Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Sad Demise of Sam Hook


NOVEMBER 7, 1857

MAY 5, 1917


(Epitaph from gravestone in Chapel Hill Cemetery)

Sam Hook, the last merchant in Seelyburg drew his last breath in the early morning hours of May 5, 1917. His death and the suspected foul play that accompanied it haunt the old river hamlet to this day. Was Sam Hook murdered as robbers looted his store? Who was responsible for such a heinous crime?

The flames shooting out of Sam Hook’s store building in Seelyburg were first discovered around four o’clock on that Saturday morning. An alarm was immediately raised and many neighbors and friends rushed to the conflagration. However, the old store building was a mass of flames and beyond any hope to save from destruction. With Sam nowhere to be found in the little hamlet on La Farge’s north side, everyone feared he had perished in the fire. When the flames had subsided an investigation found the store owner’s body in the southwest corner of the building. He had either crawled or been placed under the floorboards and was near the cistern that he used for cooling items for sale in his store.

Foul play was immediately suspected in Sam Hook’s death as the first people to arrive at the scene of the fire had found the front door wide open. Scattered in the front of the store were pieces of money and bunches of shoestrings. It was well known in the area that Sam kept large amounts of money in the store, often tied into bundles with shoestrings. It was unusually cool on that morning and frost covered the ground. Several rods south of the store building, a person’s shoe tracks were visible in the frosty dew leading off Seelyburg’s Main Street towards the west. A bloodhound was brought up from Viola to track the trail, which led north towards the mill, across the dam to the north side of the Kickapoo River and then east back to the Advent (Star) Cemetery. The trail was lost at the cemetery by the first hound, but later in the day another dog was brought in from Richland Center. That dog followed the trail of the first, but then continued on from the cemetery south across the bridge and to a house nearly across from Sam Hook’s store. A man named Clint Rockwell and others occupied this house; when the bloodhound’s baying ended at that location, many citizens of Seelyburg feared the worst. According to the account of the incident in the La Farge Enterprise (5/10/1917), “This place has for some time been known as a rendezvous for people of none too good of a reputation and suspicion at once fell on Rockwell and frequenters of his home.”

Apparently, Hook had previous trouble with Rockwell and others who hung out at his abode. On the night of the fire, the well-liked storeowner had a dispute with Rockwell, which nearly led to fisticuffs and further indicated foul play was involved with the fire and Sam Hook’s death.

The Vernon County District Attorney and Sheriff came to Seelyburg later in the day on that Saturday of the fire. However, after interviewing many of the neighbors and friends of Sam Hook as well as the occupants of the Rockwell house, the county law enforcement officials could not find enough evidence to warrant any arrests being made. At the local level, the investigation did not cease and new evidence and information was gathered. Using that, the La Farge authorities arrested several occupants of the Rockwell house and took them to Viroqua on the following Monday for a hearing. After that session in the county courthouse, two men and a juvenile girl (all names were listed in the Enterprise article) were retained in the county jail in Viroqua. Sadly for the folks left in Seelyburg, after a few days, all of the suspects were released from the county jail and no charges were ever filed in the case.

After the initial outrage over the lack of any prosecution of those suspected in Sam Hook’s death, fear crept into the village. Doors that had never been locked before were now locked at all times. Nightlong vigils with shotgun in hand were kept at some residences in Seelyburg to protect against a fate such had befallen Sam Hook. Shortly after the release from the county jail, many of those implicated in Sam Hook’s death left the Seelyburg area, but others remained.

But the friends and neighbors of Sam Hook knew that a wrong had not been righted. For years after the death of the last storeowner in Seelyburg, they would attest to the fact that Sam had been murdered. One neighbor said, “He was murdered, plain and simple.” Another resident when questioned about the event decades later, said, “ Of course he was murdered, everyone around here knew that.” But if there was such a foul crime committed, no legal justice was ever carried out as a remedy. Yet, perhaps even today that justice for a terrible wrong is still being sought.

The funeral for Sam Hook was held the day after his death, Sunday, May 6 at the Methodist Episcopal Church in La Farge. Sam’s mother, two brothers, two sisters, friends and family laid him to rest on that day in the Chapel Hill Cemetery, south of where Sam had grown up and lived all of his life. The epitaph, which was quoted at the beginning of the Notebook, can still be seen on his headstone in the last row in the back of the cemetery. We Know Not The Cause Of His Death, indicates the remorse over his sudden loss and the agony of never knowing quite what happened, which was felt by the family over Sam’s death.

Even in the silence of the grave, justice perhaps is still being sought. Each spring when Village of La Farge employees return to the Chapel Hill Cemetery for maintenance, invariably they find Sam’s headstone askew from the winter’s frost. Most of the other grave markers at Chapel Hill survive the winter fairly well, but Sam’s always seems to have been moved, as if drawing attention back to that eerie epitaph, We Know Not The Cause Of His Death. It still seems to cry out for some kind of justice.

However, even today that cry for justice from Sam’s grave would be somewhat muffled. Sam certainly didn’t hear the intruder enter his store that night and he probably couldn’t yell out for help when he was accosted and robbed. Over his lifetime, the circumstances of Sam’s life had rarely hindered his progress, but they might have played against him on that fateful night in May so many years ago. For you see, Sam Hook, the last merchant in Seelyburg, was a deaf mute.

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