Monday, August 31, 2009

The McDonald Boys: A Gruesome Menominee Tale

Dear George,


For years I’ve done daily e-bay searches on Menominee, looking for antique postcards and other paper ephemera.  By chance, I ran across the grisly image above, a photo of the lynching of the McDonald Boys in Menominee in 1881.  The starting bid was $15, too high for my tastes, but, for the heck of it, I forwarded the e-bay page to my brother Peter who I knew would be curious about this bit of Menominee’s past.  A month later, an envelope containing the e-bay photo arrived in our mailbox.  That Peter!  I framed it and hung it over my desk, and Peter’s gift prompted me to do some research on what turned out to be an interesting, if macabre, story. 


The Menominee lynching was one of the most notorious in Michigan history.  It took place on September 27, 1881.  The victims were two lumberjacks from Canada, Frank McDonald and John McDougal.  They were known as the McDonald Boys, though they were actually cousins, and they were described at the time as “very fine fellows, except when they were drunk, when they were always fighting with knives.”  The cousins had come to town after a log drive for the Bay Shore Lumber Co. and gone to a local bordello in Frenchtown where they saw an old enemy at the bar, Billy Kittson, drinking with some prostitutes.  Billy and his two brothers were the sons of an Englishman and a Menominee Indian woman.  Their family had moved to Menominee after their home was destroyed in the Peshtigo fire in 1871, and Billy had recently helped his deputy sheriff brother George send Frank McDonald to prison.  Harsh words between the two men escalated into a fight, and Billy Kittson broke a whisky bottle over Frank’s head.  Billy, drunk, staggered out into the street to tell his brother about his victory, but the McDonald boys followed him, and John stabbed Billy in the back with a large hunting knife.  Billy’s brother, Norman, seeing this, joined the fight and was immediately stabbed in the neck by Frank McDonald.  Billy made his way into the nearest bar, ordered drinks for the house, and then keeled over dead. 


The McDonald Boys tried to flee town by train, but the county sheriff arrested them and placed them in the Menominee jail.  Executions had been banned in the state of Michigan, and Max Forvilly, owner of the largest bar in town, was talking up the idea of a lynching.  County officials were nervous about the prisoners’ safety and requested reinforcements from the Grand Army of the Republic chapter.  After a day of drinking and angry talk, many of Forvilly’s customers were ready to take action.  Despite the heavy guard at the jail, the mob stormed the rear of the courthouse, broke into the jail, smashed the cell doors with a large log, pulled the inmates out of their cell, and looped nooses around each of their necks.  The ends of the ropes were tied to the back of a horse and wagon, and the McDonald boys were dragged through the mud of Menominee’s streets.  As the victims passed by, lumberjacks stomped on their bodies, while others rode on them for a distance.


When they reached the Chicago & Northwestern R.R. tracks, the mob strung the bodies up on one of the railroad crossing signs and then threw rocks and garbage at them.  When they tired of this, the crowd hauled the bodies back to the bordello where the original fight had taken place.  It’s claimed that the prostitutes were forced to lie with the muddy, bloodied bodies.  The bodies were then hung from a jackpine and left for the prostitutes to contemplate.  After the mob dispersed, the McDonalds were taken to the Riverside Cemetery where they were buried side by side in the potter’s field, their graves remaining there to the present day.


Max Forvilly was arrested and tried for his role in the lynching, but he was found not guilty by a jury.  However, he lost his hotel and everything he had, went mad, and died on a little farm on Peshtigo Sugar Bush. Legend has it that the ringleaders of the lynching  “died with their boots on,” many of them in fact meeting violent and bizarre deaths.  The McDonald Boys themselves lived on in perpetuity via a ballad which commemorated their story.  Here are the last two stanzas:


May God forgive those Kitchen boys

For all their crimes through life;

‘N’ sheriff Rupright’s days be bright,

He protected us that night.

For he was brave and manly,

His heart was stout and proud.

But he was forced to yield (that night)

Before so fierce a crowd.


Now the jail is broke and the mob is in,

And there’s one more word to say.

Send a letter to our dear mother

Who’s home in Canaday.

It will make her feel heartbroken

And fill her heart with pain.

For to think she never more shall see

Her darling boys again.







Barnett, LeRoy.  Lynch law in Michigan.   Historical Society of Michigan Chronicle, 2005, 28 (1), 10-13.

Dorson, Richard Mercer.  Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers.  Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 19XX.

Karamanski, Theodore J.  Deep Woods Frontier.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 19XX.

Walton, Ivan.  Ballad of the MacDonald Boys.  The Journal of American Folklore, 1963, 76 (302), 342-344.

Gmail Comments:

-Vicki L (9-4): Wow David....This helps to more clearly understand the environment in which I never managed to grow up. Good old Peter! Love, V

-Donna D (9-4): ok i havent read this word for word yet but my first impression awful....not sure i want to read the whole thing tonite...maybe i'll read it tomorrow.


  1. Talked to an old man at the Menominee museum yesterday who had done some research on this. He met a 90 year old woman who as a girl of 16 had worked as a maid in Menominee. She heard a commotion outside and went to look. There was a mob hanging the McDonald boys from a railroad crossing sign. She got so scared she wanted to go home to Canada.

  2. That was Adeline Collard, my grandmothers neighbor and great-grandmothers friend.

  3. So interesting. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Very interesting! The craziest part, is that my name is Luke Forvilly and I've been doing some research on I've come to figure that Max Forvilly is actually my great great great grandfather. My old man and I actually run a small beach business in Lake Tahoe where we have a small bar. We've been known to fire up the patrons a time or two, but not to the extent of our grand-pappy Max! Guess it sorta runs in the family! I just hope I don't go mad near the end of my life like ol' Max.

  5. there was a book about menominee but i don't remember the name it was about the hanging i was just wondering if ran across a book when you were searching about the Mc Donalds

  6. Below are the two books I ran across which include accounts of the McDonald Boys. If you find another one, I'd be interested.

    Dorson, Richard Mercer. Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers. Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 19XX.
    Karamanski, Theodore J. Deep Woods Frontier. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 19XX.

  7. I found an old news article and picture of the mcdonald boys

  8. I read this interesting story from the Milwaukee Journal July 4, 1976 (Tall Trees Tough Men) this last summer while greeting on a slow day at the Crivitz Museum. It is about Menominee Michigan back in the late 1800s. Such flourishing lumber towns as Menominee, Michigan were under the thumbs of the lumber barons, who encouraged a moderate amount of decorum; but on weekends things got lively. Among the troublemakers were Frank and John McDonald, Canadian lumberjacks who had spent time in prison. They picked a fight with Billy Kittson one night in 1881 while he was having a drink with the girls at the Three Chimney House. Kittson hit Frank over the head with a bottle and, assuming that had ended the discussion, left for the Montréal House. But the McDonald's followed him and John, knocked Billy to his knees with a peavey, (Cant hook) then drove a knife into his back. Kittson's brother," every one of you," he shouted, " will die with your boots on." Even this prediction couldn't sober up the mob. The McDonald's were strung up to a railroad crossing sign reading,"Look Out for the Cars." When Sam Peltier, owner of a nearby boarding house and saloon, the Lumberman's Home, complained about having the McDonald's so close to his front door, the cousins were cut down and strung up to a jackpine some distance away. Several of the lynchers were indicted for murder but none was convicted. How many died with their boots off was never established.

    1. Anybody wanting a copy of this article of the Milwaukee Journal can contact us at the Crivitz Museum in Crivitz. Randy Polzin President.

  9. Let me get this straight: you have a gruesome picture of two men hanged and you framed it and put it over your desk? This is very disturbing.