Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Strange Story of the McDonald/Harger Family

K.D. and Maria McDonald Harger family ca. 1912.
The grave of Benjamin Fowler McDonald in Mount Avon Cemetery doesn't particularly stand out from those surrounding it. The New Jersey native and descendant of the Axford family was born in 1825 and came to Michigan in pioneer days, like many young men of his generation, where he farmed in Avon Township and reared his children. Nothing odd there either, unless you know that through the descendants of Benjamin F. McDonald, Rochester is linked in a way to a bizarre and grisly murder story that played out in New York City in 1945.

McDonald's daughter, Maria, was born in Avon Township in 1861.  She attended the University of Michigan and was graduated with the class of 1887. Two years later, in Rochester, she married a young lawyer from West Bloomfield Township named K.D. Harger. The newly-married Hargers relocated to Riverside, California, where K.D. Harger served as postmaster and as an officer of a title and abstract company, and Maria Harger taught school.  Two sons, Donald and Solon Burt, were born to the Hargers in California.

The younger son, known as Burt, showed an aptitude for ballet and other forms of dance at an early age. He began winning dance competitions in his youth. As an adult, he relocated to New York City, where he achieved relative fame as an adagio dancer, partnering at first with Helen Howell and later with Charlotte Maye. While he was fairly well known in the ballrooms of New York City during the 1930s and early 1940s, Harger became the talk of the town in August 1945 when he mysteriously vanished without a trace at the age of 39.

Harger was reported missing initially by his dancing partner, Charlotte Maye, when he failed to appear for a planned performance at the Biltmore Hotel on August 19.  A police investigation turned up no leads for three days, until a dismembered torso washed up on a Queens beach and a few days after that, an arm and a leg were fished out of the Hudson River. A postmortem identified the remains as those of Burt Harger, and determined that death had been likely been caused by hammer blows. At this point, Harger's name was screaming from lurid headlines across the country, as newspapers carried stories about what they were calling the "Torso Murder Case."

Various clues led police back to the apartment that Harger had shared with a roommate, Walter H. Dahl, Jr.  Under interrogation, Dahl admitted that he had killed Harger with a hammer during an argument, then dismembered the body in the bathtub of the apartment, before packaging the remains in several towels.  Dahl then carried his gruesome bundles, one at a time, aboard the Staten Island and Weehawken ferries, where he dropped them over the rail.

Dahl was charged with murder, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, where he died three years later.  His motive, according to later memoirs of those who investigated the case, was jealousy, as he and Harger were said to have been lovers who quarreled bitterly after Harger had abruptly announced his engagement to a woman.  The Burt Harger story didn't end there, however.  The next tenant in the apartment where Harger's murder had taken place was a young playwright named Ken Parker. Fascinated by the case, Parker penned a play about the murder entitled Four Flights Up (later retitled There's Always A Murder) which had modest success in off-Broadway venues.

In an interesting side note, the cremated remains of K.D. Harger, Maria McDonald Harger and S. Burt Harger are all inurned in the Cathedral Mausoleum of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (originally called Hollywood Memorial Park) in Los Angeles.  This cemetery was founded in 1899, and later sold off part of its property to Paramount Studios, which now abut the cemetery on one side. The cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of the many show business personalities buried there.

The photo shown here is from the local history collection of the Rochester Hills Public Library. Seen from left to right are: Phoebe Burt McDonald Parker (mother of Maria McDonald Harger), Donald Harger, K.D. Harger, Maria McDonald Harger, and S. Burt Harger.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Digging Up Our History

If you live in the Rochester area, you're probably well aware that the long-planned reconstruction of Main Street in downtown Rochester will kick off this spring. The roadway will be closed for several months while it is excavated to allow the replacement of aged infrastructure, after which a new roadbed and streetscape will be built. With all of the digging that will be going on, it is a near certainty that some interesting artifacts will be unearthed, and I'm looking forward to seeing what items from our history have been preserved under the roadway since it was first paved in 1916. This past week, I ran across a small news item from 108 years ago that reminds us that anything is possible when one starts digging.  On July 15, 1904, the Rochester Era had this to report:
The old cannon which disappeared years ago has been found. It was dug up by workmen engaged in digging a sewer in the rear of the F.H. Burr block, occupied by Wood & Co., where it had been buried deep in the ground.  The big gun disappeared the day after a memorable Fourth of July celebration of the night before, eight or nine years ago, when a "bunch" of kindred spirits had a gala night with a big wheelbarrow load of booze to celebrate with and the old cannon to awake the echoes.
Something worthy of study is bound to be rediscovered here, so stay tuned, and don't stay away from downtown Rochester because of the construction.  Rather, go downtown because of the construction - it will be a learning experience for all of us.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

At Home in Rochester: Oscar F. Comstock House

For more than a half century, the house at 203 Walnut Street has been a dental office, but before it was converted to professional office use, it served as the private residence of some of Rochester's prominent citizens. Oscar F. Comstock, a local carpenter, bought the property in the spring of 1874 and started building his house in September of that year. When it was finished, Comstock sold the house to Lorenzo D. Morse, a businessman and developer who later built the 1881 Morse Block on Main Street. (Not long after, Morse built another home for himself nearby at 311 Walnut, which was later purchased by William Clark Chapman and moved to 311 Pine Street when Chapman decided to build a new home in 1916.)

Meanwhile, the house at 203 Walnut was sold to Arthur E. Collins, a merchant and banker whose business was located in the Morse Block. Collins was well-known in Rochester and had the misfortune of becoming somewhat unpopular for a time. Born in Malta because his father had been a British military officer, Collins himself served in the 22nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. He was wounded at Chickamauga, taken prisoner, and sent to the infamous Andersonville prison.  After the war, he was a grocery and dry goods merchant in Rochester and also operated a private bank from his store. Managing a bank was apparently not in Collins' skill set, however; in 1908, the newspapers were full of stories about the padlocking of the bank after it was found that liabilities exceeded assets by greater than $8,000, and Collins lacked even enough funds to pay the filing fee on his bankruptcy petition.

A few months after his banking disaster, Collins sold his home at 203 Walnut to another prominent Rochester man and fellow Civil War veteran, John J. Snook. Snook was ready to retire to the village of Rochester from his vast Overlook farm at the corner of Rochester and Avon roads, where he had been known as "Snook of Overlook." He also bore the title of "Poet Laureate of Rochester" and had published several volumes of his verse (click here if you'd like to read some).

The house at 203 Walnut remained in the hands of the Snook family until 1954, when it was sold to Dr. John S. Terry. Dr. Terry converted the house to dental offices, and practiced there until he retired. He was succeeded at the location by Dr. Walter J. Kubinski, whose offices are currently in the house that Comstock built.

You may read about the historic Comstock house in the Oakland Regional Historic Sites database by clicking here.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Bygone Business: Mitzelfeld's

If you drive down the east alley behind 312 S. Main Street, you'll see this black-and-white striped canopy covering the rear entrance to the building. For people who have lived in Rochester for a while, those signature stripes say "Mitzelfeld's," even though the beloved department store closed its doors in January 2004 after a 54-year run. The company that became known as Mitzelfeld's started out as Leslie Eggleston's department store in 1939, and after his daughter, Diana, and William Mitzelfeld were married, the young couple joined the business. A new building was opened on the east side of Main between Third and Fourth in 1949, and the store was known as Eggleston-Mitzelfeld's before eventually becoming known simply as Mitzelfeld's.  William and Diana Mitzelfeld later passed the management of the store to their sons, Brad and Monty, and the store was known for its high quality merchandise and the personalized customer service that was the hallmark of the family-owned business.

Did you shop at Mitzelfeld's?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

This Month in Rochester History

Happy 2012, Remembering Rochester Readers! Fifty years ago this month, Rochester citizens were attending a public open house at the newly-organized Rochester Aerosol Corporation. The company was located in the industrial facility at 607 Woodward Street that is the home of the Dillman & Upton lumber yard today. The building, which had been expanded several times since its original construction in 1919-20, had previously housed the Rochester Foundry Company and Oakland Foundry & Machine. It was idle in late 1961 when the Rochester Area Development Company (RADCO) and a Small Business Administration loan assisted in bringing Rochester Aerosol to the village - along with the promise of 50 local jobs.

On January 18, 1962, Michigan governor John B. Swainson and local dignitaries toured the new facility, which would package non-food aerosol products such as hair spray, home cleaning and maintenance items, insecticides, shave creams, and pharmaceuticals.  Rochester Aerosol was the first major aerosol packager in the Detroit area, and handled most of the packaging for the Detroit-Chicago market. The company president was Robert A. Willihnganz.