Flight from justice, part Two

Adapted from the Spring 2009 Harlow’s Wooden Man

Last week’s article covered the murder of Deputy Sheriff John Kohl by Patrick Benan on March 5, 1885 in Negaunee and Benan’s subsequent flight from justice into the woods.

On the morning of May 1, 57 days after Kohl was shot, three men boarded the Chicago & Northwestern Railway southbound freight train at McFarland, about twenty-five miles south of Negaunee. “Hopping a freight” was a common practice by those who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the fare to ride in a passenger train.

Conductor Christopher Peterson, a Negaunee native, was astonished to see that one of the men swinging aboard his train was Pat Benan. Peterson went about his job as usual, while trying not to alert Benan to the fact that he had been recognized.

The next stop, a few miles down the line, was at Lathrop. There, Peterson nonchalantly walked into the station. He had the telegraph operator wire Escanaba Town Marshal McCarthy. McCarthy sent a return message to Peterson, telling him to continue his scheduled run and make all the usual stops for freight, fuel or water.

In the meantime, the Escanaba marshal hastily deputized a dozen men and armed them with rifles. Railroad officials provided the posse with a special train and cleared the track ahead of it. McCarthy intended to get to a Delta County hamlet, Brampton, before the other train arrived. His plan, once there, was to position his men along both sides of the track and thus trap Benan when the southbound freight stopped at the station.

Both trains pulled into Brampton at virtually the same time. Unfortunately, something had aroused Benan’s suspicions. A half-mile north of the station, he jumped from the moving train and ran into a cedar swamp.

When the Brampton telegrapher spread the word that Benan had been sighted and was being closely pursued, reinforcements from both north and south converged on the scene. Because speed was essential, each “special” in which officers traveled consisted of only a locomotive, tender and caboose. The latter was crammed with armed men. One was led by Sheriff Andrew Anderson, the other by Negaunee Marshal Johnson. A third special contained Delta County Sheriff Oliver and his deputies.

The lawmen joined forces, posting guards at bridges on the Days and Escanaba Rivers. Others were sent out to patrol roads and search the woods. All these efforts were fruitless. The elusive killer slipped through the meshes of the net.

Pursuit resumed the next morning and continued without success throughout the day. Then, the police were presented with potentially precious information. On the morning of May 3, an informant contacted the two sheriffs and told them that he knew where the wanted man was.

What happened next, based on an interview with Marquette County Sheriff Anderson, was described at length in The Mining Journal. Anderson chose not to reveal the name of the informant but acted on the tip. He and Sheriff Oliver and their deputies went to a certain building just south of Escanaba. Confronting the proprietor, they told him that they believed Benan was inside and demanded that he surrender the keys to every room in the building. After “considerable wrangling,” he complied. Placing the proprietor “in such a position that it would be impossible for him to give Benan warning,” they commenced to search the place, room by room.

Anderson said, “When we had almost finished our search, we entered a room that gave evidence of having been used by no other person than Benan.” In this room was a locked closet. Before unlocking it, the sheriff ordered his men to aim their rifles at the door. If Benan should be inside and showed any inclination to resist or flee, he was to be riddled with bullets. When Anderson threw open the closet door, “Benan stood there with two revolvers in his hands,” but, cowed by the rifles aimed at him, he dropped the guns and raised his hands.

This version of Benan’s capture seems to have created an uproar in Escanaba or, at least, in the office of its newspaper, the Iron Port. Local reporters had interviewed Escanaba law officers who were present at the capture and had gotten a significantly different account of what took place.

According to the Iron Port, the informant whom Sheriff Anderson declined to identify, was businessman Jonas Beattie (his business was the same as that which had been conducted at The Carp). He was acquainted with Benan, who unexpectedly showed up at his door during the night of May 2. The fugitive, worn out by exposure, exhaustion, and hunger, pleaded for sanctuary. Beattie let him use a second-floor room.

Whether motivated by innate civic virtue, instincts of self-preservation or the prospect of reward money, Beattie decided to turn Benan in. Early the next morning, he locked the door to Benan’s room and hastened to find the lawmen. Sheriffs Anderson and Oliver and a swarm of deputies went to Beattie’s place. Beattie told them which room Benan was in and gave them the key.

At this point, Sheriff Anderson lost his nerve and was said to be “shaking in his boots.” Outside Benan’s door, he tried to get one and then another of his men to open it but they refused, and he was shamed into opening it himself. Benan was hiding in the closet but held no guns when the door was opened. He surrendered meekly.

The Escanaba reporter dismissed Anderson’s story about demanding keys, wrangling to get them, treating Beattie as an accomplice, conducting a room-by-room search and Benan holding two guns as melodramatic hokum. He portrayed Benan as “a played-out bummer, secured in a locked room, whom anyone with as much sand in his craw as a canary bird, could have taken.” He further theorized that when the Mining Journal compositor was setting up Anderson’s version of what happened at Beattie’s, he probably exhausted the supply of capital I’s in his type tray.

Comparing the two newspaper articles 135 years after the fact and omitting all points of contention, we can safely conclude only that Benan was caught in a closet at Beattie’s establishment.

After the prisoner was taken to the Marquette County Jail, a Mining Journal reporter quizzed him about his flight from justice. Between March 5 and the last week of April, Benan said he was deep in the forest west of Ishpeming, living on fish he caught and a few provisions bought in small villages. Then he began hiking southeast, thirty miles through the wilderness, to board the train at McFarland on May 1.

His objective was to lie low in Escanaba until the shipping season began, then embark for a distant port. After leaping from the freight train at Brampton, he eluded pursuers and guards posted on bridges by crossing first the Days River and then the Escanaba on saw logs that had hung up in shallow places while being floated downstream by lumberjacks.

Benan’s trial began on June 3, 1885. Defense counsel Egbert Mapes did not try to disprove his client’s guilt which was overwhelming. Instead he worked to convince the jury that a verdict of second degree murder or manslaughter was appropriate. He presented testimony attempting to show that Benan had been hit on the head years before and had not been right since. He further contended that the defendant was either “crazy or crazy drunk” when he shot Kohl and therefore not fully responsible for his actions.

After deliberating for an hour, the jury found Patrick Benan guilty of murder in the first degree. Judge Claudius Grant lamented that Michigan law prevented him from sending the convicted man to the gallows and then sentenced him to life imprisonment in solitary confinement at the state prison in Jackson.

On June 13, Benan got his last bit of publicity in the Mining Journal when the newspaper printed the text of a telegram from downstate Jackson confirming that he had been delivered into the custody of the prison warden.


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