The long forgotten town of Rattle Run, and the church that the townsfolk once worshiped inside, has been gone for a long time, but one of Michigan’s most gruesome murders took place there. The town, named after the nearby rattling rapids of Columbus Creek, was located in Columbia township southwest of Port Huron. In January of 1909 the church caretaker made a shocking discovery of blood in the snow. When he looked inside the the church, it was in complete disarray, and there was blood splattered everywhere.
The caretaker contacted sheriff Waggensell in Port Huron, and upon investigating the scene, human body parts were found in the wood stove used to heat the church. The minister at the church, Rev. John Haviland Carmichael was nowhere to be found.
A few days after the murder, a man by the name of John Elder shows up in the town of Carthage Illinois without any baggage and rented a room at a boarding house run by Mrs. Hughes. He tells her he is a cabinet maker passing thru town. Mr. Elder was acting very strangely, and when Mrs. Hughes gives him dinner, he said he is fasting and would not eat anything. The next morning she made him a large breakfast figuring he would be hungry but he simply gathered what little he had, paid his bill, and said he was leaving for a job twelve miles away.
A few moments later, she heard a noise in the shed and was scared to look for herself, so she called a neighbor but they were not home, then a mailman walked by and when he looked in the shed he found Mr. Elder lying on the floor with blood gushing out of his neck, and a knife in his hands. He was still alive, but died shortly after. The local sheriff in Carthage found two letters, one addressed to Mrs. Carmichael in Rattle Run and the other to Sheriff Waggensell in Port Huron.
Both letters were almost Identical, and this is what was written on them:
To Mr. Waggensell
Port Huron, Mich.
dated Jan. 9, 1909
Honored Sir: I write this letter to explain in connection with a Columbus creek tragedy. I am guilty only because I am a coward. The man ( Amos Gideon Browning )had such a hypnotic Influence over me that I felt that something must be done. I felt greatly ashamed that a man said to be short minded should be able to compel me to yield to his will
At first he said:” It’s all right, elder, don’t be afraid”. Then he began to talk about how we two could get rich. Three times he came to the rear of my barn and talked to me. Twice he was at the river when I went to water my stock, and each time I felt that he was doing something he was proud of.
Once when I was going out to Columbus he was on the pike, near the pink school-house, when I overtook him, he asked to ride, which I could not refuse. he asked me if ever I had driven the pike to Port Huron, to which I answered no. Then he said: ‘Come on, lets drive up to Port Huron,’ which I resented, but he kept on until he persuaded me to go.
He got out and stood at the corner while I went to the barn with the rig. Then later we had been at the restaurant, for which he paid, also for the horse feed, He gave me a half dollar and said he wanted me to go there and buy a small hatchet for his boy to play with. I began to tell him to go and do his own buying, he set his eyes upon me with the queerest sort of a look, something like a look of a snake’s eye.
All the while I felt his influence tighten on my mind, so I went. Intending to go into the store and out the back way to get the horse and rush off for home. When I turned to close the door he stood looking upon me through the window and I just bought the hatchet and came out again, but by that time he had disappeared, I went into the barn, got my rig, and started for home, when as I made the turn into Military street he was at the corner to get in.
He rode as far as South Park, where he got out to take the car, and he took the hatchet with him and said nothing, nor did I think anything at the time about it.
When at the depot at Adair, he came out of the house and compelled me to walk the rails. All the while I felt as small as a bantam chicken. When he arranged with me about the wedding he wanted, he would go to Port Huron and get the license and meet me on the road between that place and the church.
I thought that he really meant to get married when he engaged my services, but when we met In the road and he was alone I began to feel uneasy, but he said it was all right, the others would come in a carriage. When we went Into tho church I wanted to light a lamp, to which he dissented, saying; “No, elder, no light unless they should come”. But, presently, he said “maybe we better have a little fire”. So I went out and passed wood to him through the window.
When I had put in what I thought would be enough, he said: “now, elder, the moonlight is Shining right on the front-door, and if you go around there to come in some one may see you. Just pile up some wood here and come in through this window.’ I brought a few sticks and laid them across each other, from the top of which he helped me into the building. he let the window nearly down again and we kept looking out through the opening to see if the others came down the state road.
He took a big hearty laugh and said: ‘There ain’t no use looking, for there ain’t going to be no wedding.’ He was sitting where a gleam of light shone on his face and his eyes were so brilliant that I was thrilled through and through. Queerest sort of feeling. I asked him why, then, he had made the present arrangement, when he said:
“Well, elder, I Just wanted to have a little fun. You consider yourself an educated man and look down on a poor Ignorant fellow like me, and I just thought I would show you. I knowed if I could handle you I could handle other men and make a big thing out of it. Now if I say, raise your hand, up she goes. See, that is no dream,’ and I felt my hand raising without any effort whatever on my part.
“Then he said: If I say let down your hand. down it goes.’ and I felt it going down In. a singular manner. By this time I was so alarmed that I was in a cold sweat. I then leaned over to see if any one might be on the road, when he began to laugh again, and I saw that he was holding a weapon up his sleeve. Instantly I made a grab for it and got the hatchet from him and asked what he meant to do with that, and he said: “ I will show you.”and from his overcoat pocket he drew out a knife with each hand.
He came at me. striking with both hands. I backed across the church, down the side aisle and across the front, but I did not dare to turn about to the front door. Then I threw the hatchet and struck him and he fell. I then turned to open the door, when he grabbed me by the leg and threw me down where my hand came upon the hatchet.
There was a desperate struggle. in which I used the hatchet until he lay quiet and still. I cannot recal all that happened after that. I was wild to dispose of the body. I was in a horrible terror, I began pulling off his garments that I might drag the body away somewhere and hide it. when he woke up and grabbed me again. Then for a while I used that hatchet until I was sure he was dead.
I waited until I saw the Fire was hot enough to make a stove pipe red nearly to the elbow I grabbed him and dragged him down there and began cutting him to pieces, putting in each piece as it was dismembered. Then I began to put the garments into the stove. Then I saw that my clothing was cut and bloody while some of his was yet whole and I exchanged them and then took all the bloody clothes and piled them in along with the body. My big coat hid my torn and bloody cloths until I got to Chicago, where I purchased others.
I am tired of trying to hide. though I have succeeded in eluding the detectives so far. If you get this and l am yet alive, come and get me. I shall be not far from Carthage Illinois.
Rev. W. J. Carmichael
( The Letters were published in the Chicago Tribune on January 12th 1909)
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