marquette stable, responsible, and eager to work. According to a piece by the Archives of Michigan, he became the official prison photographer, librarian, and newspaper editor before his life sentence was commuted in 1910. Discharged in 1913, Holzhey loped back into the woods that were familiar with him, working at resorts. He headed west to Yellowstone to continue his photography career, then moved to Florida. He died there in 1952 by his own hand, bringing the story of Michigan’s last stagecoach robber to an abrupt conclusion. 


Flashback Friday: Bygone Burial Grounds

Image of tree-shaded cemetery
Walking among the trees in an old Hancock cemetery.

Many Copper Country visitors whose ancestors once called the Keweenaw Peninsula home hope to see where these family members have been laid to rest. Standing by the grave of someone who died decades or more than a century ago provides an opportunity to reflect on his life–or on one’s own–and to pay respects. 

It’s an easy enough activity for many: cemeteries in Calumet, Lake Linden, Houghton, Hancock, and throughout the rest of the Copper Country offer grassy lanes for strolling and looking for headstones. Records held at the Michigan Tech Archives, with government offices, and at the cemeteries themselves can help to narrow down exactly where in the burial ground one should search for relatives. Yet the Copper Country also has a number of cemeteries lost to the sands of time and to changes in how communities decided to use their land. This week’s Flashback Friday profiles just two of the cemeteries that are no longer with us. 

Early in the history of Hancock, two strains of Christian congregations–Catholic and Protestant–established distinct cemeteries at the western edge of town. Faithful from St. Patrick’s or St. Joseph’s Catholic churches would be buried in their own hallowed ground; members of the town’s numerous Lutheran churches, its Congregational organizations, and other Protestant denominations found their places of rest in an adjacent park slightly further west. Sales of lots at the Protestant cemetery, according to research compiled by John M. Blom, have been documented as far back as 1866; the Catholic (St. Joseph) cemetery was almost certainly established at about the same time. 

For decades, families and friends made the sad journey from funeral parlors, private homes, and places of worship to lay their loved ones to rest in the two distinct cemeteries. In 1896, however, a new municipal cemetery was incorporated. Lakeside Cemetery sat perched on a bluff, promising cool breezes off the Portage Canal and, as a carpet of trees grew around it, shade and quiet away from the bustle of the city. Here, Catholics and Protestants would be buried side-by-side, although the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet reserved a section for their faithful members. As residents of Hancock increasingly embraced Lakeside for a burial ground, the deterioration of the Catholic and Protestant cemeteries accelerated. By the middle of the 20th century, many years had passed since anyone had been laid to rest in either of the old sectarian burial grounds. 

At the same time, the congregations that had once supported these cemeteries found themselves at a crossroads. Like many mining towns, Hancock’s Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran churches had been founded on ethnic lines, with German families or Finns joining others of their background for Sunday worship in their native tongues. In the 1960s, clergymen had largely abandoned preaching in Finnish or German; English was the lingua franca now. Houghton County’s population had also fallen into decline as one mine after another closed. Consolidation in a new Lutheran building and a new Catholic parish made sense. Amidst great controversy, the congregations selected the old burial grounds for the new construction. Gloria Dei Lutheran Church would be erected on the space occupied by the Protestant cemetery; the aptly-named Church of the Resurrection would take the place of the Catholic burial ground. 

Image of cemetery surrounded by town buildings
The Catholic (St. Joseph) cemetery shortly before it became the Church of the Resurrection.

Surviving relatives of those who had been buried in the cemeteries were apparently given the opportunity to claim their family members and have them reinterred at Lakeside. For many of the deceased, however, there were no claimants: few had surviving family members, let alone ones who remembered that a great-grandfather or a distant great-aunt had been buried in a now-overgrown cemetery in the 1870s. Headstones that remained were removed–some to Lakeside, with the individuals they described, and some to a memorial that the Church of the Resurrection hoped to create on its grounds. Repeated vandalism stymied that effort and, by the late 1980s, the church conceded defeat. Today, at both Gloria Dei and Resurrection, plaques mark the location of the old cemeteries. Adjacent to the Lutheran church sits a small park where visitors can honor the dead who still rest there, their presence persistent if invisible.


Flashback Friday: On Top of the World

Image of log cabin building with many signs
The Skytop Inn advertising its attractions, circa 1940s.

A few weeks ago, Flashback Friday took readers to Copper Harbor’s Brockway Mountain to visit with Bill Mattila, who lived in a modest home perched atop the scenic spot for many decades. This week, we return to Brockway for a look at another staple of the mountain that has since vanished: the Skytop Inn. 

Travelers who cruise Brockway Mountain Drive almost invariably make a stop at the summit. Here, they can take in expansive views of crystalline Lake Superior, breathtaking sunsets and sunrises that paint all surfaces with gold, and, for the persistent, the Milky Way unfolding overhead and making one feel small and insignificant. Indeed, the appeal of the peak and its potential to promote automobile tourism during the Great Depression helped to secure federal funding for the construction of Brockway Mountain Drive. Numerous local men who had lost their jobs found new ones helping to clear space for the new, winding road and lay down gravel, later to be replaced with pavement. Now, motorists from the Copper Country and tourists from points beyond could cruise in their Packards and Plymouths smoothly up to the peak.

Clyde H. Wescoat–better known as Harold–saw an opportunity. A hotelier and liquor store owner in Copper Harbor, according to the 1940 federal census, he claimed Pennsylvania as his birthplace but fell in love with Michigan native Serene Ferrien, then with the Upper Peninsula. The Wescoats moved from Detroit to Escanaba sometime between 1920 and 1930, then to Houghton, and finally to Keweenaw County. Enterprising Harold seized upon the chance to buy 320 acres at the crest of Brockway Mountain. There, he built a small log cabin to serve as a gift shop. From the wraparound porch created by its support platform, or through the picture windows in the cabin itself, visitors could take in the stunning views that had prompted Harold to call his store the Skytop Inn. 

Two men working inside the frame of a log cabin
C. Harold Wescoat and a companion building the original Skytop Inn.

Visitors came by the dozens to enjoy the vista and to browse the Skytop. An early photograph of the building captured the varied offerings at the little gift shop: ice cold Coca-Cola, candy, tobacco, and souvenirs reflecting local flavor. Copper cards seemed to be popular choices for tourists, who could also secure directions and recommendations from the knowledgeable employees. 

Harold Wescoat died in Copper Harbor in July 1946, a decade after constructing the Skytop at the crest of Brockway. In the 1960s, the original log cabin came down, finding its replacement in a more modest, blue structure. The million-dollar view remained, however, and the Skytop lived on for almost fifty years longer.

Old structures of significance often meet their ends through sad ways: they fall into disrepair and disintegrate, or fire claims them, or they are wiped away to build something shiny and new. The Skytop Inn’s demise was for, perhaps, kinder reasons. The heirs of the Wescoat family wanted to ensure that the community could continue to enjoy the summit of Brockway unimpeded and that the environment would remain protected. They worked in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, Eagle Harbor Township, Keweenaw Land Trust, and other nature- and community-minded organizations to broker a deal for the purchase and protect the peak from subdivision by developers. Countless individuals mailed donations to assist the township in the purchase, which became official in 2013. Not long after, the Skytop building came down, leaving a small, open field in its place. When the wind rustles the grass as you look down on Lake Superior, you wonder how many thousands of people have stood in your place at the peak of the mountain, ready to touch the sky.

Image of blue-painted wooden building on Brockway Mountain
The last Skytop Inn after it ceased operations. Photograph by the author, 2013.

Flashback Friday: Solitary but Not Alone

Man in plaid standing in front of cabin.
William “Bill” Mattila, who resided on Brockway Mountain for over thirty years, in front of his cabin.

The press called Maggie and Bill recluses and hermits, not people. 

At different times, in different parts of Keweenaw County, Maggie Harrington and Bill Mattila chose lives of solitude. Maggie kept her home in Central Mine as that community faded and her neighbors moved away. Nearly thirty years later, Bill climbed Brockway Mountain to build his dwelling. Outsiders fixed them with curious stares and peppered them with questions about their lives, their choices. Some, Maggie and Bill answered; others, they left as mysteries. Both died in the remote places they had called home just the way they lived–alone but not necessarily unhappy.

There’s much about the lives of these two people–who attracted so much fascination for their unorthodox decisions–that remains unknown. Stories swirled in their wake, built on what the two had decided to share and on the inventions of others. Bill, for one, often told reporters and visitors what they wanted to hear, not necessarily the truth of his life. But what can we say about these two people to give their legends some roots? 

Maggie Harrington was not famous in life and remains so in death, but everyone who clung to life in Central after the mine closed would have known her. Census records tell us that young Margaret Harrington and her mother of the same name, both immigrants from Ireland, had established themselves in Keweenaw County by 1870. At that time, their residence was near the Pennsylvania Mine, an area that today’s visitors would call Delaware. By 1880, they had moved down to the more prosperous Central Mine, settling on the east edge of town. Maggie was sixteen at the time. As at Delaware, she and her mother lived alone; another group of Harringtons resided a few doors down, but Maggie and Margaret formed their own household. Whether the older Margaret Harrington had ever been married or had other children is not clear. Maggie’s obituary alluded to a sister, name not given, who had wed a Mr. Michael Powers. A miner by that name did reside at Central as of 1863, when he was registered for the Civil War draft, and a peddler named Michael Powers died in Eagle Harbor in January 1871, but whether either was connected with the Harringtons remains a mystery. 

Image of town on a harbor.
Eagle Harbor in its early days. Maggie walked there often.

In September 1896, the older Margaret Harrington died at Central Mine. The town itself was fading, too. People whom Maggie would have known since childhood moved away, seeking work in the mines of Calumet, Hancock, or points farther west. A few people who had always called Central home remained, and Maggie was determined not to leave. With her mother gone, she spent much of her time alone with her thoughts. Daily, she walked the forested paths of Keweenaw County, journeying down the steep hill that led to Eagle Harbor or cutting across the woods to Eagle River. The weather did not deter a woman who had known so many Copper Country winters. When it snowed, she wrapped herself more tightly in her coat and scarf and tucked her feet firmly into her boots. Anyone who would live by herself in a town as quiet as Central had to have courage. 

And yes, people peered at Maggie, asked questions about her, whispered stories about her behind their hands. When they saw her walking along the road, motorists pulled over and offered her a ride. Sometimes, no doubt, it was out of courtesy; sometimes, it had to be curiosity. The Daily Mining Gazette said that she always immediately refused unless she knew the person; when she did accept, she seemed reluctant to agree and even more reluctant to carry on a conversation. She chose to keep her own company and to go her own way. When she died, these decisions became the cornerstone of her obituary. 

Photograph of old buildings on the hillside with fall colors.
Central Mine as a ghost town in the autumn.

One of Maggie’s long walks became her last walk in 1926. Others who normally saw her journeying about the woods or tromping past their windows noticed that the familiar figure hadn’t appeared for some days. A man who had stayed on at Central as a caretaker for the mine buildings organized a search party that eventually found Maggie’s body in a snowbank. She had apparently taken her normal long walk down to Eagle Harbor and detoured through Phoenix on her way home. For reasons unknown, as she approached Central, she changed her mind and began to walk back toward Phoenix. She passed away along the route. Later, her neighbors bore her down the state highway she had so often traversed and laid her to rest in a Catholic service. 

Maggie Harrington preceded Bill Mattila in a life of solitude in Keweenaw County, but his story overshadowed hers ever after. Unlike Maggie, Bill was willing to talk to outsiders about his retirement to Brockway Mountain–especially if they brought a package of beer to loosen his tongue. Those who came to visit often expected, wrote one journalist, “gnarled, knobby-handled walking sticks” and animal-skin robes. They thought they would greet Bill in a cave and marvel at the scraggly length of his beard. But Bill Mattila, like Maggie, was just a person who made his own untraditional choices, albeit in a spectacularly beautiful place. 

William F. Mattila was born near Baltic, Michigan, to Finnish immigrants John and Hilda (Karppinen) Mattila on July 18. The year of his birth ranges from 1914 to 1916, depending on the source consulted. In a stark contrast with the Harringtons, the Mattila family was a large one: the 1930 census said that young William had nine brothers and sisters, from oldest brother Oscar down to baby brother Sam. In subsequent interviews, the number of children grew to fourteen or more. Like so many other Finns south of Houghton, John Mattila had chosen to pursue work at the Copper Range Company and spent at least a decade in their employ. Hilda died of dysentery and kidney failure in 1930, when William was just a teenager, and not long after another son had been lost to the same illness. 

Image of mine structures with active smokestacks
Baltic, Michigan, likely near the time that Bill Mattila was born.

It seems that life became more challenging from then on: John lost his job at Copper Range during the Great Depression and took a WPA job. As adolescent William grew into adult Bill, he became a lumberjack, working the woods around Adams Township for a lumber company. And, with war on the horizon, Bill joined many young men in registering for the draft. At twenty-five, according to his draft card, he stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall. Long days in the woods had tanned his skin. He had hazel eyes and brown hair; he was wiry but strong at 155 pounds. He had attended school through the eighth grade. Six months later, Bill Mattila was an enlisted man, joining up in March 1941. In June 1942, the military discharged him. 

Bill later said that he worked in Detroit for a time before giving it up. He wanted “to live off the land as his grandfather had done in Finland years ago,” explained Mac Frimodig, who wrote a long tribute to Mattila in his book Keweenaw Character. His quest for simple, rugged living took him back across the Straits of Mackinac and nearly to the edge of the Keweenaw Peninsula, where he bought forty acres of land atop Brockway Mountain from the Department of Natural Resources. The simple cabin he constructed on a bare ridge of the property became his lifelong home–and a magnet for others. 

The story of “the Hermit of Brockway Mountain” became one of the most widely circulated in the Copper Country. Tourists watched in fascination as Bill came down the mountain each month to pick up his mail and spend his modest military pension on cat food, batteries for his radio, and the few other necessities he couldn’t catch or grow. Curiosity-seekers who came to gawk sometimes found a terse reception unless they presented Bill with a pack of Stroh’s. For them, and for the occasional journalist, he launched into a colorful description of his life–featuring both honest depictions of an unconventional man and a little exaggeration that gave them some juicy copy to write. Bill’s devotion to his long line of dogs, whom he named Bark, and his cats, whom he dubbed Meow, remained constant, as did his passion for skiing the ridges and valleys of Brockway. His reliance on his radio for entertainment and his own two hands for crafting skis, furniture, and other tools also never changed. Almost without fail, he expressed deep satisfaction with the life he had chosen and the sound of the “four winds,” not human voices, that threaded through the walls of his cabin at night. He cherished the vista and the fresh air, the sky that opened above him and his rudimentary telescope at night. Brockway Mountain was not his place of seclusion; it was a retreat that unlocked the door to a world he loved.

Image of road leading up to forested hill
Looking toward the west bluff of Brockway Mountain. Bill Mattila roamed these hills happily for decades.

Bill Mattila, like Maggie Harrington, died as he lived. He went down to Copper Harbor for a final resupply and returned to his cabin. The day that the townspeople anticipated seeing him again came and went, and those who went in search of him found that he had passed away in the home he built. With the date of his passing unknown, the official record designated it as January 1, 1985, about thirty-one years after Bill’s first summit of the mountain. His story remains deeply woven into the fabric of Keweenaw County, and the imprint he left on Brockway Mountain will always remain. 


Flashback Friday: A Disaster and Doors

Image of building facade and entryway
The Italian Hall as seen from Seventh Street.

Arguably, no event changed the Copper Country more than the 1913-1914 Western Federation of Miners strike, and no tragedy has left a deeper mark on the community than the Italian Hall disaster.

Those who grew up in Houghton County or who have studied its history know immediately what these words connote. For others, some background needs to be provided. In July 1913, members of Western Federation of Miners (WFM) locals in Michigan–dismayed by rates of pay, safety conditions, work schedules, and the introduction of new technologies that would allow the mines to reduce their workforces–elected to strike. The mining companies, including the mighty Calumet & Hecla, responded by shutting down operations; they had enough cash to outlast the union, whose coffers had run dangerously low following strikes elsewhere, and they felt secure in their position compared to the untested, newborn local unions. 

The tension everywhere in the Copper Country felt like electricity–powerful, untamable, unpredictable. Like electricity, it arced wildly at times, catching both ardent activists and innocent bystanders in its path. Strikers beat and hurled projectiles at those who had decided not to join the union. On several occasions, shots fired into private residences killed workers. After two striking miners and representatives of the Copper Range Company sparred over trespassing accusations in August, a group of hired deputies and non-striking workers descended on the roaming men’s boarding house to confront them. Tempers boiled over into gunfire, killing two men inside the structure who had had nothing to do with the dispute. In December, members of the WFM decided to send a message to “scabs” by firing a Painesdale immigrant boarding house run by the Dally family. Thomas Dally, along with non-striking boarders Arthur and Harry Jane, lost their lives. Other moments of violence punctuated the strike: a thirteen-year-old girl shot in the head near Kearsarge, a man found dead on the sidewalk in Houghton, dozens of other incidents of anger and intimidation from both sides. Many employees returned to work at the mines as they reopened, needing to put food on the table and finding the union falling short of its promises. The benefits the WFM promised to those who stayed on the picket lines couldn’t make ends meet. As Christmas approached, the strikers–and their families–needed encouragement. 

Men moving down a street in a line
Strikers parade through downtown Houghton, 1913.

The Ladies Auxiliary of the WFM organized a party to be held on Christmas Eve at the Italian Hall in Calumet. The hall itself was an elegant choice. On Seventh Street, just steps from one of Calumet’s biggest thoroughfares, the gathering place of the Societa Mutua Beneficenza Italiana sat perched above a tea shop and saloon. The building, which opened in 1908, replaced earlier incarnations that had been destroyed by a windstorm and a fire. As the families attending the party climbed the steps, they were greeted by “Georgia pine, maple flooring, and a highly ornamental steel ceiling” some eighteen feet high, as well as “a balcony… well trimmed with a neat balustrade and ornamental columns.” A stage, dressing rooms, and spaces for “lodge purposes” rounded out the amenities. The children were excited for Christmas and for presents. The parents were tired of worrying about money, about jobs, about their future in the Copper Country. A night of entertainment and relaxation in these fine surroundings wouldn’t erase their troubles, but it would take their minds off what needed to be faced after Christmas.

It all ended in tragedy. Midway through the party, someone–whose identity and motivation have never been confirmed–called out that there was a fire. Word radiated through the hall instantly. Some guests hurried down the fire escape at the rear of the building. Most attempted to evacuate through the main stairwell, the one that they had climbed from Seventh Street just a little while earlier. As the partygoers crowded onto the steps, desperately trying to flee the supposed blaze, they fell over and against each other. No one could reach the doors; the growing yet immobile mass of people before them kept the exit from reach. Slowly, more than seventy children and adults suffocated under the crush of humanity in the stairwell. 

There was no fire. 

After the disaster, Calumet grieved in a way it never had before and has not since. Undertakers ordered express shipments of caskets from beyond the Copper Country: the stock they had on hand could not meet the need for so many dozen coffins, both sturdy for adults and pitifully tiny for children. Funeral processions marched along the broad lanes of Calumet to Lakeview Cemetery, where survivors laid their loved ones to rest in mass graves and private plots. Witnesses said that the burial ground had never seen so many mourners. Families stood at the edge of the opened ground and knew that what had happened at the Italian Hall had forever changed them. It left vacant chairs around the dinner table, closets of clothes that would never again been worn, toys that would sit idle ever after. For decades after, many in the Keweenaw struggled to speak of the Italian Hall, other than to warn their children never to shout fire in a crowded place. 

People standing by caskets of various sizes
Caskets ordered for victims of the Italian Hall.

Conversations about the event, however, frequently introduced a detail that became a pervasive urban legend. Why had those fleeing the hall been unable to open the doors? “Well,” said some, “because those doors opened inward.” The theory would certainly account for much of the difficulty: if the doors needed to move into the hallway to let anyone out, the sheer number of people before them would have prevented anyone from escaping. A photograph of the entrance to the stairs that circulated afterward compounded the confusion: it showed two sets of doors, one of which appeared to open onto Seventh Street and one of which seemed, from the photographer’s vantage point, to open back into the stairwell. The myth of the inward-opening doors became firmly entrenched. After the demolition of the Italian Hall in 1984, a historic sign went up on the spot, proclaiming that this faulty design had played a role in the deaths. That sign has since been replaced. Articles in the Daily Mining Gazette in the 1980s, brief books penned by local authors, the federal Historic American Buildings Survey, and blogs about topics as diverse as Bob Dylan and Michigan history further perpetuated the tale. One can find institutions as august as Michigan State University and the Library of Congress standing by their assertion to this day. 

Documents from the time, however, point to one conclusion: the doors of the Italian Hall opened outward. The Calumet News reported in its article on the new hall–written in October 1908, long before the strike was on the horizon–that the architects and builders had been particularly emphatic about ensuring the safety of the doors. In the wake of two deadly fires (the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago in 1903 and the Collinwood School fire in March 1908) where problems with doors had been a contributing factor in nearly 800 deaths, public spaces and their exits came under particular scrutiny. The ubiquity of panic bars and doors that open in the direction of egress have their roots in these disasters. Seeking to reassure the people of the Copper Country, the Calumet News took great care to say that the new Italian Hall, its auditorium, and its businesses had been made safe. The reporter wrote, verbatim: “All doors open outward.” 

Text of newspaper article
Clip from the 1908 Calumet News showing that all doors open outward

The confusion over the photograph is easy to understand and somewhat more challenging to resolve. Architectural and archival investigation by Keweenaw National Historical Park staff, in conjunction with other historians, a few years ago concluded that the second set of doors–the ones that seemed to open inward–were almost certainly hinged double doors. These would have folded up rather than swung open, but they folded toward the street rather than toward the stairs. A blog post on the website of Gary Kaunonen and Aaron Goings explains this investigation in further detail and with thoughtful diagrams. 

What happened at the Italian Hall, the senseless loss of so many innocent lives, and the influence it had on the community should never be forgotten. On a beautiful summer day in 2019, we remember a cold winter night in 1913. We always will. 


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.