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.


Flashback Friday: Hubbell Hall Remembered

The Michigan Tech Archives welcomes the Hubbell Family during their campus visit today. In celebration of their visit, our Flashback Friday this week features a closer look at a piece of campus history tied to the Hubbell Family — Hubbell Hall.

At the time of its establishment in 1885, the Michigan Mining School (later named Michigan College of Mines, Michigan College of Mining and Technology, and finally Michigan Technological University) occupied part of the Continental Fire Hall in downtown Houghton.

Michigan Mining School’s first campus building was the Continental Fire Hall in downtown Houghton.

As class sizes grew, additional space was needed to support the new school. To solve this issue, the Michigan Mining School developed plans for a new, larger building close to downtown that would be able to provide the additional space the school needed. In 1887 John Scott & Co. was hired as principle architects for the new building with contractors from Wahlman & Gipp and I. E. Swift Company. By 1889 the new building was completed at the intersection of Hubbell Avenue and College Avenue.

The new Romanesque-style building featured new lecture halls, gymnasium, and library. It was constructed with Jacobsville sandstone walls and featured a distinctive central tower. The building was initially referred to as State Hall or just “first school building,” according to sources, but following the death of the building’s principal benefactor, Jay A. Hubbell, its name was changed in his honor. Hubbell was a well-known politician and judge for the state of Michigan, serving as a district attorney for the Upper Peninsula and prosecuting attorney for Houghton County prior to becoming a member of the House of Representatives.

Hubbell Hall, circa 1895-1901.
Hubbell Hall eventually became the building devoted to the math and physics departments until the late 1960s when both departments relocated to another building on campus. While Hubbell Hall was a central, distinctive feature on the Michigan Tech campus for nearly 80 years, by 1968 the building was in somewhat of disrepair and demolished.
Today the 11-story R. L. Smith (MEEM) building stands in the Hubbell Hall footprint, taking its place as one of the most distinctive buildings on campus. While Hubbell Hall is no longer a feature on the campus landscape, its importance to the history of Michigan Tech is well-preserved in the memories of those who attended school while it still stood and in the records preserved by the Michigan Tech Archives.

Hubbell Hall in winter, 1968.
Demolition of Hubbell Hall, 1968.

Flashback Friday: The Ranger III

Ranger III Launch Posed Photo
A group poses for a photograph at the launch of the Ranger III in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin on this day in 1958.

To those who live in or visit the Copper Country, the sight of a large blue and white vessel on the Keweenaw Waterway is a welcome and familiar one. Today’s Flashback Friday looks back to the launch of the Ranger III and remembers those vessels that came before her.

The Ranger III is a 165 foot long, 34 feet wide, 648 ton vessel that can carry up to 128 passengers. The nine-member crew operates the ship with skill to safely navigate the unpredictable waters of Lake Superior, carrying people and cargo back and forth from Houghton, Michigan to Rock Harbor on Isle Royale. The vessel is owned and operated by the National Park Service (NPS.)

The journey to Isle Royale National Park on the Ranger III begins at the home port in Houghton. The six-hour long, 73 mile journey to Rock Harbor starts out through the Keweenaw Waterway, also known as the Portage Canal, and passes under the famous Portage Lift Bridge. The bulk of the journey is spent on the open, majestic waters of Lake Superior and the destination is the rugged, north woods landscape of Isle Royale.

A crowd in 1958.
A crowd gathering to see the Ranger return in September 1958.

Today’s Flashback Friday looks back to the launch of the vessel, which was covered in the Daily Mining Gazette on this day in 1958. The photo depicts people, widely known locally in the mid-twentieth century, on the occasion of the Ranger III’s launching. Easy to spot are Daniel J. Tobin, regional National Park director; C. R. Christianson, head of the Christy Corp., Congressman and Mrs. John Bennett, Superintendent John Lewis of the Isle Royale Park. Mrs. C. R. Christianson, local Coast Guard Auxiliary head Edward Lieblein and Senator Leo Roy. This photograph was taken in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

The Ranger III before launch.
How the Ranger III appeared just before her maiden voyage.

Large vessels were an integral part of the history of Isle Royale and its opening as a national park. The basic idea of establishing a national park like Isle Royale came about in March 1931, when President Herbert Hoover authorized Congress to build a conservation effort around a prime expanse of northern wilderness. During 1937, the effort to open the park received two surplus, wooden hull United States Coast Guard cutters and their two-man crews. These vessels were originally designated NPS-1 and NPS-2, but some confusion led to these boats being renamed and NPS-1 became the first Ranger. While the early cutters served the island well, including during the official establishment of Isle Royale National Park on April 3, 1940, eventually the NPS-2 (the Beaver) was returned to military service and the Ranger fell into disrepair due to lack of proper maintenance during the war. After World War II, the Ranger was taken out of service and replaced by a surplus Army Minelayer, which became the Ranger II. This 114 foot wood ship served Isle Royale from 1946 to 1958.

During the Eisenhower Administration, a nationwide program was initiated to rejuvenate National Park lands and facilities. The program was dubbed “Mission 66” and it provided the opportunity for Isle Royale Park staff to ask for a new ship, the Ranger III. The park’s request was granted and the Christy Corporation of Sturgeon Bay built the ship at a cost of 1.16 million dollars. The Ranger III continues to serve the island to this day and it is currently the largest vessel owned and operated by the National Park Service. For decades the ship has been a symbol of exploration and a welcome sight for children enjoying the local beaches. The wake created by the ship provides large, rolling waves just the right size to rock an inner tube or a canoe.

Full statistics for the USNPS Ranger III can be found on the National Park Service website.

For information about the current schedule, fares, and reservations, please visit the Ranger III Information page on the NPS website.

The Ranger on the Portage Canal.
A recent photograph of the Ranger III on the Portage Canal.

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.


Copper Range Exhibit Hits the Road

Last October the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections launched its latest traveling exhibit, “Becoming the Pride of the Upper Peninsula: A Glimpse at the Early Years of the Copper Range Railroad.” Starting this month, the exhibit hits the road! The six panels will be on display at various heritage sites from June to December 2019. The exhibit will include a free souvenir postcard and commemorative booklet at each site (while supplies last.)

The schedule is detailed below:

June: Ontonagon County Historical Society, Ontonagon Historical Museum in Ontonagon, Michigan

July: CopperTown USA Mining Museum, Calumet, Michigan

August: Iron County Historical Society Museum, Hurley, Wisconsin

September: Quincy Mine Hoist Association, Quincy Mine, Hancock, Michigan

September 28: Grace Lutheran Church, Northland Historical Consortium Fall Meeting, South Range, Michigan

October: Portage Lake District Library, Houghton, Michigan

November and December: Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw, Houghton, Michigan

If you have any questions regarding how to view the exhibit, please contact the appropriate site to check for hours and visiting information. In addition, the exhibit is available to borrow from January – June 2020. If your site is interested in hosting the panels, please contact Lindsay Hiltunen, University Archivist, Michigan Tech Archives at lehalkol@mtu.edu or (906) 487-2505.

This exhibit was funded in part by the Keweenaw National Historical Park Advisory Commission Heritage Grant program. 


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: Memorial Day

Michigan Tech ROTC

Today’s Flashback Friday serves as a reminder that the Michigan Tech Archives will be closed on Monday, May 27 in observance of Memorial Day. The photograph depicts Michigan Tech ROTC cadets on campus in the late 1930s.

Each May, the United States celebrates Memorial Day, which was first widely observed as a national holiday in may 1868. The day was originally meant to commemorate the sacrifices of the Civil War and honor a proclamation made by General John A. Logan that, “the 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion…”

Since World War I, Memorial Day has transformed into a celebration to honor all of those who died in service to the United States, as well as veterans and current members of the military. In 1971 the holiday became an official federal holiday celebrated on the last Monday of May.


Flashback Friday: Copper TRACES

Park Supervisor, Mac Frimodig and daughter, Karen, observe an old “skip” which was used in a Keweenaw mine to bring the rock to the surface. It is one of the hallowed relics of the old Fort museum area, May 29, 1953. Daily Mining Gazette Photograph Collection (MS-051)

This week the Michigan Tech Archives had the privilege of once again taking part in the Copper TRACES event at the Keweenaw National Historical Park in Calumet. This field day for area 4th graders has provided hands-on learning opportunities since 2016. Topics covered during the event focus on Technology, Research, Art and Music, Community, Environment, and Service, or TRACES. Funded by the National Park Foundation through the Open OutDoors for Kids Grants program, students get to learn everything from area geology and Great Lakes shipping to mining and immigration history.

The Michigan Tech Archives and the archival staff from KNHP have hosted a station on primary sources since the beginning of the program. Students get to learn what the different is between primary and secondary sources, how they help us learn about history, and discover how they contribute to the creation of primary source material.
In honor of this unique collaborative venture, our Flashback Friday photograph highlights the learning opportunities children and adults have thanks to programs like this and our regional heritage sites. Pictured here is Fort Wilkins State Park Supervisor, Mac Frimodig and daughter, Karen, observing an old mining skip at the Fort Wilkins museum in 1953. Used to bring rock to the surface at one of the many mining operations here in the Keweenaw, the skip now serves as a historic artifact and teaching tool.
Want to discover more about the history of the Copper Country? Visit the Keweenaw National Historical Park or any of the other amazing Keweenaw Heritage Sites this summer. More information is available on the Park website at https://www.nps.gov/kewe/learn/management/keweenaw-heritage-sites.htm.
You can also visit the Michigan Tech Archives throughout the summer, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., no appointment need.
If you want to know more about the Copper TRACES program, you can find additional information on the KNHP’s website at https://www.nps.gov/kewe/learn/education/classrooms/copper-traces.html 

2019 Travel Grant Recipient Announced

Portrait of Katherine Belliel.
A portrait of 2019 Travel Grant recipient, Katherine Belliel.

The Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections and the Friends of the Michigan Tech Library are pleased to announce Katherine Belliel as the recipient of the 2019 Travel Grant award.

Katherine Belliel is an American writer based in Turkey and the United States. With roots in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Columbus, Ohio, this Midwest native turned global citizen has a B.S. in History from Eastern Michigan University and is currently an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University. Her work has appeared in several expat anthologies such as Tales from the Expat Harem (Eds. Ashman and Gokmen, 2005), Encounters with the Middle East (Bowman and Khashan, 2006), and Single Mothers Speak on Patriarchy (eds. Hendren and Daly, 2016). She is currently the co-editor of the upcoming foodoir anthology, Expat Sofra; Culinary Tales of Foreign Women in Turkey. When she is not globe-trotting with her young son, she can be found feeding the neighborhood cats or still trying to make the perfect cup of Turkish coffee.

The Michigan Tech Archives will host Katherine’s visit later this year. Check the blog for details about the public talk she will give when she is in town. For more information about the travel grant or the archives other programs and services, please contact (906) 487-2505 or copper@mtu.edu.


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.