The evil that men do live after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Jim Carr and Maggie Duncan were evil, but for a few years their evil deeds made them two of the richest individuals in Clare County. When they died as paupers on straw mattresses on the frigid floor of a rundown shack in March 1892, few people shed tears upon hearing the news. If Shakespeare was right, the good they did—if any—is buried with them in their unmarked graves.
Here is a brief summary of two of the nastiest people ever to call Clare County home:
Jim Carr was born in Buffalo, NY about 1850 (1). After knocking around Toledo, Chicago and Eaton Rapids, Carr ended up in Clare County, where, in 1868, he started working for lumberman Winfield Scott Gerrish. Carr, according to an article in the Gladwin Record, was a well-built man, six-feet tall with a mustache covering a pleasant face and possessing a gentlemanly manner. At the same time, the writer aid there was an “air of danger” around him.
Not much is known of Duncan (2), but in her, Carr found a kindred spirit and in him, Duncan found a way out of poverty. So Duncan was with Carr in 1881 when he decided there was more money to be made from lumberjacks than lumbering and struck out and opened a business just outside of Harrison, a town recently hewed out of the forest and the Clare County seat.
One would have said Carr’s odds of success were slight. Although Harrison was growing fast and up to 20 trains a day rolled into town, it already had 20 saloons. Carr was not highly educated and could read but could not write. But if the old adage is true that the three most important factors in real estate are location, location, location, then he opened his Devil’s Ranch Stockade in the right place. The stockade was a two- or perhaps three-story saloon, hotel, gambling hall, brothel located on a hill just outside the town’s limits. When the city fathers had platted Harrison, they had determined the hill to be worthless and so didn’t include it within the town’s boundaries. That meant Carr were not under the town’s laws but only under the jurisdiction of the county sheriff, an individual Carr apparently came to own, if reports published in local papers were true. Plus, the hill meant the Carr’s place was visible to everyone coming into town. The promise of cheap booze, loose women, open gambling and few regulations made Carr’s place popular with lumberjacks who flocked there to do much as they pleased. For some lumberjack’s, Carr’s stockade was their first stop when they came to Harrison and their last–literally. The hill on which Carr’s place stood soon became known as Dead Man’s Hill because of the people Carr was reported to have killed and buried there.
The term “stockade” used to describe the ranch was literal and not figurative. The complex had a high fence around it meant to keep prying eyes out and the women that worked in the brothel in. While some women began prostitutes by choice, others were forced into the business. There is one story of a prostitute named Jenny Kinney (or King) who fled Carr’s stockade one winter night clad only in her after being beaten. She ran into town knocking on doors asking for shelter. When one family took her in, Duncan, a companion and a big dog appeared at the door demanding her return. The family refused to give her up. No one was ever charged.
While Carr ran the overall business focusing on the saloon, Duncan ran the brothel. She had experience with brothels (but then so did Carr for that matter, since that’s how the two seemed to have met). Anyway, it was a love and business partnership that seemed made in heaven–or hell. Duncan seems to have been Carr’s equal in every way with a love of vices and strong drink and a reputation for cruelty. Their Harrison business proved so successful that they even expanded and opened a second establishment in the then growing town of Meredith, some 10 miles to the northeast and in the center of some 50 logging camps.
Carr made a profitable living (or perhaps killing) off lumberjacks. The ranch was big enough to fit up to 250 – 300 men at a time, most of them at the bar drinking Carr’s beer and rot-gut whiskey. There was so much money that instead of cash registers, Carr’s place had buckets for the men to throw their money in for their drinks. When the buckets were full, they were carried to Carr’s office for emptying and counting. Carr also advanced lumberjacks credit in exchange for their time tickets, which he discounted 25 – 50 percent. (Some lumberjacks were not paid until logs they had cut were delivered to the sawmill in the spring, so to reflect their earnings, the men were given “time tickets.” These were redeemable by bearer for cash in the full amount.) Carr was not above adding to his earnings by robbing drunken lumberjacks or those he and his cronies drugged. This also proved lucrative since the men carried all their earnings–sometimes for an entire logging season–on their person.
Carr’s unsavory and illegal activities were apparently well known and the subject of numerous stories and editorials in the local press (although one paper defended him by saying that men like Carr were “a necessary evil” in growing towns). And that’s not to say Carr wasn’t arrested. At one time when asked how many times he had been arrested, he claimed it was so many times he couldn’t remember. However, being arrested was one thing, being convicted was another. Witnesses were often too afraid to appear in court, were paid off, disappeared, or Carr simply paid a fine.
However, when Frankie Osborne, a prostitute popular with the lumberjacks died in Carr’s employ in 1885 that Carr’s and Duncan’s life began to start unraveling. It was also around this time a new sheriff was elected that was not under Carr’s control and a new prosecutor named W.A. Buritt decided to rid the county of Carr.
Osborne’s death was due to a beating and at Carr’s hand. Initially, Carr wasn’t too worried about being arrested in Osborne’s death. When he was indicted for her murder, it’s reported he laughed and said, “Is that all?” and prepared to leave the courtroom. Instead, the judge ordered him to jail to stand trial. Carr was found guilty of the murder and sentenced to 15 years.
Carr was freed by the Michigan Supreme Court after a year in prison (although the Court stated Carr’s conviction was improper, it did state he was a very depraved individual). Duncan was also freed about that time from the Detroit House of Correction after a conviction for running a house of ill repute. The two began their businesses again, although Buritt was not done with Carr. Although Carr had beaten the murder rap, Buritt brought Carr up for trial, this time on charges he burned a James Silkworth’s establishment at Lake Arnold in 1884. Although Carr again beat these charges, the continuing legal costs had taken much of his fortune. In addition, most of white pine in Clare County had been cut by this time and the lumberjacks had moved on to new territories. Fewer customers, a population increasingly intolerant of Carr’s activities and increased raids on his establishments meant fewer profits.
Carr and Duncan apparently abandoned their place in Harrison but continued to run a brothel in Meredith. In a burst of imagination and to try to avoid the law, it is said Carr put the building on skids. Either that or put it on a railroad car. Since Meredith was on the Clare/Gladwin County line, Carr would simply move the building between counties whenever things in one county got too hot for him. Whether one story or the other is true isn’t known but the legend has grown with time. In any event, the building, wherever it was located, eventually burned to the ground leaving the two without regular income.
Carr and Duncan remained in Clare County. Why they didn’t move on with the lumberjacks and resurrect their fortunes in a new place isn’t known. Maybe they were broke. Maybe their alcoholism had so taken its toll they no longer had the inclination to start over. In any event, it appears Duncan resorted to her old trade to get the two of them money for liquor. If nothing else, she remained loyal to the end.
That end came in March 1892, when Carr died next to Duncan in a freezing shack outside Meredith. According to some accounts published years later, Carr and Duncan died together and were buried by lumberjacks on land outside a cemetery since no minister would officiate and no cemetery would take them. Other accounts say Carr was buried near the shack, his body dug up sometime later by the county undertaker and buried in a local cemetery. Duncan who did not die that same night as Carr was sent to the county poorhouse where it is said she died some months later.
When Carr died, he was just 42 (although other records say 37). Duncan’s age isn’t known but going by jail records, she was about 33.
Carr’s story (and to a lesser extent Duncan’s) is told in three books:
- Michigan’s Timber Battleground, by Forrest Meek
- Michigan Rogues, Desperados, Cut-throats by Tom Powers
- Ticket to Hell: A Saga of Michigan’s Bad Men, by Roy Dodge (out of print)
There is also an in-depth article by David McMacken that appeared in the Summer 1971 issue of Michigan Living magazine (Volume 55. No. 2).
(1) Some records indicate Carr was born in 1855, but records from the county jail at the Clare County Historical Museum show that he was born in 1850. Records at Ancestry.com also show he was born about 1850. The records show Carr was the second person held in what was then the new jail. He was held there on the charge of arson (possibly related to the burning rival James Silkworth’s place in 1884). The jail records state Carr stood 5 feet 10 inches and weighed 175 pounds. He was fair-haired and had blue eyes.
(2) County jail records also shows Maggie Carr/Duncan was also arrested and held in the jail on the charge of “running a house of ill-fame.” The records show Carr/Duncan was 27 at the time of her arrest, which meant she was born about 1859. She was 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds and could neither read nor write. The record also shows that she like Carr was born in Rochester, New York so it’s possible that she knew Carr or his family in her youth, or that common thread was one of the things that brought the two together.