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Arch never attended law school, taking night classes and learning from Justice Glen E. Miller instead. Trinity Bird | Courtesy.

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.