In 1825 a tiny settlement along the Saginaw Trail was rocked by a double murder. The intertwining stories of Imri Fish and his victims, Polly and Cynthia Utter, can tell us a lot about early migration to Oakland County, early 1800s mental health care and how that small settlement started congealing into the Birmingham we know today.
Transcripts, Newspaper and Court Records
What does it take to solidify a community? Sometimes it takes a tragedy. I can’t say with 100% certainty that Birmingham would have become just another (shudder) part of Bloomfield had Imri Fish not murdered Polly and Cynthia Utter, but I can show that it brought folks living in the area together and made them think of themselves as a community in the forested wilderness of Oakland county 200 years ago.
This is Birmingham Uncovered, a podcast by the Birmingham Museum, where we are exploring the diverse and compelling lives that built Birmingham Michigan into the community that it is today. First, some background on Birmingham: we are a city of approx. 20,000 people over 4.73 square miles, approximately halfway between Detroit and Pontiac in Oakland County. This area was occupied by members of the Three Fires Confederacy of Indigenous People before white settlement in the area started in the late 1810s after the War of 1812. Birmingham became a city in 1933 and today is known as a prosperous and multi0faceted community with a thriving cultural scene.
In this episode we are going back to the beginning of that white settlement, not to the men sometimes referred to as Birmingham’s “founders” or their families but to another early family, the Fish family. They weren’t one of the first four families, but they were still pretty early in terms of settlement. In this episode we will talk about Imri Fish, who committed the first murders tried in the Oakland County Court system, and who gives us a glimpse of how 1820s American society viewed mental illness, how urban myths are created and what life was like in the earliest days of settlement in the area. Next episode, we’ll talk about his brother, Elijah Fish, a man different from Imri in almost every way who became a prominent Abolitionist and social reformer in the early to mid 1800s.
Just a note on his name- it’s spelled both Imri and Emri in the 1825 court records and within the family history but there is a bit of uncertainty on how his name was pronounced. It could have been pronounced how we would pronounce “Emery”. Imri is the pronunciation that museum employees and some Birmingham historians have been using for the last few decades along with spelling his name with an i, so I’m rolling with it.
Imri was born in Vermont to Josiah Fish and Elizabeth Hazelton Fish in 1789, the second youngest of their eventual six children. Josiah was a veteran of the Revolutionary War who moved his family to a farmstead within the boundaries of what is today the city of Rochester, New York and what was then unpopulated and wild. In 1798 Imri’s mother died, causing the family to become split. The youngest son, Elijah, about 5 years old, was sent off to live with an aunt and uncle while 9 year old Imri and his older siblings remained with their father.
We don’t know why Imri would later join his brother Elijah in Michigan in the early 1820s. Elijah had purchased land in what would become Birmingham in 1820 and had settled on it with his wife, Fanny Spencer Fish and children.
Whether through a desire for independence or perhaps disliking living in a home with small children underfoot, he ended up in the household of John and Polly Dimon Utter and their three children, Joseph, who was 16 in 1825, Cynthia Ann, 13, and Mary Ann, 3. Many single and able-bodied veterans found themselves doing similar- general labor with a homesteader in return for room and board.
The Utters were tenant farmers on land owned by others and adjacent to the land owned by Elijah Fish and his family. Our earliest records of them on that parcel date to 1824 but it is possible that they might have moved in the year before.
By 1825, the settlement along the Saginaw Trail in what is now Birmingham totaled about six families. The trail, a Native American trail that has been in use at least 10,000 years was the only way to get from Detroit to Pontiac. What is today a 40 minute drive on the freeway took about 2 days then and this settlement was right smack dab in the middle of the route. Most of the men in the area, including the Fish brothers, were veterans of the War of 1812, as the United States pushed for greater settlement of the area after the war and offered deals on land to veterans. As this group of homesteads didn’t have an official name yet, in both the newspaper accounts and court records it is listed as it’s township, Bloomfield.
In historical research, there are often several versions of a story. Newspaper accounts and court records are often seen as the most factual, balanced with first person accounts given in things like letters, diaries and then remembrances given much later. We don’t have any diary accounts from the time, so we will start with an account of the murder of Polly and Cynthia Utter from the April 12, 1825 issue of the Detroit Gazette. The Gazette was a weekly newspaper published between 1817-1830 and at this time, was the only newspaper in the area. In 1825, Detroit itself was only a small town and in 1828 the population only number 1,517. This article does include some graphic descriptions of the violence inflicted on both women. If you’d rather not hear that, feel free to skip ahead to _______.
“The following statement of facts, relative to the shocking occurrences which transpired last week in Bloomfield, Oakland county, is from Mr. John Utter, husband of Mrs. Utter, and Mr. John Dimon, her brother.
Bloomfield, April 6 1825
“On the evening of last Monday, a man named Imri Fish, in a state of derangement, killed, with an axe, the wife and daughter of Mr. John Utter, who resides about five miles from Pontiac. The following are the circumstances of this mournful and tragical event – Fish has, from his childhood, been subject to epileptic fits, and during the last nine years has, at times, been deranged. He had been boarding in the family of Mr. Utter, and on Saturday evening, between the hours of 9 [8?] and 10, he went away, and was found about 10 o’clock on Sunday morning, entirely naked, within a mile of Mr. Bronree’s [?] tavern, on the road in Detroit. His clothes were found about a mile from the place where he departed. He was brought to his brother’s who resides in the vicinity of Mr. Utter, and appeared in a [?] recovering from his insanity, until towards night, on Monday, when he exhibited unusual signs of derangement. He went to Mr. Utter’s where his chest was kept, and took from thence letters and other papers, and walked in the woods. Information on this being given to his brother, he went in search of him and was on his return, when, having arrived within about 30 or 40 rods of Mr. Utter’s he heard shrieks of distress – He ran to the spot and beheld Mrs. U. lying lifeless on the ground near the door. – He immediately ran in the direction in which he had previously seen some one running, and had not proceeded many rods before he was met by his brother, with the fatal weapon – he immediately raised the axe and exclaimed “You want killing too.” He pursued his brother, who fortunately made his escape and gave the alarm – the [?] was with some difficulty taken and bound.
“Mrs. U. was aged 44. She was found with her head nearly severed from her body. The daughter was 13 years old, and found about 20 rods from the house, killed by a deep wound, extending obliquely from her mouth across her neck, besides some other wounds. Fish acknowledged he killed them, and said he thought it was his duty to do so. His brother’s horse was found mortally wounded on Tuesday morning, which he confessed he did with the axe.
“The Jury called by the coroner brought in a verdict that Fish was in a state of insanity.”
Sidenote: my fifth grade teacher told me that “tragical” wasn’t a word. Who’s laughing now, Mrs. Fury? And a rod is about 5 ½ yards.
The case of the United States vs Imri Fish was held on June 20, 1826. It was the first murder trial heard in Oakland County. The court had been in existence for almost a decade previous, but the most serious cases before this were assault. Elijah was subpoenaed and testified much the same to the account in the newspaper, with the added detail that he had run back to his house after his initial run-in with Imri, told his family to run to a neighbor’s home and then acted as a decoy to distract Imri, who was pursuing him, as his family fled.
Local doctor Ziba Swan was called and testified that he had been called to the Utter residence by John Utter the evening of April 4 and accompanied him in the house, where they found no one but a child on the bed. They took the child and started toward Elijah Fish’s home when they met Imri at the barn, where they bound the man and later found Mrs Utter not far from the door.
Results of an inquest were also submitted into evidence in which 15 residents of Oakland County testified that both Polly and Cynthia died as a result of blows delivered by Imri Fish with an ax.
The trial began at 10 am and by 5 pm Imri was indicted for the murder of Polly and Cynthia. The exact wording though, was that ““Imri Fish, late of the town of Bloomfield...not having the fear of God before his eayes[eyes] but being moved and deceived by the motivation of the Devil on the fourth day of April...1825...“with force and arms at the town aforesaid......feloniously, willfully, and of his malice aforethought did make an assault...and held the said Cynthia Ann Utter in and upon the right side of the head and neck below the right ear of her......then and there...did strike, cut, penetrate, and wound giving to ...Cynthia Ann Utter...upon the ...right side of the head and neck below the right ear...one mortal wound of the bredth[breadth] of eight inches and of the depth of four inches. Of which said mortal wound [she] there and then instantly died”
So Imri was indicted for murder, though with the concession that he was not in his right mind.Ultimately, the charges for Polly’s death were dismissed and he was found not guilty for the murder of Cynthia, instead he was charged with insanity and remained incarcerated.
In the last few decades, the insanity defense has come under intense scrutiny as has how those receive treatment as part of their punishment. In 1826, however, there was just one jail, the Oakland County jail in Pontiac, a simple two story log structure and that is where Imri lived out the rest of his life.
Elijah is part of the story here too, paying for things like better food, blankets and even a new floor for Imri’s cell. He had been appointed as Imri’s guardian with charge over his estate shortly after Imri was imprisoned. Unfortunately, we do not have any records of how often the brothers communicated, what their relationship looked like or how they may have viewed each other.
But what exactly caused Imri to “not having the fear of God before his eyes”? In the newspaper article I quoted above, Imri is said to have suffered from epileptic fits and was deranged. Unfortunately that really doesn’t tell us anything, in the early 1800s “epilepsy” was sometimes used as a catch-all term for anything not neuro-typical. Can seizure disorders, as we know and define them medically today, cause damage to the pre-frontal cortex and thus lead someone to act out violently? It’s possible, but doctors who specialize in the condition point out that that sort of damage would affect other parts of the brain as well and would possibly affect things like fine motor control, which is not reported in Imri’s case. “Deranged” is a similar catch-all term.
Some people have latched onto the “9 years” of how long he had exhibited his “deranged” behavior and have speculated that he was suffering from PTSD after his service during the War of 1812. PTSD was not on the mental health radar at the time and it would still be another 100 years or so before it would be medically described and studied. The War of 1812 was a particularly brutal conflict fought on American soil and soldiers on both sides and civilians reported that some hand-to-hand combat was done with axes and hatchets, particularly among the Native American combatants. Aside from PTSD, a serious brain injury could have impaired his brain function or reasoning ability.
But another intriguing possibility relates descriptions of the conditions in which the family lived while in Rochester, New York. Travelers stopped at the Josiah Fish residence along their way further west and described some truly harsh conditions. Allen’s Mill, the name of the piece of land Josiah Fish purchased, had fallen into disrepair by the time the Fish family moved in and from reports of the family and others, Josiah seemed out of his depth when it came to restoring it to working and safe order. The family, reprtedly, subsisted on raccoon meat, cakes fried in raccoon oil, bread and tea without sugar or milk. A traveler to Niagara Falls at that time, Le Comte de Colbert Maulevrier recorded in his diary that men, women and children were packed up to 8 in a room, which was thick with fleas. Another traveler, John Maude, described the poor condition of the mill and the frequent flooding of the area.
Frequent flooding brought mosquitos and the mosquitos brought malaria, often called “ague” during this period. Another brother of Imri and Elijah, Lucien Fish, noted that everyone got malaria and that their mother had died of it and he himself describes how miserable he had been sweating and sweating in the poorly ventilated rooms of the mill. Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite and transmitted to humans through the bites of infected mosquitos. Malaria symptoms include chills, high fever, muscle and headaches and tiredness. The high fever is of particular interest, a high enough fever for an extended period of time can cause behavioral changes, with violent outbursts being noted. Of course, at the time, the connection between swampy areas and malaria was noted, but the connection to mosquitos was not. The only way folks in Imri’s lifetime knew to avoid malaria was to avoid swampy areas all together, a plan that wasn’t super realistic for most.
We might never truly understand the cause of Imri’s mental illness and his actions. Unfortunately for himself and Polly and Cynthia, he did not get any treatment for his condition that may have helped him. In fact, the practice of psychology to help treat conditions of the mind did not truly begin until the mid-1800s.
Imri died in prison in 1830 and we have no records of where he was buried but he was not brought back to Birmingham’s Greenwood Cemetery and probably for good reason.
It should probably go without saying that cemeteries are only needed in a new settlement after people have started dying. And in 1825, burials were normally grounds run and administered by whatever church they attended or on family property. In 1825 Birmingham there weren’t any church buildings, and different congregations met in the homes and barns of their members. Nobody in the settlement was probably even thinking of the eventuality of a cemetery in 1825, as most of the settlers were middle aged and younger. But in April 1825 there was suddenly a need.
Public, nondenominational cemeteries were a brand new, progressive idea at the time. Land in Pontiac had already been set aside for use as one, but no burial had taken place in it yet.
Enter our first urban legend surrounding the Utter murders. Ziba Swan, the doctor who gave testimony at Imri’s trial, donated a half acre of his land so that Polly and Cynthia could have a proper burial. That much is historical fact but the why is the legend. According to the story, he is the one who recommended Imri as a boarder to the Utters and he was consumed by guilt. Again, we have no documentation of Ziba’s frame of mind when donating the land, but it makes a good story, no? Greenwood cemetery beat out Pontiac’s by being the oldest public cemetery in Michigan to have the first burial. Greenwood has been expanded several times in the following almost 200 years and is still an active burial ground today.
Our second urban legend comes from the descendants of the Utter family who wrote an account in 2006 in which they state that when the men (this forms part of the third urban legend, just you wait) came into the cabin where Polly and Cynthia were with the toddler Mary-Ann that Polly and Cynthia hid Mary-Ann underneath the bed while they ran out the door with Imri in pursuit. An account on Mary Ann’s find a grave page says she was hidden under laundry or clothing. Again, the only contemporary account we have is that Ziba and John Utter found the child on the bed and while there was some blood splatter in the cabin, according to another newspaper account, there is no further evidence as to the state of mind of Polly and Cynthia that day. But it makes sense, perhaps Imri entered the cabin fresh from killing his brother’s horse and Polly and Cynthia acted as decoys to get him out of the cabin and away from the child, much as Elijah stated he had done with his own family. And most parents would probably say that they would do the same in that scenario.
Of course, we don’t even really know what the sequence of events was that day. Elijah’s horse may have been the first or last victim. Imri Fish may have surprised Polly and Cynthia in the cabin or outside. The art of investigating crime scenes and piecing together a sequence of events based on clues found at the scene of the crime was still a long ways away.
So, our last urban legend is about the “men” instead of just a man who committed the murder. In our records here at the museum we have several pieces of correspondence over the years from people asking what happened to the Native American man who acted alongside Imri. This is a simple misunderstanding from some earlier documents that talk about the first murders in Oakland County being committed by Imri Fish and an “Indian”. A further and more careful reading reveals that there was a Native American man was tried for a separate murder at the same time as Imri Fish and had no connection to the Utters or Imri, but older documents can be harder to parse so it’s not outlandish that this misunderstanding would happen and spread.
And finally, we get to our oral tradition, which contains some information that is at-odds with the official records of the act but does give us a sense of how the community reacted to the tragical circumstances (yep, I’m not ever going to stop using this word now).
In an 1881 article in the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society Connection is the story of Amasa Bagley, an early settler in the area, written by Nancy G. Davis, Amasa’s daughter. She was young in 1825, and recalled that her father had stayed home to watch the children while her mother went off to prepare Polly and Cynthia’s burial shrouds. She explains there wasn’t enough whole cloth available to make both shrouds, so local women took their cloth scraps and combined them. News of Imri’s capture must not have reached the Bagley home until well after the event, because her father was sitting by the door with a gun and almost shot a neighbor who approached the home.
In this account we also find another variant on Imri’s name too, Emir. Trying to recall something that happened 56 years previous when you were a young child is hard to do, and is often colored by other memories and emotions. But even if Nancy Davis’ memories aren’t 100 percent accurate, they can give us a sense of what the community was feeling. And this is the most interesting part, both Nancy Davis and Elijah Fish’s daughter, Fannie Fish, went into great detail in their accounts of how the community pulled together whenever anybody needed help. And sometimes it takes a tragedy to bring a community together. The bond and sense of community that many in Birmingham still feel today may very well have been born in the aftermath of tragedy. A decade later, we see the name “Birmingham” given to the settlement.
John Utter and his two surviving children stayed in the area until his death two years later in 1827. According to a family story, he died of a broken heart. At the time, it was common for orphaned children to be shipped off to surviving family members, but Joseph and Mary Ann stayed in the community and were raised by their uncle, living here until they both married in 1839 in a double wedding. Mary Ann married Hezekiah Rowley and Joseph married Caroline Holley. Years later, Joseph’s daughter, Mary Utter, became a prominent political figure in Birmingham in the 1910s and 1920s. But that is a story for another day.
Thank you for joining us for this first episode of “Birmingham Uncovered”. Special thanks to the Birmingham Area Cable Board for PEG grant funding that made this podcast possible. Also thanks to past and present staff of the Birmingham Museum, in particular Leslie Pielack who located the court records for the United States vs Imri Fish and Brittany Phalen, who transcribed the documents, including a rather grisly coroners report that I’m sure wasn’t very fun first thing in the morning. Thanks also to members of the community who, like the Rowley family, provided the museum with their family’s stories. To read the court documents, newspaper accounts and other documents used in this episode, check out our webpage, linked below in the shownotes. If you have comments, concerns or questions please reach out to us at email@example.com.
I’m Caitlin Donnelly, thank you so much for listening and join us in two weeks for a look at the life of Elijah Fish, who led a life which was the exact opposite of his brother’s in almost every way and gives us an intimate look at anti-slavery activity in the early 1800s.