Saturday, May 17, 2014

Murder at Bloomingdale.

Harvey Keith
While boating on Max Lake in Bloomingdale, Michigan in August 1885, Frank Lackey and his companions saw what they thought was a dead sheep floating in the water. Closer inspection revealed that it was the body of a man, wearing only a white shirt and a pair of socks. The body was soon identified as Harvey Keith who had been missing for several days. With no signs of violence on the head or upper body, the death would probably have been ruled a suicide except that the man’s genitals had been cut off.

Date:  July 28, 1885

Location:   Bloomingdale, Michigan

Victim:  Harvey Keith

Cause of Death:  Strangulation

Accused:  Marshal G. Barker and William K. Barker


Marshal G. Barker
Around 7:30, on the morning of July 28, 1885, Marshal Barker went the home of James Keith, in Bloomingdale, Michigan, and asked for Keith's son Harvey. Mr. Keith told him that Harvey had been out all night hand had not yet returned home. Barker came back half an hour later, again anxious to see Harvey Keith who still had not returned. When he came a third he said that Harvey owed him $50 and he wanted Mr. Keith to pay it. Keith asked what the debt was for and when Barker refused to tell him, Keith sent him away saying he was not responsible for his son’s debts.

Barker came back once more, and this time he was ready to tell his story. He handed Keith a watch and a diary that Keith immediately recognized as his son’s. Barker said that he had come home after midnight and found Harvey Keith in bed with his wife. A fight ensued and Harvey escaped through the window wearing just his shirt and socks. Now Barker wanted the $50 as retribution.

Mrs. Lillian Barker

James Keith paid Barker nothing, but after hearing his story, began a frantic search for his missing son. He found no trace of Harvey Keith until his body turned up four days later floating in Max Lake. A post mortem examination revealed that Harvey had no water in his lungs; he had been put into the lake after his death. He had also been emasculated  and  from the wound the doctors could  tell that it had been done after death. They believed that Keith had died of strangulation. Marshal Barker was arrested as a suspect, along with his wife Lillian and his brother William.

Barker stuck to his story and, although the sheriff believed he was guilty, there was not enough evidence to charge him with murder. To remedy this, Van Buren County hired detective Mathew Pinkerton to search for evidence. Though he was in no way related to Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Mathew Pinkerton had briefly worked for that agency. He was fired for telling people that he was Allan Pinkerton’s son. Mathew Pinkerton then started his own detective agency, Pinkerton’s United States Detective Agency, which, after being sued by the real Pinkertons, became just The United States Detective Agency. 

William K. Barker
Mathew Pinkerton’s agency did not have the ethical standards of Allan Pinkerton’s and he used some shady tactics to get confessions from the Barkers. He arranged to have one of his operatives, Charles H. Stearns, pose as a prisoner incarcerated in the Paw Paw, Michigan jail where the Barkers were being held. Stearns gained the confidence of Marshal Barker, suggesting that Barker talk to the lawyer who would be coming to bail him out. The lawyer was actually Mathew Pinkerton who, of course, agreed to talk to the Barkers. Believing that they were consulting with their attorney, Marshal, William and Lillian Barker gave Pinkerton full written confessions to the murder of Harvey Keith, signed and witnessed. The newspapers described the Barkers as “extremely ignorant.”

Marshal Barker confessed that he had suspected his wife of cheating on him and devised a plan to catch her. He told her he would be leaving town for several days to look for work. Thinking that her husband was gone, Lillian Barker, together with William Barker’s wife, enticed Harvey Keith to her house for a night of fun. But
Mrs. William Barker
Marshal Barker had not left town and coming in just after midnight on July 28, he caught Keith and his wife in flagrante delicto. Barker jumped on Keith, struck him then strangled him to death with his bare hands. With the help of his brother William, who had also been cuckolded by Keith, Marshal Barker took the body to nearby Max Lake, mutilating it on the way. By Marshal’s twisted logic, cutting off the genitals would provide a reason to believe that Keith had killed himself—he “committed suicide from mortification at his loss.” In fact, had Keith been found intact, the death probably would have been regarded as suicide. After throwing the body into the lake, Barker took off his boots and made footprints in the sand and mud so it would appear that Keith had walked into that lake.

On the strength of the confessions, the three Barkers were arrested for the murder of Harvey Keith.

Trial: October 16, 1885

By the time of their trial, Marshal and William Barker had gotten a real attorney who challenged the validity of the confessions and moved for a change of venue. The confessions had been summarized in several newspapers and were well known to the people of Van Buren County, but the change of venue was denied. The Barker brothers were pleading not guilty, but Lillian Barker had turned state’s evidence against her husband and brother-in-law, so even without the confessions, the odds were against them. The hardest job for the prosecution was finding a jury that had not already read the confessions.

The testimony continued until October 22. That evening the jury was charged and ordered out for deliberation. At 6:00 the next morning they returned, finding the Barkers brothers guilty of second degree murder.

Verdict: Guilty of second degree murder.

Marshal Barker was sentenced to life at hard labor and William Baker was sentenced to twenty-five years. By 1:00 that afternoon they were on board a train to Jackson prison.

Mrs. Barker’s trial was put over until the next term of the court, but it is unlikely that the trial ever took place.

"A Probable Murder at Bloomingdale  ." Kalamazoo Gazette 2 Aug 1885: 3.
"Murder at Bloomingdale." Kalamazoo Gazette 4 Aug 1885: 2.
"The Bloomingdale Murder." Kalamazoo Gazette 5 Aug 1885.
"Murder confessed." Cincinnati Commerial Tribune 27 Aug 1885: 2.
"A Horrible Recital of Crime." Trenton Evening Times 28 Aug 1885: 1.
"Getting The Confession Of A Murderer  ." New York Tribune 29 Aug 1885: 1.
"A Motion for a Change of Venue Argued in the Keith Murder Case Before Judge Mills." Kalamazoo Gazette 20 Sep 1885: 8.
"The Keith Murder Case." Kalamazoo Gazette 16 Oct 1885: 3.
"Heavy Sentences ." Elkhart Daily Review 23 Oct 1885.
"The Keith Murder." The National Police Gazette 14 Nov 1885.
"Mrs. Marsh G. Baker." The National Police Gazette 21 Nov 1885: 6.

 Alchemy of Bones


Unknown says:
November 25, 2015 at 5:24 PM

What happened to Mrs Barker? Did she just stay in jail?

Ann Tracy Marr says:
November 13, 2017 at 4:02 PM

She never went to trial. Look for a book on the case, "The County's Scandal - The Murder of Harvey Keith" later this year on

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