The Murder of Albert Molitor, King of Presque Isle County
On August 23, 1875, Albert Molitor, a founder of Rogers City and Presque Isle County, was fatally shot.
When his business partner found him, he was lying partially underneath his desk in his office. The richest, most powerful man in Presque Isle County bled from his back, shot with buckshot. Fifteen or twenty shot had struck him, fired from at least two different guns.
Years after his death, authorities would discover that his demise was not the fault of two gunmen, but fifteen different conspirators. Few missed the founder of their city and county. Few cared that he was gone. And it would be sixteen years before anyone was brought to justice for his murder.
Albert Josef Molitor – Immigrant, Businessman and . . . King?
The man who co-founded Rogers City was born in 1842 in Ludwigsburg, Wurttenberg, what is now Bavaria, just southwest of Munich. He was born out of wedlock, a problem his mother addressed not two weeks after young Albert’s birth. Fransizke Schmid was quickly and quietly wed to Josef Leander Christian von Molitor in an Evangelical church. Josef had been granted a divorce just four days before.
Fransizke, who was called Fanny, was possibly a lady-in-waiting in the court of Wilhelm I, or at least somehow “involved in the court.” This is how, later in his life, the rumor started that Albert was Wilhelm’s illegitimate son and a would-be “king.” It was an unlikely – and untrue – tale. It was later dispelled by the National Archive in Stuttgart. Still, Molitor did nothing to squelch the rumor while he was alive.
This would not be the only time his moral compass failed him. Described as a “man remarkable for his personal appearance, his ability to dominate others, and his innate cruelty and amorality,” there would be example after example of insidious behavior throughout Molitor’s life. Not dispelling rumors that he was German royalty hardly counts as one of his many sins.
Albert received a proper military education. He received his assignment to the engineering corps of the Army while still a teenager. While in service, he was reportedly caught copying plans for a fortress and tried by the German army for treason. It’s most likely authorities released him on the condition that he emigrate to the United States. He left the country through the port of Hamburg, never to return.
He arrived in the United States in 1861, just as the Civil War was getting started. He enlisted with the 13th Battery of the New York Volunteer Artillery. Not long after he began his service, he was court martialed for stealing a horse. When a jury found him innocent, he transferred and eventually negotiated an honorable discharge.
From there, he used his skill as an engineer to find employment. Molitor was truly on the road to his destiny when he joined the Corps of Engineers Lake Survey after his military service. Not every co-worker he met became a friend. One declared him to be “the meanest man who ever breathed.” Still, it was here that he met the men who would play major roles in his eventual rise to power.
Albert Molitor and the Founding of Rogers City
The Lake Survey work brought Molitor to northern Michigan where, at the age of 25, he began purchasing acres of land in what is now Presque Isle County. Through his work, he met the men who eventually joined him in founding Rogers City: William Rogers, J. Paul Mayer, and Frederic Denny Larke.
When the weather was good, he was on the road. When the weather was bad, he was based in Detroit, translating survey data into maps. It was in Detroit that he married Lucille Goodell in 1866. Lucille gave birth to the couple’s twin sons, Edward and Frederic Albert, in 1868.
Molitor was surveying the area that is now Presque Isle County. When he purchased land for logging, he caught the attention of a couple of co-workers. He was able to convince J. Paul Mayer, his former supervisor and an early supporter of his work, to purchase timberland in the area. The two amassed quite a bit of property near Lake Ocqueoc, Lake Emma and Lake Nettie, where logs could be fed down the rivers to the Lake Huron shores.
When Molitor envisioned a mill, he turned to fellow Lake Survey employee William Rogers. Rogers had come from a wealthy family, and he had married well. He also recognized the money-making opportunity in the region and had purchased timberland. Rogers also provided much of the funding for the future Rogers-Molitor Mill. Records show that the city’s namesake only visited the area twice, preferring to stay in Detroit. As a law student, he managed the mill’s legal interests, but his financial contribution was recognized both in the name of the business and, eventually, the name of the town.
Frederic Denny Larke, who had become a business partner of Molitor’s during this time, was overseeing operations and helping to clear land. Operations were growing at the Rogers-Molitor Mill.
The logging industry was growing. Molitor recognized the need to populate the area with future Rogers-Molitor employees. He spent his time in Detroit advertising to the area’s German population. He recruited men to work in his growing empire. He convinced them to travel north and seize new opportunities. When they arrived, the only housing available was tents. Molitor’s instructions to one recruit: “Pick a lot, build a house, and then go get your family.” Production hit new highs. Employees used scrip to purchase food and other goods for their families from the Rogers-Molitor store.
As their empire grew, they sought to govern themselves. Presque Isle had not yet become a county, so Molitor and his partners got to work. Molitor’s brother, Edward, created the area’s first platte, a task in which Mayer, Rogers, and Larke may also have participated. Presque Isle County, and then Rogers Township (later to be Rogers City) came into existence.
Mayer assumed the role of the county’s first treasurer. Molitor also stepped into several government positions in the coming years. As you can imagine, he found more opportunity (and trouble) while serving in those roles of power.
For instance, Molitor was known to be a bit of a philanderer. Rumors spread that he would target his employees’ wives and daughters, who hesitated to turn down his advances for fear they’d lose the only income supporting their families. He lost a paternity case to Hortensia Carle, who had given birth to a daughter as the result of their dalliances, and apparently had “concubines” in Rogers City and Cheboygan. (Lucille filed for a divorce based on his “unfaithfulness.”)
Another such instance was the sale of $30,000 in bonds. As time went on, these bonds weren’t retired, and residents felt that the money had not benefitted the county. Molitor was accused of pocketing the funds. He raised taxes on the farmers in the area, causing them to buckle under the weight of the fees. He also overcharged taxes for the construction of a schoolhouse, which residents were very unhappy about.
When rival Rogers City businessman Hermann Hoeft was elected city treasurer, Molitor was likely not thrilled. Not only were they business competitors, but Hoeft had brought a suit against Molitor. Molitor’s employees were purchasing things from Hoeft’s general store on scrip, and Hoeft was seeking reimbursement. It was looking as though Molitor would prevail in court, and that would have serious consequences for Hoeft’s business.
In Hermann Hoeft, Molitor may have made his worst enemy.
The Murder of Albert Molitor
On the evening of August 23, 1875, Albert Molitor and Edward Sullivan, a clerk, were working in the mill offices. These offices were located where Lake Street dead ends into Huron Avenue, in what is now Rogers City.
The sun had set around 8:30 and the evening had turned cool. Frederic Denny Larke had just returned from a rowing trip with his fiancée. He ran up to the house to put away his oars and made a couple of stops before heading to check in with Molitor. Larke commented that he anticipated the conversation would be long. Because the night was cool, he went to the nearby courthouse to retrieve his coat before proceeding to the store.
The meeting never happened. Larke was about 300 feet away from the building when, according to his account, he heard shots, “four or five separate shots, a kind of intermittent fusillade, then there was a brief interval and a last shot of a different nature, and apparently as fired with a different weapon.” Instead of going to investigate, Larke ran to the Sheriff’s house, not far away. He told the Sheriff, that there had been “a row of some sort” at the store and to go there immediately. Larke then went to retrieve a doctor (though he himself had medical training).
They found Molitor laying underneath his desk, shot several times with buckshot, fired (as Larke discerned) from more than one gun. He was wounded in the back and through the ribs. The clerk Sullivan sat, rocking his face in his hands, having been wounded through the jaw.
Molitor’s family lived on the second floor of the building, and his sister-in-law, Kate, reported that she’d heard a shot before Molitor was struck. This noise had caused him to go and “have a look,” before he went back into his office. Then, ten or fifteen minutes later, the fatal shots were fired.
The next morning, Kate noted that they’d found buckshot and wading scattered all over the floor. The wadding was pieces of the Famielien Blatter (“Family News” or “Family Magazine.”) His brother-in-law, Henry Clothier, examined the area outside the store where the shots had been fired, and he found tracks in front of the window and around the building.
Both Molitor and Sullivan made the trip back to Detroit for additional care. Sullivan died in transit, and Molitor died a few days after his arrival.
So, Who Murdered Albert Molitor?
While there was no shortage of people who detested Molitor and probably wanted to see him dead, there were no quick answers to that question.
Forensic evidence was in short supply. The first and strongest lead came from the tracks that Molitor’s brother-in-law, Henry Clothier, found outside the window and around Molitor’s store. The tracks were particularly distinctive due to one of the prints having a twisted heel. Sheriff John Rich was told by a local surveyor that Andrew Banks, a Moltke township farmer, had a pair of boots with a twisted heel.
Banks quickly told the sheriff that he’d dropped the boots in question off to the local shoemaker a day or two before Molitor was shot. When Sheriff Rich questioned the shoemaker, he got a different story: the boots had been left at the store for repair the day after Molitor’s shooting. Was Andrew Banks one of the gunmen?
The evidence seemed damning, but a band of local farmers in the area, having had a few beers at the local watering hole, went after Sheriff Rich and those boots. The sheriff ended up in a boat on the water, boots in hand, to avoid the drunken mob. Shortly after, two different witnesses came forward offering Banks an alibi, both stating that he’d been in their company the night of the shooting.
With no other alternative, Sheriff Rich returned the boots and Banks was no longer a suspect. It seemed there was quite a contingent of people who didn’t want to see the investigation go any further in that direction.
So, it did not. In fact, it went absolutely nowhere for about fifteen more years.
One might think that, in that time, someone would have said something, heard something, or discovered something that would lead authorities to Molitor’s alleged murderers. Indeed, there had been a little bit of talk. Fredrick Martz, a shop owner in Rogers City, encountered an alleged conspirator who, crying, confessed to him his part in the event. Martz then shared the story with a few other people. Eventually, he received a handwritten note from “The Secret Vigilance Committee” threatening his life if he didn’t quit talking. (And yes, he recognized the handwriting).
In spite of that, no one followed up on leads. No one was arrested. Was it because Molitor was a cruel human being, a man who was not above selling state secrets and stealing horses? Was it because he was pocketing cash from the sale of bonds? Or because he cheated the area’s farmers with unfair tax practices? A crime had been committed, yes, but it seemed no one cared that he was gone.
That is, until 1891, when a successful but guilt-ridden Rogers City farmer by the name of William Repke turned himself in to the authorities and named fourteen other conspirators who plotted – and then, carried out – Molitor’s murder. In his confession, he implicated some of Rogers City’s most prominent citizens, fifteen in all, most of them farmers in the area.
Repke also pointed to businessman Herman Hoeft as the mastermind behind the murder, and to Andrew Banks (with his twisted boot heel) as the man who had orchestrated the event on Hoeft’s behalf.
When arrests were made, it was determined that Hoeft and Banks had already provided alibis for their whereabouts the night of the crime, so authorities did not pursue Repke’s accusation. Speculation about Hoeft’s and Banks’ involvement continued to fuel the gossip mill, though, particularly when Hoeft footed the legal fees for a few of the men on trial. In fact, the defense attorneys, whose case would have benefitted greatly by casting doubt and suspicion in any other direction, went out of their way to request that Hoeft and Banks not be considered as persons of interest.
Two of the men that Repke implicated were deceased, another four quickly confessed and turned state’s evidence, and the rest were to be tried for murder. Those trials were postponed for another seventeen months while authorities attempted to assemble an impartial cross-section of community members as a jury. Two-hundred-fifty-two Presque Isle County jurors were summoned, examined, and discarded before the trial was moved to Alpena County.
Of the nine remaining men, five were sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor in Jackson, Michigan.
And then, five years later, the governor pardoned four of them. Another two-and-a-half years after that, he pardoned the fifth.
The Unanswered Questions That Remain
So much is not known about the Molitor murder, including the actual motive for the crime and the mastermind behind it. Let’s look at some of the questions you probably have right now….
Were Hermann Hoeft and Andrew Banks innocent? The answer to that is unknown, but research and logic hint to us that they were involved. In the sixteen years since Molitor’s murder, Hoeft had become a rich man, a feat more easily accomplished without Molitor in the way. Judge Kelley, who presided over the trial of conspirator August Grossman, acknowledged that both Banks and Hoeft were significantly implicated by the testimony of the witnesses and the evidence collected.
Was Larke one of the targets of the murder plot? This is a difficult question to answer. Larke was Molitor’s faithful employee, so it’s likely that he got his hands dirty a few times along the way on his manager’s behalf. Some of the stories captured in statements and testimony indicate that Frederic Denny Larke was, indeed a target that night. One account indicates that Sullivan was shot because the gunman though it was Larke. But another statement reads that Sullivan was shot by accident, jumping in front of a second shot meant for Molitor.
Was Larke tipped off about the plot to murder Molitor? This seems a bit more likely. For one, Larke seemed to have a dozen things to do before he went to see Molitor, including fetching his coat from the courthouse on an August night. Other damning evidence here includes his reaction to the gunfire. Others heard the gunfire and thought little of it, it was a common sound in those days. So why did Larke go running off to the sheriff to report a “row” when he heard the gunfire? And why did he fetch a doctor before showing up at the store? These details indicate he may have known something was afoot.
What was the motive behind Molitor’s murder? We may never know for sure. Farmers in the area felt they were being treated unfairly by Molitor, and it’s possible that they either acted on their own, or at the prompting of Hermann Hoeft and Andrew Banks. Beyond that, the reasons why his acquaintances would want Molitor dead are practically endless. He was mean to everyone he knew, treated his employees as though they were slaves, took advantage of the citizens of the town and county he’d founded, and had dalliances with whichever women he found interesting that week.
He had far more enemies than friends. It’s said that once, when Molitor was running for county supervisor, he asked a man for his support. “Do as I tell you, and you will get along alright; if not, you will be sorry for it,” he said. “I am the king of Presque Isle County.”
That approach seemed to work well for Molitor, except for that one day in August, when it was not so good to be king
Alpena Argus, various issues.
Alpena Echo, various issues.
Detroit News, various issues.
Detroit Free Press, various issues.
Historical Records Survey – Alpena, Michigan, “Presque Isle County,” Typewritten manuscript dated October 13, 1937, in the collection of the Presque Isle County Historical Museum.
Horn, Robert, and Charles Horn, “The Beginnings of Rogers City,” Typewritten manuscript in the collection of the Presque Isle County Historical Museum.
Johnson, T. Edward, “Murder of a County Czar,” Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review, Vol. LXIII, No. 14, March 12, 1958, pp. 107-114.
Presque Isle Advance, various issues.
Rogers City: Its First 100 Years (Rogers City, MI: Rogers City Centennial Committee, 1971)
State of Michigan Supreme Court, Records and Briefs, Vol. 2, 1894.
Thompson, Mark and Gerald Micketti, Almost an Island: Early Histories of the Shoreline Settlement in Presque Isle County (Rogers City: Presque Isle County Historical Museum, 2015)
Whiteley, W. H., “Rogers City, the Limestone City of Michigan,” Calcite Screenings (Rogers City, MI, Michigan Limestone and Chemical Co., 1950).