2018-07-11 / Community View

High drama in the courtroom, 1830s style

BY JOYCE BONESTEEL
Contributing Writer


Lapeer County judges (from left) Norm Baguley, Marty Clements, Mike Dionese and John Connolly performed in a Channel 28 documentary about capital punishment in 1984. The historic courthouse served as an ideal setting for an 1837 trial that sent an innocent man to the gallows. Lapeer County judges (from left) Norm Baguley, Marty Clements, Mike Dionese and John Connolly performed in a Channel 28 documentary about capital punishment in 1984. The historic courthouse served as an ideal setting for an 1837 trial that sent an innocent man to the gallows. LAPEER — A young Irish Catholic was hanged in 1837 for a heinous crime he did not commit. Patrick Fitzpatrick, who lived in Detroit but met his death in Canada, was the subject of a documentary filmed here in 1984.

Channel 28 from the University of Michigan-Flint zoomed in on the historic courthouse on Nepessing Street for a reenactment of the doomed man’s trial. It was the only court they could find that would have been used in that era, producer/director Ella Ruggles said. The television cameras were here 34 years ago this week.

Four county judges were among 50 or more Lapeer people who performed in the trial scenes. Most applied their own stage makeup and brought period costumes from home. Men in top hats, women in bonnets and lots of lace promendaded up and down the courthouse steps.

“I couldn’t have picked a better crew if I had held auditions,” Ruggles said. “The people in Lapeer were just beautiful. We owe a lot to Marian Churchill and the historical society.”

Judges John Connolly, Mike Dionese, Norm Baguley and Marty Clements wore black robes and white powdered wigs. Attorney David Churchill did, too. It was standard attire for judges and lawyers in the 1830s when criminal trials commonly placed four judges on the bench.

The Lapeer Historical Society, as it was then called, was instrumental in working with the television crew. Everything fell into place. The only glitch was a shortage of wigs. Three were costume pieces, the fourth was a woman’s wig that Connolly was stuck wearing during production. Churchill and Baguley took turns donning one of the long wigs, meaning they could not appear together in the courtroom scenes.

Tom Coffey, a U of M sociology professor, researched the Fitzpatrick case and concluded the tragic hanging of an innocent man influenced state legislators to permanently abolish capital punishment in Michigan. It was the first state to do so.

Fitzpatrick was in his late 20s when he traveled to Amhertsburg, Ontario. One evening, in the spring of 1837, he went into Bullock’s Tavern to quench his thirst. One drink led to another and he spent the night. Maurice Sellars, a hired hand, shared his room.

Some time in the wee hours, as Fitzpatrick lay snoring, sleeping off his brew, Sellars stealthily crawled out of bed and tiptoed from the room. He snuck down the dark hallway to the bedroom of the tavern owner’s 9-year-old daughter, where the girl was sleeping, and raped her. Later, she pointed her finger at Fitzpatrick and said he was the man who assaulted her.

The Irishman denied all wrongdoing but was thrown in the nearest jail, where he was held during the sweltering summer months and into early autumn, awaiting trial. He was declared guilty and hanged in a public ceremony Oct. 9 in Sandwich, Ontario.

Three years later, as Sellars lay dying, his deathbed confession exonerated Fitzpatrick and restored his good name. Too late, of course, for the Detroit man who died because of Sellars’ evil deed. Nine years later, Coffey said, state lawmakers removed the gallows from Michigan’s laws.

The trial scenes at the historic courthouse in Lapeer were among dozens filmed across southeastern Michigan and southern Ontario for Channel 28’s documentary on capital punishment. The narrated 30-minute movie was to be aired later in the year.

Mike Arnholt, then editor of The Lapeer County Press, wrote the story. It was published July 18, 1984, the week after the local filming wrapped up. The pictures were taken by Joe Bybee, the newspaper’s photographer at the time. A photo not used in this column showed local actors standing on the courthouse steps in the rain. The television cameraman had covered himself in clear plastic from head to toe.

Leon Trojanowski, a friend of mine, likes reading the stories of Oakdale Center. Perhaps because he worked there for so many years. He remembers Charlie Marshalick, the resident with two newspaper routes featured in this column space a week ago. And Rose Clancy, who sold The Lapeer County Press at the state home back in the day.

One of Leon’s favorite residents was a Polish man who, like many others, probably should not have been placed in an institution for the mentally retarded. Because the guy’s face was terribly disfig- ured his speech was a tad difficult to understand. You had to know him, I guess. He was disabled by a stumbling gait.

The Polish man told Trojanowski he wanted to transfer to Clinton Valley, the state facility in Pontiac.

“No you don’t,” Leon said. “Yes I do,” the resident said. They argued back and forth. The man also bickered his case with social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and anyone else who told him Pontiac was not the place for him. He was not impressed by their PhDs.

“You guys don’t know anything,” he said. “I’m smarter than all of you. I can read and write in two languages. How many (languages) can you understand?” It was true, Trojanowski said. The resident subscribed to a Polish newspaper from Hamtramck, printed in his native language. Trojanowski had seen him write letters in Polish to friends and family back home.

“I know why he wanted to transfer,” Trojanowski said. “He was no dummy.” After 30 days of residency in Pontiac, or something like that, the man could have signed himself out. At Oakdale the privilege did not exist.

Writing about the destruction of the old brick buildings a few weeks back triggered memories of going to city hall and asking if I could buy some of the bricks. In the early 1970s, when the state home was still a vibrant place, my mother was among the many people who purchased old red bricks from the front buildings that were torn down.

Mom lined her bricks up on the ground next to the porch, the same plot of dirt where grandma’s peonies once grew. Grandma fertilized her flowers with chicken manure and they flourished. After she was dead and gone, my folks bought the place and soon had to put in a new well. It was dug right next to the house, near the old cistern in the cellar.

The well driller dug up a metal airplane that would have belonged to my Uncle Bob when he was a boy. It was rusted, of course. In sorry shape. Construction of the well caused the destruction of grandma’s peonies and they never surfaced again. It was after that when the state home bricks were laid down. It didn’t take long for them to crumble and the weeds to surface.

But I digress.

A woman at city hall told me I had to talked to the contractor about bricks. That would have been Diamond Dismantling of Detroit. I don’t remember the supervisor’s name. Only that he was ruggedly good-looking and kind.

“We’re here from 8 a.m. to 4:30 every day,” he said. “Then we leave. What happens after 4:30, I don’t care about.”

Green light! I was driving a forest green S-10 at the time. Lord knows I loved that truck. I went home and returned to the wreckage site late that afternoon, after the demolition crew was gone. Unfortunately, it was early January and the bricks were frozen in the snow. Big piles of rubbish were heaped in front of former building sites, waiting to be hauled away.

I salvaged a few dozen bricks, maybe less. By then my fingers were half-frozen. Driving slowly past the trash piles, I saw a small wooden cupboard sticking out of the mess. Just a cheap unit, really. Worth a dollar or two at a rummage sale. That, too, went in the back of my truck.

Decades later, the bricks from Oakdale are in the pole barn, in a far corner of my hay field. They’ll probably still be there when I’m dead and gone. The cupboard is nailed to the east wall in my real barn, made out of timber and boards. The two doors have never stayed shut. You can see the terra cotta pots on the two shelves, covered with dust.

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