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A Mysterious Death near Three Lakes

A street in Three Lakes
Wisconsin Historical Society
A street in Three Lakes

In June 1929, hikers found the charred body of a man near the town of Three Lakes. It was a mystery that led to a flood of speculation and a surprising conclusion.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Chicagoland gangsters made frequent visits to the Northwoods. Some came for the same reason as everyone else, because it is a nice place for a vacation getaway. Others came because of trouble with the law and the need for a secluded place to lay low for a while. A much smaller number, however, came because they needed a sparsely populated area where they could bump someone off without being spotted. It was this last group that came immediately to mind when a body was unexpectedly found in 1929.

The body was that of a young man found amidst the ashes of a brush fire. There was a sawed-off shotgun nearby, several discharged shells, and fifteen keys. Early accounts said the man had been bound to a stake with a wire cord and tortured with a knife before being shot in the head and burned. There were no missing persons reports from any of the local towns, but there were several Chicago gangsters known to be in the area.

With this basic information in hand, Sheriff Hans Rodd speculated that the man was from the northern Illinois area, that he had been “taken for a ride” about two weeks earlier and murdered near Three Lakes, after which the body was burned to destroy evidence.

As the case progressed, several clues revealed more information. One of the keys had been sold by the Duran Hardware Company in Chicago Heights, Illinois, and Chicago investigators noted that leaving a murder weapon behind was a typical gangster gesture. Chicago authorities believed the body could be one of two men who had testified before a Grand Jury about syndicate gambling activities. Both had mysteriously disappeared immediately after giving testimony.

At this point the case took a strange twist. The autopsy revealed the body to be that of Benjamin Gisin, a 26-year-old lithographer. Gisin had lived in Chicago, but was originally from Moundridge, Kansas. His identity was corroborated when one of the keys fit his locker at the Goes lithographing Company where he worked, and another fit a trunk from his room. When his father came from Kansas to Rhinelander, he confirmed that his son had been emotionally depressed and produced a suicide note that his son had mailed to him.

With this new evidence, the sheriff devised a bizarre story of suicide. According to the official report, Gisin traveled alone to the Northwoods. In an isolated swamp south of Three Lakes, he allegedly tied his own wrists and ankles with wire, backed himself up against a tree in a pile of brush that he lit on fire, then used his toe to pull a wire that was attached to the trigger of a shotgun to shoot himself multiple times in the head.

There had been a life insurance policy on Gisin for over $4,000 had he been murdered but was worthless in the event of suicide. The insurance company advocated for the suicide explanation, and Gisin’s father did not contest it.

Gisin’s body was not returned to Kansas and the remains were interred in Rhinelander’s Forest Lawn Cemetery.

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In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.