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Religion, property dispute turns deadly

Kevin Collier • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:49 AM

So bitter was the bickering that Emma Cooper had once taken out papers on husband Fitch for divorce. It was believed she was doing so again when her husband shot her to death, and then himself, in a bid to keep her from taking his property.

Fitch Dewey Cooper was born in Cass County on April 21, 1852. He was one of four children born to Jacob and Mary Halsted-Cooper, who were the first settlers north of Coopersville.

Fitch was a farmer by trade and a widower when he tied the knot with Emma. They had children together, and children from his prior marriage.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 1908, Emma sent the children off to school as usual — except for their young son, Earl, who went out to work in the pickle patch a short distance away.

When Earl returned to the house to get something, he met his father in the field. Fitch kissed him affectionately and said, “Goodbye, Earl. Be a good boy.” Earl thought later that his father mentioned something about somebody trying to take away everything he owned.

Earl watched his father walk away and imagined he was going into town. It was about 10 o’clock. He had barely returned to the pickle patch when he heard shots ring out.

Frightened, Earl ran back to the house. There he found his mother dead in the kitchen from two shotgun wounds, fired at close range. She had been preparing potatoes for a meal.

Earl followed bloody boot tracks to an older second house on the property and discovered his father dead from a single gaping self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.

“He leaned forward over the muzzle of the gun and with a stick pressed the trigger,” the Grand Haven Tribune reported.

It was discovered Fitch Cooper had purchased five cartridges for his shotgun the previous night and had planned his wife’s death.

The day before the shootings Fitch had been in Grand Haven to settle several financial affairs, including deeding his property to his sons. He also disposed of his pickle contract with an area cannery. Fitch had assumed his wife had recently visited an attorney in Grand Rapids and was about to re-engage divorce proceedings.

The Grand Haven Tribune published an article on the couple after their death detailing conflicts that existed between Fitch and Emma Cooper.

“For some time quarrels between them have been frequent and it was understood by neighbors that they did not agree at all,” the Tribune reported. “They were not a congenial pair.”

The Tribune explained that the property, owned by Fitch Cooper, became part of the family feud, and that religion might have played a factor.

“One of the causes is alleged to have been religious differences between them. Mrs. Cooper was a Free Methodist. Mr. Cooper was inclined toward spiritualism. The wife would like family prayers and it is said Cooper did not always agree with her,” the Tribune wrote.

The Coopers also had a disagreement over where their youngest daughter should go to school. Fitch wanted her to attend the local schoolhouse in Crockery Township, but his wife had sent her to neighboring Muskegon County against her husband’s wishes.

Sheriff Jesse Woodby of Grand Haven determined the case to be a murder-suicide and Coroner James A. Mabbs agreed. No inquest was made into the deaths and the remains were turned over to family for burial. Evidence supported the core reason for the deaths concerned the Cooper property.

Ironically, possession of the Cooper farmhouse property was likely the cause of Fitch’s mother's death 15 years earlier. On April 16, 1893, 74-year-old Mary Jane Cooper swallowed morphine, taking her own life. The reason was revealed in a suicide note she left behind.

“(The note) stated that she was tired of life and that her children had possession of her property and refused to take care of her,” the Tribune reported.

And it appears the feud over the Cooper property did not end after Fitch and Emma Cooper were buried in the Nunica Cemetery. Their children engaged in several lawsuits in a battle over who would inherit the family farm.

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