The Strange Case of the Red Icicles and Storm-Swept Corpse

The Strange Case of the Red Icicles and Storm-Swept Corpse

Eighth Article in the Series: Michigan’s Unsolved Murders

By Ralph Goll and Donald F. Schram 

Detroit Free Press, 7 March 1943, p. 58

(NOTE:  Sylvester Vaughan, the deputy sheriff mentioned in this article, is my great-grandfather, one of Iosco County’s pioneer residents.) 

From the wave-pounded beach at Forest, Ontario, a group of volunteer life guards stared into the spindrift, bodies braced against a wind that was just beginning to subside after a week of violent storms.  It was June 30, 1885, and Lake Huron had taken a heavy toll of the lumbering and fishing fleets, but a dory built only for use in quiet waters had lived through the blow in some unaccountable fashion and was now being hurled toward the shore with its lone occupant.   

Each time the tiny craft reappeared after sliding down a trough in the white-capped seas, the wonderment of the watchers grew, for by every law of nature it should have been swamped.  Awesome, too, was the figure crouched between the seats, apparently as little concerned with danger as with rescue. 

“He don’t see us,” shouted one of the men who stood ready with ropes and life preservers.  His words were driven back into his throat by the savage nor’wester. 

A moment later a mighty comber caught the dory, spun it crazily and flung it high up on the sand.  Half blinded by the spray, the men of Forest laid hold on the boat and dragged it beyond the reach of the waves before anyone noticed that their efforts had served only to recover a corpse.  The cadaver was that of a middle-aged man of medium stature.  Through the hair and heavy beard plastered to his head several gaping wounds showed.  A rope had been passed around his middle, binding him to the stern thwart. 

At first glance it seemed obvious that he had lashed himself to the dory, fearing that he would be swept overboard, and afterward, his consciousness lost, had been pounded to death as the boat rolled and plunged.  However, an attempt to move the body revealed that the ankles had been bound together and the arms tied behind the back.  

A Scotsman in the crowd propounded, “’Tis a murdered mon wha’s come oot o’ the loch.”  The French-Canadians crossed themselves. 

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Soon the provincial police of Ontario were on the scene.  Their examination of the dead boatman left no doubt that he had been killed through a human agency, although no one could satisfactorily explain why he had been set adrift when so many other and better means of disposing of a body must have occurred to the murderer.  Just so, the rowboat’s ability to weather the storm was regarded as something of a miracle. 

Had he been cast away by a Great Lakes pirate after the traditions of the Spanish Main?  Not since Sile Doty cruised the inland seas had there been an authentic case of the kind, and old Sile was dead after serving 15 years in the Jackson (Michigan) prison.  The Canadian authorities were about to order the burial of the corpse when a Michigan lumberman wandered into the undertaking establishment where it reposed.  He carefully scrutinized the bloated and gashed features before going on record with an identification. 

“This man,” he stated, “is Henry B. Farrington, once the proprietor of a jewelry shop in Au Sable, Michigan, and later a life convict in Jackson, Michigan.” 

Others who had known Farrington appeared and corroborated the identification.  The Ontario police, claiming that the body had drifted out of waters under the jurisdiction of the United States, placed the burden of investigating the murder on Michigan authorities. 

The news that the former jeweler had been slain was received with satisfaction by many residents of Au Sable, for the crime for which he had been convicted branded him one of the most vicious of the many murderers who infested the northern part of the State during the lumbering days. 

Trail of a Bloody Ax

The Farrington murder saga had begun on the night of October 26, 1875, when the body of William Stewart, a prosperous butcher, was found sprawled in front of the American House on Au Sable’s Water Street.  Stewart’s head had been split by a blow from an ax—one of the favorite weapons of the period.  It was soon established that he had been robbed of $1,000 which he had collected the previous day from a lumber camp which bought its meat supplies from him. 

With robbery appearing to have been the motive for the slaying, Deputy Sheriff Sylvester Vaughan immediately focused his investigation on the hotel, which happened at the time to be filled with lumberjacks, many of whom had minor criminal records.  Routed from their rooms, the lumber camp workers offered a variety of alibis which could not be substantiated.  Some who had been drinking heavily could not remember when they went to bed.  Others admitted that they left the hotel during the night.  Nearly all possessed axes, but none of the tools was blood-stained. 

As the body had been removed to an undertaking establishment before the authorities were notified, Deputy Vaughan had not examined the board walk in front of the hotel, but now that day had broken, he gave it his attention. 

“Stewart was not killed at the point where his body was found,” he told other officers.  “There isn’t enough blood on the walk.  Somebody dumped the corpse in front of the hotel for the purpose of casting suspicion on its guests.” 

Interviewing Stewart’s wife a little later, the deputy sheriff learned that she had made two trips along Water Street in search of the butcher and had passed the American House each time without seeing him. 

“Where could Stewart have gone after leaving his shop?” Vaughan asked. 

The wife was unable to offer any suggestions, but from another source the deputy learned that the butcher had been seen entering a millinery and dress store operated by Mrs. Mary Waters, a young widow.  The hour was then about midnight and under ordinary circumstances the place would have been closed long before. 

Mrs. Waters’ shop was one of two stores in a building that stood within a stone’s throw of the American House.  The other was the jewelry establishment of which Henry B. Farrington was the proprietor.  As Farrington lived in the store, it was thought probable that the witness had erred in stating that Stewart had gone into the dress shop. 

Questioned at length, the comely widow denied that she had seen the butcher during the night.  She had closed the shop at an early hour and had then retired to her room in a boarding house, she said.  Vaughan was not satisfied with the woman’s story and was soon able to disprove it.  Her calm then broken, she poured out a story of illicit romance, in which Stewart, as well as several other businessmen, had figured. 

“Stewart did stop at my shop, but he stayed only a few minutes and left soon after 11 o’clock,” she said.  “I supposed that he was going home.” 

As Mrs. Waters had named Farrington as one of her suitors, the officers called next at his store.  Although it was then midmorning the jewelry shop was still closed.  Their persistent pounding on the door finally brought an angry response from Farrington and they entered. 

“I cut my foot with an ax yesterday while killing a chicken,” Farrington said.  “It’s hard for me to walk.  That’s why I didn’t open the store this morning.” 

The jeweler displayed a bandaged foot. 

Asserting that he had not seen Stewart for several days, he readily consented to an inspection of the premises.  Noticing that the kitchen floor had been scrubbed almost white, Deputy Sheriff Vaughan asked what had been spilled there. 

“I sat there while I was attending my foot and lost a lot of blood,” said Farrington. 

As the jeweler had never been involved in any criminal activity to Vaughan’s knowledge, he did not feel justified in asking him to remove the bandage at the moment.  However, he stepped out of a rear door which overlooked the Au Sable River and found that the kitchen rested on poles. 

The space between the floor and river bank made it possible for him to crawl under the building.  There he came upon a sight which left him with no doubt that Stewart had come to his death in Farrington’s place.  Dangling from the kitchen floor at a point directly under the spot which Farrington had gone to such pains to scrub was a row of red icicles.  On the ground was a great pool of frozen blood.  It was obvious that such a loss of blood would have brought death to the jeweler. 

Saying nothing of his discovery, Vaughan called his companions from the shop.  A half hour later they were back with a warrant charging Farrington with murder.  While Farrington cursed furiously, revealing a side of his nature of which none of the townspeople had been aware, the officers made a thorough search of the store and living quarters.  Neither an ax nor any considerable amount of money was found. 

Undismayed, Vaughan ordered Farrington to strip the bandage from his foot.  When he refused, the cloth wrapping was forcibly torn away.  It then became apparent that he had incurred no injury of any sort.  Later the search was extended to a small shed beside the river.  There the officers came upon an ax, the bit of which exactly fitted the cleft in Stewart’s skull. 

Pleading innocence and making every effort to delay justice, Farrington remained in the Tawas City jail for almost two years.  Early in October, 1877, he was brought to trial before a jury of lumbermen.  Although the evidence against him was purely circumstantial, it took the jurors only 30 minutes to reach a verdict finding him guilty of murder in the first degree. 

Farrington leaped to his feet and launched into a terrible denunciation of the court, jury, sheriff, prosecutor and even his own lawyers.  Everyone associated with the case had been guilty of conspiring against a man who was guiltless, he said.  His rabid outburst reacted against him, for while citizens of Au Sable and Tawas City had believed in his innocence before the trial, his conduct now convinced them that he had always been a completely vicious character. 

“I’ll be back,” Farrington vowed.  “I’ll prove that I am innocent and take vengeance for the injustice that has been done in my case.” 

Sentenced to life imprisonment, Farrington made desperate attempts to escape from the Tawas City jail before he was removed to Jackson prison.  Toward the keeper responsible for preventing his breaks he became particularly venomous. 

Threats of Vengeance Thwarted

The fear which the jeweler inspired subsided, only to rise to greater proportions when on December 21, 1884, he received an unconditional pardon from Governor Josiah W. Begole.  For months nothing was heard of Farrington.  Then in May, 1885, he appeared in Tawas City. 

Whether the ex-convict had returned in the hope of proving his innocence or for the purpose of exacting vengeance, no one knew.  From a saloonkeeper came information that Farrington was attempting to establish the whereabouts of the jailer who frustrated his attempts to escape. 

Sheriff J. W. Larktree arrested him soon afterward and he was arraigned and jailed on a charge of conspiring to kill his old enemy.  Confined with him was a lumberjack named Dick Burke whom he had known in Au Sable.  In fact, Burke had been one of the timber workers who had been questioned in connection with Stewart’s murder. 

Farrington became strangely docile during his second period in the Tawas City jail, Sheriff Larktree noting that he was showing great interest in his fellow prisoner.  Had the former jeweler invited a jail sentence for the sole purpose of gaining Burke’s confidence and perhaps proving that the lumberjack had slain Stewart? 

On the morning of June 2, 1885, a deputy sheriff found the adjoining cells occupied by Farrington and Burke empty.  Apparently Farrington, a skilled artisan, had fabricated a key from a spoon and taken Burke with him in his flight.  The following day a fisherman reported that his rowboat had been stolen from its mooring place on the lakefront. 

All trace of the fugitives was then lost until Farrington’s battered body rode a boat into the harbor at Forest, Ontario.  Sheriff Larktree attempted to find Burke, but the lumberjack had vanished from Michigan, never to be seen again.  Did he murder Farrington to escape implication in the death of the Au Sable butcher? 

To some residents of Tawas City it seemed likely that the one-time jewelry shop owner had been beaten to death on the night of the escape.  A strong off-shore wind had been blowing at the time, making it possible for the killer to rid himself of the body by lashing it to the boat. 

It was suggested that if Burke had not been responsible for Farrington’s death, one of the many men whom the ex-convict had threatened might have committed the murder, acting under the compulsion of fear. 

In any event, the slaying of the convicted murderer remains unsolved—the tale of his passing on the storm-tossed waters of Lake Huron constituting as much of a mystery as thew forces which apparently caused him to abandon a career as a respected jeweler and sink an ax into the head of a fellow townsman.