The Murder at Big Lake
Welcome to Discovering the Northwoods from the Manitowish Waters Historical Society. We will take you on a journey through our local history with the help of primary source documentation. To learn more about this rich history or about the historical society – check out our website at mwhistory.org for blog posts, show notes, our YouTube Channel, and a full transcription of this episode!
As with many historical works from this era, there are phrases, terms, and descriptions that are inappropriate to our modern sensibilities. The Manitowish Waters Historical Society in no way condones these offensive remarks or passages.
We would like to introduce the story of the Murder at Big Lake. This story is told by Kay Krans.
This is a story that wants to be told again and again, a story that has been told in the past, and a story told by many voices. This introduction to the famous letter from Otto Blaha to Ken Moody is a compilation of various sources of the memories of that story. Some of the information is from first-hand accounts, some is from newspaper accounts and other information came from several accounts that have passed through people and generations. The story takes place in Northern Wisconsin’s Vilas County on the beautiful and bountiful Big Lake.
Jack Powers and his wife owned a small resort on the north side of Big Lake. Powers made his living renting two cabins, guiding fishing and hunting groups, and doing odd jobs for other properties on the lake. He also engaged in making bootleg whiskey on the sly.
Jack Donahue was from Kentucky, and he lived in one of the cabins at Powers’ Resort in the winter of 1922. Moonshine was the major enterprise during the winter season for Powers and Donahue. They never really associated with any of the summer families or the caretakers of the summer estates. As a matter of fact, caretaker Blaha’s boss at the Manitowoc Club said not to have anything to do with them.
Jack Powers was a very good-looking man, and his wife was a Swedish blond originally from around Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. On January 26th of 1922, Jack Donahue murdered Jack Powers at Donahue’s cabin. Mr. Powers had been away for several days, and when he returned, his wife stated that he went to Donahue’s cabin around 9:00 PM. At 2:30 AM, Donahue came to her cabin and told her he had killed her husband and put him outside by a shed. If a blow to the head didn’t kill him, then the freezing temperatures did.
It is said that Powers and Donahue had gotten into an altercation, and Donahue demanded payment for his work in the moonshine operation. Powers said he couldn’t make payment until the illegal booze had been sold, and apparently, Donahue took exception. Another version is that Donahue and Mrs. Powers might have been a love interest.
After killing Powers, Donahue kept Powers’ wife captive and told her she was to stay with him forever, which probably helped promote the notion of “The Love Nest” in the Blaha letter.
One challenge Donahue had was that the Power’s horse was kept in a barn across the lake and had to be attended to everyday. That meant that they had to leave the cabin once a day. As long as no one knew what had happened, Donahue thought he could stay the winter and escape with Mrs. Powers as soon as the winter weather broke.
One morning, toward the end of the eight days of captivity of Mrs. Powers, John Iverson from Rest Lake went to Boulder Junction to pick up the mail. He brought the Powers’ mail back with him as he did this for many of the people who lived on his way. He went to the Powers’ place to deliver the mail and came in the cabin. There stood Donahue with a gun in his hand. Donahue said, “Empty out your pockets, I want your money.” All John Iverson had on him was 35 cents. “You’ll have to stay here with me,” Donahue said.
He went on to tell Iverson his story. “I killed Jack Powers with a hammer while he was sleeping.” Then Donahue started drinking moonshine and tried to force Iverson to drink with him. He went on to tell Iverson that he and Powers were not getting along very well, and he just wanted his money so he could leave. As they kept drinking, Donahue got tipsy, and Iverson persuaded him to let him leave. Iverson returned to his home on Rest Lake.
Iverson told no one what was happening on Big Lake until he notified the Vilas County Sheriff in Eagle River. A posse was formed in the town of Manitowish, and the group of men had to snowshoe 15 miles to Big Lake to make their attempt to arrest Jack Donahue.
In the meantime, Mrs. Powers persuaded Donahue to let her go across the lake to feed the horse by herself, and that day happened to be the day that part of the posse was waiting in hiding behind the barn. When she arrived at the barn, she was taken by the posse, and she told them she had been held against her will. Some of the people on Big Lake were skeptical and thought maybe there was more to the story of Jack Donahue and Mrs. Powers.
The following letter was written by Otto Blaha, who, with his wife, were caretakers for the Manitowoc Club on Big Lake. Ken Moody was a resort owner on Big Lake and spent his winters away. This letter relates to the rest of the story.
Boulder Junction, Wi
February 10, 1922
My Dear Kenneth,
I must take time to drop you a few lines again to tell you that all is calm and peace again reigns on Big Lake. Jack Donahue died at his own hands. No one is blamed with the dirty work. After about 200 bullets riddled the shack, he was hiding in, he turned his own gun against himself and blew his brains out. He sure done a good job for a dirty skunk that he was. He saved someone else dirtying their hands on himself. Tuesday night the sheriff from Eagle River and a posse of 16 men arrived on Big Lake, and about Wednesday noon, the bombardment of the “Love nest” began.
Monday morning, I wrote you or rather sent you a letter telling you they were going to get Donahue that day, but things suddenly made a change. Instead of both Donahue and Mrs. Powers going across the lake to feed the horse, Mrs. Powers went alone because she had taken
Jack’s Luger Pistol thinking she could try to make it work after Donahue threw it under the bed because he couldn’t make it shoot. That morning she begged of him to let her go alone to feed the horse because he was too tired and needed rest. He finally allowed her to go but threatened he would get her if she didn’t come right back. We watched her go over to the barn to feed the horse, and it not being broad daylight yet. We couldn’t tell if there were two people going over or one. But I got fooled. As soon as I heard “hands up” from across the lake I got ready to go over and see what was done.
Just as I got nearly abreast of the Power’s cottage, I saw a man walk toward the lake. I thought it was a deputy coming down because it was all over. Then I heard him yell “come up here”. I stopped and asked him who he was-he yelled again “come up here.” I turned around and started back towards Heideman’s (caretakers for Badger’s Keego Lodge) and he kept calling that I should come back. I asked him who he was. Then I see he was kneeling on a snow drift on the shore near the dock and aiming at me, so I started to run, and he fired at me. I heard the bullet near my right shoulder and neck.
I then started to run fast as I could, and I broke through the snow at every step and he fired five more shots at me. Some came pretty close as near as was healthy for me. When I got near Heideman’s (Badger’s Keego Lodge) I saw Mrs. Heideman and my wife standing in the window taking it all in. After every shot I would drop on my left hand and knee and stay down long enough to take a few good breaths and then I would start off again. It looked as though he got me by my falling. After I got near Badger’s place I got on the back of a big pine tree and sat there, getting my wind. The women were excited and asked if I was hurt. I told them not to be worried as that guy couldn’t hit a barn.
Next day the deputies come out toward the barn across the lake and then toward the place. Donahue yelled at them and asked what they wanted. They answered “we want you”. He said “come and get me. I’m over here” and then he fired two shots out at them about 400 yards away. They answered with two shots, and he went back to his shack, “The Love Nest”. Yesterday (Wednesday) at about 11:30 or 12:00, the sheriff with about sixteen men surrounded the shack from the southwest shore around to the northwest corner of the house and at each command of “company fire” a volley of 30 to 40 shots from high powered rifles just ripped the “the love nest” all to hell. After asking him to surrender before each volley, he yelled “come and get me you son of a bitches”. After that he fired two shots at the sheriff across the lake and then they heard a third muffled shot as from the cellar. They kept shooting volley after volley but got no more response, so they rushed the shack and kept firing on advancing. They poked rifles through the windows and the door at the cellar. But Donahue did not move, and they found him in the cellar with a hole thru his head from his own rifle., that is Power’s 30 Remington. So ended the war on Big Lake and when all of the posse got into the shack someone started the phonograph and everyone was happy, and all listened to a refrain of “The Love Nest”. Some love nest each man exclaimed as they filed out on their way home.
Power’s body was shipped to Escanaba, Michigan last night and Donahue’s body was buried no one knows where except one or two deputies. They couldn’t find the still but found enough “moon” for evidence. We are all well and happy and hope this will find you the same.
As ever, Otto Blaha