The alleged truth behind what happened at ‘Camp Bliss’

In August of 1901, the Michigan National Guard held its encampment, consisting of most of the national guard companies from around the state, at Orchard Beach.

The above picture was drawn by F.W. Ramsdell for the cover of a booklet that was published specifically for the 1901 encampment of the Michigan National Guard at Orchard Beach.

The above picture was drawn by F.W. Ramsdell for the cover of a booklet that was published specifically for the 1901 encampment of the Michigan National Guard at Orchard Beach.

During the 10 days that the encampment was stationed there, a rumor began to circulate that a woman had allegedly been assaulted and murdered by soldiers from Manistee’s Company F. These rumors gained some traction when they were published by the downstate newspaper, “Detroit Today” and between that publication, local officials, and even with the assistance of the governor himself; the rumors would not be silenced.

While the accusations of foul play began to circulate during the first days of the encampment, called “Camp Bliss” after the then Governor of Michigan (Aarron Bliss), it really wasn’t until after the camp dispersed that those rumors began to be discussed in a local, open forum…that forum being the city newspapers. An article published on August 23, 1901 begins to tell the alleged tale:

“The wild rumors that have been current since the first days of the encampment refuse to down. At first the story that a woman in a First Avenue house had received fatal injuries from the soldiers was generally believed locally, and even the date and place of her supposed death were circulated. Every story was traced as far as possible by the ‘News’ but without finding any tangible facts for a foundation, and after the encampment, on the authority of Sheriff Lloyd, this paper published a flat denial of the truth of this and similar service.

“While this sufficed to put an end to gossip locally, the story had meanwhile been carried to the large cities by newspaper correspondents. Outsiders have harbored the belief that local authorities were endeavoring to hush up a great sensation for the sake of saving the National Guard from scandal.

“So convinced have these outsiders become of the correctness of their theory, that one at least of the Detroit papers has recently sent a man here on detective duty. Today, Sheriff Lloyd was confronted with the following telegram:

“‘We have positive proof, a woman died last Saturday of cause stated. Story can’t be suppressed any longer. Ask officers if they desire to go on record as refusing to punish a crime of this sort. Please wire answer as soon as possible. ‘Detroit Today’.”

“Sheriff Lloyd was quoted as saying: ‘Nothing would be harder to conceal than this if it were. If a woman had been struck with a bottle as claimed the whole thing would have been all over town in five minutes. Such a matter could not possibly be hushed up anyway. I shall be much surprised if ‘Today’ or any other paper can make anything of it at all.’”

The next day, it was revealed that General George Hart, a well-respected businessman and military general (as well as the owner of the Orchard Beach property), had the exact facts…maybe:

“Light has dawned at last on the ‘mystery’ of the injured woman. General Hart informed a ‘News’ reporter this morning of the full facts.

“It appears that on the first night of the encampment a woman came up from the beach with three soldiers. On arriving at the top of the stairway she fainted and was carried into the farmhouse, where she revived. General Hart was informed of the incident by the beach watchman and immediately proceeded to investigate the case.

“There was absolutely no proof of violence. Subsequently he requested Captain Broadhead to investigate the matter also and this was done. After resting for a time the woman was able to return to the city. She was wrapped in a blanket and two of the soldiers accompanied her home to a house on First Avenue. Next morning the case was reported to Sheriff Lloyd and he also investigated the case without finding the least indication of foul play or violence. The woman suffered no injury apart from the fainting spell and was not taken to the hospital.”

Over the next several days, the Manistee Daily News raked the ‘Detroit Today’ over the coals, printing in an August 28, 1901 article: “‘Today’ takes the position that the sensational charges are true because everyone has believed them to be true and also holds to the absurd theory that Manistee people are trying to hush up the matter because we want a permanent encampment.”

With all of this back and forth, questions did remain, namely: Exactly how did this all come about? Was there a witness that actually saw something other than a fainting? Was this whole thing a misunderstanding? Possible answers continued to come forth and were published in the Manistee Daily News on August 29, 1901. Portions of the article follow:

“The noon editions of the afternoon papers say today that the girl alleged to have been injured by soldiers at Manistee has been located, and is not suffering from her experience and has no complaint to make. They assert that the affair has been greatly exaggerated.

“The trashy sheet in Detroit called ‘Today’ has so limited a circulation that Manistee people have had no opportunity to read its yellow story about the so-called encampment scandal. We refrain from printing all of the story as it appears in ‘Today’ partly because it contains nothing new but mainly because it is dressed in language too vile for a self respecting newspaper to publish. The extract which follows contains as much of the lie as was manufactured after the story reached Today’s office.

“One of the Detroit soldiers said on his return from the camp that the foul creatures who had murdered the girl were members of the Manistee Company; that she knew most of them and that she made a dying deposition in which she gave their names.

“One Detroit militiamen asserts with the utmost positiveness that the story is true. He says that he himself witnessed the abuse of the girl, and that her body was not given the regular burial, but was disposed of upon the premises.

“There are some versions of the story in which the minor details do not agree, but in the main, there is no material variance in the accounts.

“Naturally there has been much wonder expressed because no prosecutions followed. The only explanation offered was the desire of some of the businessmen to have the encampment permanently established near them so that they might sell supplies for the soldiers, and their fear that if the facts ever became known Manistee would never again get an encampment.

“This is probably a libel upon some very good people,” remarks Today in its last paragraph.

“It certainly is malicious libel and it reveals a disgusting state of affairs when a paper has to resort to such artful but vicious practices to gain circulation.

“As stated in yesterday’s Daily News, Governor Bliss will institute an investigation. He is quoted as saying: ‘I will have the story investigated through the proper channels and do so at once. I have received no official report of the murder and do not believe it. While at camp I never heard of it and have only heard a rumor regarding it since returning home. In view of the widespread currency of the story and in order to maintain the reputation of the National Guard and the State at large I will take official action immediately upon my arrival at Lansing today.’

Next week we will take a look at the Governor’s findings and the supposed truth as to what happened during the encampment at “Camp Bliss”.

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Posted by Mark Fedder

Mark Fedder is the executive director of the Manistee County Historical Musuem. He can be reached at (231) 723-5531 ormanisteemuseum@yahoo.com.

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