The accused murderer who never existed

In the fall of 1891, a remarkable story was picked up by newspapers and published nationally concerning a young man, falsely accused of murder, who was hung from a tree until dead in Ottawa County in 1839.
Kevin Collier
Jun 3, 2013

One of the newspapers that initially published the vigilante lynching story was the St. Louis (Mo.) Globe-Democrat, which cited the report originated from a “Grand Haven (Mich.) correspondent.”

The article stated that in 1839 a hunter and trapper, known as Si Handsome Smugglers, suddenly disappeared from a shanty he was residing at in the vicinity. His rifle was found in the woods, and near it his hunting knife, covered with blood.

“Gossip began to associate a young log chopper named Chester Wood with the supposed murder,” the newspaper reported. “Even on the theory of murder there was not a particle of evidence against Wood, but idle malicious talk in the lumber camps set the lumbermen nearly wild, and someone had to be killed.

“They hanged Chester Wood, in spite of his solemn protests, to a tree, which is still standing in the township of Robinson,” the Globe-Democrat explained. “His body was buried on top of a hill near a tree, and 18 years ago (circa 1873) his bones were turned over by a gang of laborers while grading for a railroad.”

The article concerning the lynching of Chester Wood was also published in the Morning Call of San Francisco on Nov. 2, 1891.

In 1892, the account was published as an exposé about lynching laws in The Edinburgh Review of Critical Journal (July-October 1892 edition), a Leonard Scott Publication Co. based in New York. The Hawera & Normanby Star, a New Zealand newspaper, republished the Edinburgh Review article on Jan. 23, 1892.

The story became a national example of vigilante justice, and a deterrent to would-be lynchers, that an innocent man had been hanged.

But there was a mystery regarding the life of the man named Si Handsome Smugglers, victim of the 1839 murder.

Newspaper accounts claimed Smugglers was reared on a farm near Boston, Mass., and came to Robinson Township where he supported himself by hunting and trapping in the county. He was considered a hermit of sorts.

"(Si Handsome Smuggler) never gave his real name here and shunned society,” one newspaper reported. “One day he went to Grand Rapids to sell furs and received a letter saying his brother had died. Without returning to his shanty or leaving any word, he started for the far East, and has ever since lived on the farm of his boyhood.”

This report had Smugglers simply leaving the area, headed back to Massachusetts for his brother's funeral — nothing sinister. But most reports claimed Smugglers had never returned to his shanty because Chester Wood killed him.

Then, some 50 years after Smuggler was supposedly murdered and Chester Wood lynched, a man reported to be “over 90 years old” accompanied by his son was in Grand Haven and told a tale. The man, awaiting departure aboard a steamer at Port Destin for Wisconsin, briefly engaged in conversation with a Grand Haven resident about a time he had previously lived here — about 50 years ago as a hunter-trapper — in a cabin in the woods. He explained at that time he went by the name of “Handsome Smugglers.”

According to the Grand Haven Tribune, the citizen hearing the old man's tale had participated in Wood's lynching. He, in turn, told the aged Smugglers how Chester Wood had been lynched for his disappearance. The Tribune reported that when the old man was informed, “he wept like a baby,” then departed on the steamer with his son.

It was said Smugglers could not explain how his knife and rifle found their way into the woods near the shanty back in 1839.

Thus, appearing very much alive, Si Handsome Smugglers had never been murdered; and an innocent man, Chester Wood, had been hanged for a supposed crime.

Several years later, Ottawa County newspaper pioneer Hiram Potts cleared up the entire murder-lynching tale when he wrote a letter to the Grand Haven Tribune, published in November 1899. The headline read: “Potts Confesses.”

“I may be able to assist in throwing a little light upon that genuine lynching affair alleged to have occurred (over) 40 years ago,” Potts wrote.
Potts recalled an “editorial” column he had written that was published in 1891 — “little piece of fiction," he called it — which first appeared in The Detroit Evening News and Grand Rapids Democrat. It was picked up and rewritten by other newspapers across the county as a matter of fact.

“Most of these papers referred to the story as a (literal) instance (in which) an innocent man had been convicted on circumstantial evidence and hung,” Potts wrote.

He explained he had written the fiction piece based on another “disappearance” case involving several Ottawa County men. Pott's story had been a figurative illustration to show how things can go wrong when common men decide to take the law into their own hands, not an actual case example.

The Nov. 2, 1891, Morning Call (San Francisco) cried out in a headline, “The fair name of Chester Wood cleared after 50 years.” However, as Hiram Potts explained in 1899, there never was a Chester Wood, or a Si Handsome Smugglers — he made it all up.

Thus, Chester Wood wasn't vindicated of murder at all — he never existed. Neither did Si Handsome Smugglers, the man he supposedly killed, for that matter.

 

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