A Case of Grave Robbery in 1898

By Shanna Avery, Lake County Historical Society, Special to the Star

Sometimes history is lost between the pages of time, but some events live on in local legends long after they transpired. The robbery of Alexander McLean's grave lives on in the Lake County history files and in stories passed down through the years.

Alexander McLean died at age 34 of tuberculosis at Stearns Siding, a logging town just west of Baldwin, on Aug. 21, 1898. McLean was a logging inspector. He left a widow and two children.

The funeral was held on Aug. 23 by the I.O.O.F. Lodge in Stearns Siding and McLean's body was placed on a horse-drawn platform spring wagon. The pall bearers followed on foot to the Baldwin Cemetery a few miles away.

Little did the pall bearers know they were being followed by Andrew M. White, a 45-year-old man who worked at Stearns Siding. When the mourners arrived at the cemetery, White hid behind a tree to spy out where McLean was buried.

Around this time White changed his identity to Frank M. White and went to Reed City and paid $10 on an application for a $2,000 policy with a Mutual Life Insurance company of New York. He wrote to his 60 year old brother Hiram Van Buren White, of Chenango County, New York, stating he had his life insured and enclosed a draft of $150 taken out of the policy in favor of Hiram. He also mentioned he just returned from the Klondike where he had good luck and was now camping at a old hut near Baldwin with a party from Reed City and would thereafter visit Hiram in New York.

After not hearing from his brother for some time, on Nov. 10, Hiram White arrived in Lake County to search for his brother. He stayed at the Heffernan Hotel in Baldwin and examined the register and found the name of Frank M. White recorded as a hotel guest on Aug. 22.

On Nov. 19, after many days of searching, Hiram notified local authorities that he found the body of his brother. The remains were located about two miles from Baldwin on the banks of Hamlin Lake in an old ice house. The remains were buried in sawdust which was once used to pack ice. The body was beyond the stages of decomposition and according to the Muskegon Chronicle from Nov. 19, 1898, "Clothes consisted of a cheap cap, black cotton shirt, hunting coat, overalls and heavy mining boots, all which were in a wonderfully preserved condition, the clothing tearing like new goods."

The locals were suspicious of White's claim that the body was his brother. Letters and papers were found in the pockets of the dead man's clothes to prove the identity as Frank M. White. There was no money or valuables found on him and Hiram V. White stated he was of the opinion his brother was murdered because of his money and the $150 draft he had back in August. When an inquest was held, however, there was no proof of murder.

In the story, the 'Telltale Socks,' written by Laverne M. Judkins, when the group of men from the village were examining the body, George Bradford exclaimed the man looked like Dougall McLean, a brother to Alexander McLean who died three years prior. They uncovered the grave of Dougall and found him still there.

Jack Bradford and William Duffing were instructed to bury the body in a new casket, and when they pulled the boots off the body, the local undertaker Hank Rudd notice the socks of the dead man and screamed, "These are the very same socks I bought and put on Alex McLean!" This discovery led the men to visit Alexander McLean's grave, but all they found was an open casket. The grave was reported to be in such a condition to show the robbery was committed very soon after McLean's burial, according to an article in the Jackson Citizen Patriot from Nov. 21.

Hiram V. White was placed under arrest but released on Nov. 24 because of no solid evidence connecting him to the grave robbery. On the same morning he left town, a letter arrived from Madison County, New York, from a person who heard of the ordeal in the Syracuse Standard and claimed the Whites were known as frauds and did similar work in that part of the country. The authorities at Baldwin then wired Madison and Chenango Counties to see if there was truth to this.

According to 'the Telltale Socks,' the law did catch up with Hiram V. White's brother, Andrew M. White, and on the day of his conviction, March 30, 1899, Andrew told how he dug the body up, changed the clothes and buried it under the icehouse. He used the name Frank M. White to beat the insurance company out of $2,000. He was sentenced to three years in the State Reformatory at Ionia.

Alexander McLean, whose grave was robbed, was finally able to rest in peace. Interestingly enough, this was not the first time McLean's death made Michigan headlines. The Jackson Citizen Patriot carried a story in the Aug. 28, 1898 issue about the revivification of Alex McLean on Aug. 21. McLean felt the end was drawing near, and friends and neighbors called in William Travis to the bedside. Mr. Travis said a most "eloquent prayer" and a smile of repose came upon McLean's face, and he died.

The people in the room gazed on the dead for half an hour when suddenly McLean's eyes opened, and addressed Mr. Travis in a loud and intelligible voice, "Oh, Mr. Travis, this is too bad; I didn't want to return." He told all in the room that he had been to heaven face to face with Jesus and named friends who had gone before. All was happiness there. He told the bystanders, "I have returned only for a moment, but I had to come back and tell you this marvelous experience." He then departed.