The Origins of Florence and the Dickinson Tragedy
History can be a challenging undertaking. To uncover evidence, a historian must be part journalist and part detective. But when historical recollections devolve into myth the historian must become a revisionist and upset local legends to tell a story accurately. Such is the case of Willie Dickinson and Old Man Mudge in Florence.
During his lifetime, Nelson P. Hulst was known as “America’s Greatest Iron Hunter.” Born in New York in 1842, in 1870 he accepted a position as chemist for the Milwaukee Iron Company and began hunting for iron ore deposits. He found nothing in the southern part of Wisconsin, so in 1872 he headed north and almost immediately discovered what became the Vulcan mine in the Menominee Range.
As general superintendent for the Menominee Mining Company, Hulst developed mines at Norway, Quinnesec, Iron Mountain, and Florence. The latter was named for his wife, Florence Terry Hulst. In 1882, when the county was organized from parts of Marinette and Oconoto Counties, the name of the mine became the name of the new county and county seat.
Chase Osborn, who in the 1880s had been an editor of the Florence Mining News and later governor of Michigan, published a book in 1922 titled the Iron Hunter. In his book Osborn wrote about a Chicagoland gangster called Old Man Mudge. According to Osborn, the Mudge gang was the scourge of the Menominee Range. He was involved in prostitution, bootlegging, murder, and any vile thing that one could imagine. Osborn alleged that Mudge kept a stockade north of Florence with huge wolves chained outside the front gate to keep the girls inside. The vice around Florence, said Osborn, “could not be exaggerated.”
In 1881, the year before Florence became a county, Captain William Dickinson was superintendent of the Commonwealth Mines around the town of Florence. He was a leading citizen of the community and wanted Florence to be a respectable place for families to live. This brought him into conflict with Old Man Mudge. Louis C. Mudge was born in Canada in 1839, migrated with his wife through the UP, and by 1880 resided in the Florence area. He was an unsavory character and was one of many who ran the 32 saloons and 11 brothels catering to the miners.
On November 1, 1881, Dickinson’s young son Willie failed to return home from school. By early evening, hundreds of people were scouring the woods in search of the young boy. He was never found. People soon recollected seeing strangers on the road, and it was not long before a tale of revenge kidnapping emerged with Mudge being the chief suspect.
Osborn’s book spins a wild tale of gunfights, posses, and nightriders that could have come from a dime novel of the era. After a reign of terror, Osborn says, Mudge was driven from town, never to be seen again.
Except that he was still around. He continued to appear in lawsuits alleging bootlegging activities throughout the 1880s, but not kidnapping. In 1885 he wrote his own book, An Exposition of the Pandemoniums describing the brothels of Florence.
The Dickinson family were tormented by Willie’s loss for the remainder of their lives. Over the years several people approached them either claiming to know where Willie’s body lay or alleging to be a grown Willie. It was always in exchange for cash. Whether lost or kidnapped, Willie’s disappearance is one of those stories that has become shrouded in myth.