The killing of Luther Foster: Mason County’s longest unsolved murder.

February 25, 2023

Luther H. Foster

The killing of Luther Foster: Mason County’s longest unsolved murder.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

This year marks the City of Ludington’s 150th anniversary, known as a sesquicentennial. Lots of celebrations are being planned. Throughout the year, MCP, in partnership with the Mason County Historical Society, will be featuring stories about Ludington’s past.

Mason County’s oldest unsolved murder centers around the namesake of Ludington Area School District’s former Foster Elementary School, which closed in 2021.

Delos Filer

Luther H. Foster was born in East Machias, Maine on May 31, 1827, the son of Edward and Fannie Foster. He began kindergarten when he was 3-years-old and graduated high school at the age of 17. He was known to have an aptitude for mathematics and mechanics. Like his father he was an accomplished musician as well.

In 1851, at the age of 25, he and his younger brother, Edward rented a small sawmill in Ridgway, Penn. They worked up to 18 hours a day and had one employee. The three men produced 6,000 to 8,000 board feet of lumber per day. In 1855 they moved to Oshkosh, Wis. and were managers of a lumber business. That same year, on May 25, Luther married Lucy Armelia Schraam in Camden, N.Y. They had two children, Frank (1856-1925) and Edwin (1860-1924).

James Ludington, Ludington’s namesake.

In 1857 the Foster brothers moved to Stiles, Wis. on the shore of Green Bay where they worked for seven years for Holt & Balcom, Iverson & Whitecomb and the Holt Lumber Company.

In 1865 the brothers crossed Lake Michigan to Muskegon where they worked for S.N. Wilcox for a year at the Eldred and Farr Lumber Company. The next year, they were hired by lumber baron James Ludington of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to manage his vast real estate and lumber interests in Mason County. Ludington’s health had been deteriorating and he was having difficulty handling his affairs.  

At that time, Pere Marquette was a small village located around some sawmills on the inland lake now known as Pere Marquette Lake.

The brothers devised a business plan for the management of Ludington’s timber holdings and local real estate. They presented the plan to Delos L. Filer, a Manistee lumber baron and raised $500,000 in capital, buying Ludington’s interests and holdings, though Ludington continued to be part of the business. In 1869, Ludington, Filer, John McLaren, John Mason Loomis, and the Foster brothers formed the Pere Marquette Lumber Company.

Frank A. Foster, son of Luther Foster

In 1873, the residents in the village of Pere Marquette voted to incorporate the town into a city and name it Ludington. Luther Foster was an active community leader.

Foster was in charge of platting the city. He also named all of the main streets in the city and played a major role in getting the city of Ludington to become the county seat.

He was on the board of education (1868-1876), and helped establish both the Congregational and Presbyterian churches and played organ at church. He was also a leader in the Temperance movement, the movement to ban alcohol.

In the early hours of June 20, 1876, a burglar (some accounts state there was more than one burglar) entered the home of Luther and Lucy home located on the northwest corner of Ludington Avenue and Main Street (now Gaylord Avenue). Luther grabbed a handgun and chased the burglar out the door north up Main Street (Gaylord). At the intersection of Court Street, the burglar shot Foster.

The intruders had taken only one thing, a ledger, which came to be known as “Foster’s Black Book.” Legend has it that Foster’s book contained information that would expose corruption. The crime is likely the longest unsolved crime in Mason County as the murderers were never caught.

In her book “Sand, Sawdust and Saw Logs” Frances Caswell Hanna described the incident.

“Awakening in the night to find a prowler in their room, Mrs. Foster heard her husband explain, ‘You rascal!’ The intruder fled and Foster, grasping a revolver, followed. Under a young maple at the corner of Main (Gaylord Avenue) and Court streets, the burglar fired, and Foster dropped. Mrs. Foster, who had followed her husband, found him still breathing, but he died in her arms unable to speak. The crime remains unsolved.”

Foster residence, northwest corner of Ludington Avenue and Main Street (Gaylord Avenue)

In his diary, 20-year-old son Frank wrote: “Mother woke me up this morning about 3 o’clock saying that father had chased a burglar out of the house and there had been a pistol fired, then a cry of murder. We went out ot see what the trouble was and after searching about 10 minutes found father, dead, shot three times, by the person he had followed out of the house. We have passed a dreadful day.”

The book “History of Manistee, Mason and Oceana Counties,” published in the 1880s, stated: “Probably no event has ever occurred in Ludington which produced such a profound sensation as did the assassination of Luther H. Foster, by a burglar, on the morning of the 29th of June, 1876.

“He was a man of great courage, which never faltered through all the hardships of business trials, and his integrity never suffered during all his business career. He was prompt and determined in his decisions, earnest and resolute in all that he did, and his liberal heart and active hands were the benefactors of every good enterprise. Stricken down by the ruthless hand of an assassin, in the full vigor of life, the bereavement was doubly severe. His death was mourned by the entire community.”

Sheriff Daniel Holmes

At that time, Daniel Holmes was serving as Mason County sheriff. Holmes was the first sheriff to serve Mason County, from April to October, 1855 and then served again from 1872 to 1880. It’s likely that Holmes was part of the investigation as there is no record of the City of Ludington having a law enforcement officer in 1876. Ludington had become a city in 1872 and had began appointing marshals to serve as law enforcement officers. However, the city’s first marshal, John Davidson, only served in 1873. The next person to be appointed marshal, George Weimer, did not begin his post until 1880 (and served until 1883).

At a regular meeting of the city council, held July 3, 1876, the following resolution was unanimously adopted:

“Whereas, in the inscrutable way of Providence, Luther H. Foster, one of our oldest and most valued citizens, has been stricken down by the hand of an assassin, and

Whereas, heroic courage in defense of his dear ones has added its tragic weight to his many peaceful virtues at the expense of his own existence;

“Resolved, that this is the sense of this council that Luther H. Foster was a wise, generous, faithful, gallant, Christian gentleman, a benefactor of individuals, and one of the greatest benefactors of the city of Ludington, a father to make his sons proud, and to secure them the esteem of this community, a husband to secure for his widow the loving condolence of every citizen, and as a tribute to his memory, we ever stand ready to engraft these sentiments in marble over his tomb.”

Luther Foster School

In 1905, Ludington Union School District built a new Third Ward School on the south side of the 500 block of East Foster Street, across the street from Central School (the district’s junior and senior high school, which was built in 1886. The previous Third Ward School was built in 1872 and was located on the northwest corner of Foster and Rowe streets, where the Ludington Area Senior Center is now located). The teachers of the new school voted to name the new school building Luther H. Foster Elementary School. The building served the school district for 62 years and was razed in December 1966.

The building most recently named Foster Elementary, which was closed in 2021, served as the district’s junior and senior high school until 1953 when a new junior high school was built on North Washington Avenue. The high school students remained in the Central School building until 1957 and were then moved to the Washington Avenue complex (which now became a high school). A new junior high school, named in honor of long-time superintendent O.J. DeJonge, opened in 1965.

 

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