In the sleepy Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a small coastal town of 319 people still boasts their claim to fame: a 1952 murder of bartender and former police officer Mike Chenoweth.
On July 30, 1952, Coleman Peterson, a lieutenant recently assigned to Big Bay, Michigan, waited for his wife, Charlotte, to come home. Shortly after midnight, she returned in hysterics, claiming the owner and bartender of the Lumberjack Inn sexually assaulted her. Peterson loaded his gun, drove to the Lumberjack, and fatally shot Chenoweth. The state charged Peterson with first-degree murder.
The trial date approached quickly, but the local judge had fallen ill and could not preside over the case. The county was in desperate need of a fair judge to resolve the issue. Around the same time, Jerry Sharpnack of the Hillsdale Daily News profiled Hillsdale’s beloved circuit Judge Charles O. Arch, who would eventually inspire the character of Judge Harlan Weaver in “Anatomy of a Murder,” which will be performed at the Sauk Theatre over the next two weeks.
Arch never attended law school, learning instead from discussion with Justice Glen E. Miller and by taking night classes. In 1935, Arch passed the bar, and eventually worked his way up to the Circuit Court. Hillsdale County praised his honest, unbiased work in the courtroom. Sharpnack hoped to capture an accurate image of Arch as a judge and as a man.
“A man with the heft and bearing of a Pennsylvania coal miner, the dour countenance of a disgruntled Buddha, and a wit as sharp as an old man’s pocket knife has been dealing out justice and judgment from the Hillsdale Circuit Court for 20 years,” Sharpnack wrote of Judge Arch.
Sharpnack asked Arch to comment on different aspects of daily life and working in the law. Judge Arch gave his thoughts on the people who watch the trials.
“They miss the best ones. Murder trials have glamour, but they are easy to try and they often are less interesting than a good civil case,” he explained.
Little did he know, Arch was only a few weeks away from presiding over one of America’s most famous murder cases.
Big Bay County summoned Hillsdale’s Judge Arch to fill in for their sick judge. Realizing he could spend his free time fishing at his cottage in Big Bay, Arch gladly accepted.
Arch presided over the trial, and after much deliberation, he declared Peterson not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. He underwent an examination of psychiatrists after the case, who determined the insanity had passed. With the case closed, Arch returned to his Hillsdale courthouse, and all the others involved returned to their normal lives to the best of their ability.
John Voelker, Peterson’s defense attorney, had another idea. Six years after the trial, he wrote and published a book titled “Anatomy of a Murder” under the pseudonym of Robert Traver. In the book, Voelker fictionalized the trial, changing names and adding more dramatic elements. He courteously gave Judge Arch a copy of the book, and Arch recognized the Judge Weaver character; throughout the book, Weaver spoke direct quotations from Judge Arch during the trial.
“Lawyers are far too modest,” Arch had said to Voelker during the original trial. “They do not seem to realize their enormous talents for consuming if not wasting time…” Judge Weaver also said those exact words to the defense attorney in Voelker’s book.
In a 1958 article, the Hillsdale Daily news considered the parallels of Judges Weaver and Arch.
“‘Judge Harlan Weaver was a big, slow, ponderous-looking man in his mid-fifties…He had big hands and big fingers. A droopy sandy-gray cowlick, which he kept patiently brushing out of his eyes, lent him a curiously boyish look. I could almost picture him as a barefoot boy at the old swimming hole in the rich farming community of lower Michigan where he know regularly sat as Judge…’ Does this sound like a description of Judge Arch?”
Readers around the country — including the Hillsdale Book of the Month club — applauded Voelker’s work, and its fame soon reached Hollywood with the film adaptation starring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, and Joseph Welch, among others. The movie was filmed on location in Big Bay, and the tiny town took advantage of the publicity and continue to do so today.
The Lumberjack Inn has been completely renovated into an “Anatomy of a Murder” monument. A poster of the 1958 movie is plastered outside of the bar, and the body outline of Chenoweth is painted into the hardwood floors. Newspaper and magazine clippings about the murder and the movie line the walls, and the current owners take time to sit with each group of tourists to tell the true crime history of the bar.
Shortly after the movie’s release, Elihu Winer, one of Voelker’s friends, put the book onto the stage with his adapted script. The play has been performed across the country and has finally reached Judge Arch’s home of Hillsdale County.
Hillsdale’s community theatre will perform Winer’s play at the Sauk Theatre of Jonesville.
“I’d like to tell you it was the local angle that drew us to the play, but I can’t,” Trinity Bird, the executive director at the Sauk, said chuckling. “We picked it because the October slot is traditionally a drama, and we hadn’t done courtroom drama in five or six years. It was a crazy coincidence, and it was just meant to be.”
After having learned of Hillsdale’s historical connection to the play, Bird and the director Bruce Crews have embraced the opportunity to include pictures of Judge Arch and items from his courthouse in the show.
Hillsdale County’s current Circuit Court Judge Michael Smith is also participating in the show, taking on the role of Dr. Homer Raschid, a pathologist who performed the autopsy after the murder. A couple of weeks into rehearsals, another production occupied the Sauk Theatre, leaving the Anatomy of a Murder cast with nowhere to practice. Bruce Crews, the production’s director, suggested to Smith they relocate to the Hillsdale Courthouse for the night.
“Somebody started saying, ‘You know it’d be fun to do it here. There’s almost 100 seats and the rake of the floor has a steeper decline than the Sauk,’” Crews recalled. “I came back talked to Trinity then we brought it to the board, and we just ran with it.”
The October 17th show at the Hillsdale Courthouse sold out within a week of being posted on the Sauk’s website, but it will also be performed at the Sauk Theatre on Oct 11 – 13 and 18 – 20 at 8:00 pm with additional shows on Oct 14 and 21 at 3 p.m.