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Mentzer: The Wausau dentist murder of 1880 (column)

2:05 PM, Oct. 24, 2013  |  Comments
Screenshot from New York Times archive, Aug. 12, 1880 edition.
Screenshot from New York Times archive, Aug. 12, 1880 edition.
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Since it is Halloween season and ghost stories are in the air, it is a good week to revisit my favorite Wausau ghost origin story: The Wausau dentist murder of 1880.

Maybe you know this story? It's featured in the book "Haunted Wausau" and told on the Wausau Paranormal Research Society's walking ghost tours of downtown, which are great and which I recommend to anyone looking for something to do this Saturday. (Tours depart every 15 minutes from 6 p.m. to 7:15 p.m., beginning at the BMO First American Bank Plaza; tickets are $5.)

Halloween or not, I am not so sure about the ghost part of the ghost story - I know: spoilsport - but I find the history part amazing, and my Googling about it has uncovered some great old writing I wanted to share.

"The science of dentistry is a comparatively new one, and can hardly be said to have existed up to the end of the first half of the last century," writes Louis Marchetti in his 1913 history of the region. For awhile in the 1870s residents of Wausau, then a rollicking lumber town with a bunch of taverns and not a whole lot else, received the services of "a Mr. Hoffman, practicing in Stevens Point, (who) came up here usually three or four times a year ... to cure dental disorders," Marchetti writes. But after awhile Hoffman quit coming, and in 1878 one J.C. Bennett established himself full-time as Wausau's first dentist.

"Having acquired a good practice, he gave himself up to drink," Marchetti writes.

Wausau was becoming a proper city. In 1880, a young dentist from Stevens Point named Edwin Hogle - I think "Hogle" is correct; different accounts have his last name as Hogle, Hagel, Hazle and, once, Doyle - came north to establish his own practice.

Here is how what happened next was described in the New York Times on Aug. 12, 1880:

"The facts appear to be that Dr. Hazle only recently came to Wausau to practice his profession. This aroused the jealousy of Dr. Bennett, the resident dentist, and last evening, while under the influence of liquor, he procured a shot-gun and went to a hotel where Hazle was and fired at the latter, killing him instantly."

Bennett was, naturally, charged with murder. It was an open-and-shut case and a Wausau jury sentenced him to life in prison.

But the story does not quite end there. In multiple accounts - Marchetti's, in a history of dental surgery and subsequent newspaper stories - Bennett petitioned for a new trial and ended up being acquitted by a jury in La Crosse. Bennett argued that he was temporarily insane, afflicted with delirium tremens, the severe form of alcohol withdrawal that gives chronic alcoholics the shakes and does, in fact, destroy your nervous system.

Whether it is sufficient justification for murder, I will leave to the reader to decide. But Bennett's acquittal outraged many at the time, and even damaged Wausau's reputation - unfairly, since it was really La Crosse's fault. The story was still being told in 1889, when the Elmira Telegram of New York called Wausau - maybe, just maybe, playing to readers' desire to to be titillated by stories from the frontier - "a town where those who destroy human life and virtue go unrebuked and unpunished."

"Despite its splendid public buildings, its handsome business places, its well paved streets, its street cars and its electrict lights," wrote correspondent Rufus R. Wilson, "Wausau is one of the most lawless towns in northern Wisconsin."

Wow. Wilson goes on to tells the story of the Wausau dentist murder of 1880, heaping scorn upon the "tender-hearted jury" who acquitted Bennett.

"The perpetrator of this cold-blooded murder is now, of course, at large and practicing his profession somewhere in Pennsylvania," Wilson writes.

And Hogle, or Hazle or Doyle, is left behind, the subject of one of early Wausau's great crime stories - and of a few ghost stories, too.

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