All posts by Emily Riippa

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.

 


Flashback Friday: Thank You, Michigan Tech Nurses

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flashback Friday: Snow Melt, Go Smelt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flashback Friday: The Sands of Mine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image of dredge inner workings
Inside a Calumet & Hecla dredge

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

Dredge submerged in Torch Lake
The sinking of a Quincy dredge

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

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