Editor’s Note: Stephen Lewis is an Old Mission Peninsula author whose fictional books about the real-life Woodruff Parmelee-Julia Curtis story below, Murder on Old Mission and Murder Undone, are available at Horizon Books and online by clicking through the following links:
- Murder On Old Mission Paperback
- Murder On Old Mission Kindle
- Murder Undone Paperback
- Murder Undone Kindle
Read on as Steve tells the real-life story about the murder of Julia Curtis…
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On April 29, 1895, 22-year-old Julia Curtis left her family’s farm in Archie on Old Mission Peninsula carrying a basket in which she intended to put the arbutus she would gather. When she did not return, her parents organized a search party of some 40 neighbors. After 20 hours, they found her lying dead in an area off East Bay that locals called the “Hemlock Swamp.”
Early headlines trumpeted the suspicion of foul play in her death, and attention turned to Woodruff Parmelee, with whom it was known she was romantically involved. After a trial that attracted statewide attention, Parmelee was convicted and sentenced to life in solitary confinement at hard labor.
Having written two historical novels based on that trial, I find myself still drawn to this perplexing case because any reading of the contemporaneous reports raises doubts about that verdict. Then, recently, thanks to Pat Sullivan at the Northern Express, I was made aware of an 1897 appeal of that conviction, which did two things: it confirmed the trial’s outcome while it did little to put to rest lingering doubts as to Parmelee’s guilt.
What gives those persistent doubts power is the startling fact that 20 years after Parmelee was sentenced as harshly as Michigan law, which did not have the death penalty, permitted, and factoring in the unsavory details of the case, such as the fact that Julia was half the age of the twice divorced Parmelee, and further that she was pregnant with his child, given all of those circumstances, for no apparent reason Governor Woodbridge Ferris saw fit to personally interview Parmelee at Jackson State Prison, and effect his release.
Did the governor so many years later come to doubt the verdict? If so, why? His action strongly encourages us to think there is something there that invites further examination.
When I decided to write a fictional version of this case, I read the voluminous coverage in the newspapers of that time. Among all that verbiage, these sentences jumped out at me:
Louie Parmelee the young son of the prisoner was then sworn. He saw his father going across the road about one o’clock. He saw him next, returning from the west, about four o’clock.
The son is providing an alibi. An alibi, if established, is a powerful defense. Clearly, a person cannot be in two places at the same time. If Parmelee, as his son testified, was coming from an area near West Bay where the two of them were clearing brush for a new road, and the body was found adjacent to East Bay, he seems to have an alibi. That bit of testimony became central to my fictional version of the story. Without it, I would have told the story in an entirely different way.
But apparently, the alibi did not convince the jury.
Nor did Parmelee’s attorneys even mention it in the appeal they filed two years after the trial. My research did not bring up the actual appeal, but what is available is the statement issued by the court in denying it. That statement summarizes the points raised by Parmelee’s lawyers. As each point is rebutted, we can see how thin the case against Parmelee actually was.
The appeal stood on three legs, each one of which was cut down by the appeals court. The first leg was that there was no corpus delecti, that is no crime. The argument here is that Julia, possibly distraught at her pregnancy, committed suicide by overdosing on laudanum, as a half-filled bottle of that drug was found next to the body. An overdose of opium based laudanum certainly could be fatal. The autopsy revealed such injuries as a collapsed windpipe pointing toward strangulation.
Although the appeals court indicated that an overdose of laudanum could produce the same injuries, it states that no laudanum was found in Julia’s stomach. On the other hand it also was conceded that the drug might show up in other organs that were not tested. Finally, the coroners who conducted the autopsy had never done one on a strangulation.
The prosecution argued that Parmelee arranged to meet Julia, and then brutally strangled her, putting his knee on her stomach and his hand over her mouth. Perhaps so. But what role, if any, did the laudanum play? The prosecution also contends that a similar bottle was seen in Parmelee’s house, but not in hers. The point about the bottle of laudanum is unclear. Did Parmelee intend to drug Julia, then kill her? If she did drink the laudanum, she would have been high, and that argues against the violence the prosecution describes.
The second leg of the appeal is the possibility that there was, in fact, a crime, but not one committed by Parmelee. The appeal points to another man, a farmhand, who was working nearby, and who left a couple of days after the body was found. The court dismissed the possibility of this particular alternative perpetrator based on the fact that he was working in the company of another man. Is that a stronger argument than Louie’s alibi?
Here is where one would expect Parmelee’s lawyers to assert that alibi, but since the court does not mention it, apparently they did not. Not being an attorney, I can only guess that there was no way to reintroduce the son’s testimony into the appeal. It is also true that the reports of the trial in the newspapers give little emphasis to the boy’s testimony. Louie was 15 at the time, so it would seem that he was old enough for his testimony to carry some weight.
The third leg of the appeal concerned the prosecutor’s inflammatory language that Parmelee’s lawyers contended went too far in prejudicing the jury, which they said, was like a mob thirsting for Parmelee’s blood. The court simply noted that the judge instructed the jury to ignore the intemperate remarks of both sides.
This last point leads to a central issue: it indicates that it is highly unlikely that Parmelee received a fair trial, at least by modern standards. It seems clear that the residents of Traverse City were hostile toward the defendant. The newspaper reports of the trial state that on the day of the verdict being delivered, the overflowing crowd that could not get into the courtroom instead stared through the windows. This was, after all, 1895, the end of the Victorian era, when, at least in public, morality in sexual matters was demanded, and Parmelee did not conform to those expectations.
The prosecution could provide no witness to put Parmelee where Julia was found. What was offered instead was supposed forensic evidence. Hair said to belong to the victim was found on a twig near the body, and another hair, thought to be Parmelee’s, was found on the ground near her body. But these hairs were not submitted to a CSI crime lab, for there was none such available. These hair samples are all that place Parmelee at the scene.
Finally, the prosecutor did not present a persuasive argument for motive. He did argue that Parmelee was the cause of Julia’s “shame,” her pregnancy, and somehow this was motive for killing her. Although this reading is consistent with the late Victorian morality mentioned above, it does not seem plausible. Parmelee was twice married, twice divorced. His second wife left him when she was pregnant. His previous pattern was to marry, impregnate his wife, then move on to another relationship. Why would he feel it necessary to kill his young mistress because she was carrying his child?
From this distance, Parmelee seems more to be a careless man, not well suited to monogamy, but not one who would murder to avoid the revelation of the shame of having impregnated a woman who was not (yet) his wife. Recall the prosecutor’s description of how the murderer placed a knee on the pregnant girl’s stomach. If that were Parmelee, and he was aware of her “shame,” the act seems a gratuitous assault on the part of the body beneath which was his forming child. Wouldn’t killing them both be sufficient? In my fictional treatment, I gave my Parmelee character a motive the historical Parmelee seems to have lacked.
To return to the initial question, we still do not know to a certainty who killed Julia Curtis. But we also can see that he was convicted on the slimmest of evidence, no doubt amplified and given credibility by the obvious hostility of his “peers.”
Which leads to one last irony. Unfortunately, the newspapers from the time Parmelee was released are not now available. What the public record does reveal is that he returned to Traverse City, lived in various places in town, including with Louie, listed himself sometimes as a farmer, other times as the carpenter he had been, and generally, from this scant evidence, seems to have integrated himself back into the community. He stayed at the Porter House in 1939 and died at the State Hospital in 1942.
His obituary only mentions that he was a member of a pioneering family on the Peninsula, not that he was a convicted murderer.
Perhaps the obituary writer had it right after all.
Additional Note from Amy Barritt, Special Collections Librarian at the Traverse Area District Library, about the photo at the top of this story:
“I’ve talked about this image with other local history people before. It is definitely from a glass plate negative, and the handwriting looks like S.E. Wait’s (from other photographs that we know are his), so I’ve always figured this was a staged photograph.
“Although Wait was one of the few people in town who would have had the equipment and know-how to photograph a crime scene, I’m not sure the local police would’ve called him in to do it. Much more likely he got one of this daughters to “play dead” for this shot. It has sort of an artsy, deliberate feel to the set-up of the shot. If he was there to capture the body, why have it way off to the side? Shouldn’t it be front and center?
“Also, this is the only image of Curtis’ “body” that has ever turned up. You would think there would be multiple shots and angles, if Wait was trying to capture a crime scene.”