Scene of the Crime

By Janis Stein

The following is a work of historical fiction. While the scene is set in Huron County in the late 1890s, names, characters, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.


Pere Marquette Railway Depot

Huron County Sheriff Charles McLean apprehended the murder suspect at the Pere Marquette Railway Depot, pictured at left as it looked in the late 1890s. Photo courtesy of T.J. Gaffney, author of Rails Around the Thumb

Two schoolgirls visit their general store for peppermint candy, discovering a murder instead. 

After the Great Fire of 1881 swept through Huron County, folks were more than a little ready to get back to normal. Those who survived the fire formed strong bonds as they struggled to rebuild their homes, barns, and lives. Town after town rose up from the ashes, and so it was with Appin, a small settlement located four miles west of Ubly as the crow flew, and so named after its original settlers who hailed from Appin, Ontario. They buried their dead and built new schools, and life in Appin finally returned to a quiet normalcy—for the better part of two decades, anyway.

The Great Fire cleared the forests, revealing in its wake the rich farmland that had lain beneath the timber. Settlers came to Appin in droves, staking claims to land abandoned by lumber barons. It’s no wonder folks in Appin didn’t question every stranger who passed through its four corners, although Duncan Paul, proprietor of Appin’s General Store, got a good look at most of those who did.

Appin’s one-room schoolhouse stood a quarter mile to the South, and Paul often looked forward to the noon hour when students with a few pennies burning holes in their pockets sometimes happened by. In October 1897, two little girls, Alma Davis and Elsie Frank, decided to walk to the store and trade green peas for candy. The girls could almost taste the sugary-sweet goodness of the peppermint sticks they hoped to barter for.

As they neared the store, the girls heard the deafening sound of gunshots and nearly ran head-on into a grungy-looking character leaving the scene in great haste. A neckerchief disguised his face, and he took a menacing step toward the girls before hightailing it in the opposite direction.

The children entered the store but could not immediately locate their favorite merchant. A spooky silence met their echoed greeting as they called out his name. The 8-year-old girls dropped their peas, candy forgotten, when they located Paul’s dead body on the floor behind the counter. The storekeeper’s pooling blood left an impression on the girls they’d not soon forget, but the pair, shocked into silence, kept their wits and quickly put two and two together. Paul had been held up and shot at gunpoint.

The girls raced back to school to inform their teacher. Mr. Andrew Boomhower, after hearing their tale puffed out between gasping breaths, promptly dismissed school for the day, with the nearly 100 Appin students running for home. Dressed in his three-piece suit and bowtie, Boomhower must have looked a sight pumping his legs like an Olympian and riding his bicycle at breakneck speeds as he raced to Bad Axe, some seven miles in the distance, to alert the sheriff.

Huron County Sheriff Charles McLean rose from his desk as an out-of-breath Boomhower burst through his door. Sheriff McLean, hand already on his pistol, listened intently to the secondhand description of the alleged murderer. The girls had made a quick study: The neckerchief neither hid the villain’s bushy eyebrows roofing his sinister, dark eyes—nor the jagged scar that underlined his left eye.

Sheriff McLean’s first stop would be the Pere Marquette Railway Depot in Bad Axe. The girls hadn’t spotted a horse, and if the alleged criminal had been on foot, the fastest way out of town would be the train. The sheriff mounted his own horse, its hooves kicking up dust on the four-block trek to the depot. McLean, his eyes already scanning the crowd, blended in with the foot traffic approaching the station. Rather than enter, he walked around back, peeked in the window, and garnered the attention of the telegraph operator, who promptly rose and cracked the window as if in need of fresh air. McLean whispered the suspect’s description. With a slight nod, the telegraph operator discreetly raised three fingers, indicating the culprit was the third man in line waiting to purchase a ticket.

McLean entered the depot, first hiding behind a portly fellow to allow himself enough time to locate the alleged murderer before springing into action. Before the crook had a chance to react, the sheriff had the man in handcuffs. McLean arrested Harley Steele for the suspected murder of Duncan Paul, and the killer found himself lodged in the county jail.

The case went to trial, and swift justice prevailed. Prosecuting Attorney Hiram L. Chipman had no trouble preparing a solid case. Alma Davis’s and Elsie Frank’s eyewitness testimonies placed Steele at the Appin General Store at the time of Paul’s death. Teacher Andrew Boomhower testified, describing his students’ heroic actions and quick thinking, and Boomhower’s good standing in the community held weight with the jury. What clinched the crook’s fate, though, was what the authorities found in Steele’s possession at the time of his arrest: Paul’s inscribed pocket watch and three dollars stolen from the general store’s till.

The judge sentenced Steele to life in prison—an eye for an eye. The sheriff purchased train tickets and escorted Steele to the state prison in Jackson, where Steele would spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Or would he? Over a decade later, Governor Woodbridge Ferris pardoned Steele, setting him free with no explanation to the people.

Outraged by the governor’s actions, Appin residents decided to implement some frontier justice when they sighted the bushy-browed scalawag back in Huron County. A group of men formed a lynching mob and decided to execute their own justice. On the night the alleged hanging was supposed to take place, however, only one member of the group showed up, the plot abandoned.

Shortly after, Steele moved on, but it would be a long time before Appin residents felt safe, and a pardoned criminal’s menacing, dark eyes would haunt two little girls’ dreams for a lifetime.

The following is a work of historical fiction. While the scene is set in Huron County in the late 1890s, names, characters, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.