GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Government officials are always targets. Some people want them dead. Some just want their voices to be heard.
It’s not only presidents, like Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy. Members of Congress, judges, mayors and governors from across the country have all met their fates at the end of a gun or a blade.
Michigan is no different. State Rep. James Strang, the leader of a Mormon sect in northern Michigan, was killed in 1856 after being targeted by excommunicated members of his church. In 1945, State Sen. Warren G. Hooper was executed along the side of a road days before he was set to testify in a corruption scandal within the Legislature.
Years later, Michigan’s governor was nearly the next in a long line of casualties. It happened this day 72 years ago — July 8, 1950.
FROM DETROIT TO LANSING TO MARQUETTE
Gerhard Mennen Williams was elected Michigan’s 41st governor in 1948. He came from a prominent family in Detroit. His grandfather, Heinrich Mennen, founded the Mennen brand of men’s personal care products that is now owned by Colgate-Palmolive — hence his popular nickname “Soapy.”
Before leading Michigan, Williams graduated from Princeton and received his law degree from the University of Michigan. He worked for a law firm before serving four years in the Navy during World War II. As an air combat intelligence officer in the South Pacific, Williams rose to the rank of lieutenant commander and earned 10 battle stars.
His life in public office started quickly. After returning from the battlefield, he worked in the Office of Price Administration before being named to the state’s Liquor Control Commission.
A year later, Williams defeated Gov. Kim Sigler and a spry 38-year-old took over the office.
One of Williams’ first proposals was to update the state’s prison system. Williams accused the state’s prisons of being overcrowded and dangerous. He fought for bills to reduce the crowds and provide pay increases for the prison guards.
Williams lost that battle. Instead of setting aside more money for prisons, the Legislature cut their budgets, forcing wardens to find ways to make do with less money.
BUDGET BATTLE DRAWS BLOOD
In July 1950, Williams’ team planned a trip to the Upper Peninsula to meet with some supporters. Among them, Emery Jacques, the warden of Marquette Branch Prison.
According to an article from Marquette Monthly, Jacques had lunch with Williams at a nearby hotel. There, he explained that one of the ways to adjust to the budget cuts was to find cheaper food, cutting the cost of inmate meals from 58 cents to 55 cents per day.
Naturally, the inmates weren’t happy with the cuts and things had become more contentious at prisons across the state. Williams requested a tour to get a first-hand look at the prison and how the cuts were hurting the facility.
Jacques obliged and Williams and his team returned shortly before dinner time. Alongside the governor were State Representative Louis Mezzano, Williams’ personal bodyguard, MSP Corporal George Kerr, and the governor’s pilot.
According to the Marquette Monthly, Williams wanted to eat the same meal as the inmates: ham and lima beans. But as they approached the kitchen, things went sideways.
Inmate Ralph Stearns rushed out of the door and grabbed Williams, holding a butcher’s knife to his throat and dragging the governor into the kitchen. Two other inmates, John Halstead and Jack Hyatt, waited inside. Their plan? To hold Williams hostage and use him as a shield so they could escape.
Kerr and a prison guard immediately rushed into the kitchen after Stearns. They encountered Halstead, holding a shiv, and Hyatt holding a metal potato masher.
The fight unfolded in a matter of seconds. The men never made it out of the kitchen.
Prison staff went after Hyatt, Kerr went after Stearns and Jacques blocked the door so no other inmates could get in.
As he lunged toward Stearns, Halstead stabbed Kerr in the back twice. Injured but not out, Kerr was able to pull out his handgun and fired one shot, hitting Halstead in the stomach. He then turned the gun on Stearns and threatened to shoot if he didn’t drop the knife.
Stearns was seemingly more upset that his escape plan failed than any desire to kill Williams. The Marquette Monthly claimed Stearns yelled that he could have killed Williams if he wanted to, but he didn’t “deserve it.”
Uninjured, Hyatt and Stearns were thrown in solitary confinement. Halstead was rushed to a nearby hospital where he died days later.
Kerr survived his stab wounds; one prison staffer suffered a head injury and another broke both of his arms.
An Associated Press report said Williams appeared to take the scare in stride, appearing calmly and crediting Kerr and the prison staff for their bravery.
“The very fact that I’m still alive shows the warden knew how to handle the situation and had discipline in good shape. I won’t be demanding an investigation,” Williams told the AP.
After the incident, Kerr was promoted to sergeant and Williams used the incident to revisit his plans for prison reform.
Williams served six two-year terms as Michigan’s governor, most notably approving the construction of the Mackinac Bridge and starting the Labor Day tradition of leading the Mackinac Bridge walk.
After a disappointing sixth term, including more fighting with the Republican-controlled Legislature and a near-shutdown of the state government, Williams decided against running for a seventh term.
After his tenure as governor, Williams served in the Kennedy administration and ran an unsuccessful Senate campaign. He was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1970 and was named Chief Justice in 1983. He retired from the court on Jan. 1, 1987 and died the following year.