Michigan Lawyers in History
Michigan Lawyers in History--John D. Voelker: Michigan’s Literary Justice
John Donaldson Voelker led his life as many wish they could—on his own terms. He was not only a renowned nov-elist and eminent member of the bench and bar, but also a fly fisherman skilled in the pursuit of his favorite quarry, the elusive brook trout.
Voelker spent most of his life near his 1903 birthplace, Ishpeming, leaving his beloved Upper Peninsula only when forced to do so. No one understood the stouthearted people of the Upper Peninsula better than Voelker, who set many of the plots of his 11 books—including Anatomy of a Murder, his greatest literary success—in the rugged land near Marquette. He wrote under the pen name Robert Traver (Traver was his mother’s maiden name), he said, because his early works were published when he was the Marquette County prosecutor and he did not want to create the impression that he was ‘‘spinning yarns on company time.’’
Voelker’s roots were firmly established in Michigan’s north country. His grandfather, a German immigrant, landed at Sault Ste. Marie in the 1840s and crossed the Upper Peninsula by oxen team, settling near Copper Harbor, where he built the first of three breweries. Voelker told a newspaper reporter, ‘‘My father, George, was born at Ontonagon in 1860. He learned to speak Chippewa Indian before he talked English.’’ In his day, George owned the saloon with the longest bar in Ishpeming, no small distinction in a rough and tumble mining town that, to this day, has more saloons than churches.
Voelker was the youngest of six sons. Like his father, he took to the woods and streams at a young age. His talent for trout fishing came from his father, who taught his sons how to hook a trout with a hand-tied fly. Voelker often said they brought back so many trout that his mother grew sick of frying fish.
Voelker’s mother, a teacher, wanted her youngest son to have a formal education. Her husband disagreed, saying that knowing how to tramp the woods and draw a stein of beer was education enough. Voelker followed his mother’s wishes, however, and, after graduating from Northern Michigan University, worked his way through the University of Michigan Law School as a waiter. ‘‘When I got my degree and was elected [Marquette County] prosecutor in 1934, dad was so proud he cried.’’
Following his graduation from law school, Voelker married Grace Taylor of Oak Park, Illinois, a young woman he met in Ann Arbor. Shortly after his marriage, Voelker went to work for the Chicago law firm of Mayer, Meyer, Austrian & Platt, where he spent his time in the bowels of the firm’s law library, putting in his time as what he called a ‘‘law looker.’’ He lasted three unhappy years in the Windy City before returning to the U.P., telling Grace that it was better to starve in Ishpeming than to wear emeralds in Chicago. In 1934, he was elected Marquette County prosecutor, the first Democrat to win the job since the Civil War. He served 14 years.
Voelker flourished in the prosecutor’s office; his family grew to include three daughters and he began publishing stories crafted from his experiences, including Troubleshooter and Small Town D.A. He became a respected trial lawyer who had the instinct to go for the jugular of a lying witness. During his last 10 years in this office, Voelker lost only one felony case. Although re-elected six times, he was hardly a typical politician. He hated campaigning, preferring instead to tell Finnish dialect stories in backwoods towns or play cribbage with his cronies.
Eventually, he was defeated at the polls, and forced into private practice. He observed philosophically that sooner or later it is pretty much inevitable that a prosecutor will wear out his welcome in a small community like Marquette County, because with the passage of time you eventually prosecute enough defendants to turn a majority (consisting of their friends and relatives) against you. ‘‘Being voted out of office probably turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me,’’ he observed, ‘‘because if I hadn’t been I would have had to prosecute a certain case instead of defending it.’’ That ‘‘certain case’’ was the one on which ‘‘some say’’ his best-selling novel, Anatomy of a Murder, was based.
On January 1, 1957, Governor G. Mennen Williams appointed Voelker to the Michigan Supreme Court to fill a three-month vacancy. That spring, Voelker decided to run for re-election. He won, leading the judicial ticket after a campaign in which he and the Hon. Damon Keith (who was the pattern for Leon Falconbridge in Hornstein’s Boy1) met and became fast friends. In January 1958, the Book-of-the-Month Club featured his novel Anatomy of a Murder as its main selection. Voelker dryly observed that, ‘‘At 52 I’m a promising young author.’’
Anatomy of a Murder quickly became a national best-seller, establishing Voelker as an author of international stature. Otto Preminger secured film rights to the book in July 1958. While visiting the Upper Peninsula in January 1959, he decided to shoot the entire film on location in Marquette. The movie and book, based on a 1952 case Voelker defended, told the story of a small-town attorney’s successful defense of a serviceman charged with killing a bar owner who allegedly raped the soldier’s wife. The movie starred James Stewart, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, and Eve Arden. Duke Ellington composed the musical score in Marquette while the movie was being filmed. The movie eventually received six Academy Award nominations.
During Voelker’s 1957-59 tenure with the Supreme Court, he wrote more than 100 humorous and wryly crafted opinions. His most famous case involved the arrest of eight nudists near Battle Creek. In a dissent so persuasive that it garnered a majority, Voelker threw out their convictions, scornfully observing that ‘‘It seems that we are now prepared to burn down the house of constitutional safeguards in order to roast a few nudists. I will have none of it.’’ With an epigram characteristic of his pithy, tongue-in-cheek humor, he observed of the odd cult to which the defendants belonged that ‘‘If eccentricity were a crime, then all of us were felons.’’ People v Hildabridle, 353 Mich 562, 579 (1958).
On November 24, 1959, Voelker resigned from the Court, citing a conflict between his work as a justice and as a writer. ‘‘While other lawyers may write my opinions, they can scarcely write my books.’’ He returned to the solitude of his beloved Upper Peninsula to craft several more books, among them his only historical novel, Laughing Whitefish, which was based on three nineteenth-century Michigan Supreme Court decisions in a case involving an Ojibwa woman’s attempt to collect a debt owed to her father.2 His last book, People Versus Kirk, explored the use of hypnotism in the courtroom.
Voelker wrote all of his books laboriously in longhand, most of them on yellow legal pads with a green felt pen. He did most of his writing during the winter months when thick ice covered his favorite fishing spots.
Voelker’s numerous articles on the joys of fly-fishing and his books, Anatomy of a Fisherman, Trout Madness, and Trout Magic, attest to his love of the outdoors. He wrote in Trout Madness:
I fish because I love to; because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful...because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness; [and] not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant—and not nearly so much fun.
Although he said it made him feel ‘‘a wee bit embalmed’’ to have a foundation named after him, in 1989, Voelker helped establish the John D. Voelker Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides support for legal services and education to Michigan citizens, especially Native Americans. He personally set its immediate goal of providing scholarships to Native Americans wishing to attend law school. He was in the midst of assisting the Foundation with fundraising activities when he died on March 18, 1991. The Foundation has provided scholarship grants to six ‘‘warrior lawyers,’’ and sponsors the annual Traver writing award competition.
Among Voelker’s legions of admirers was CBS news correspondent Charles Kuralt. When informed of Voelker’s death, Kuralt spoke fondly of his friend, who he described as ‘‘the nearest thing to a great man I’ve ever known.’’
1 The experience gleaned from his many campaigns is reflected in this epigram: ‘‘In a democracy those most gifted to govern are all too frequently those least gifted in the dark arts of ever getting to govern.’’ Traver, Hornstein’s Boy, 41 (St. Martin’s Press 1962).
2 They are reported as Compo v Jackson Iron Co, 49 Mich 39; 12 NW 901 (1882), 50 Mich 578; 16 NW 295 (1883), and, sub nom, Kabogum v Jackson Iron Co, 76 Mich 498; 43 NW 602 (1889).