Ypsilanti Citizen Opinions Lincoln Schools

Thank you Ypsilanti
By Dan DuChene & Christine Laughren
Jun. 23, 2010   ·   5:07 p.m.

Christine Laughren and Dan DuChene, co-owners of the Ypsilanti Citizen, pose in front of their company's banner at Frenchie's during the Citizen's one-year anniversary party.

The Ypsilanti Citizen was launched in November 2008 to inform the Ypsilanti community about the news and events that were happening in their area.

Since our launch,...read more

Crossroads Summer Festival; rockin’ ladies night
By Dave Heikkinen and Frank Wright
Jun. 23, 2010   ·   4:37 p.m.

Barbara Payton and the Big Boss Trio rock Washington Street.

A special Ladies Night was held Friday at the 2010 Ypsilanti Crossroads Summer Festival in conjunction with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.

Just...read more

Crossroads to hold Ladies Night for Relay for Life
By Dave Heikkinen and Frank Wright
Jun. 16, 2010   ·   9:13 a.m.

On June 11, the 2010 Ypsilanti Crossroads Summer Festival featured a rousing opening set from roots and blue grass band Dragon Wagon.

Dragon Wagon was joined on...read more

Electric rail pollution leads to dirty laundry
By Laura Bien
Jun. 15, 2010   ·   11:42 a.m.

From the approximate vantage point of the present-day Materials Unlimited, the interurban car barn and powerhouse on Michigan Avenue loomed large.

Maggie Smith was not looking forward to a forenoon of sewing pleats.

She put down her newest customer’s summer dress. Downstairs, she offered to get potatoes...read more

EMU students in wartime
By Laura Bien
Jun. 1, 2010   ·   10:32 a.m.

The 1942 Aurora yearbook, the 50th
anniversary edition, included images that contrasted modern and
old-time students.

Leroy Grindle was an Ypsilantian soldier who lost his life in WWII. He was a member of the Michigan Normal (EMU) class of ’41, and is memorialized with a black...read more

Detective mysteriously drowns on River Street in 1873

The 1852 Whitford house at 635 River Street at Forest (demolished in 1974), showing the side passage leading back to the cistern. Photo by courtesy of Ypsilanti Archives

The 1852 Whitford house at 635 River Street at Forest (demolished in 1974), showing the side passage leading back to the cistern.

To the Archives

By Laura Bien
Mar. 9, 2010    ·    3:36 a.m.

When a female detective drowned in an Ypsilanti cistern in Dec. 1873, shortly after insuring her life for $19,500 [more than $300,000 today], no less a paper than the distant New York Times took notice.

“The drowning... is creating great excitement in [Ypsilanti],” reported the Dec. 26, 1873 Times. “[W]ithout any close examination the jury assumed that the body recovered from the cistern was that of May Stevens Robinson. As such it was buried, and there the matter might have ended.”

It almost did.

Six days earlier, on Dec. 20, the Ypsilanti Commercial had given only five lines of copy to the Dec. 18 death.

“A Mrs. Robinson, recently married, daughter of Widow Barlow, residing on River Street, was found drowned in a cistern last Thursday night.” The paper tossed off a diagnosis. “She was probably insane—the result, doubtless, of protracted sickness.”

However, one week later, the Commercial devoted 183 lines of copy to a three-part examination of the death, now the alleged death, of May Robinson, “little dreaming,” said the paper, “that the circumstance was shrouded in so great mystery, and was to excite such profound interest.”

Frances May Robinson’s 18-year-old mother, Elvira, and 24-four-year-old father, Joel Barlow, married on May 6, 1841. Frances was born that year, on the Barlow farm south of Ypsilanti. In 1843, her brother Lester began what would be just eight years of life.

The 1850 census shows Joel with a net worth of $400. His neighbor Isaac Barlow is worth $800, and another neighbor Elijah Barlow is worth $1,400.

In 1852, two days after his 11th anniversary, Joel Barlow died at age 35. Two years later, his widow gave birth to Frances’ sister Alice. The family of three women moved to Ypsilanti and, according to the 1860 city directory, lived on Mill Street (now Maple).

The 16-year-old Frances married William Stephens, a teacher who boarded at Ballard and Ellis. They had two children, Frederick in 1860 and Robert Jerome in 1862. The couple divorced and Frances won custody of the children.

Elvira bought a trim, white 14-year-old home in 1866 at 634 River Street, across Forest Avenue from the Swaine house. According to the 1870 census, the 28-year-old Frances, listed as “Fanny,” was living there with her sons and Elvira. Elvira and Fanny had assets between them totaling $5,200, about $92,000 today—far more than anyone else on their particular page of the census.

But Frances didn’t live on River Street full time, according to the Dec. 26, 1873 New York Times.

“Leaving [the children] with her mother, she went to Ohio, and it is claimed that for several months she was acting as a detective in the United States secret service, her field of operations being principally in that State and Northern Indiana.”

The Dec. 27, 1873 Ypsilanti Commercial called her “a woman of more than ordinary ability—shrewd and smart.”

Her mother claimed that Frances supported herself by writing articles for various publications.

On one of her trips, in Coldwater, she met William Robinson, a clerk at the Watson House who claimed to be from Centreton, Ohio. Frances married him on Nov. 19, 1873, but continued to live with her mother. Robinson was preparing, he was quoted in the paper as having told Frances, to move with his new bride to Texas early the following year.

In the months prior to her marriage, beginning in September, Frances obtained life insurance policies totaling $14,500 through agents in Ann Arbor.

She had $5,000 each in the Michigan Mutual and the New York Mutual and Home companies, $3,000 in the National, of Washington, and $1,500 in the Massachusetts Mutual. Later it was found that she owned additional policies, bringing the total to $19,500, equivalent to $345,000 in 2009.

$10,000 was in the name of her children, $4,500, after marriage, in the name of her husband and $5,000 was in her own name. She had made only the first quarterly payment on each of her policies at the time of her death.

The Times reported she took out the policies because of fear.

“[William] Robinson testified that his wife told him that a young man named Barr, with whom she became acquainted during her residence in Ohio, had shot at her upon three different occasions, the last time when she was living in Ann Arbor, this causing her to move to Ypsilanti, and that [William] was afraid that [Barr] would yet kill her. Exactly what the cause of Barr’s enmity was is not known, but it is hinted that the deceased, as a detective, worked up a case wherein Barr was directly concerned, and the exposing of which was to his injury.”

About one week after her marriage, Frances fell ill with “bilious fever.” The doctor who examined her thought the case odd.

“There seemed to him such a marked peculiarity about the woman—her marriage, etc., that it created a presentiment in his mind, and led him to speak to his wife about the matter,” reported the Dec. 27, 1873 Commercial.

Frances had not yet fully recovered before her death, though she was able to move around the house. Her husband was away from home throughout her illness. He had returned by the night of her death.

On that night, William and Alice’s husband, Theodore Whitford, were playing a game of backgammon in the parlor. Also present were Frances’s mother Elvira, her sister Alice, Elvira’s sister and brother-in-law, Frances’s two boys and a Mrs. Palmer. Frances watched the game until around 9 p.m., “and being solicited to play, which she declined” says the Commercial, “she stepped out, humming a tune.”

Her humming implies a happy state of mind and a convivial household. It should be noted that as the Commercial story was written after Frances’s alleged death, the information that Frances was humming comes not from her but from one of the people then present in the house. The two people most likely to have reported this bit of information are the two people the paper described in detail.

The Commercial reporter describes Mr. Robinson as “a fine appearing man, apparently about twenty-eight or thirty years of age.”

The other person was Frances’s mother, who gave the reporter a tour of the house, starting in the parlor, on the northwest side of the house facing the intersection of Forest and River streets.

The Commercial said, “The entrance to the parlor leads into a dining room on the south side of the room; adjoining this room on the east is the kitchen; a hall about eight feet long leads out on to a platform, and at the south-east corner of the platform is a cistern about five feet in depth, and a diameter about the same. This cistern had about four feet of water in it. The curbing is two feet in diameter each was leaving the opening twenty inches.”

About five minutes after Frances left the room, according to the paper, her husband walked into the kitchen to get a drink of water.

“He returned to the parlor, and expressed his surprise at not finding his wife,” says the Commercial. “Mrs. Barlow took a lamp, and, accompanied by Mr. R. and Mrs. Whitford, proceeded to hunt for her.

“Stepping out the back door, she saw at a glance that the cistern was uncovered. Looking in, she saw a part of her balmoral skirt floating. Mr. R. reached down his arm, and, finding that she lay in the water face downward, made quite an effort to bring her out in an upright position.

“Every means was resorted to, Dr. Owen being sent for to restore her, but in vain,” the Commercial reported. “Her heart beat only a few minutes after the doctor arrived.”

The Times had a conflicting report of the event.

“When found, her head was beneath the surface of the water and she was quite dead.”

The paper’s description of the cistern also differed from that of the Commercial.

“The fact that the cistern contained but three feet of water, and is so shallow that had the deceased stood upright upon the bottom she could have reached the opening, and is sufficiently roomy to admit of a person falling in head first to reverse himself, would seem to do away with the accident theory.”

The Times also quotes the Detroit Free Press’s account of the “theory of the insurance men: ‘She was accustomed to travel, and to assuming disguises—in fact, very clever at it, and had at various times and places passed under assumed names... A woman of her shrewdness soon mastered the intricacies of life insurance, and... soon constructed a plot to better her condition... Then the job of procuring the body of a dead woman, dressing it in some of her garments, and pitching it in the cistern was all that was necessary to be done in order to successfully deceive the insurance companies and recover the amount of the several policies.’”

The evidence given to the Coroner’s jury “left that body in such a degree of doubt that they returned a verdict of death from drowning, but without finding how or by what means the deceased got into the cistern,” reported the Times.

The insurance companies were doubtful, too, and contested the payment of the policies.

A look at the following Ypsi papers in early 1874 reveals no apparent follow-up; the matter seems to have just slipped away.

In section 87 of Highland Cemetery, there is a pink granite tombstone for Frances, next to her mother’s and father’s stones.

Behind Frances’s stone are those of her sister Alice, Alice’s husband Theodore Whitford and Frances’s one-time brother Lester.

Next to Frances’s marker is a large stone for her son Robert. Between the stones for Frances and Robert is a tiny one, for “Baby Whitford, died January 24, 1873, aged 3 weeks.”

Frances left only mysteries behind when she departed. To this day, no one knows whose body was in that cold December cistern.

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