The Case of the Murdering Minister: Was Rev Carmichael Hypnotised, or Merely Insane? Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Case of the Murdering Minister: Was Rev Carmichael Hypnotised, or Merely Insane?

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A hypnotist and his victims on stage in 1898 the late 1800s, hypnotists were already linked with questionable motives and almost otherworldly powers, and hypnosis-induced performance was already associated with a total loss of volition resulting from an amnesic trance state that only the hypnotist could terminate. The character of Svengali went on to appear in numerous plays and films, thereby reinforcing these Impressions.
– Cynthia Stroud, 'Stage Hypnosis in the Shadow of Svengali: Historical Influences, Public Perceptions, and Contemporary Practices', May 2013 dissertation, Bowling Green State University

About a hundred years ago, how suspicious was the public when it came to hypnosis? The following item appeared in a newspaper:

As the result of being hypnotized at a theater in Sharpsville [Pennsylvania] a few days ago, William Webster of that place may lose his eyesight. Webster today consulted an oculist who informed him that two veins had burst in his eyes due to a strain. After he was hypnotized, Webster was placed with his head and feet resting on two chairs while an assistant sat on him. This is believed to have caused the strain on his eyes. Webster's parents are threatening a damage suit.
–   Fairmont West Virginian, 12 August, 1914

We have questions: did he lose his sight? Did he get a second opinion? Was his oculist Dr Morck, who advertised in German in the Tionesta Forest Republican? Was there a damage suit? Who was the hypnotist, anyway? Alas, we have no further information.

This matter-of-fact acceptance of the dangers of hypnotism is not really surprising for the time. Ever since Daphne Du Maurier's novel Trilby had become a runaway hit on stage (and later, screen), the general suspicion of hypnosis had grown stronger. 'Look into my eyes,' the watch-swinging Svengali would say, and then who knows what you might do? Cluck like a chicken – or commit unspeakable acts?

We need this background if we're going to understand the celebrated 1909 murder case involving a minister, a carpenter and sometime sailor, and a church stove. It's all spelled out for us in the Detroit Times1, although their prose can be cringeworthy and they get it wrong almost immediately. Thank goodness there are two daily editions: they need the second one to publish corrections. The Times writers are obviously investigative journalists: they keep trying to solve the mystery for us. This makes the reportage almost as good as a dime novel.

Thursday, 7 January, 1909: Whose Body?

Minister's Body Cut in Pieces in Little Church
Parts of It Are Packed in Stove – Suspect Is Sought by Officers – No Motive Is Known.

–   Detroit Times, 7 January, 1909, 1st Edition (all headlines and quotes on the front page unless otherwise noted.)

Wait for it…

Identity of Body in Church Murder Is in Doubt
May Be That of Man Suspected of Killing Instead of Minister's – Browning and Carmichael Much Together

–   Detroit Times, 7 January, 1909, 2nd Edition

The Detroit Times had got a little ahead of itself in the rush to get out the news that in tiny Rattle Run, Michigan, the local Methodists had made a grisly discovery: remains of a dismembered body in their heating stove, and a butcher knife. Although some of the bloody clothing left behind belonged to Reverend John Haviland Carmichael, canny Sheriff Wegensell refused to state outright that the body belonged to the pastor and not to local carpenter Gideon Browning. Whoever was murdered, the deed took place Tuesday night, 5 January.

Deputy Sheriff Charles Lipke wasn't so close-mouthed: he blabbed to the nosy reporters, who related that detectives from Detroit had arrived to deal with the tricky case. They also knew that the cops wanted to question the pastor's wife to see what she knew about all this.

So far, nobody knew much of anything, except that the two men had been seen together a lot recently. Why, nobody knew. And now, nobody was even sure who killed whom, let alone why.

Friday, 8 January, 1909: A Congregation Divided

The tragedy has caused factions to form – one side contending that Gideon Browning, the carpenter, seaman on the lakes and jack-of-all-trades, was the victim of the murderer in the little Methodist church at Rattle Run; others contended that there was every indication that Rev. Mr. Carmichael was foully murdered and his body was burned in the stove.
–   Detroit Times, 8 January, 1909, 1st Edition

'The officers are running down clues in every direction,' the paper reported. It was said that Reverend Carmichael had been arrested in Toronto (not true). 'As each hour passed the mystery became deeper than ever.' No one could explain the unusual 'friendship' between the two men: one a scholarly minister, the other an uneducated carpenter. But they had been seen together a lot recently, and on the day in question, witnesses had observed them meeting.


–   Detroit Times, 8 January, 1909, 2nd Edition

By afternoon, forensics had done their work: the coat was Browning's, and they'd found three of his false teeth in the ashes, along with seven buttons that seemed to have belonged to Browning. The detectives and the village were still baffled: why would a respectable clergyman murder a carpenter? And where was the murderer? Inquiring minds still wanted to know, and the Detroit Times was on the case.

Saturday, 9 January, 1909: Manhunt and a Novel Discovery

A reward of $500 has been offered by the board of county supervisors for the capture and conviction of the murderer. Other rewards are expected to be offered. Circulars, containing a likeness and complete description of the missing minister have been prepared. These are being sent broadcast over the countrty[sic]. It is known definitely that Carmichael did not have much money in his possession after the commission of the crime.
–   Detroit Times, 9 January, 1909, 1st Edition

In addition to reporting on the manhunt, the Times speculated on the motive for the murder – if any. 'Was it the work of a madman? Mrs Carmichael says that her husband's oldest sister was an inmate of an asylum in West Virginia.' Parishioners noted that Browning had become quite religious since associating with the pastor. They wondered aloud if the minister had lost his mind and sacrificed the carpenter to atone for all his past sins.

The detectives were sceptical. They saw malice aforethought in the fact that so many of Carmichael's personal effects were left behind in the church. To them, that indicated 'a carefully laid plan to deceive the officers.' Or was it a complete lack of planning?


–   Detroit Times, 9 January, 1909, 2nd Edition

Ticket agent John Lamb spotted the fugitive buying a ticket and two sandwiches from the tunnel restaurant. Detective Eli Baker and Deputy Sheriff Will Moore headed for Chicago to look for him. Meanwhile, back in Rattle Run, investigators were looking for the rest of Browning's body. They searched the church well for the torso, but found nothing.

While detectives interviewed witnesses and did the legwork, the Detroit Times unearthed the really interesting bits, such as the fact that the Reverend Carmichael had written a novel, which he had sent to another minister, CW Baldwin. The novel was all that could be hoped for – at least if you were a newspaper writer wanting to pump up circulation. The novel, called Blaze Creek Mines, is full of murder and explosions and set in the author's native West Virginia. It reads like a potential bestseller. Yes, of course the Times printed excerpts.

A mattress had been placed in the shade of one of the ancient elms and upon it lay the inanimate form of one whom she herself might have taken for the disreputable Alf Morgan, had she not known that that individual had passed the bounds of earthly life by a tragic incident more horrible than this. And again there came to her vivid recollections of that awful scene – the burning mill and the mangled remains of those who perished while committing the robbery...
–   Detroit Times, 9 January, 1909, 2nd Edition, page 6

We said it was a potential bestseller – not that it was any good.

Monday, 11 January, 1909: Imaginations Run Riot (Particularly in the Press)

The Detroit Times didn't produce a Sunday edition, so on Monday morning the reporters had to make up for lost time. They described the scene at the church on Monday morning.

The villagers at Rattle Run were astir early today. They wended their way to the little church. The voices of the men sounded hoarse as they discussed the crime; the women held their heads together and they talked in whispers. Groups of boys were congregated outside. Everybody talked of the murder, discovered by Myron Brown, who entered the church Wednesday morning and found the ghastly embers in the stove burning away sleepily, and deadly implements and other gruesome tokens scattered in different parts of the church.

The people today gazed at the church in which were found the mutilated parts of 'Gid' Browning. They talked of the deadly duel that must have taken place when 'Gid' Browning and the Rev. J.H. Carmichael stood breast to breast, their flesh almost touching, and with thighs entwined, reeling and swaying. What Carmichael gained in strength; Browning made up in rage...
–   Detroit Times, 10 January, 1909, 1st Edition

Still no sign of the missing minister. Another man had been caught in the roundup and temporarily jailed. A conductor on the Grand Trunk railway claimed to have seen Carmichael on the train. Frustrated reporters gave vent to their feelings by imagining Carmichael's, 'His eyes were fixed on the drifting landscape; they saw neither the houses nor the smiling harvest fields. His thoughts did not concentrate themselves enough to distil into words...' They'd better get a break in the case soon: they were running out of lurid details.

The late edition brought welcome relief – and a banner headline!

Banner headline of the Detroit Times for 11 January 1909 - ''Preacher slayer of Gid Browning takes his life in Carthage, Ill.'

While the detectives were pursuing a lead that Reverend Carmichael had leapt into the Calumet River from the 97th Street Bridge in South Chicago, Carmichael himself was in Carthage, Illinois, a small town near Keokuk, Iowa. There he had taken a room in a boarding house, written letters of confession to the sheriff and his wife, and cut his own throat.

When they told Mrs Carmichael what had happened, she reportedly replied calmly that Mr Carmichael had no relatives in Carthage.

The abrupt ending to the manhunt obviously left the Detroit Times in a quandary. They had a ton of information on the Chicago manhunt, as well as a speculation by the minister's daughter of a third party to the murder scene based on some dodgy footprint reading. They had space to fill, but the information was out of date. Never mind: they printed it, anyway.

In the 2nd edition, we finally find out why the parishioners didn't gather at the church until Monday morning. There were no services at any of the three Methodist churches founded by Reverend Carmichael. About 60 persons, we are told, went over to the German Lutheran church.

The parishioners on Monday might have been having a business meeting. The newspaper reported that it seemed they didn't plan to use that church building again, ever. Nobody would blame them, what with the murder scene and the dead body in the stove.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, the ongoing murder tale was having an effect. John Szchachpa showed up at the police station with a wild story about an alleged dynamite plot. But he was drunk, and the police thought he'd probably been reading too much of the Reverend Carmichael's fiction in the newspaper, so they refused to take him seriously.

Tuesday, 12 January, 1909: Disbelief and Reporter Letdown

With the confession and suicide of John Carmichael, the case would appear to have been over – but the Detroit Times was determined to milk it. Fortunately for us, because we, like early-20th-Century Michigan, still have questions. When it came to the hypnotism angle, the press weren't having it:

Story That He Murdered Browning Because of Latter's Hypnotic Influence Not Believed – "Died With Lie on Lips," Says Prosecutor

–   Detroit Times, 12 January, 1909, 1st Edition

Who didn't believe the hypnotism story? Besides the press, the detectives. They claimed that some parts of his confession didn't add up, probably because the minister was confused in his mind. At least, we now find out what happened in Carthage on Friday evening.

Carmichael told the landlady, Miss Hughes, that his name was John Elder. He was a cabinet maker looking to open a shop in Carthage. He cheerfully went around town discussing his alleged plans. He seems to have spent a good night. He fetched his luggage from the train station.

On Sunday he slept late and refused to eat, saying he was fasting. He ate little on Monday morning. After breakfast, he packed his valise, paid his bill, and asked about trains. He went to the outhouse around 7.40am.

Around 9.00am Miss Hughes, feeding her chickens, heard moaning from the outhouse. She found 'Mr Elder' with his throat cut, dying, and called for help. The doctors said the cut wasn't deep. They could have revived him had he not lain in a stupor in zero-degree (Fahrenheit) weather. He died of blood loss and hypothermia at 12.40pm, as the coroner's jury confirmed.

The prosecutor, very angry, refused to believe a word of Carmichael's written confession, because to him, it made no sense at all. The newspaper printed it. We'll let you read excerpts. After all, we've been waiting for this moment.

The Carmichael Confession

To Mr. Waggensell
Port Huron, Mich.
dated Jan. 9, 1909
Carthage Illinois,

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.

... [Browning uses his powers of persuasion to induce Carmichael to buy a hatchet, allegedly for Browning's little boy to play with. Then they go to the church at night.]

'Well, sir, 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 what I could do.

I thought I knowed if I could handle you I could handle other men and make a big thing out of it.'

Then he said, 'Now if I say raise your hand, up she goes. See, that is no dream,'

I felt my hand raise without 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'll show you.' and from his overcoat pocket he drew out a knife in each hand. He came at me, striking with both hands while I backed across the church down the side aisle and across the front but I did not dare to turn about to open 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 tell all that happened after that.

I was wild to dispose of the body. I was in a horrible terror, so I began pulling off my garments that I might drag the body away somewhere and hide it. Then when my eyes fell upon one of those knives I flew into a rage and began to use it when he woke up and grabbed me again.

Then for a while I used that hatchet until I was sure he was dead. Then I saw the fire was hot enough to make a stove pipe red nearly to the elbow.

I grabbed him by the feet and dragged him down there and cut him to pieces, putting in each piece as it was dismembered, then I began to put the garments into the stove, when I remembered that it had a poor draft and the things might not burn, then I saw that my clothing was cut and bloody while some of his were yet whole, and I exchanged and then took all but a few of mine and piled them in along with the body.

I then went up nearly to Tunnel station, where I turned my rig about and started it on the back track. My big coat hid my torn and bloody garments 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 not be far from Carthage Illinois.

Rev. W. J. Carmichael

–   Detroit Times, 12 January, 1909, 1st Edition

Tuesday, 12 January, 1909: Late Edition Revelations

In the late edition, we discover the most likely reason for Carmichael's suicide. The sheriff in Carthage was looking for a tall man behaving furtively – a thief on the run. Carmichael fit the description. The sheriff quizzed the runaway murderer on the street and sent him into a panic.


Determined to milk this story, the Detroit Times continued with another banner headline on Wednesday, the day Carmichael's body reached Port Huron. The murdering pastor had been taking drugs, probably morphine: there were needle marks. Whether before or after the crime was not clear.

The authorities still refused to believe the hypnotism story. So annoyed were they by the confession that they came up with even more elaborate motives, such as attempted insurance fraud. More letters by Carmichael surfaced, to his wife and his brother, both claiming that the cause of the murder was horror at Browning's use of hypnotism. We might indulge in Detroit Times-like speculation as to the frustrated thoughts of the sheriff and prosecutor at being contradicted from beyond the grave, but we won't. This story has been long enough.

The Detroit Times wrung a few more headlines out of the funeral. The face bore 'the shadow of agony', etc. On 14 January, it was revealed 'as a relief to the members of his family,' that an autopsy had proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that Reverend Carmichael was insane2. The state of his brain made this very clear. The 15 January late edition covered two funerals: Carmichael's and his victim's. The Carmichael obsequies crowded the church in Romulus, Michigan: at least a dozen ministers were in attendance. There were about 30 people at Browning's funeral. It was made known that Browning's sister was looking for a guardian for his minor son, who had an inheritance of $1,000 from his late father.

The next morning's headlines involved a train crash, a 'half-breed Indian' jury member who swayed a verdict, and a Washington, DC socialite who was divorcing her husband in Edinburgh. So fleeting is fame and/or infamy. There's no church on Rattle Run Road today: the land is still empty.

1This was the sixth newspaper in Detroit to be called Detroit Times. It was published under this name from 1903 to 1920.2An autopsy (post-mortem examination) determines the cause of death, not the state of someone's mental health.

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