The Murder of Fred French Forest County WIGenWeb Project
The Murder of Fred French
FRED FRENCH-----The life and death of the subject of this sketch, form an intensely interesting page in the History of Oneida County, Wisconsin, the story being marked by both picturesque and tragic elements. As trapper, hunter and guide for 12  years in this region, Fred French was well known to most of the inhabitants of the county and his personal character was such as to make him many friends. His murder in October of 1897 while he was living in the wilds near Pine Lake, Forest County was an event that shocked the entire area and is still vividly remembered by all who lived here a quarter century ago. Little data is at hand in regard to Mr French's early life but it is known that he was born in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania in either 1832. As a young man he learned the trade of Cooper, subsequently becoming a farmer. From Pennsylvania he moved to Wisconsin about 1860.

In 1864-1865 he was a soldier in the Civil War with the 44th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry at Camp Randall-Madison, Wisconsin, Paducah, Kentucky, and the Battle of Nashville. In 1866 he was married at Woodville, Calumet County to Helena Ott, who with her parents had emigrated from Leipzig, Germany. The family lived in Neenah, Menasha, area and the children Louisa, Charlie and Fred Jr were born in Outagamie County near Appleton. In 1875 Fred was shot in the hand and it left him with a crippled hand.

On the 1885 Wisconsin Census he is living alone in Lincoln County (Oneida and Vilas were part of Lincoln in 1885). Many other trappers and woodsmen are also listed in Eagle River Township. His chief occupation was trapping after this time. In this pursuit he consistently earned over $200 per season. His family followed him in 1886 and lived in Three Lakes. While engaged in trapping he had a shanty on the banks of Pine Lake about 18 miles East of Three Lakes. It was October of 1897-about the 5th of the month-that Fred started out to check his traps. He was in partnership with John Bumiller (Bumiller had a history of assault and intimidation). After about three days Fred's son, Charley began to look for him as he had disappeared according to his partner. Also, his dog had returned to Three Lakes Village (15 miles from pine Lake) without Fred.

John Bumiller, his partner, was suspected because his stories were inaccurate. Bumiller was brought into Circuit Court at Crandon but was let go because no body was found. Twenty pages of depositions (1897) at the preliminary hearing exist at the Crandon, Forest County Courthouse. another set of depositions has Bumiller beating and robbing a man in Three Lakes in 1895. ----On Monday, November 1, 1897 however, his body was found floating in a rice bed on the North side of Pine Lake by two young men who were duck hunting. The body was clad in nothing but underwear. An examination showed that Mr French had been shot thru the body, the ball passing through his right arm, entering the right side about three inches below the armpit, passing through both lungs, and lodging in the left side where it was extracted from. As John Bumiller was near the spot, had instantly fled when the discovery was announced, only stopping to get his rifle and ammunition from the shanty, he was naturally suspected as the murderer, a warrant was issued for his arrest, and Sheriff Hi Fessadin and his deputies (including Charles French) Eddie Fraser, Pete Houle, Dave Houle, William Pomes, etc., began an exhaustive search of the area. Bumiller was never found.

As a Civil War soldier Fred French was a pensioner and his pension was assumed by his wife Helena Ott French. She survived him by 19 years, passing away suddenly on Wednesday AM, September 21, 1917. She left four children: Fred, Jr of Oshkosh Asylum; Charlie, Louisa, and Anna all of Three Lakes. Her remains were escorted to the Cemetary by the Ladies Rosary Society of the Catholic Church of which she was a member. The Royal Neighbors sent a beautiful floral tribute. Thus departed one who in this life had passed through a severe trial, which she met with Christian resignation.

100 YEAR OLD MURDER STILL UNSOLVED---Forest County was quite remote back in 1897. The white pine loggers had made a dent in the pines, spruce and other softwoods that could be floated down the area rivers, but the big logging days, the hardwood cut, were still to come. Forest county was only 12 years old, and most of the area was big woods, with very few roads. Area lakes were not ringed with cottages, and trapping or hunting could still be an occupation that served up a living. The Superior Trail was a prehistoric road that connected the Copper Region of the Upper Peninsula with points South. Indians used the trail for untold centuries and white trappers and traders used the road after coming to the area. It later became the Military Road being built during the Civil War and finished a few years later. Along this Trace were various stopping places that gave a traveler a place to sleep, eat, or trade. Pine Lake at Hiles was a natural place to build a trading post, and Dan Gagen (buried in the Three Lakes Cemetary) was the entrepreneur who set up business on Pine Lake in the early years of European immigration to this area. In later years hunters and trappers still used these same spots.

In 1897, a man named Fred French was making his living hunting and trapping from a cabin on Pine Lake. While information on hand does not say so, French may very well have been using the same cabin used by Gagen in previous times, at the Northeast corner of Pine Lake. He was a 65 year old veteran of the Civil War and had been in the area since before 1885, bringing his family up from the Neenah-Menasha area during the Spring of 1886. Fred took on a partner in his trapping venture named John Bumiller (Bumiller had a history of violence but French had had no problems with him). Perhaps having a young partner helped because of the physical nature of the trapping-hunting business. French had relatives in the area; a daughter Louisa and son-in-law, Harvey Locy, lived at Gagen; son Charlie, wife Helena and a daughter Anna all lived at Three Lakes. The distance in those days meant that little contact was shared between family members.

The elder Mr French was last seen at Gagen on Sunday October 4th, 1897 by his son-in-law , Harvey Locy, when he visited his residence in the Town of Gagen. According to Locy, Bumiller traveled to Gagen on October 9th, and reported Fred French missing for several days. Death was very possibly on October 5th. Bumiller had told a number of people about the missing French but he told different versions of his story to different people. One of the stories had French going to Crandon to get seven bear hides tanned. While talking with Charlie French and Eddie Fraser at the North Crandon (Argonne) Depot, Bumiller mentioned that perhaps Fred French had gone to Trap Rock (now Big Rock on the Wolf River) but he did not know which direction Trap Rock was from the station. Another factor that made people suspicious of Bumiller was that French was an expert woodsman and would not have been lost for any period of time in the woods. Bumiller was also in jail during the Summer of 1895 for assault and theft outside a Three Lakes Bar. Charlie French, Fred's son, became suspicious and filed a complaint against John Bumiller with the Forest County authorities.

Bumiller was arrested and held in jail until a hearing could be held in front of Justice of the Peace, Warde Westcott. During his time in jail he was visited by an acquaintance, who was also the Clerk of Court - J.W. Hawes. Hawes advised Bumiller to come clean. He told the defendant that if he was guilty of anything in French's disappearance, the court would be easier on him if he came clean. Bumiller said he wasn't guilty. Hawes pressed him for more, explaining that if a body was found, the murder would be placed in his hands. Amazingly, Bumiller said: "They may hunt all they have a mind to, they will never find him."  Attorney John Hooper, Crandon, defended the calm and cool Bumiller. Hooper made the case that there was no evidence of a murder or any other foul play, as there was no body. Justice Westcott agreed and John Bumiller was released and never paid for his crime...

A few days later, however, the body of Frederick French was found in about seven feet of water in the Northeast corner of Pine Lake. French was clad in his night clothes, consisting of drawers, undershirt, and a buckskin shirt he was known to sleep in. The body was wrapped in haywire, with a loose end that had been broken, likely from an anchor that was used to sink the body. French had been shot through the arm, the lungs, and the tip of his heart, with what papers described as an explosive bullet of a large caliber. According to accounts, Bumiller was the only one in the area with a gun of that type (It is not clear if the weapon is a Sharps .60 caliber or the new 30-30 Winchester produced in 1894). The hunt was on for Bumiller. Sheriff Hi Fessenden and Bumiller was reported boarding a Southbound train at Pembine, so he traveled there, where he had access to a Western Union wire. The railroad agent said that four passengers embarked at Pembine. One got off at Amberg, two at Wausaukee, and one at Marinette. The Sheriff posted a $200 reward, quite a bit in those days, but Bumiller was never seen or heard from again. Fred French was buried in the Three Lakes Cemetary.


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