Law & Order: “A bullet whizzed through his bushy eyebrow”

10.17.2021 [archived ~originally published 10.8.2015]

Advertisement in the Itasca News ~ Circa 1900

We have all heard that Deer River was a very rough and tumble town at the turn of the century.  Main Street referred to as Whiskey Row had nearly twenty saloons and there was at least one house of “ill repute” in the vicinity. 

The story of the murder of Charley Grant reads more like a dime novel than a newspaper article, but based on the subsequent trial testimony appears to have been true. The headline I used for the column comes from the testimony of the bartender, Alexander “Sandy” Phair.  He stated there were four shots fired in all and “that the third one passed close to Tom Murray’s head who was reclining against the bar asleep.  The whiz of the ball through his bushy eye brow awoke him.”  Murray was not the intended target and is lucky he did not become a casualty in the saloon skirmish.

The articles are rather lengthy so here is the abbreviated version with enough excerpts to give you an idea of what happened on November 30, 1900 through the trial verdict on January 18, 1901.

After folks had eaten their Thanksgiving dinner, many of the young people or those without families, went to Deer River.  It was rumored that there was a clandestine boxing match, where bets were readily made by all men present.  In the early evening there was a dance at the Hotel Deer River.  Most of the saloons were open, and laughter or conversation could be heard spilling out of the doors and windows.

Sandy, the bartender of the saloon in the Northern Hotel said that the men were a bit more rowdy than usual, in part because the band at the Hotel Deer River next door was quite loud. The city marshal, Mike McClusky had been making the rounds, or perhaps had been summoned and was present at the time the melee began.   The main characters were Patrick Burke, a 40- year-old single man from Grand Rapids; and recently married 35-year-old Charley Grant.  Both men were known in the Deer River community and neither had a honorable past..  Burke had been in prison for manslaughter and Grant had just gotten off parole following a sentence at the Stillwater Prison for robbing a woman.

The men were acquainted with each other and though it is not clear if they were together that night, all agreed that Grant and Burke were drinking and began arguing.  Grant succeeded in knocking Burke to the floor and was leaning against the bar and smiling in victory.  Suddenly Burke stood up and whipped a revolver out of his hip pocket and aiming at Grant exclaimed: ‘Grant I won’t take a licking from you!’

With these words he fired, and though he was only ten feet away the ball missed Grant, and whizzing past the bar tender’s ear, bored into the lower part of the mirror frame behind the bar.  Mike McClusky, the village marshal, then jumped in and tried to wrest the weapon from Burke.  While in this tussle McClusky says he pleaded to the ten or twelve men present to take the gun away, but none attempted to do so. 

Grant, it appears, was too drunk to know enough to move out of the room, and Burke in the hands of the marshal, got a second shot at him and Grant began moving toward the back door when a third shot came.  It was then thought the second shot killed Grant because he suddenly scrunched his shoulders and moved sidewise toward the back door, but as he was still facing the gun it may be that it was the third shot which hit him.  The bullet entered the left breast about two inches above the heart, and passed out of his back under the right shoulder.  As Grant was nearing the door the fourth shot came but went wild and the ball went in the wall over the door. [Itasca News 12-1-1900]

Grant fell through the side door into the washroom and died within a few minutes.  Burke was arrested and spent the remainder of the night behind the bars.  Sheriff Tyndall arrived and took the prisoner to Grand Rapids on the afternoon train.  The county coroner was also in town and removed the remains to Grand Rapids. 

The jury in the coroner’s inquest over the remains of Charles Grant returned the verdict Tuesday that Grant was killed by a bullet from a gun discharged by Patrick Burke.

Burke’s preliminary hearing in justice court was set for Thursday December 6th, but he waived examination and his case came before the grand jury in January.  He was indicted for first degree murder by the grand jury, and trial was set to begin on January 11, 1901.

About ninety jurors were subpoenaed before the following jury of twelve men was secured: Edward Bergin, H.E. Graffam, R.A. McAllister, E. Keabie, M. Hagen, Jas. Patterson, David Cochran, George Lemrod, A.M. Sisler, Frank Voight, Irving A Martin and James Affleck.  Other names you might recognize from your own family history include these witnesses: Sandy Phair, W.C. Robbyn; C.W. Robinson, Frank Caldwell, Tom Murray, John Hawley, John O’Reilly, Harry Oakes, Charles Porter, and Joseph Girard.

Burke’s defense was that he considered his life was in danger and drew the revolver in self-defense when he saw Grant’s hand in his hip pocket.  The jury was out about twenty-four hours.  “Yesterday forenoon at 9 o’clock the jury reported that they were unable to agree and it was understood that eight voted not guilty while four favoured a verdict of manslaughter in the first degree.  Judge McClanahan asked them to try again and at 3:30 the foreman announced to the bailiff that an agreement had been reached. 

The word soon spread through the village and the court room was well filled when the twelve men filed in and handed their findings to Clerk King.  In just one week to the hour from the time the case was opened and the work of securing a jury begun Patrick Burke was pronounced ‘not guilty’ of the crime of murdering Charles Grant.” [Grand Rapids Herald Review 1-19-1901]

Law and Order is a special interest feature of Reminisce. During the coming months I will share some of the burglaries, murders and other crimes that occurred in our communities years ago.  If you have any such events you would like to see me research and write about, please email or call 218-244-2127


  1. Great article Chris.


  2. youngv2015 says:

    It sure sounds like Burke got away with murder!


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