That One Time in Michigan…When a Stagecoach Robber Turned His Life Around

Reimund Holzhey. (Source: Archives of Michigan)

By Karel Vega

September 19, 2023

From a life sentence to a new life.

This historic moment in the Mitten is about a guy who’s been called the “Black Bart” of Michigan. (For those of you who need a refresher on Old West bandit Black Bart, here you go.)

Here in Michigan, stagecoach robber Reimund Holzhey enters our story the way so many characters do: as a stranger who comes to town.

Holzhey on the Lam

In 1889, 22-year-old Reimund Holzhey robbed stagecoaches and trains in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin during a five-month spree. His reputation was so fearsome that there was a general wariness of traveling in the UP because he might be around. But in late summer of that year, Holzhey was about to make a critical mistake.

August 26, 1889: While robbing a stagecoach somewhere between Gogebic Station and Lake Gogebic, Holzhey shot an Illinois banker, Adolph G. Fleischbein. Fleischbein was taken to the nearby town Bessemer for treatment, but succumbed to his injuries just a few hours after being shot.

As a search ensued to capture his killer, Holzhey made his way east. He turned up three days later at a hotel in the town of Republic, looking for a place to stay the night. That’s where a group of locals—including the hotel’s owner (who happened to be a former detective), a judge, and a sharpshooter, if you can believe it—noticed the stranger walking in, and remembered a newspaper description from the Gogebic robbery.

According to Madeleine Bradford at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, the judge, the sharpshooter, and the town’s deputy sheriff and night marshall woke up the next morning and pulled on civilian clothes, then headed out to find their man.

“Splitting up, they let Holzhey walk between them. They hurled themselves at Holzhey from either side, crashing to the ground. Struggling to reach for his pocket, and the gun hidden within, Holzhey found himself overpowered by the night watchman’s club.”

Newspaper reports at the time referred to Holzhey by several names, including the “Black Bart of Michigan” and the “Jesse James of Wisconsin.” At trial, a jury convicted Holzhey of murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison to be served in Marquette.

Although the case was pretty open and shut—authorities discovered some of Fleischbein’s belongings on Holzhey—a letter written by Holzhey himself was published in the Detroit News, indicating that he believed the trial was not a fair process:

“Do you know what these [ . . . ] men will do with a human brother whose maddened brain drives him hither and thither like a dry leaf in a storm wind? If they can in any way do it they will take him alive and put him through what they call a fair trial, then they talk about god and the law, when in fact it is but a matter of friends and gold . . .”

But that prison sentence would end up completely turning Holzhey’s life around.

A Changed Man

That One Time in Michigan…When a Stagecoach Robber Turned His Life Around

Reimund Holzhey in custody. (Source: Bentley Historical Library)

Unsurprisingly, given his reputation, Holzhey was considered a very problematic inmate. His antics included escape attempts, hostage-taking, and hunger strikes. However, health issues like blackouts and seizures led the warden to transfer him to Ionia Prison and Hospital in 1893. He underwent head surgery at Ionia, although it’s unclear exactly what type of procedure it was. Newspaper reports at the time included speculation ranging from doctors lifting a bone pressing on his brain to a metal plate being inserted into his skull.

Whatever happened at Ionia would leave a lasting mark on Holzhey. The following year, he returned to Marquette Prison a different person. It was then that he began his streak as a model prisoner.

Holzhey developed an interest in reading and photography. Some jobs he took up at the prison included librarian, photographer, and editor of the prison newspaper.

In 1910, on the recommendation of the prison warden, Michigan Governor Fred W. Warner lessened Holzhey’s life sentence, and he was released three years later. He had served 24 years behind bars.

Life After Prison

That One Time in Michigan…When a Stagecoach Robber Turned His Life Around

Marquette Prison. (Source: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

On the night before his release, Holzhey reportedly stayed up waiting for the sun to rise. After gaining his freedom, he maintained many of the interests he had developed while behind bars. He even spent some years working as a resort guide and photographer.

By 1932, Holzhey had changed his name to Carl Paul and was living and working as a writer and photographer in Florida. He would spend the last two decades of his life there. Following a long illness, he died in 1952 at age 86. His death was ruled a suicide. He left behind a note—all it said was the place and date of his birth.

Today, the site of Holzhey’s house on Captiva Island is a post office.

Although much of Holzhey’s life remains shrouded in mystery, curious Michiganders can visit the Archives of Michigan and the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan to learn more about him.

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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