Back to the North Wood column: Deserting scoundrel is sentenced to prison

10:48 AM, Mar. 4, 2013  |  Comments
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I find it interesting how terminology has changed so much during the centuries and even the decades.

How often do you hear the word "scoundrel" used today? I would bet few people younger than 30 know what a "ne'er do well" is. The same goes for "calaboose." Even my word check has no clue what that is!

And you virtually never will hear that someone was thrown in the pokey or hoosegow. Yet, these and other archaic terms are regularly seen in newspaper archives and old historic compilations I use for research. Today's column mentions many of these terms, so I thought it would be fun to address them.

For the record, just in case someone younger than 30 does read my column, calaboose, pokey and hoosegow all mean jail. You are welcome for the lesson in archaic terms.

In October 1906, a headline in the Marshfield Times read "Wolf in Sheep's Clothes."

James August Babcock had been a resident of Marshfield with a well-drilling operation.

For some time, though, he had been making his home in at a location between Vesper and Arpin, residing with a woman there named Helen Johnson. In fact, the "dead beat, ne'er do well," as the Times referred to Babcock, had fathered three children with Johnson.

The newspaper's judgment stemmed from the fact that Babcock already was married. His wife and son were living destitute in Marshfield.

Babcock's wife finally had enough and filed charges against Babcock for desertion, so he was arrested and tossed into the city jail for a couple of days.

It was this set of circumstances that made Babcock reach out to his wife to make a settlement with her if she would dismiss the case against him. He promised to give her a bill of sale to his well-drilling machine, wagons, sleighs and horses, as well as to pay her $15 a month in alimony and to pay the cost of the divorce. All she would have to do is allow him use of the drilling machine, engine and horses, so he would be able to make the money to pay her.

Only too happy to be done once and for all with her no-good husband, she agreed to the deal, and Judge Webb agreed to drop the charges. However, when it came time to pay the court fees incurred, a petty $16.17, Babcock did not have a dime. It turns out the clever talker had nothing of his own - even his drilling equipment was mortgaged.

When district attorney Theodore Brazeau heard about this turn of events, he immediately changed the desertion charges to something more serious, and Officer Griffin transported Babcock to the Wood County jail in Grand Rapids.

At this point, the Times really lets go, saying, "Babcock has descended to as low a depth in the scale of human life as it is possible for man to get to, and admits that he has lived with three women besides his wife in the past few years and seems proud of it."

Three days later, Babcock pleaded guilty before Judge Webb and was sentenced to one year in Waupun, where as Webb said, "He will have time to think over his past life."

Hours of searching has not allowed me to find anything else on Babcock, so there is no "rest of the story." I just hope his wife got the divorce, and she and her son got along fine.

And I would like to think that perhaps Babcock straightened up his life after his time in the slammer, jug, cooler or joint.

Rhonda Whetstone is a columnist for News-Herald Media, Stevens Point Journal Media and Daily Tribune Media. Rhonda's Twitter ID is TribRendezvous if you wish to follow her musings there. You also can get previews of upcoming columns by clicking "Like" on Back to the North Wood on Facebook. If you have story ideas of a historical nature, email her at

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