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1895 Old Mission Murder Provides Complex Characters, Upcoming Sequel for Novelist

The following vignette was provided by the author of Murder on Old Mission, Stephen Lewis. Lewis is currently crafting the sequel to that well-received novel.  Expected publication is early 2016. Murder on Old Mission is currently available at local booksellers and at Amazon.com.

Headstone of George Parmelee, father of Woodruff, placed at Lakeside Cemetery on Old Mission Peninsula.
Headstone of George Parmelee, father of Woodruff, placed at Lakeside Cemetery on Old Mission Peninsula.

In 1895, Woodruff Parmelee, the scion of a major Old Mission Peninsula farming family, was sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement for the murder of Julia Curtis, his pregnant girlfriend.  Julia’s body was found at the base of Old Mission Peninsula in an area near East Bay that was called the hemlock swamp.   By modern standards, the prosecution’s case against Woodruff was well short of solid.  It depended upon the questionable forensic evidence of footprints found near the body, which may or may not have been Woodruff’s, but could equally well have been those of any of the thirty or forty men who were searching for her.  There was also the eyewitness testimony of a hired hand named Stagg who had a history of perjury and who offered to leave the area if he were paid enough.

Parmelee’s defense was built on an alibi.  He could not have killed Julia, he claimed, because at the very time she went missing, he was working on a new road on the other side of the Peninsula heading toward West Bay. The prosecutor’s witness testified that he had seen Parmelee heading east, away from that new road.  Parmelee said, no, he was going the other way.  Clearly this difference is crucial.  If Parmelee could prove his version, it would establish his alibi, and he would have to be acquitted.  He could not be in two places at the same time.

Receiving scant attention in the detailed newspaper reports of the trial was the testimony of Parmelee’s son Louis who supported his father’s alibi.  He stated that when he went to join his father working on the road, he met his father coming from the west.

The testimony of both witnesses was less than convincing: Stagg’s character is at issue as is Louis’s assumed filial attachment to his father.  If we say that their testimony cancelled each other out, not much besides the footprint evidence remains of the prosecutor’s case.  Nonetheless, Parmelee was convicted.  In all probability, the unstated basis for his conviction was his troubled marital history, including two failed marriages, and the fact that he was twice the age of Julia.

This is the story I fictionalize in Murder On Old Mission.  In my version, I focus fully on the testimony of the son.  By changing some facts and adding others, I intensify the son’s situation. That book’s penultimate chapter takes the story to Parmelee’s conviction.  Its very last chapter provides the bridge to the sequel I am now writing. That chapter jumps twenty years ahead when Parmelee, in spite of his sentence, is again a free man, returning to Traverse City where he is reunited with his son.

My sequel intends to fill in what happened between conviction and release.  Parmelee was convicted of a most heinous crime.  His sentence reflected the severity of the community’s judgment.  If capital punishment had been available, Parmelee would have been a candidate for execution.  Yet, not only did he not serve his life sentence, he was released, and in fact lived another twenty-seven years, almost outliving Louis, who died shortly after him.

Index card from Jackson State Prison, indicating the intervention of Governor Ferris, on behalf of Woodruf Parmelee.
Index card from Jackson State Prison, indicating the intervention of Governor Ferris, on behalf of Woodruff Parmelee. Image courtesy of Stephen Lewis.

There is one salient fact that explains Parmelee’s release: the intervention of Governor Woodbridge Ferris, who interviewed Parmelee in Jackson State Prison immediately prior to Parmelee being paroled.  My research as to why this extraordinary intervention occurred has come up empty.  Why the governor should have picked Parmelee out of all the prisoners in Jackson at that time for his personal assistance remains a mystery.

And that provides me the opportunity of creating fictional circumstances to fill that void.  As I did in Murder On Old Mission, I am building on the historical facts, but this time, as well, I am constrained by the fictional facts I created in the first book.

That is an interesting challenge.

Review of Murder on Old Mission
Amy Barritt, co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal

Reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s work, The Crucible, Murder on Old Mission is a fictionalized account of a true crime that took place on Old Mission Peninsula. Although we modern readers might associate the Peninsula with breathtaking views and wineries, author Stephen Lewis deftly realizes the relative isolation of that region in the late 19th century, which would, on occasion, encourage intense interpersonal relationships to compensate. Readers are invited to see both sides of that coin, in the passionate relations between Sam Logan and Margaret Cutter and in the unexpectedly adversarial relationship between Sam and his son, Isaiah.

Highly descriptive and full of rich conversations, this is the type of book wherein the scene can play out in your imagination as a movie would. A drama of the highest order, and well worth a sequel, which I eagerly anticipate.

Excerpt from the sequel to Murder on Old Mission
by Stephen Lewis

Isaiah adjusted his sailor’s gait to the flat surface of the road leading to the church.  Everything else was eerily familiar.  It had been five years since he walked up this road on the day that began to change his life.  But the road itself, inanimate and without memory, just lay insensate beneath his shoes.  Somehow he had thought that the dust rising beneath his feet would carry with it echoes of that day, perhaps a word, a sigh forced out between clenched teeth, an image of a face drawn in pain, a tear trickling down a man’s unshaven cheek or finding a path along the worn furrows of a woman’s face, and above all a pervasive black of mourning.

On this morning to be sure, the shadow of death argued against the bright rays of the sun this late spring day.  But this time, death’s face wore a bemused grin, a weary acknowledgement that the deceased had simply run his appointed course and it was time for him to be gathered into the ground.  In that respect, this occasion could not have been more different than that one five years ago when a person in full bloom had been cut down.

The handle of the church door felt the same as it did that day when he had grasped it with a hand warm and wet from sweat, his lungs gasping for air.  And the hinges squeaked just as they did then.  On that day, when he pushed the door open ever so slowly to minimize the disturbance of the squeaking hinges, he was confronted by an empty building.  He was too late.  Through the rear door, he could see the mourners gathered around the freshly dug grave into which the woman he loved would be interred, and standing, ashen faced, among the mourners was his father soon to be convicted of putting her there.

Today, however, the congregants were all in their seats.  He stood for a moment at the rear of the church.  He expected heads to turn around to gaze at him in response to the loud squeaking of the door on its hinges but none had.  He had tried to prepare himself for that eventuality, but had not come up with a suitable response.  Several people did now, belatedly, turn in his direction, but then swiveled their heads back toward the front of the building.  Perhaps, he figured, they had not recognized him.  It had been, after all, some years.

Biography of the Author

Stephen Lewis, novelist, with furry friend.
Stephen Lewis, novelist, with furry friend.

Born and raised in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Stephen Lewis holds a doctorate in American Literature from New York University, and he is Professor of English Emeritus at Suffolk Community College, on Long Island, New York.  He now lives with his wife on five acres in a restored farmhouse on Old Mission Peninsula in northern lower Michigan.          

After having written The Monkey Rope (1990), and And Baby Makes None (1991) two mysteries set in Brooklyn and published by Walker & Company, Lewis turned his attention to a different time and place, New England in the seventeenth century, for Mysteries of Colonial Times.  The stories set in Brooklyn dipped into Lewis’s childhood, while this second series, written for Berkley, drew upon his expertise as a scholar of New England Puritanism. The Dumb Shall Sing, the first of this series was published August, 1999, followed by The Blind in Darkness in May, 2000, and The Sea Hath Spoken  January, 2001.  Murder On Old Mission, put out in 2005 by Arbutus Press, was a finalist in the historical fiction category of ForeWord Magazine’s book of the year awards.  His mystery novel, Stone Cold Dead, was submitted by Arbutus to the 2007 Edgars. Belgrave House recently published A Suspicion of Witchcraft, his first ebook original novel.

Before turning to mystery fiction, Lewis published short stories, poetry, scholarly articles, and five college textbooks, including Philosophy: An Introduction Through Literature (with Lowell Kleiman, Paragon House, 1992) which is still being used in a number of colleges. This past December, Broadview Press, a Canadian independent, published Templates, a sentence level rhetoric that relates syntax to computer templates.

He continues working in various fiction genres.  His more recent short story publications include “The Visit,” a literary short story in The Chariton Review, “Eagles Rising,” a mystery story in Palo Alto Review, “A Foolish Son,” a historical story published online in the Copperfield Review, and “The King Knew Her Not,” in Green Hills Literary Lantern.

Timber!: An excerpt from a novel by Harold Titus, published in 1922

Harold Titus was a noted writer and conservationist, born in 1888, died in 1967.  He wrote more than a dozen novels, among them “Timber,’ a work that expressed his lifelong interest in conservation.  Titus was a founding member of the Izaak Walton League, established in the same year as the book appeared.  He is buried in Oakwood cemetery in Traverse City.

In the following excerpt Helen Foraker, a character who speaks out for scientific management of forests, expresses her view (and Titus’s) of the importance of woodlands and the tragedy of their destruction.

“Less than fifty years ago this land was stripped of its pine; today it is maturing another crop.  The same could have been done with any other piece that grew good trees: Just keep the fire out and nature would have done much in time.  Fire, fire, fire, without end!  Every summer it eats across the plains country; every summer it does its damage on cutover lands in all the timber States.   It not only destroys trees, but it takes the seed bearers and the seeds that lie ready to sprout and the life of the soil itself.

timbertitlepage001“To exist as a nation, we must have forests; to have forests all we need to do for a beginning is to give this worthless land a chance.  We can speed up its work by helping—by keeping out fire, by planting trees by good forest practice.  Can’t you see all these Michigan plains growing pine again?  And in Wisconsin and Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New England, the South, and everywhere where hills and valleys have become blackened eyesores?  Don’t you see what it would mean to people, not only in cheaper homes and steel and railroads, but something else?  Fish and game and a chance to play as men were intended to play!  It is so simple to do; to show people that it is simple is such a task!”p. 125,6

“In the woods when a saw gang has cut into a tree until it commences to sag and snap they stand back and cry ‘Timber!’  It is the warning cry of the woods; it means that trees are coming down, that men within range should stand clear.  My father used to say that the cry of ‘Timber!’ was ringing in the country’s ears, that the loggers had given the warning, that the last of our trees were commencing to fall—but we haven’t heard!  Our ears are shut to the cry, our backs are turned and unless we look sharp we’ll be caught!” p.128

Excerpts taken from the 2nd printing of Timber. Copies of Timber are available for circulation through Traverse Area District Library. The book is also available free online through Hathi Digital Trust.

“Cutting the Last Pine”: A Romantic Vision of the End of the Lumber Era, 1911

"Like shadows they have passed the dreams of long ago." Image from "Life Pictures," portrait of author Scott Woodward and unknown figure.
“Like shadows they have passed the dreams of long ago.” Image from “Life Pictures,” portrait of author Scott Woodward and unknown figure.

Scott Woodward (1853-1919) was a local author and publisher living in Traverse City at the turn of the last century. His work is firmly in the realm of realism, but it is often difficult to discern if his writings are autobiographical in nature, or if he’s just good at spinning a highly believable yarn.  Woodward’s style is deftly described by George W. Kent, editor of Traverse City Daily Eagle circa 1910: “In his early life this author differed from his fellows in that his imagination was most vivid and he turned his visions, as some called them, into realities and wove them into his paintings of life in various phrases about him, taken from his peculiar viewpoint.”

The following is one entry in Woodward’s Life Pictures in Poetry and Prose, originally published in 1911, and tells the story of the felling of the last tree in a once-wide stand of pines. So romantic is the notion, that readers may be skeptical of his actual presence at the moment described, but the detail and memory cited gives one reason to believe his tale rings true.


The last pine- the lonely monarch in the midst of 2,000,000 feet of hardwood timber- is down. Its fall was one of the most pathetic sights I have ever had occasion to witness.

Through the courtesy of Frank Lahym, the lumberman, I found myself on a cold, frosty morning headed for camp. It was my good fortune to receive an invitation to be present at the cutting of the last pine to be found anywhere in the woods for miles around.

Great is the power of imagination, and before I was aware of it I was again among the scenes of thirty years ago.


I was once more riding beneath the evergreens that hung low from the great load of snow they were supporting. In the distance I could here [sic] the steady “clip, clip” of the woodsman’s ax and the sharp ring of the saw, while away in the distance came the familiar warning, “Timber! Timber!” to all who might be in danger from the falling trees.

Again the scene changed with me and I stood beside the skidway and saw the great pines being loaded on sleighs with their 12-foot bunks. Log on top of log was being piled up on the sleighs until it looked like a veritable rollway for each team to take out.

The last log is rolled up into position, the familiar “chain over” is given and answered. The load is securely bound and then we start down the iced road to the river- I awake from my dream.

There is a jerk and a jolt and we find ourselves up-standing. One sleigh is fouled on the roots of a young sapling that some road monkey has unwittingly cut four inches too high.

Thus vanishes the dream of ’78 and with it the great rollway, the logging sleighs with their 12-foot bunks, the graded road which was kept in shape by the sprinkler over night, the overhanging trees that always had a weird and ghostlike appearance when clothed in their mantle of snow, and, last of all, the great banking ground where still flows the waters of the Manistee.


We consign them all to the memories of thirty years ago, when I, too, was a unit in that great industry that will never return. We reach camp just as the great dinner horn is calling from labor to refreshments, and the lumber jacks come steaming in from their cutting of hardwood.

But it has changed, all changed. We sit down to a table loaded with roast beef, bread and butter, potatoes and coffee, capped out with pie and cookies. Ye gods, but what must one of our boys of ’78 have thought had he sat down to such a meal. However, we bolt it down while I think of the days when men sat around a fire in the woods and ate their beans and hard bread with good old “New Orleans” for dressing, and were satisfied. Had a man kicked on that he would have been hooted out of camp and compelled to take the hay road between two days.

In the midst of two million feet of hardwood in town 26 north of range 11 west stood one of the most beautiful cork pines that ever grew, three feet six on the sump, and where cut made five fourteen, one twelve and one sixteen-feet logs. When scaled by Doyle’s it measured a bit better than 3,000 feet. We had cut larger trees in ’78, as well as smaller ones, but none better. I counted the rings on the stump and came to the conclusion that this one pine had stood alone as a landmark, or sentinel, defying the storm and wind for better than 200 years, and had even escaped in days past the vandalism of the timber thieves.

"Logs headed for Case & Croster Mill, Kingsley, 1908." Image courtesy of Floyd Webster Historical Photograph Collection,  fw03003, Kingsley Branch Library.
“Logs headed for Case & Croster Mill, Kingsley, 1908.” Image courtesy of Floyd Webster Historical Photograph Collection, fw03003, Kingsley Branch Library.

I loved the pine, not for its intrinsic value alone, but for the memory it awakened. However, the time had come to cut and fell this last monarch. The hardwood was being cut around it. Huge piles of tops and brush were in every direction. It might survive until some future day in the hot summer, when some unthinking halfwit would drop a match in the dry tinder of the slashing. The prospect would be similar to that already seen in sections of Wexford, Roscommon, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse and many other counties.

After getting several good pictures of the landscape and the tree from various positions, I watched it being cut and skidded ready for the hauling.

Then, as the day was advancing, I was called to the sleigh for our return trip to the city. Strange it may seem. No one but an old lumberman can understand when I say I was both glad as well as sorry, to be present at the cutting of the last pine.”

Woodward, Scott. “Cutting of the Last Pine.” Life in Pictures in Prose and Verse. Traverse City: Scott Woodward, 1911. 133-136.

Amy Barritt is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal. Beautiful pieces of prose and poetry reside unexplored in the rare books collection in the Nelson Room of Traverse Area District Library, and she invites you to come and find yourself a long-lost treasure.