GH man makes shocking deathbed confession

Although Norman Burnette was a neighbor and friend to many Grand Haven residents, nobody really knew him. Not even his wife.
Kevin Collier
Jun 24, 2013

He lived on a farm a few miles south of the city from 1878 to 1880. When the angel of death came knocking, a secret emerged.

            Burnette was actually born Norman B. Cross. He was the subject of a nationwide manhunt for about four years, which began near Richmond, Va.

            While little is known of him, outside of press reports, a deathbed confession to his physician in March 1880 closed the book on a cold-case homicide.

            It was reported in Virginia newspapers in the fall of 1875 that Norman B. Cross was an illustrated Bible salesman who was traveling near Richmond when an altercation occurred. According to reports, Cross got into an argument with an African-American male, which resulted in a fist fight. The man's friends quickly came to his aid.

            It was written “the Bible agent” was “surrounded” by a number of African-Americans and “felt his life was in danger.”

            That is when Cross seized an axe and struck his opponent in the head, “causing almost instant death,” one report said. Cross then fled the scene and the man died where he lay.

            The racially motivated attack prompted 50-60 men — some “white, as well” — to give chase. But Cross eluded capture by hiding out in the woods, then taking a train four days after the murder, bringing him to Wheeling, W.Va.

            When arriving in Wheeling, Cross picked up newspapers and, upon seeing reports of the murder, his description and name in print, he shaved his beard, dyed his hair and changed his apparel. Newspapers reported officers from “all over the country” were looking for him. Now a fugitive on the run, Cross made his way in early 1876 to Chicago, where he went to work at a restaurant for several weeks using the name Norman Burnette.

            Fear of capture didn't allow Cross to stay in any one place for too long. Thus, he next journeyed to Davenport, Iowa. It was there that Cross “sent for his wife,” one report said. It appeared Cross had been married at the time of the murder, and it was written he had “corresponded meanwhile.”

            The couple remained in Davenport until 1878. Cross was certain law enforcement had traced his whereabouts, so he and wife packed up and moved to Michigan, settling on a small farm a few miles south of Grand Haven.

            After two years as a resident, Cross became ill in January 1880, brought on by a hernia. For the last six weeks of his life, the man known as Norman Burnette was confined to his house. A March 26, 1880, Detroit Free Press article stated that Cross' “legs from his feet to his knees were fairly decomposed.”

            Knowing his demise was near, Cross confided in his attending doctor his shocking secret.

            “Cross confessed his identity and his crime to his doctor,” the Free Press reported. “He also gave the name of a brother (to inform upon his death) who resides in Maple Rapids, Mich.”

            Cross died in mid-March 1880, and it was reported that he was buried by Ottawa County "authorities.”

            However, Ottawa County death records list no one named Norman B. Cross or Norman Burnette. It's possible, not knowing his true name, the county buried him as an "unknown" in Potter's Field in Grand Haven's Lake Forest Cemetery.

            The Free Press stated “for nearly two years in Grand Haven” Cross had “been known as Norman Burnette." It was also reported his wife had been completely unaware of the murder her husband had confessed to. “Cross, who left his wife in very destitute circumstances, was utterly ignorant of his crime.”

            Census records do not record Burnette, or Cross, as having lived in Ottawa County. But records show a Floyd Cross, the approximate age to have been a brother to Norman, living in Maple Rapids in 1880. Floyd Cross reportedly had no interest in receiving his brother's body for burial.

            Norman B. Cross' deathbed confession made headlines in several state newspapers, including the Three Rivers Times. But for the most part, the cold case was virtually forgotten when Cross identified himself in Grand Haven more than four years after the murder. Thus, uncovering corresponding 1880 reports of the killer's confession in Virginia newspapers proved futile.

            It appears that, when Cross became Norman Burnette, he was successful to some degree of erasing his true identity. Traces of information indicate Michigan as his birthplace, but it remains unknown where he was born.

            Whatever became of his wife is a mystery, too.

            Nearly 140 years ago, a traveling Bible salesman killed a man in a racially motivated quarrel. He altered his appearance, brandished a new name, but didn't die without a mystery being solved.

Much like his affliction, which in the end was eating away at him, Cross' conscience was, too. And, for a brief moment in time, residents of Grand Haven who had called Burnette a friend discovered that, just when you think you know someone, you don't.

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