Unexplained deaths haunt Lake County's history

Early settlers, lumberjacks faced unknown dangers, according to newspapers from the 1870s

Loggers, during the lumber boom years in Lake County, knew and worked these woods — and sometimes met their unexplained fate within them.

Loggers, during the lumber boom years in Lake County, knew and worked these woods — and sometimes met their unexplained fate within them.

Courtesy photo/Lake County Historical Societ

LAKE COUNTY — When the early settlers began trailblazing homes for themselves in the dense forested wilderness of Lake County as early as the 1860s, they shared these woods with fierce animals, such as wolves, cougars and bears. 

As more settlers came throughout the 1870s, towns began to spring up, and logging operations and farming began making a dent in the northwoods. But this didn't stop some frightful encounters of man vs. nature, as told in the pages of the Lake County Star from the 1870s, stories of settlers running for their lives from packs of wolves on frigid winter nights, and some stories of a more mysterious nature of unexplained deaths. 


In November 1875, a body of a man was found in the Irons area by Native Americans, according to the Star from Nov. 25, 1875, in a reprinted story from the Manistee Standard. "The body was nearly naked, with considerable blood around it, and large limbs of trees lay broken nearby." 

In the next week's paper, more details surfaced of this grizzly death, and the newspaper didn't mince words. 

The man was identified as Nels Christian Jacobson, who was said to have fled from the lumber camp of R. Hanson & Co. the week prior. His body was found six miles from the camp. He was thought to be in the river (the Little Manistee) because the few clothes he had on were wet and frozen. 

The writer of the article felt this man's fate was brought on by his own hands, but the readers can judge for themselves.

"He had pounded and bitten chunks of flesh from his arms, in his agony, and broken limbs from trees that would defy the strength of ordinary men," the article said. 

This was before times of forensic DNA, and the death was attributed to this man's lifestyle, who they said spent the summer having sprees and drinking. 

However, it seems he had a very harsh and fatal encounter in the woods — something powerfully strong, which had sharp teeth and was possibly quite tall, depending on the height of the tree limbs. 

"Altogether, it was one of the most horrible deaths it has been our painful duty to record in years. The deceased leaves a son and other relatives in Denmark, and was well and favorably known as a logger," the article concluded. 


In the February 22, 1877, issue of the Star, John Keefe, who was supervisor of Glencoe Township, Lake County, was found "dead upon the plains about five miles from O'Brien's camp," north of Baldwin. 

"The corpse was almost entirely naked, and had evidently lain there several weeks," the article stated. "How the unfortunate man met his death will perhaps never be known." 

It was thought he was trying to reach a lumber camp (the article indicating they thought perhaps under the influence of liquor) and became exhausted and perhaps perished from exposure. He was found only in a vest. 

"Of course, we cannot say positively that unfortunate John Keefe met his death alone in the wilderness under the influence of that cures destroyer of much human happiness — strong drink; but judging from the past habits of the man, we find this the most reasonable supposition," the article continued, maybe leaving slight room he met his fate at the hands of something or someone else. 

In the Nov. 16, 1876, issue of the Star, it was related that a human skeleton of a man was discovered by hunters south of Baldwin. The remains of clothing were heavy, winter-time apparel, with a knit cap with buttons around the edge. 

"No one seems to know who the unfortunate being is who perished," the article said. 

Even if a pioneer of those days didn't die by the hand of an animal or person, the miles upon miles of untamed forests, with mazes of towering pine, could have proved a deadly enemy, itself.


The body of James Courtney, was discovered near Yates Lumber Camp in Lake County, as told in the Feb. 4, 1875, issue of the Star. He was found on a road in the woods leading to the camp. He was a saloon keeper in Ludington and came to Baldwin on the afternoon train Jan. 27 to visit the Yates camp on the south branch of the Pere Marquette.  

He came across James Danaher, who reported the death, on the road about 4 p.m. that day. As he wasn't familiar with the road to the camp, with 8 or so miles to go, Danaher tried to persuade him to turn back and stop at North's Lumber Camp (just a short distance) overnight and set out fresh in the morning, but Courtrney kept on. Danaher gave him directions. 

The next week, about six days later, Danaher was driving a cutter on the road he directed Courtney not to take, and noticed a spot in the snow which was disturbed. The horse "shied" at an object lying in the road, and came to a halt, "snorting with fear."  

Danaher saw a portion of a boot protruding from the snow, and not knowing if there was foul play, got others to come. They removed the snow. It was Courtney. He lay on his back, his head thrown back "his throat very much discovered."

The article stated it was thought he was seized by some "fit"  and the death not wholly caused by exposure. He was only 36. 


Lastly, the Star related another horrific event at a lumber camp, this time, north of Farwell, in April 1878. 

"A wild, frightful tale of the forest is related by a man from the woods north of this place, said to have recently occurred in a lumber camp," said a reprint in the Star from the Farwell Register. 

The camp was located in a remote spot near a dense swamp. On a dark evening, the "chore boy" aged 15, went to get a pail of drinking water from a spring, a few rods from camp. Shortly after cries were heard from the direction of the spring, and soon ceased. 

Those in the camp thought the boy was joking around, as was his typical nature, but when he did not return, two men set out with a light to the spring. 

"A fearful sight met their astonishing gaze. There lay the boy dead — literally torn to pieces, undoubtedly the work of some wild animal  — a lynx or panther, judging from the tracks which were visible around. From appearances, the boy had been pounced upon by the savage beast while stooping to dip water from the spring, and torn to pieces in a short time." 

These are just a few of the stories written on the pages of time in these big, desolate forest lands well over a century ago. The stories that could be told since these woods were inhabited in ancient times by indigenous tribes, or perhaps by fur traders or French Catholic missionaries passing through, before white settlement, can be left to the imagination. 


SANDERS: Working in the haunted Ferris State alumni building

Michigan trucker believes he encountered, shot the Dogman