By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — Silas Doty earned the title of “Michigan’s greatest thief” by stealing lots of horses, smuggling Canadian liquor into Detroit and breaking out of jail.
The Hillsdale crook’s greatest coup took place in 1835 when Detroit was the interim state capital. While several legislators were sleeping off their drinking and whoring binge, he picked the locks of their hotel rooms and stole at least $600.
“If the politicians noticed an absence of money the next morning, they blamed it on the bordellos they had visited the night before,” said Tom Powers, author of the new Michigan Rogues, Desperados and Cut-throats (Friede Publications, $12.95). Doty ranks among the state’s slimiest characters of the 1900s.
Another was John Smalley, who lived in the tiny northern Lower Peninsula community of McBain while robbing trains as far away as Oklahoma and as close to home as Allegan County.
Dan Seavey, used Escanaba as his base of operations for piracy on Lake Michigan, luring ships aground to salvage their cargo, stealing a schooner at Charlevoix and sinking a rival gang’s vessel with cannon fire.
Boom times in the Saginaw Bay’s lumber industry drew a large number of saloonkeepers, prostitutes, con artists, brawlers and crooks lured by the promise of wealth and action. The result: a hotbed of crime, sin and violence.
For example, Silver Jack Driscoll made his name as a saloon brawler who didn’t bother with guns or knives. He preferred to bite noses, gouge eyes and kick with hob-nailed books, all to “reduce strong men to whipped curs.”
All these characters fit into what Powers calls “Michigan’s seamier side,” pieces of the state’s past missing from official historical markers and textbooks.
“Deadwood and Dodge City had nothing on Michigan when it came to frontier lawlessness, crooks, gunmen and outcasts,” Powers said.
“I find it interesting that so many western towns exploit their wild and lawless earlier days for notoriety and tourist dollars.” In contrast, Michigan towns prefer to “lock it in the attic and throw away the key.”
Roger Rosentreter, the editor of Michigan History Magazine, says it’s not surprising that local communities shy away from publicizing the underbelly of their past.
His own magazine received some critical letters for publishing an article about President William McKinley’s assassin, who had Michigan connections. “It was a story that had never been told before,” he continued, but “we took some heat from some readers who said this is inappropriate.”
While it’s important for historians to be open and honest, “why would they want to leave the impression that their community has a person of dubious accomplishments in their past?” Rosentreter said. “There’s so much positive history that hasn’t been properly presented or presented at all.”
Powers said his research for the book demonstrates that it’s not easy to find out about the scruffier side of our past. “In a couple of cases, local libraries didn’t have a clue about their infamous past or lawless citizens.
“Centennial histories of town and communities never, ever mention the seedier side of their history,” he said. “They’re all about boosterism.”
He did find “memoirs by old-timers who witnessed the events or books by people who knew the old-timers.” He also used newspapers, including “forgotten clippings” in library files.
Did crime pay? Some of the characters whom Powers chronicles were murdered themselves or killed by police.
But consider Reimund Holzhey, who stopped the White Inn stage near Lake Gogebic and demanded, “I’m collectin’ — donate,” in what was America’s last stagecoach robbery east of the Mississippi. The stagecoach heist cost one passenger his life and led to a state prison term in Marquette, but he worked as a guide at the Huron Mountain Club after being paroled.
As for Seavey, the Lake Michigan pirate, he was acquitted of criminal charges and became a deputy U.S. marshal.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By ERIC FREEDMAN