1898 triple murder/suicide among Mason County’s most brutal crimes

May 2, 2024

This article is presented by the Mason County Historical Society in partnership with Mason County Press. 

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

FREE SOIL TOWNSHIP — Ron Chappel is a fifth generation resident of Free Soil Township. He and his wife, Thelma, live right on Michigan Street, the main street, in the village of Free Soil. His family has made a mark on the history of Free Soil Township and Mason County. He has scrapbooks full of newspaper clippings and photographs that intertwine between the history of his family and the history of the county.

Ron’s great-great grandparents, John and Ann (Sherwood) Stephens came to Free Soil in 1882, immigrants from Canada who initially settled near Stronach where he worked in mills. Their granddaughter, Etta, married a local boy, Frank Hunt, in 1919. The fact that Frank lived to be an adult was either a result of pure luck or divine intervention. At the age of 14 months old, Frank was a victim and a survivor of one of the most horrific crimes ever to occur in Mason County.

Frank Hunt

Frank Charles Hunt was born September 23, 1897 in a house on what is now Darr Road, a quarter mile north of Free Soil Road. Back then the roads did not have names (roads in Mason County were not formally named until the late 1940s). His parents, William and Jane (also known as Jennie) Hunt, were farmers, immigrants from England. His sister, Mary Jane (but called Mamie), was 10 years old, born on May 23, 1888 in Manistee. Frank was born on September 23, 1897. He had two half brothers, William Close Hunt, Jr. (Bill) and George Hunt, who were adults in their early 20s and did not live at home. Bill lived in Millerton in Sheridan Township while George lived in Seattle, Washington.

In the two short years that William and Jennie Hunt lived in Mason County, William’s neighbors found him to be a very nice man, the life of any party. An article in the Ludington Record described William Hunt:  “His jolly disposition made him friends wherever he went and he was the life of all social gatherings at which he was present. He was a man about 5-ft, 10 in. high and weighed 210 lb.”

Jennie came from a large family, the Hitchings family, that settled in various parts of Mason County after immigrating from England. Included in that family was Jennie’s brother, Walter, who had suffered from a closed head injury years prior while working on the railroad. Walter was unable to hold a steady job nor a permanent home. William and Jennie were the only relatives willing to let him stay with them on a temporary basis.

William Hunt was born in 1847 in Birmingham, England. Jennie Hitchings was born in 1863, also in Birmingham.

On November 15, 1870, while still living in England, William Hunt married Jessie Ann Hitchings (born in 1857 in England), Jennie’s older sister. William and Jessie’s first child, William Close Hunt, Jr. was born on Jan. 3, 1872 in Worcester, England. According to William, Jr.’s 1972 obituary, the family initially lived in Detroit. William and Jessie’s second son, George Burton Hunt (1874-1948) was born on March 11, 1874 in Detroit. Their daughter, Jessie M. is recorded as being born in Bear Lake in October 1879. Jessie died in April 1880. Another son, Thomas, was born in 1880 and died in 1881.

According to an article in the Ludington Record, the Hunts lived in Manistee for almost 15 years (this likely meant Manistee County, since they had lived in Bear Lake for a time and likely also lived near Manistee city as well).

Jessie died in Manistee in August 1883, at the age of 32, a result of postpartum infection after giving birth to their son, Robert, on July 24, 1883. Their son, Robert F., was adopted by John and Mary James of Manistee. Views of adoption were much different in the 19th century and most of the 20th century. His name does not appear in the obituaries of his siblings.

Ceremonial marriage license for Jennie and William Hunt.

Four years after the death of her sister, on October 20, 1887, 24, Jennie Hitchings married her brother-in-law, William Hunt, who was about 40-years-old, in Manistee.

Newspaper accounts stated that William Hunt initially worked in sawmills. About 1889, the Hunts moved to Lake City. According to Diane Englebrecht, Mason County Register of Deeds, the Hunts purchased their Mason County property in May 1896 from Margaret Knichel. The legal description states it was the northeast quarter of the southeast section of Section 19 of Free Soil Township. The property was on the west side of the road.

Editor’s Note: The three local newspapers referenced in this article include the Ludington Record, the Ludington Appeal and the Scottville Enterprise. All three were weekly newspapers that were published on Thursday, which meant the story didn’t hit the local press until six days after the homicide took place. The account did appear in the Sunday, December 11, 1898 edition of the Detroit Free Press.

The murder

It occurred on Friday, December 9, 1898. There was snow on the ground and William Hunt, his farmhand, 15-year-old Thomas Hayward, and Hunt’s brother-in-law, Walter Hitchings, were cutting wood about 650 feet behind the family home. Hunt’s wife, Jennie, was in the house with their 15-month son, Frank.

Thomas Hayward was the son of John Hayward (1852-1922), who immigrated from England with William Hunt.

At some point, while William and Thomas were sawing a log, Walter Hitchings picked up an ax and struck his brother-in-law in the head with it, killing him. He then went after Hayward, who apparently attempted to run away, ultimately being struck in the head as well ending his short life. Hitchings then proceeded to the house. He left the ax outside and found his sister, stabbing her multiple times with a dull jackknife and finally slitting her throat. He then slit his own throat, killing himself.

Discovering the murder scene

Map of the Hunt property (later McEwen property) from the 1904 Standard Atlas of Mason County plat book.

In the afternoon of Friday, Dec. 9, 1898, 10-year-old Mamie Hunt, daughter of William and Jennie Hunt, made the short walk him in the snow a quarter mile north of her school, Free Soil Township District No. 1, better known as the Darr School, located on the southwest corner of modern Free Soil and Darr roads. In those days the roads did not have names (the roads in rural Mason County did not get formally named until the mid-1940s). The school building was one of the first schools in Mason County, built in 1866.

“Upon arriving at the house she (Mamie) called to her mother, but received no reply,” stated the December 15, 1898 article in the Ludington Record. “Everything was quiet and the child, becoming frightened, went to the window and tapped on it to attract the attention of the wife of Katon Cushjak, a Polish farmer who lives just across the road.” (Editor’s Note: The article states Cushjak, but no historical record exists with that name in Mason County. However, a search of the name ‘Katon’ brought up a City Directory name of Katon Kushyak in Ludington. There is no record of someone with that name owning land in that area, but it may have been leased).

“The woman was out getting some wood and, hearing the sound, went across to Hunt’s house. The little girl then told her that no one was at home, so Mrs. Cushjak came in and started a fire in the kitchen stove. In a few moments they (Mrs. Cushjak and Mamie) discovered the 15-months-old baby (historical accuracy: he was 14-months-old) asleep in the front room, and all these strange circumstances began to alarm them.”

The Ludington Appeal article tells a slightly different story:

“Thus far three persons had been killed in the most cold blooded manner, and the crime had not been discovered. But soon Mrs. Hunt’s little ten year old girl returned from school, entered the house and seeing no one about cried loudly for her mother. There was no answer, but upstairs she heard strange noises, and, opening the stair door she again called to her mother. Receiving no response she immediately ran to a Polish woman who lived across the way and who accompanied her back.

“The house was cold and the woman hardly knew how to account for Mrs. Hunt’s absence. She noticed the small baby lying in its cradle and crying in its loneliness. Opening the stair door they saw a horrible sight. Hitchings was standing at the top of the stairs, his throat cut and bleeding profusely. His clothing was also covered with blood and there was a demoniacal glare upon his face. The woman and child were terribly frightened and slamming the door shut they picked up the baby from its cradle and ran across the road.”

Grave of Jennie and William Hunt in Oak Grove Cemetery, Manistee

The Ludington Record: “On hearing a sound upstairs, Mrs. Cushjak stepped to the hall door and, throwing it open, looked up. A horrible sight met her eyes, for coming down was Mrs. Hunt’s brother, Walter Hitchings, with gashed throat and distorted features. The woman slammed the door shut, seized Mamie and the baby and ran for her own home at top speed.”

Mrs. Cushjak (it was not common for newspapers at that time — and throughout most of the next century — to not use the first name of a married woman) told her husband what she had seen, who was at their house. Mr. Cushjak then summoned another neighboring farmer, Robert Griffin.

“The two men ran to Hunt’s house and were guided by groans to the stair door,” the Ludington Record stated. “When they tried to open this they found the body of the dying murderer lying against it with the feet projecting into the bedroom beyond. They pressed on into this room and were horrified to find the body of Mrs. Hunt lying under the bed with the throat cut and innumerable gashes on the head, while her hands were slashed to ribbons.

“The neighborhood was immediately aroused and as it was now quite dark and Hunt and the hired boy (Thomas Hayward), had not yet appeared, a searching party was organized and started for the woods back of the house. A dog belonging to Hunt went with the party and after a short time spent in searching the men heard the brute bowl. Guided by the sound they hastened toward him and found him crouched beside a little mound of snow and brush near the edge of the woods.”

Lying in the snow were the bodies of William Hunt and 15-year-old Thomas Hayward, son of John Hayward, who had immigrated to the U.S. with William Hunt.

Grave of Thomas Hayward in Maple Grove Cemetery, Free Soil Township

The scene was gruesome. Both men were attacked and killed by Walter Hitchings with an axe, nearly decapitating both of them. The murderer tried to cover up the bodies with snow and brush, just as he stated to a Scottville Enterprise reporter was going to happen to himself (it’s not clear when the Scottville Enterprise had received that information).

The Ludington Record stated a telegraph was sent by Deputy William Darr (1846-1914) to Sheriff William Kimball in Ludington the next morning, Saturday. It stated: “Hunt’s wife’s brother killed Hunt, his wife and the hired man and then himself.” The Ludington Appeal referred to Darr as a constable.

Sheriff Kimball was unable to go up to Free Soil so he sent Deputy Gardner and Prosecuting Attorney Gray who took the 9:25 a.m. train from Ludington. They would have taken the Flint & Pere Marquette Railway train from Ludington to Walhalla, and then north to Free Soil (it may have been a separate train heading north). Free Soil village is located two miles east of the corner of Free Soil and Darr roads.

While Mason County has had an elected sheriff since it began in 1855, the sheriff’s department in 1898 was mostly limited to the sheriff himself, along with deputies who were scattered throughout the county. The deputies did not patrol the roads like they do today and they typically had other vocations. Localized law enforcement was typically handled by constables and justices of the peace along with men who were deputized by the sheriff. Murder investigations were handled by a coroner’s jury, a body convened to assist a coroner in determining the identity of a deceased person and the cause of death, a system that goes back to medieval England and Wales.

A coroner’s jury was summed with Justice of the Peace Jacob Kaplinger (1842-1907) presiding, and consisted of John Wahr, D.A. Gilbert, F.E. Hyde, H.F. Guernsey, William Wreinch and August Krause.

“As it was then about 9:00 at night the inquest was adjourned until the next morning when the verdict rendered was that William Hunt, his wife and the boy, Tom Hayward, had met death at the hands of Walter Hitchings, who subsequently killed himself,” the Ludington Record article stated.

The murderer

Death certificate of Walter Hitchings


An article about the murder in the December 15, 1898 edition of the Ludington Appeal stated that Walter (born in 1859) came to the United States from England in the early 1880s. It’s possible that Jennie and other members of their family immigrated about that same time.

The Hitchings family was well-known in Mason County. George Hitchings, a cousin of Jessie and Jennie, owned a grocery store on Dowland Street in Ludington. George had immigrated to the U.S. from England in 1872. Laura Costello (1858-1922), who was married to Frank Costello (1855-1922) of Victory Township and later Scottville, was a sister of Jennie Hunt and Walter Hitchings.

“(Walter) Hitchings came to this country early in the eighties from England, and for a number of years was engaged in railroading near Chicago,” the Ludington Appeal story stated. “He came from one of the first families of England, his father being a man of great ability and distinction. Young Hitchings was also a smart and promising young man. But meeting with an unfortunate accident on the railroad near Chicago about eight years ago, he sustained injuries which permanently affected his mind. He was thereafter engaged in no steady occupation, but shifted about from place to place, engaging in whatever work fell to his lot. He made frequent visits to his relatives to this county, but was repeatedly sent away by them and as many times returned. George Hitchings of this city (Ludington) says that he has known for a long time that his cousin was of unsound mind and thought him so dangerous that he dared not trust him for a moment behind his back. Mrs. (Laura) Costello (of Victory Township), his sister, was also of the same opinion, and refused to give her brother shelter under her roof.

“Mrs. Hunt was the only one of Hitchings’ (sic) own family who would allow him to live with her. At the time of the tragedy he had been living with the Hunt family about four weeks. He never had difficulties with either his sister or brother-in-law and was not supposed by them to be particularly dangerous. The neighbors considered him a half-witted fellow but not violent. The only explanation of his terrible deeds is that he became suddenly and violently insane, his frenzy and fury knowing no bounds.”

The Dec. 15, 1898 article in the Scottville Enterprise gave some more insights into Walter Hitchings.

“From personal knowledge, we will give our readers a little more information as to Hitchings (the article refers to him as Hitching). He was a baker by trade and quite frequently hung around Ludington, and more often, during the past year, about Manistee. He has been looked upon by those who knew him as a half-witted silly-billy, yet his demented brain contained a few ideas on which he seemed to be ever thinking, and he told the writer as well as others, that he was going to marry a rich widow in Chicago; but that he had to be careful, for his relatives were trying to kill him, and that they would hide his body under brush or bury it under the snow. Just a short time ago, he expressed, in strictest confidence, such fears as these, to a family which sheltered him overnight. So it would seem that he nursed these delusions until in his demented condition and impelled by his morbid fears and facies he perpetrated a crime just the reverse of what he feared for himself.”

The Ludington Record had a similar account of Walter Hitchings.

“Walter Hitchings, the man who did the bloody work was of slight build, being about 5 ft 5 in in height and 120 lbs. in weight. He is thought to have been somewhere near forty years of age. Ten or twelve years ago he was in a railroad wreck and suffered severe bruises. Since that time he has always acted queerly and has been regarded with suspicion though not considered really dangerous. It seems that he was inclined to be a tramp. That is he would never stay long in one place. Mr. Hunt was the only one of his relatives around this county who would harbor him and several neighbors told us of warning Hunt against the man. On this last and fatal visit he arrived about six weeks ago. The stories circulated about the poor wretch are many and wild but it is generally believed that he was addicted to the use of morphine which of course would tend to unbalance his reason.”

The Ludington Record also speculated that Hitchings had a grudge against John Hayward, father of victim Thomas Hayward.

“The boy, Thomas Hayward, would have been sixteen years old in March and was rather large for his age. He had worked for Mr. Hunt several seasons and was to leave in a few weeks to attend school during the winter. His father, John Hayward, lives in Freesoil village. It is said that he was in the habit of teasing Hitchings somewhat and had been threatened with vengeance by him.”

The bodies of William and Jennie Hunt were interred at Oak Grove Cemetery in Manistee. Thomas Hayward was buried in the family plot at Maple Grove Cemetery in Free Soil Township, about a mile from the crime scene. According to the Ludington Record, the body of Walter Hitchings was shipped to “the medical department at Ann Arbor,” likely the University of Michigan.

The survivors

William and Jennie Hunt and Thomas Hayward were not the only victims of this homicide. Left behind were the minor children of William and Jennie along with William’s two adult sons, plus the family of Thomas Hayward.

William Hunt left his children with financial security.

“It is a relief to know that these helpless little ones will not be made destitute by this awful calamity,” the Ludington Record reported. “Mr. Hunt owned the farm on which he lived, had $1,000 in a Manistee bank and was insured for $3,000. Thus we see that the family was very prosperous and that, snugly settled on the little farm, their future life seemed sure to be one of peace and happiness until rudely shattered by the hand of the murderer.”

Those little ones were Mary Jane “Mamie” Hunt and Frank Charles Hunt.

Death of children and younger adults was a much more common occurrence in the days that this tragic incident happened. But, the trauma of losing your parents to such a horrific crime must have had long term effects, especially for the younger two children — particularly Mamie. It’s likely Frank had no memory of his parents since he was just a toddler. Regardless, he still had to live with the entire community knowing what had happened.

Mamie was 10-years-old and Frank was 15-months-old at the time of the murder. Following the death of their parents, David McEwen (1850-1924) and his wife, Martha A. (Crawford) Hunt (1856-1935) moved from Ludington to the Hunt home in Free Soil Township to farm and raise the Hunt children. The McEwens had a daughter, Mary Alice (March 23-1893-December 20, 1977) who was 5 years old when the family moved. The connection between the McEwens and the Hunts is not known and cannot be recalled by the living relatives. The McEwens never formally adopted Mamie and Frank, who kept the surname Hunt.

Both David and Martha McEwen were from Ontario. They were married in 1870 in St. Lawrence, N.Y. and made their way to Ludington. Their move to Free Soil came rather soon after the homicide took place. A March 13, 1923 article in the Ludington Daily News discussed the McEwens’ return to Free Soil after they had moved away to Saskatchewan, Canada, and British Columbia, Canada in 1919 and mentioned that they had moved to Free Soil in 1898: “Mr. and Mrs. McEwen, former residents of Free Soil, having come from Ludington 24 years ago to make their home on what was the Hunt farm, and care for Mamie and Frank, who had been left orphans by the death of their parents. Mr. and Mrs. McEwen later purchased the Hunt property (in 1912, per Mason County Register of Deeds records) and also became owners of what was known as the John Weaver farm. After a few years of ownership they sold the latter property to John Cameron who is the present owner.

“Five years ago Mr. and Mrs. McEwen disposed of their remaining farm property (deeded in 1916, per Mason County Register of Deeds records) to Mr. and Mrs. Max (and Katie) Reinsch, and then moved to Freesoil village, where they lived for a year, before they disposed of their household goods and personal property and left to reside in Canada…”

Grave of Mary Jane “Mamie” Hunt Hansen, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Cyprus, Cali.

At the age of 17 or 18, Mamie married Harold “Harry” Christian Hansen (1888-1967) in Manistee in 1905. Harry grew up on a farm in southwest Free Soil Township, likely near the Hunt/McEwen farm, according to a March 7, 1919 Ludington Daily News article, which was announcing that Harry had returned to Free Soil on furlough from the Navy, which he had joined 14 years previously. “Shortly after entering the Navy, he married Mamie Hunt,” the article stated.

Harold served on a torpedo boat during World War I (1917-1918) and, by 1919, had reached the rank of lieutenant. According to census and other historical documents, Mamie was living in Free Soil in 1910 (five years after their marriage). In 1914, they lived in Virginia; 1920, Great Lakes, Ill. (most likely Naval Station Great Lakes); 1921, San Pedro, Cali.; 1923, Seattle, Washington; and 1930, Salt Lake City.

Mamie and Harry were divorced sometime between 1930 and 1935. Mamie moved to Long Beach, California where she lived the remainder of her life.

The Hansens had one daughter, Madeline Dorothy Hansen Paap (1914-1977).

Mamie died on April 5, 1975 in Los Angeles at the age of 86, a month shy of her 87th birthday.

Frank Charles Hunt, like his sister, Mamie, attended Darr School. On December 4, 1919, he married Etta Beatrice Stephens (1899-1992). Frank and Etta had three daughters: Maxine Lora Hunt (1920-2005), Eileen Beatrice Hunt (1921-1951) and Carol Mable Hunt (1923-2018). For the most part, Frank and Etta remained in Free Soil their entire lives and their descendants continue to live in Free Soil including grandson, Ron Chappel, mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Frank and Etta Hunt

Frank died on November 1, 1992 in Ludington at the age of 95. He is buried at Maple Grove Cemetery in Free Soil Township.

George Burton Hunt was born on March 10, 1874 in Detroit (though his obituary stated he was born in Lake City, which isn’t consistent with the family timeline). At an early age in adulthood he moved to Seattle, Washington. He was married to Della Barbara Motlinger (1877-1970). They had three daughters, Joyce, Winifred, and Carol and four sons, Delbert, Jack, Wilson and Merwin. George died on May 10, 1948 at the age of 74. He was buried in a cemetery in Seattle.

William Close Hunt (Jr.), the oldest Hunt child, was born on January 3, 1872 in Worcester, England. At the time of the murder, newspapers reported that he had been in Millerton that day. Millerton was a settlement located in Sheridan Township near the Lake County line. On October 16, 1901, William married Lettie Lizzie May Squires (1884-1903). They had a daughter, Leata Pearl Hunt who was born in 1902 and died in 1904 of tuberculosis.

Grave of William Hunt, Jr., next to William and Jennie’s grave in Oak Grove Cemetery, Manistee

William then married a woman named Elizabeth. They were divorced in December 1918, filed by her, due to cruelty and non-support.

According to William’s obituary, he was employed at shingle mills in the Upper Peninsula and the northern Lower Peninsula.

His great-nephew, Ron Chappel, said he recalled how he would ride with his grandfather, Frank Hunt, and “Uncle Bill” up north where they would drop Bill off for a week so he could visit with his old co-workers.

Bill was a long-time member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, having joined the Lake City 100F Lodge in 1895 and then later transferring to the Fountain Lodge which eventually merged with Felix Lodge No. 305 of Scottville.

His obituary only references the death of his first wife, Lettie, and the death of their daughter. William died on Sept. 28, 1972, at the age of 100 years old, just four months shy of 101. He spent his last years at Baywood Nursing Home in Ludington (now Medilodge) and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery, Manistee, near his parents.

Ron Chappel said he had always heard that while the McEwens raised Mamie and Frank, Bill was the person who made sure the children were financially taken care of.

Present-day Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole, who is also vice president of the Mason County Historical Society Board of Directors, said he does not recall another crime in Mason County’s history that was so horrific as this one.

On July 12, 1995, 97 years later, a double-murder/suicide took place just 4 miles away from the Darr Road incident. Gary Madison, 42, shot his wife, Nadine, 44, and their 21-year-old son, Brian. That crime, also was among the most horrific in Mason County history, coincidently in the same township.

This ad appeared in the Scottville Enterprise on the page opposite of the murder story.


I would like to thank the following for their help in this project:

  • Allison Scarbrough, Mason County Press/Oceana County Press News Editor, for editing
  • Ron Chappel, grandson of Frank Hunt, great-grandson of William and Jennie Hunt, for information about the family.
  • Aaron Chappel, great-grandson of Frank Hunt, great-great grandson of William and Jennie Hunt, for some great photographs.
  • Bonnie Martz, granddaughter of Andrew Jacobson, for information about the McEwen family.
  • Bernita Eddy Nesbitt Hurd, Free Soil historian, for always filling the gaps.
  • Kim Cole, Mason County Sheriff, for his knowledge of Mason County crime.
  • Diane Englebrecht, Mason County Register of Deeds, for help with finding land deeds.
  • Harold Cronk, my friend, for searching Los Angeles cemeteries for Mamie Hunt Hansen’s grave.
  • Sloane Alway, my daughter and grave finding partners.
  • Ned Nordine, Mason County historian, whose research on the history on the Mason County sheriffs led me to this story.


Mason County Historical Society





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