Flight from justice, part one

Adapted from the Spring 2009 Harlow’s Wooden Man

MARQUETTE – Between the early 1870s and 1885, there were several places of bad reputation in northern Marquette County, but one was more notorious than any other. This unsavory establishment was located near the Carp River east of Negaunee, on the road to Eagle Mills and Marquette (now County Road 492). They called it “The Carp.”

Articles on The Carp often included a few descriptive terms. Over the years these included “disorderly place,” “notorious soiled-dove cote,” “den of thugs and thieves,” “rendezvous for male and female reprobates,” “bagnio [an archaic Italian term meaning brothel],” “refuge for scoundrels and cut-throats,” and “den of iniquity.” One editorial captured the essence of The Carp by referring to it as “a hotbed of vice.” The pun seems to have been unintentional.

In 1872 a professional woman who was employed at the place shot her financial advisor through both legs. This was apparently so little out of the ordinary that the newspaper account of it consisted of just four sentences. One was, “The only thing to be regretted is that the pistol wasn’t aimed two feet higher.”

Other articles over the years described stabbings and assaults that took place on the premises and unruly behavior of the inmates of The Carp who came into town. Whenever anyone was accosted or robbed on the road between Negaunee and the Carp River, reporters presumed to know who was responsible. A January 1884 article in The Mining Journal warned “respectable people” not to travel on that road after dark because “several highway robberies have been committed there in the past month” by denizens of the dive.

Teams of law enforcement officers led by the county sheriff or his deputies raided the riverside resort from time to time. Once they recovered some stolen goods. On another occasion a wanted man happened to be among those rounded up by the officers, but years of raids accomplished little more than to cause occasional and temporary disruptions. Fines, short jail sentences, and if necessary, bribes are all part of the normal costs of operating such a business. But after raiding officers were lauded and miscreants reviled in newspaper columns, fines were paid and jail time served, the situation reverted back to normal. Professionals returned and their loyal clientele resumed hiking down the hill from town.

Toward dusk on March 5, 1885, Deputy Sheriff John Kohl was notified of a disturbance in downtown Negaunee. Patrick Benan, a disreputable character who lived at The Carp, had come to town for an evening’s sport. He was staggering around with a revolver, firing occasional shots that sent passersby scurrying for cover.

Kohl found Benan in Gorman’s Livery Stable, where, according to the Marquette newspaper, “He was trying to kick up a row with those in charge of the place.” The deputy boldly confronted the man and disarmed him, after which Benan became contrite. Hoping to avoid arrest, he apologized and asked to have his pistol returned. If this were done, he said, he would go straight home. Kohl handed the gun back to Benan, who raised it and shot him in the head. After the deputy fell to the ground, his assailant fired again, piercing both of Kohl’s lungs. Benan ran out the door while livery stable workers tried to help the wounded deputy.

Three physicians did what they could for Kohl, but internal hemorrhaging was sapping his strength. His condition was described as “extremely critical,” and there was “little expectation that he would survive.”

No attempt was made to look for Benan that night, but early the next morning, official posses and unofficial search parties took to the woods. Newspapers were in agreement as to what they hoped the outcome of these searches would be. An Ishpeming Iron Agitator reporter wrote, “The officers are after him in force, and if he is caught, the county will probably be spared the expense of a trial.” Sentiments expressed in the Mining Journal were more to the point. “Should he be caught soon, there is only one opinion as to his fate. He would quickly ornament some lamp post or convenient limb.”

The Negaunee common council convened a special session, discussed the outrage and authorized a $300 reward for Benan’s capture. Outside, a crowd of citizens was forming. This was not a meeting sanctioned by legal authority. No one had called for people to gather at that time or at that place, but they came together nevertheless.

No one was in charge, but formal leadership was superfluous. The people knew what they wanted to do, and it did not involve resolutions or appeals to city or county officials. They were in the mood to act. The course of action was one that had probably been discussed many times but in the form of a wish or hope that “someone” would do it. Now, they would collectively do it.

Two hundred people, some afoot and others in horse-drawn conveyances, started down the long grade heading east toward the river. A mob, although never referred to as such in the newspapers, was marching on The Carp.

When the delegation of concerned citizens arrived at its destination, the occupants of the building were ordered to come out. Owner Mitchell Gereau and eight women emerged. They were hustled to Negaunee and locked in the jail by Town Marshal John Johnson.

Then, an eyewitness said, The Carp “burst into flames at several points.” A newspaper article attributed the blaze to “spontaneous combustion,” adding that, “as there was no water to be had, the place burned to the ground.”

Within a few weeks there was some talk of rebuilding The Carp, but this idea was so offensive to the community that it was dropped. Next, word got around that a man with a picturesque moniker, Peg-Leg Barrett, was planning to open a sort of boarding house for young ladies in a building located across the road from the ashes of The Carp. A few days before the new occupants were to transfer their belongings from their current lodgings in Marquette, however, the vacant house caught fire in the middle of the night. The origin of this fire was termed “mysterious” (but not spontaneous). This put a damper on further small business development schemes in the vicinity of the Carp River Bridge.

Deputy Sheriff Kohl’s condition continued to deteriorate. He died three days after The Carp was destroyed. At first it was generally supposed that Benan would be apprehended quickly. Because he was so well known in Negaunee and Ishpeming, it seemed likely that he would avoid these communities. Roads, trails, and railroad tracks were patrolled. Search parties visited remote cabins and watched for smoke in the woods or any other indication of the culprit’s whereabouts. As days and then weeks elapsed, hopes of capturing the murderer faded. He was known to be a skilled woodsman, and it was feared that he had managed to leave the area by staying away from settlements and roads, traveling west or south through the woods.

On the night of the shooting, a man was knocked down and robbed of a pair of snowshoes on a road near Negaunee. Under the circumstances, it was assumed that Benan was the thief. This was taken as a clue that he planned to flee into the wilderness. The back country was wet in March and April, the nights were cold and there was still snow on the ground. On the other hand, the annual plague of black flies and mosquitoes had not begun. There are far worse times of the year for a desperate man with a mastery of woodcraft to make a cross-country dash for freedom across the Upper Peninsula.

Next week’s article will discuss Patrick Benan’s fate.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today