By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — When Reimund Holzhey stopped the White Inn stage near Lake Gogebic and demanded, “I’m collectin’ — donate,” it marked America’s last stagecoach robbery east of the Mississippi.
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.
Another U.P. desperado, Dan Heffron, successfully evaded justice by fleeing in a horsedrawn sleigh while a Manistique County jury deliberated his guilt for running a “house of ill fame.”
And Danny Dunn of Seney ran brothels, torched his business competitors’ bars and murdered folks.
They’re all part of what Tom 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,” said Powers, author of the new Michigan Rogues, Desperados and Cut-throats (Friede Publications, $12.95).
“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.”
The Upper Peninsula wasn’t Michigan’s only arena for “miscreants” of the 1800s.
For example, boom times in the lumber industry in the Saginaw Bay area 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.
Meanwhile in the southern part of the state, a Hillsdale man, Silas Doty, became what Powers labeled “Michigan’s greatest thief,” stealing lots of horses, smuggling Canadian liquor into Detroit and breaking out of jail.
Doty’s greatest criminal 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,” Powers said.
And then there 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.
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,” he added.
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.
And although Holzhey’s landmark stagecoach heist cost one passenger his life and led to a state prison term in Marquette, 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