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The Mysterious Death of Edward Keeler

Hunters and trappers spend a great deal of time alone in the woods, and outdoor activities in remote areas have their share of inherent dangers.  

Those dangers were even more apparent in the 1930s, a time of limited communication, large tracts of remote country, few heavily traveled roads, and the occasional gangster, moonshiner or poacher.

In today’s History Afield, Bob Willging tells the story of one man’s mysterious death in the woods in 1931.

Edward Keeler didn’t worry about dangers in the woods.  He was the son of the first white settlers in the Township of Enterprise in Oneida County.  Keeler had grown up in wild, sparsely settled places.  An accomplished fur trapper, hunter and fishing guide, he was a rugged man who was at home in the woods.  He had no reason to believe that another routine trip to his trapping shack in early December, 1931 would be his last.

Born in 1871 in Sand Lake, Michigan, Edward was 17 years old when his family made its way to Enterprise to homestead.   At the time of the Keeler family’s move many Native Americans lived in the area and Edward learned much about hunting, trapping and tracking from them.  He eventually became a well-known woodsman in the area, as well as a highly respected citizen.

The resourceful Keeler came to own and operate a 40-person motorized boat on Pelican Lake during the tourist season.  With his boat, “the Pelican,” Keeler picked up tourists from the railroad depot in the little village of Pelican, and transported them to the many resorts on the large lake. He also delivered mail, fresh dairy products, bakery goods and produce to the resorts.   Keeler’s beautifully designed and constructed boat, which sported an inboard motor, was the pride of Pelican Lake.

During the winter, Keeler earned money by running a furbearer trapline.  He eventually built a small trapping shack back in the woods about three miles north of his home.  In his later years he retired from the passenger boat service and began spending more time in pursuit of hunting, fishing and trapping ventures.  It was typical for Keeler to pack a few days’ worth of supplies and head out to the shack to run his trapline, hunt, or just explore the woods and swamps.

On December 3, 1931, the 60 year old Keeler left home for a two-day trip to the cabin.  He told his family he would be home by Saturday.  But he didn’t return.  Family members became concerned – it wasn’t like Edward to change plans without letting someone know.

Keeler’s son, Edwin, went to the cabin looking for his father and discovered that Edward had dropped off his supplies, but the water and food were frozen.  It looked as though no one had been in the cabin for a day or two.  Edwin searched the area, but found no clues as to the whereabouts of his father.

Over the next few days, county officials organized a search posse of over 50 men led by Oneida County Sheriff Hans Rodd. It was Edward’s brother who found his body, face-down in the snow in a pool of frozen blood.

Sheriff Rodd pieced together what had happened by examining the clues at the scene.  The sheriff’s conclusion about Keeler’s last minutes indicated foul play. Rodd believed Keeler had been walking along with his pack, probably believing he was quite alone in the December woods.  From about 50 yards away, an unknown person fired a .30-30 rifle, a single shot striking him in the abdomen.

The shooter would have been hidden by brush and according to reports the single bullet passed through a two-inch diameter tamarack tree before hitting Keeler.  There was no evidence that the shooter did anything more than continue on his way, even though Keeler did not die instantly and probably was able to cry out, according to the sheriff.

The deputy county coroner from Rhinelander estimated that Keeler had been dead for at least two days prior to the discovery of the body.  Snow covered his body, so he had probably been shot sometime before Saturday evening.

The death of Edward Keeler presented a real mystery for officials.  Two theories were offered as possible explanations for the shooting.  The official theory was that Keeler was mistaken for a deer by a game violator who shot at movement or sound through the brush and then cowardly skipped out after realizing a man was shot. 

But the second, less prominent theory was that Keeler was murdered in cold blood by someone bearing a grudge against the man.  This idea simply appalled officials and local residents.

County officials investigated the shooting further, but never could discover the identity of the person who had fired the fatal shot.  No one was ever arrested or charged with the crime.  The town of Enterprise was rife with theories and rumors about the shooting, with some holding firmly to the belief that Keeler was murdered.  John Mistely, an early resident of Enterprise, now in his early 90s, knew Edward Keeler well and was a member of the search party back in ’31.

“Edward’s death remains a mystery to this day,” Mistely said. “I guess no one will ever know what really happened.”

Eventually most Keeler family members moved away from Enterprise and Pelican Lake and today few people related to Edward Keeler remain.  But on the west side of Pelican lake there is a small public boat landing where a sign welcomes recreationists to the very  landing where Edward Keeler used to launch the Pelican almost a century ago. An interpretative sign at the landing says a few words about Edward and the history of the landing.  Hundreds of modern day sportsmen today launch their own vessels at Keeler’s landing, but few are aware of the 80 years of mystery surrounding the brutal death of Edward Keeler.

History Afield essays are adapted from the books History Afield and On the Hunt, written by Bob Willging and published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press.  

Bob Willging is a freelance outdoor writer who specializes in writing about Wisconsin's tremendous outdoor and sporting heritage. He has written two books: "History Afield: Stories From the Golden Age of Wisconsin Sporting Life " and "On the Hunt: A History of Deer Hunting in Wisconsin." Willging lives in Rhinelander.
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