Deadly Bar Brawl at Brunke’s Saloon

The day of December 4, 1902 was not just an ordinary Thursday at Brunke’s Saloon at 115 North State Street in St. Joseph, Michigan. The proprietor at Brunkes was 30-year-old Amos Brunke, son of William Brunke and Charlotte Gaylor. Amos’s kid brother Harry had come in with his 57-year-old uncle Charles, and a few other young men, including Lee Shearer. Harry was 20 and Lee was just 22.

Lee Shearer, school age

Lee Shearer was born to William H. Shearer and Rose Anna Stewart on September 3rd, 1880 in St. Joe. William was a prominent Royalton Township farmer and resident whose folks help founded the Township back in 1833 after emigrating here from North Carolina. On that Thursday, Lee had driven to St. Joe with Charles Brunke, and after meeting up with some friends for some drinks – Clarence Evans and John Lein Jr. – they decided to keep on drinking at Brunke’s Saloon with Charles and young Harry. Lee was leaving town, headed up north, that night on the train, and he talked the four other guys into having a farewell drink with him at Brunke’s Saloon. He hitched his horse in the alley behind Herring’s Livery Barn, and the five men entered the bar in the back a little after 4:00 in the afternoon. Once inside, Lee bought a round of drinks for everyone. Harry had a birch beer. The men were all there for a farewell drink, but little did they know that Lee’s farewell would be of a more permanent adieu.

Once in the saloon, drinks in hand, Lee started shaking his fists at Amos Brunke, who was tending bar at the time, concerning a $2 loan that Amos refused to lend him a couple weeks prior. Uncle Charles stepped in as a peacemaker and Lee threw him to the floor. Clarence Evans then stepped in, holding Lee back as he yelled that no one could hold him back. Harry then wrapped his arms around Lee’s neck and shoulders. They tussled. Lee knocked off Harry’s hat, and Harry slapped him. Amos came from behind the bar and separated the boys. Tempers stifled a bit but not enough. Charles left the bar, and Lee insisted on knowing who had hit him. Clarence led Harry back to the poolroom, about 15 feet away from Lee. Lee kept repeating, “Who hit me” while he started after Harry in the poolroom. Harry admitted to Lee that he hit him, and he took off his jacket, ready for a fight. Amos caught Lee by the lapels and Lee took a swing at the barkeep, missing. Amos ordered Lee to leave the saloon but he refused. Amos then told Harry to leave and Harry was on his way out the door and Lee followed. Lee struck him on the back of the neck, and Harry swung around and hit him. Lee Shearer ended up on the floor and at some point Harry kicked him, either in the stomach or in the throat. This would prove to be the last fight Lee Shearer would ever start.

Harry walked to the cigar stand while the others helped Lee up. He was having trouble breathing. They gave him water at the bar. Once upright, he collected his seventy-five cents in change on the bar and put it in his pants pocket. His breathing was hindered and the doctor was fetched. In the meantime, Harry became frightened because he knew Lee was seriously injured. At first he started for Amos’s barn, but then decided to head home so he didn’t worry his mother.

Back at the saloon, two doctors arrived on scene to try to save Lee Shearer’s life. They were Dr. Edward J. Witt and Dr. William L. Wilson. Dr. Witt was the first to arrive, after being summoned by Amos. Lee was having spasms and he gave him chloroform to stop them. He administered one drachm to him, which is roughly 1/8th of a fluid ounce. Lee was also foaming blood out of his mouth. Dr. Wilson arrived moments later and when he did, Lee had already been positioned laying down on the pool table. Wilson ran a finger over Lee’s throat and felt broken cartilage. He gave Lee liquid to produce vomiting but it didn’t make him vomit. The two doctors decided to perform an emergency surgery. Dr. Witt performed the operation, making an inch and a half long incision in his throat, while Dr. Wilson monitored his pulse and respiration. The fracture of the cartilage had caused a coagulation of blood. And try as they might, the doctors couldn’t save young Lee Shearer. He died shortly after taking 8-10 breaths.

The law caught up to Harry Brunke at the barn of his other brother, Albert, at the corner of Market and Court Streets. He said he was on his way home. He offered no resistance to his arrest. The coroner’s inquest concluded on Friday and found him responsible for Lee Shearer’s death. His bail was first set for $1500 by Justice St. Claire, then later changed to $4,000 at the request of Prosecuting Attorney Riford. As a result, his family was unable to bail him out and he stayed in jail until his trial. He was bound over on the charge of murder at the Circuit Court in St. Joseph and his trial started about six weeks later, Judge Orville Coolidge presiding.

Ira Riford, seen here in a later picture, was Prosecuting Attorney, and Victor Gore (right), assisted the case.

Prosecutor Ira Wells Riford was assisted by Attorney Victor M. Gore. Defending Harry Brunke was Defense Attorney James O’Hara, assisted by Attorneys Lawrence C. Fyfe and Ralph W. Shauman. As murder trials go, this was the dream team of lawyers facing off against each other in a sensationalized event. The trial lasted about a week, and there was record attendance in the courthouse. Even the jury selection was sensational enough to make the papers, as each side finally settled on a panel of 12 men, mostly farmers. They were: Farmer Bert Smith of Benton, retired merchant Chas Wells of Bertrand, farmer John Lawrence of Benton, Galien Farmer Chas Zorring, Buchanan clerk George H. Richards, Hagar farmer Mathias Tharr, E.H. Prince, a Galien Farmer, George Franz, a Pipestone farmer, woodworker Wessley Smith of Niles, Otto Radewald, a Berrien farmer, Louis Stevens, a farmer out of Pipestone, and James J. Jaquay, a politician/farmer from Benton. Judge Coolidge ordered the jury to visit Brunke’s Saloon and diagram the layout of the bar for future reference for the trial.

Defense Attorneys James O’Hare, Ralph Shauman, and L.C. Fyfe

Both Royalton and Lincoln Townships were “depopulated” during the week long trial, according to newspaper accounts of the day. The Herald Press reported that over the course of the trial, 7000 people had gathered at the courthouse as spectators. Those in attendance fainted and wept openly. At one point, a portion of Lee Shearer’s damaged trachea, removed during the autopsy, was produced as evidence. Dozens of witnesses were called to the stand to tell their version of events. Some saw Harry kick Lee in what prosecutors called the fatal blow, but others did not. And no one seemed to know with certainty who threw the first punch. The Defense said that if Harry would have kicked Lee as he fell, there would have been a scratch from his boot on Lee’s throat, but there was none. O’Hara and the other defenders made the argument that if Harry kicked Lee at all, it was in the stomach, and that the medical procedures contributed to Lee’s death. But other doctors testified that Lee was doomed from the blow, not from the efforts to save him. Dr. A.H. Scott, who was present during the autopsy, testified that all the doctors in Heaven could not have saved Lee’s life.

The Prosecution made Harry out to be the aggressor, and the Defense insisted that Harry was merely defending himself from an irate and vindictive assailant. They dove into Lee’s past, painting him as an angry young man made angrier by drink. There were several other incidences of assault that came up in the details of the trial, showing Lee to be a vengeful rabble rouser in search of trouble. The Prosecution brushed the past away as mere boyhood pranks irrelevant to the trial. In the press, Lee was referred to as a graduate of Benton Harbor College who once wanted to be a teacher but then decided to be a locomotive engineer.

Lee’s death certificate

It didn’t help Harry’s case that he was seen to flee the scene with his uncle, once he knew that Lee was gravely injured. Newspapers made it sound like he was going to hide in a bale of hay at his brother’s barn had he not been discovered and arrested. Harry also testified that at no time did he fear Lee Shearer in the saloon, a statement that cut away from his self defense argument. In fact, in the Prosecution’s closing statement to the jury, they insisted that Harry only admitting to hitting Lee so as to challenge him to another fight.

In the end, the jury sided with the prosecution. After eight hours of deliberation, they found Harry Brunke guilty of manslaughter. But they also recommended clemency when Judge Coolidge sentenced him. He wasn’t sentenced right away. Nor did he stay in jail long after his conviction. He was released on bond on February 2th and he went back to his parents’ farm until the end of April. Judge Coolidge deferred sentencing until the Supreme Court ruled on the case. Some expected Harry to get a new trial. When he failed to come up with enough money to renew his bond in April, he was allowed to leave the courthouse but he left St. Joe and was found in Coloma the next day and arrested. In May, Judge Coolidge ended up sentencing him to a six year prison stint in Ionia. Coolidge was not lenient in his sentencing due to the conduct of Harry Brunke since the trial.

Just a month before, Amos Brunke was before Judge Coolidge for selling alcohol on Sundays and serving to minors. He was fined and sentenced to 30 days in jail but the judge agreed to waive the jail time on the condition that Amos Brunke never open his saloon again. Amos was also struggling financially because he bore the brunt of his brother’s trial and lawyer fees. The building that was once the Brunke Saloon, and then a crime scene, later became the Home Restaurant. Now it’s a parking lot, just around the corner from the former Whitcomb Hotel.

Harry Brunke ended up serving three of his six year sentence. He was paroled August 21, 1906. He went on to work as an orchard foreman on many area farms. He also worked at Clark Equipment in Buchanan, and Auto Specialties Manufacturing Company. According to his obituary, he died in Mercy Hospital at three in the morning after having been a patient there for five days. He was seventy-three. He never married or had children. The only living relative listed in his obituary was Mrs. William Zech, a sister. He is buried in Riverview Cemetery with his brother Amos.

Riverview Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Scout.

Lee Shearer is buried in Spring Run Cemetery in Royalton Township, next to his parents.

Photo courtesy of Scout from Find a Grave.


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