1932 Murder of teen shook Free Soil; justice was swift. 

August 3, 2022

A crowd gathered at the house where the body of Evelyn Sanford was found, on the west side of the Village of Free Soil.

1932 Murder of teen shook Free Soil; justice was swift. 

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

History Around the County is a presentation of Preferred Credit Union, www.preferredcu.org, located locally at 266 N. Jebavy Dr., Ludington.

Editor’s Note: I would like to thank Jake O’Brien for suggesting I research this case. 

Like any history story I research and write, my information is mostly based on published and online accounts of the topic. The information comes from newspaper articles along, records from the Mason County Clerk’s Office, census documents, plat books, and family trees posted on Ancestry.com. Sometimes the information may not be 100% accurate and I certainly welcome feedback from people who may have other knowledge of the incident. If you have more information on this topic, please email me at editor@masoncountypress.com. 

Also please note, I try to use the words written at the time. Most people wrote Free Soil as one word, Freesoil. While this is still common practice to this day, it is inaccurate. See my 2019 history article on the naming of Free Soil for more details. 

Evelyn Sanford

The murder of a popular 17-year-old girl 90 years ago brought the Village of Free Soil into the national spotlight. The murder occurred in the late hours of Saturday, July 30, 1932. By Wednesday, the body had been found and the murderer was captured and confessed. By the end of the week, he was on his way to prison. 

Evelyn L. Sanford was born June 26, 1915 in Free Soil, the daughter of Edwin (1887-1968) and Grace “Gracie” (Brusso) Sanford (1885-1984), who lived on a farm west of the village. The Sanfords had one other daughter, Vivian Mae (Feb. 1, 1923-Oct. 5, 2005), who was 9-years-old at the time of the murder.  Evelyn was described in newspapers as the “prettiest girl in Free Soil.” She had just graduated with the Free Soil High School class of 1932. While in school she was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, The Broadcaster (published weekly in the Ludington Daily News), secretary-treasurer of her senior class, was secretary of the school science club, and served in many other school activities. 

Francis “Rusty” Nash was born in 1901 in Free Soil, the son of Elsie Adelia Nash. From the records I can find, and considering that Francis had the same surname as his mother’s maiden name, it appears that Francis was born out of wedlock. While this is fairly common in 2022, it was rather taboo in 1901. According to the 1910 census, Francis was living with his grandparents, Francis “Frank” Henry (1845-1920) and Helen Frances (Genson, 1852-1921) Nash in Free Soil. The census report states household members: Frank Nash, 64; Helen Nash, 57; Floyd Nash, 21 (son); and Francis Nash, 8 (grandson). In a 1910 census, Elsie is listed as working as a servant in a hotel in Manistee, where she also lived. On March 23, 1912, she married John P. Egolf in Kent County. On Dec. 4, 1920, they divorced in Muskegon County. On May 21, 1922 she married Walter W. Davis in Free Soil. Walter died in 1946 at the age of 68 and Elsie died in 1948 at the age of 69. They are both buried in the Maple Grove Cemetery in Free Soil Township. 

Frank Nash was a Civil War veteran who was captured in 1864 and placed in a Confederate prison camp in Macon, Georgia until the end of the war. He and Helen were married in 1869 in Sherman Township. Helen gave birth to 11 children. Three of those children are listed as dying either at birth or within their first year (not uncommon for that era). Interestingly, the Nashes named their second born child Elsie E. (born in 1872), who died that same year. Then in 1880, they name their sixth born child Elsie A. (1880-1948), which was also not uncommon for that era. 

Francis’s name doesn’t appear in many newspaper articles prior to the murder, except in a March 25, 1930 Ludington Daily News news brief: “Two more Mason County boys have enrolled for Citizens’ Military Training Camps this summer. They are George F. LaGuire and Francis W. Nash, both of Free Soil.”

Photo taken on Aug. 8, 1932 of Francis Nash with a Michigan State Police trooper.

The disappearance of Evelyn Sanford shook Mason County. Because the incident happened late on Saturday, it didn’t hit the local newspapers until Monday. In big bold letters on top of the Aug. 1, 1932 Ludington Daily News, the headline read: “State-Wide Hunt for Missing Girl.” 

The article’s lede seemed optimistic: “One of the most baffling cases in recent Mason county history seems little nearer solution today as forces under Sheriff George Colyer and state police continue a wide-spread hunt for pretty 17-year-old Evelyn Sanford, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Sanford, prominent residents of Freesoil township, who mysteriously disappeared between 10:00 and 10:30 Saturday night.” 

The article states that the sheriff and state police only had “the most meager clues to work on.” Besides law enforcement, many citizens were also helping with the search. 

“Evelyn, called by Freesoil residents one of the most attractive girls of the district, was last seen walking west on the main road between Freesoil and US 31 headed for her home one half mile west of the village.” 

The “main road” is known as Michigan Street in the village and Free Soil Road outside of the village limits. At that time, the western village limits of the village ended at what is now Custer Road. Most roads in Mason County were not given names until the late 1940s. 

“She had spent the evening Freesoil and shortly before departing had called at the telephone office to converse with a friend, Mrs. Fay LaGuire, well known resident of the village, who was that evening substituting for the regular telephone operator, Mrs. Marion Seltz.”

“A human chain of state police, sheriff’s deputies and citizens today moved thru the swamps near Free Soi, Mich., in search of the body of missing Evelyn Sanford, pretty blond high school girl,” an Associate Press story in the Coschocton, Ohio Tribune reported. “The searchers, 100 strong, were deployed thru the brush for traces of the popular 17-year-old Free Soil high school graduate. They felt it was certain if her body is in the brush this method of searching will reveal it. 

Evelyn Sanford’s grave in Maple Grove Cemetery, Free Soil Township.

“Developments in the 48-hour hunt led Sheriff George Colyer of Mason co. to believe Miss Sanford had been slain and her body deposited close to the quicksands of Mud Lake, about one-half mile from the lonely road where she was last seen Saturday night.”

Mud Lake was located northwest of the village in section 16 of Free Soil Township, near the railroad tracks and modern intersection of Custer and Treml roads. The land is listed as part of the Manistee National Forest. 

“Sheriff Colyer said he inclined to the theory the girl had been slain because of the finding of strains of her blond hair and threads of a yellow skirt, similar to that the girl wore, in the swamp, giving evidence of a struggle.

“The girl’s parents still clung to the hope she is alive and being held for ransom. Sanford, a well-to-do farmer, joined in the search for his daughter. 

“George Beugge, a neighbor, told police he hard the girl’s screams about 10 o’clock Saturday night and saw Evelyn walking alone. 

“Police questioned Beugge in the hope he might be able to offer some clue that would aid in their search to furnish any additional information. 

“They also interviewed Charles Anderson and Clarence Alquist who told police they saw the girl walking along the road the night she disappeared.” 

Shortly after noon on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 1913, Evelyn’s body was found in a cellar (basement) of an abandoned house on the west side of the village. 

The extensive front page headline in the Aug. 3, 1932 Ludington Daily News read: “GIRL IS FOUND IN HOVEL AT REAR OF NASH HOME; Four-Day Search For Evelyn Sanford Ends Abruptly As Lonely Hut Yields Partly Clad Corpse Buried In Sand; Clue Given By Fresh Earth, Corp. Munger, Posseman, Make Ghastly Find Today; Spade Leaning Against Wall, Signs That Dirt Was Recently Turned, Lead To Body’s Finding; Entire Freesoil District Aroused And Grief-Stricken; Francis Nash Held By State Police”

The article then gave some details: 

“The four-day baffling search for Evelyn Sanford came to an abrupt end at 12:15 this noon when her partly-clad body was unearthed in the cellar of an unpainted, abandoned hut directly back of the farm home where Francis “Rusty” Nash lived alone. The body was buried in 18 inches of sand.

“The discovery was made by Corporal Colburn Munger of the state police, accompanied by Harold Pfeiffer, 20, of Manistee. Returning from the swamp where they had been working they went directly to Nash’s home. Noting the lonely hovel, and an open cellarway in particular, they advanced to investigate. 

“Proceeding down the cellarway they ran into a spade standing against the wall at the bottom. Earth in the basement had plainly been freshly turned.

“In the next three minutes the strange and brutal mystery that has had local and state authorities at a stand-still for four long, wearisome days, was solved tragically. Thin hopes of villagers and police that Evelyn was still alive were shattered. 

“Amid wild excitement villagers and police and volunteers, many of them American Legion men from Manistee and Ludington, who were still combing the swamplands at the time of the discovery, poured to the region of the house. 

“Coroner Rupert Stephens of Scottville was summoned immediately by Sheriff George L. Colyer.

“The abandoned, now gruesome hut in the cellar of which the body of Evelyn was found, is known to resident of Freesoil as the ‘Bill Hartwell place.’ Mr. Hartwell, an erstwhile resident, is said to reside at present in Detroit. The structure has been vacant for some time.

“It is situated on a north and south side street, at the rear of Nash’s home about a half mile east of the spot where police found positive evidences of a severe struggle in the swamp just off the main highway.

“Nash, who was taken to Manistee and held in the jail there incommunicado last evening, was still being detained there at an early hour this afternoon. Preparations were made to take him from the jail later in the afternoon, but police did not indicate what their plan is.

“State troopers said it had not been determined in what manner the girl met her death. The uncovered body had not as yet been removed.”

Another story on the front page of the newspaper updated that the body had been removed. 

“The corpse of Evelyn Sanford has been removed from the dark, low-ceilinged cellar where it was found to the Rupert Stephens mortuary, Scottville, where complete examination will be made by Coroner Rupert Stephens.” 

Mr. Stephens was the founder of Stephens Funeral Home which continues to operate as Wyman Funeral & Cremation. 

“The body, police reported to The News, was found in a narrow six-foot hole where it had been forced head first. The clothing had dropped toward the head and the legs were doubled. 

“A burlap gunny sack was found over the head. A belt form the grey coat the girl had carried was tied tightly around her neck. A piece of cord was bound about her face and mouth, apparently as if to hold a gag.

“Coroner Stephens said he had not made a thorough examination but that absence of blood and marks on her throat indicated strangulation. 

“News of finding the girl’s body was kept from her mother who was still in a very serious condition from worry.

“‘I was acting on no special tip of any sort,’ Corporal Munger, who found the body, told a News staff man shortly afterward. ‘I discovered the place merely by chance. Standing at the side of Nash’s home I noticed the other building. I noted the open cellarway and wandered over. The is now evidence.’ 

“Feeling in Freesoil is running very high.” 

According to an Aug. 5 Ludington Daily News article, sheriff deputy Charles Andersen, a former professional boxer, was the officer who realized Nash was likely a suspect. 

“Anderson heard Monday morning that Nash had not taken part in the search for the body of Evelyn Sunday.

“He went to Rusty’s place to question him. The officers had been there and left.

“‘Go out with these scratches on my face?’ Nash is said to have replied. ‘People would begin to suspect me right away.’ 

“Later Nash told how he had received the marks. They came when a branch had struck him while he was chopping an apple tree in his back yard is the story he gave. 

“Nash was said to have made the statement that Cal Edwards had been with him at the time. Cal could prove his story, he said. 

“The deputy, who had been accompanied by Fred Buegge at the time of the questioning decided to check on the account by quizzing Edwards.

“Cal told Andersen, the deputy said, that Rusty got only one scratch and that on his lip.

“‘I thought this was strange,’ Charley related. ‘There were more than one mark on Rusty’s face.’

“The deputy reported to the first officers he saw; they happened to be state police. His report added to the cumulative evidence which resulted in Rusty’s arrest.”

On Thursday, Aug. 4, 1932, Justice of the Peace Fred Schrader of Ludington issued an arrest warrant authorizing Sheriff Colyer to arrest Francis Nash for the murder of Evelyn Sanford. 

Later that day, Rusty Nash was taken to the Mason County Courthouse and appeared in front of Schrader. The court document reads:  

“That said accused person was duly arrested of said warrant, and brought before me, at my office in the City of Ludington in said County of Mason on the 4th day of August, A.D. 1932. That the said charge contained in said complaint and warrant was duly read to said accused person. That he, the said accused person, thereupon expressly waived an examination before me, the said Justice of the Peace, in regard to the said offense so charged against him; and whereas it was made to appear to me, the said Justice of the Peace, that said offense was committed as charged in said complaint and warrant, and that there was probable cause to believe said accused person to have been guilty thereof, and I, the said Justice of the Peace thereupon on the said 4th day of August A.D. 1932 required and ordered the said person, to answer to such information as might be filed against said accused person for said offense and to be committed to the county jail of the said County of Mason until the next term of said Court to answer to such information. 

“And I further certify and return that I did order the said accused person to be committed to the County Jail without bond to await trial at the next term of court in regard to the said offense so charged against the said accused.” 

Nash apparently wrote out a confession which was promptly released to the press. An Associated Press article appeared in the Aug. 4, 1932 Benton Harbor News-Palladium with the confession: 

“My name is Francis Nash and I am 31 years old. I am a single man and work at common labor. I have lived in Freesoil, Michigan nearly all my life. I have only been in trouble once before. 

“I was living in Freesoil on July 30, 1932. I was living alone in my own home, which is located on the west limits of the village. I believe that I was around some all day Saturday, July 30, a I don’t remember anything during the day. I ate supper on Saturday night at my mother’s place. After supper I went back to my own home and a little later I went across the street to the garage that is operated by Carl Stevenson there at Freesoil.

“After I was at the garage for a few minutes I went over to where some ball players had pulled the road roller out and taken it to the ball park. While I was looking at the place where the roller had been, Evelyn Sanford came walking into Freesoil. She spoke to me as she came along. Evelyn said “hello” to me as she went along. Evelyn went toward uptown and I went back to my home. 

“After Evelyn went on to town I went back and stayed until about dark, then I went to Stevenson’s garage for a few minutes and then I went up town that is, up to the village proper of Freesoil. I walked up the length of the town, that is, to Bennett’s store, and then back home. 

“I did not see Evelyn in the village of Freesoil during the night. As I got to my home on the west limits of Freesoil I saw three boys sitting in front of Stevenson’s garage. They were Calvin Edwards, Earl Edwards, and Ernest Rsacalla. 

Earl Edwards spoke to me. He said, ‘Come here, Rusy, I want to speak to you.’

“I told him to go to hell. I was going home and going to bed. I did go into my house and I did start to undress and go to bed. Then I changed my mind and I went out of the back door and went for a walk around the hill. This hill is on the Freesoil road west of my house and it is all swampy around the hill.

“After taking this walk around the hill west of my house, I started back toward my house. As I was on the return trip I met Evelyn Sanford walking along the highway toward her home. I was walking toward my home at the this time. Just as we met I took a step by her, then I tried to put my arm around her. Just then she hauled off and hit me in the face. Then I hit her once with my fist in the neck. She fell right down on the road.

“She just said ‘Rusty’ when I grabbed her, but when I hit her she did not make any noise or (unreadable) whatever. She never made a move or stir of any kind and that is what got me rattled and scared. Then I pushed her over the bank into the swamp land and I was so scared I did not know what to do. Then I went home and got a gunny sack and some rope out of Wilbur Johnson’s yard. Then I went across the corner of a field west of my home and down the road to where I left Evelyn. This was about 11 p.m. fast time (Central daylight) as near as I can remember at this time.

“Then I loaded her onto this two wheeled cart and I took her to the old house which is located just to the north of my home. This is the next house to mine. Then I took her around to the back of the house and then I took her down into the cellar. I never touched this girl sexually and never had anything to do with her along this line. When I got back to Evelyn, when she was in the swamp before I took her to the old house, I put a rope or heavy cord around her neck. I did not pull this up what you would call extra tight. I also wrapped her coat around her hand. Also at this time I bound her hands with another piece of rope. I stood there shaking and at first I did not know what to do with her until I decided to take her to the old house, as I have already stated. I stopped and listened to see if she was breathing and I also felt of her pulse. I was not sure whether she was dead or not but I thought she was. Then I took her to the old house, as I have already stated.

“After I got her into the basement of the house I went over to Hartwell’s barn, where I got a square-butted, shorthanded ax. then I dug a hole in the southeast corner of the cellar of the old house. This part where I dug the hole was partitioned off from the main part of the basement. Then I put the body of Evelyn Sanford into this hold I had dug and covered the body up. Her body was fully clothed when I put her into the hole. 

“After I buried Evelyn I went to my house, that is, I took the cart home to Mr. Wilbur Johnson’s that I had hauled her to the old house with, and then went home. I walked around the house, that is, my own house, for about a half hour and then I went in the house and went to bed. I felt very badly about this deed I had just done. I would do anything in my power to have this girl back in life again. It never entered my head to run away, although I was pretty scared. After going to bed I lay awake for about a half hour before I could get to sleep and slept until about 5 o’clock Sunday morning. I never went back to the scene of the crime.”

A newspaper article noted that Nash gave his confession in front of Prosecutor P.R. Von Sprecker, Sheriff Colyer, and state police Capt. Earl J. Hathaway and Corp. Munger. 

Under the Constitution, defendants are guaranteed a fair and speedy trial. It may be debatable if Nash was treated fairly (he did confess and plead guilty), but he certainly had a speedy trial, which occurred on Thursday, Aug. 4. 

“A large crowd gathered in front of the court house greeted Nash with loud boos and cheered violently when the last words of the judge’s sentence faded out,” a United Press article read. 

Another article stated: “Grimp-visaged men and women packed every available inch of the courthouse in Ludington. All courtroom seats were filled and hundreds of spectators stood at the rear and sides were wedged into the corridors, on the stairways, filled the lower courthouse floor and overflowed into the lawns surrounding the building. 

“The audience was tense, and although there were no outspoken threats there was a decided undercurrent of bitter feeling. The officers had prepared for every eventuality and had the situation well in hand. For the most part the crowd was orderly.”

Circuit Judge Hal L. Cutler sentenced Nash to life in prison. 

By Friday, he was on his way to prison in Marquette. Also that day, Evelyn’s funeral took place and she was buried at the Maple Grove Cemetery in Free Soil Township. 

“Against the background of an overcast, moody sky the body of Evelyn Sanford was laid to rest at noon today, 24 hours after her confessed slayer, Francis ‘Rusty’ Nash, 31, had been sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind the bars of Marquette prison at hard labor in solitary confinement.”

In January 1963, Gov. George Romney commutated Nash, then 61-years-old. He was expected to work as a caretaker on a farm in Iron River, according to LDN, Jan. 25, 1963. Two years later, Nash died in Iron Mountain, where he was also buried. 

By the 1940 census, the Sanfords were listed as living on Fourth Street in Manistee where their daughter, Vivian, was now 17-years-old and was attending high school there. Edwin Sanford, Evelyn’s father, died in Alma, Gratiot County, in 1968. Gracie Sanford, Evelyn’s mother, died in Flint in 1984. They are both buried in Maple Grove Cemetery next to Evelyn. Vivian died in Davison, Genesee County, on Oct. 5, 2005. 

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