Just outside of Boyne City, early last century, stood a formidable square building, home to 100 or so wayward boys. Some of them were orphans. Some came from families that got too large, or lost a father to drink or death. Some came to Boyne City because of trouble they’d gotten into on the streets.
The Beulah Home, founded by Herman Swift in 1902, became a Boyne City institution and Swift became one of the city’s most prominent citizens.
But by 1909, things started to unravel.
First, there was controversy after some of the boys caused trouble in town.
Swift wrote a column in a local paper to defend his institution and the boys under his care, according to the book “Lost Boys: The Beulah Home Tragedy,” by Jack Hobey.
Swift plead with the residents of the area to understand that the boys were vulnerable and needed help.
Swift wrote: “They preferred tobacco, drink, cheap theatres and absolute freedom, and it may be were defectives or to a certain extent degenerate. They should have our pity, and the remaining 195 should not be condemned on account of those five.”
Just months later Swift would be making a different plea, after he was arrested on charges that he molested numerous boys under his care.
Hobey’s book chronicles this chapter in Northern Michigan history, a criminal case that dragged on with lots of publicity through 1913, but has all but disappeared from memory since.
At the time, the case caught the attention of the entire state and enthralled Northern Michigan, especially the Petoskey and Charlevoix area.
NE: The case of the People v. Herman Swift is not well known today. But you write that it was a huge story in Northern Michigan at the time. Can you describe just how big of a deal it was?
Jack Hobey: The story was front page news across the state of Michigan, and it received coverage elsewhere. Chicago, Buffalo. Herman Swift had run homes in a number of cities before he arrived in Boyne City, so he was a known character in those places. And I think it’s of significance: in each place where he operated, he left under a cloud.
He went to New Haven, Connecticut and ran a home there for a short time, and he went to Buffalo and he was there a number of years, and he went to Chicago and he was there a few years, and he was in Leoni Township near Jackson operating a home for several years. And in each case, he came under suspicion for child abuse and elected to leave rather than face any consequences.
He established a home in Boyne City in 1902 and by 1910 he was the most famous guy in town. Boyne City was the fastest growing town in the United States from 1900 to 1910, so it was just a very fast-paced, successful industrial center, and he became the featured person in town.
The Beulah home was the shining light for the community. They called it the Greatest Life Saving Station on the Great Lakes.
NE: How did you come across the story?
What did you find interesting about it?
Hobey: My first book was about Edward Beebe, who was a Northern Michigan postcard photographer. And I was going from that to writing a book that would have been basically one of these post card books. And I was going to feature three series. Beebe was from Kalkaska, but he had done a post card series in Boyne Falls, he had done a series in Boyne City, and then he had done a series at the Beulah Home.
I was working at libraries going through old newspapers on microfilm to put in some narrative. I didn’t just want to use pictures. But as I am going through these papers, I discovered the scandal.
And child abuse is just not an appealing subject. That’s one of the reasons no one has ever written about this before. I was frankly disinclined to write the book.
But I was down in the archives in Lansing, at the state library, and a gentleman who worked there said, ‘You know, a number of years ago somebody brought in some cardboard boxes full of the old Charlevoix County criminal cases,’ and he said, ‘Have you got an interest in that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ve got a great interest in that.’ I went through the boxes, and they had all the (Swift) case files down there. They had 300 pages of handwritten transcripts of testimony from the boys and postcards from the boys. All this information. And I said okay, I’m going to write this book. For me, it was writing it about the boys, so people will remember the story.
NE: Tell me about your background and how you got into historical writing.
Hobey: I worked for 35 years in manufacturing management, and the longest period of that was running a machine tool manufacturing company in Lansing. So nothing that would really prepare you for writing anything.
When I retired we moved up here to the Boyne City area and I’m a post card collector and had developed an interest in Edward Beebe, who is a very, very interesting guy, and I wrote this book called, “Wish You Were Here: The Edward Beebe Story.”
That led me to this Beulah home story and I just enjoy the research. I enjoy Michigan history. And I like writing about things that I think are important.
NE: You never go into any detail about what Swift was accused of doing to the boys. At most it’s described in your book as “taking indecent liberties.” Why did you decide to leave that out?
Hobey: You know, I wanted to make it a book that older people could read and anybody could read.
The case went to the Supreme Court of Michigan, and the fellow who wrote the opinion was the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. He’s a guy named Joseph Steere. Steere was the first supreme court member from the Upper Peninsula.
In his opinion, it says, “It is sufficient, without going into the unsavory details, to say that the information clearly stated these actions constitute the offense under the statute...”
So I kind of took from that. You know, people, they have their own views on child abuse. So I left all the details out, as Steere would say, ‘the unsavory details,’ and I think that doesn’t diminish the story at all.
NE: The 20th century is filled with stories about child abuse at institutions that was only revealed decades later. It seems like there was something in our culture that wanted to look the other way when stuff like this happened. What do you think happened in Boyne City a hundred years ago that caused this to be confronted?
Hobey: Swift was charged with child abuse in late 1909 and justice wasn't completed for three years. And during that three-year period, it’s interesting, because a lot of very, very high profile, important people in Michigan supported Swift.
You’ll see through the book that the people that are on the prosecution’s side are faced with the fact that it’s a private crime, so it takes place in secret. And then you’re left with the claims of an adult who’s the most highly reputed guy in Boyne City against a kid who was sent up from Grand Rapids as a juvenile delinquent.
There are interesting heroines in the story and heros and villains, and whatever, but the biggest hero is this boy named Merrill Griffin, who was only 11, and he was one of the boys that brought a charge against Swift. He hung in there for three years. A number of the kids dropped out or their parents elected not to do anything because it’s embarrassing and it’s stressful.
But this kid Merrill Griffin hung in there.
And his father is another big hero in this because he was tenacious and he stuck with it.
It’s a very difficult case. And people read this book and walk away thinking he was innocent.
NE: How would you decribe Herman Swift?
Hobey: He’s a classical tragic figure, a Shakespearean tragic figure that has great intentions and wonderful goals and a fatal flaw.
I expressed my opinion in the book. At the end, I let the reader know what I think. But I tried to write the book in a balanced way and you see both sides of the case.
Different people at the time and different readers today will, I suppose, read it differently than I do. I avoid saying that he’s a bad guy because I’ll let people draw their own opinion on that.
I do regard the people who got Swift out of the Beulah Home as heroines and heroes.