Treasurer suicide mystery

Mysteries thrive when there is an absence of facts. The demise of Jacob Deboe qualifies as a mystery. In his case the facts may never surface — as his body did — in the Grand River, 133 years ago.
Kevin Collier
Mar 18, 2013

DeBoe, a smart and admired fellow, had been a significant part of city and county function. Suddenly, he vanished, then was found dead. News reports from the time offer some clues.          

Born April 7, 1838, in the Netherlands, the son of Jacob and Cornelia Deboe, Jacob settled with his family in Zeeland in 1847. At the young age of 14 Jacob learned the trade of mason from his father. He married Maria Quintus of Grand Rapids on May 6, 1856, and by 1860, the Deboes moved to Holland where Jacob became educated in the tanning business.          

When the Civil War broke out, Deboe enlisted in Company D of the 8th Michigan Infantry as Private on Sept. 23, 1861. He was promoted to sergeant on Nov. 15, 1862. After leaving the service on Sept. 22, 1864, he settled in Grand Haven where he and Maria started a family.          

Deboe made a name for himself in Grand Haven as an accountant becoming Deputy Clerk, a post he held for 12 years. He was also chosen the first treasurer of the city of Grand Haven and, in 1876, was elected Register of Deeds for Ottawa County.          

DeBoe also served as undersheriff and was prominently connected with a number of criminal cases that came before the sheriff.          

So when Jacob Deboe went missing Aug. 25, 1880, family and friends became greatly concerned. Traces of what might have happened appeared in several Michigan newspapers, the original content likely culled from the Grand Haven Herald.          

Newspapers as prominent as the Chicago Tribune picked up the story of Deboe's disappearance.         

“He (Deboe) had been missing for about ten days and his family and many citizens (of Grand Haven) had become alarmed about him,” a newpaper reported.          

Deboe's body was found floating in the Grand River on the afternoon of Sept. 4, 1880. The former accountant was dead at the age of 42. Newspapers quickly reported Deboe's death as a suicide.          

Ottawa County death records record suicide as the cause of Deboe's death and fix the date of death as Sept. 4, the day his body was pulled from the Grand River.            

When newspapers reported that “family and many citizens had become alarmed about him,” it wasn't just Deboe's disappearance that had them concerned, it was Deboe's personal downward spiral for nearly one year.

It was reported Deboe had been drinking heavily and it had escalated to the point where months leading up to his disappearance he'd not been going to work. It is unknown if he was terminated from his position as Deputy Clerk, but it's clear the accountant was no longer bringing home a paycheck.

Deboe's drinking had been brought on by marriage problems — or perhaps the opposite — issues with Maria concerned Jacob's drinking problem.          

Writings on Deboe state he was well-liked and respected. But something had gone terribly wrong for him to walk away from his wife and family at the end of August, never to return.          

“He was well educated, but it seems to be a clear case of suicide,” newspapers reported.          

As instrumental as Jacob Deboe was to the function of the city of Grand Haven and Ottawa County it was hard for many to believe his downfall. Days following his burial at Lake Forest Cemetery whispers between the curious attempted to answer the question: What had gone wrong in the life of Jacob Deboe?          

A decade after her husband's death, Maria Deboe applied for a widow's civil war pension on July 9, 1890.          

Maria Deboe passed away Feb. 8, 1921, at the home of nephew Peter Deboe in Grand Haven. At the time, all of her and Jacob's children had passed away as well. Survivors included two grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.

Jacob Deboe has two headstones upon his grave in Lake Forest cemetery. One headstone was provided by the family, the other provided by the government for deceased Union soldiers of the Civil War, which was placed on his grave in the summer of 1890.

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