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John D. Voelker papers

Identifier: MSS-039

Scope and Contents Note

The John D. Voelker papers document Voelker's life, his career as a lawyer, prosecuting attorney of Marquette County, and associate justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and his activities as a writer and trout fisherman. The legal case files shed light on economic and social conditions in Marquette County during the 1930s and 1940s. The published and unpublished manuscripts document Voelker’s development as a writer and the effort he put into crafting his works. The correspondence covers a wide range of subjects but is primarily focused on fishing and literary endeavors. There is also material on the Voelker and Traver families from their arrival in the United States. The records cover the years 1871 to 1992, with most of the items covering the period between 1930 and 1990.


  • 1871 - 1992
  • Majority of material found within 1930 - 1990


Conditions Governing Access note

A small portion of the records (some journals and private practice adoption files) are temporarily restricted from public access.

Conditions Governing Use note

The family of John Voelker retains the copyright to all material in the collection authored by John Voelker. Copyright invests the author of a creative work of original expression with certain exclusive rights that are enforceable by law. Violation of any of these rights, by engaging in the activity without authority from the copyright owner, is called “infringement” and is subject to potentially significant civil liability and criminal liability. United States copyright law can be found in the Copyright Act, Title 17 of the United States Code.

For any use of the material beyond fair use, the researcher is responsible for contacting the Voelker Family for permission. Section 107 of the copyright act defines fair use: The fair use of a copyrighted work… for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copying for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. Any use of material authored by John Voelker for commercial purposes, such as a publication for profit, would be considered an infringement of copyright and would require permission of the Voelker Family.

To obtain copyright permission, you may contact the Voelker Family at: Kitchie Hill, Inc Ms. Elizabeth Liston 991 Alfini Dr. Des Plaines, IL 60016

Biographical Note

The sixth son of a German American saloonkeeper, John Donaldson Voelker was born in Ishpeming, Michigan on June 29, 1903 to George O. and Annie (Traver) Voelker. He graduated from Ishpeming High School in 1922 and received his teaching certificate from the Northern State Normal School in Marquette in 1924 after completing the life certificate course. He then attended the University of Michigan Law School and received his LL.B. degree in 1928. Following his admission to the bar that summer he returned to Marquette County and joined the law firm of Eldredge & Eldredge in Marquette. In 1930 he moved to Chicago and joined the law firm of Mayer, Meyer, Austrain & Platt. That same summer he married Grace Taylor of Oak Park, Illinois, whom he had first met while at the University of Michigan. They had four children, Robert, who died at the age of eighteen months, Elizabeth, Julie, and Gracie.

In 1933 Voelker returned to Ishpeming and opened his own law office. The following year he was elected Prosecuting Attorney of Marquette County on the Democratic ticket and served in that office from 1935 through 1942 and from 1945 through 1950, maintaining his office and a private practice in Ishpeming. From 1942 to 1945 he served on the State Board of Law Examiners and was Ishpeming city attorney in 1943-44. In 1943 he was called to Lansing to assist the attorney general with a bribery probe of the Michigan Legislature. After his defeat at the polls in 1950 he returned to private practice, briefly associating himself with attorney John McDonald of Marquette. His reputation as a defense attorney was made when he successfully defended Army Lieutenant Coleman L. Peterson on a charge of murder by using temporary insanity as a defense. In the last days of 1956 Governor G. Mennen Williams appointed Voelker to a position as Associate Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, where he served until he resigned in January 1960. He was a member of the Marquette County Bar Association and served as its president from 1939 to 1941. He served on several committees of the State Bar of Michigan, including the Committee on Judicial Selection and Tenure (1941-42), Committee on Local Bar Associations (1941-42), Committee on Legal Education and Admission (1944), Committee on Civil Liberties (1946-49), and Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence (1956-57). He also served as an associate editor of the Michigan State Bar Journal.

Voelker’s interest in writing began at an early age, but he did not pursue the craft seriously until he returned to Ishpeming in 1933. His first published story was “Iron,” which appeared in the first issue of American Scene in February 1934. In all he published approximately one hundred stories and essays under his own name and under the pen name Robert Traver, including a column “The Traver Treatment” in the Detroit News Sunday Magazine in 1967-68. Voelker’s first book was Troubleshooter (1943), based on his experiences as a prosecuting attorney. This was followed by Danny and the Boys (1951), Small Town D.A. (1954), Anatomy of a Murder (1958), Trout Madness (1960), Hornstein’s Boy (1961), Anatomy of a Fisherman (1964), Laughing Whitefish (1965), The Jealous Mistress (1967), Trout Magic (1974), and People Versus Kirk (1981). His last published work was “Dangling Angling Genes,” which appeared in the May/June 1990 issue of Rod & Reel, less than a year before his death on March 18, 1991.


111 boxes

Language of Materials


Arrangement note

This collection is divided into six series, including some with sub-series: I. Personal series, 6 boxes, 1871-1991; II. Legal series, 27 boxes, 1926-1990; IIa. Prosecuting attorney files sub-series, 9 boxes, 1935-1950; IIb. Supreme Court files sub-series, 2 boxes, 1957-1990; III. Politics and elections series, 4 boxes, 1934-1990; IV. Correspondence series, 26 boxes, 1926-1992; V. Literary series, 30 boxes, 1933-1990; Va. Shorter pieces and unpublished items sub-series, 8 boxes, 1933-1990; VI. Miscellaneous series, 13 boxes, 1915-1991; and VIa. Photograph sub-series, 7 boxes, circa 1935-circa 1990.

A detailed description of each series and sub-series follows:

The Personal Series (6 boxes, 1871-1991) includes documents pertaining to Voelker, the man, and his family. There are some records relating to Voelker’s grandparents, Nicholas and Anna Voelker, who came to the United States and settled in the Keweenaw Peninsula and later moved to Ontonagon and then Ishpeming, and to his uncle Joseph A. Voelker. A significant portion of the records in this series relate to the business interests and property of George O. Voelker, including complete records of the administration of his estate, and to music lessons given by Annie T. Voelker and the Traver family history and genealogy. There are also records relating to Voelker’s older brother Robert, including Robert’s Navy logs, and his older brother Paul (1899-1974), aka Don Pablo, who was one of the people who helped establish the Alaskan malamute as the breed we know today. None of Paul’s malamute records have survived. This series also includes course materials from the Northern State Normal School and the University of Michigan Law School. The records document Voelker’s various interests, notably music and his fascination with gadgets, and his early adoption of home movies and FM radio. The clippings file contains newspaper and magazine clippings reflecting Voelker’s various interests, and also items and articles about him. The fishing journals document every fishing trip from 1936 through 1987, not only where he fished and the number of trout caught, but also the weather conditions and wildlife seen. Correspondence in this series includes letters exchanged between Voelker and his mother, and letters to and from his father, brothers, in-laws, children and grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.

The Legal Series (27 boxes, 1926-1990) documents Voelker’s career as a lawyer, prosecuting attorney, and Michigan Supreme Court justice. The Private Practice Clients subseries (16 boxes, 1926-1956) contains the case files for Voelker’s legal clients, arranged by client name. The most notable case was the People v. Coleman A. Peterson, the celebrated murder case that served as the basis for Anatomy of a Murder. The case files include a complete transcript of the court proceedings. Other notable cases were the Anne Bye estate case, where the State of Michigan attempted to recover support payments made to Anne Bye during her lifetime, and the Samuel Mitchell estate case, which concerned the distribution of royalties from mining operations on the Mesabi Iron Range and in which Voelker served as guardian ad litem for the minor children and unknown heirs (and located a previously unknown heir). However, the bulk of Voelker’s practice concerned divorces, estates, and bills of sale, which gives a reasonably good picture of economic and social conditions in Marquette County during the 1930s and 1940s. Also included in this subseries are records of Voelker’s investigations of workmen’s compensation claims for the Michigan State Accident Commission, records relating to Voelker’s service as a member of the State Board of Law Examiners, memoranda and briefs from Voelker’s employment at Mayer, Meyer, Austrain & Platt in Chicago, and his service as Ishpeming City Attorney.

The Prosecuting Attorney Files subseries (9 boxes, 1935-1950) contains case files and records from Voelker’s years as prosecuting attorney for Marquette County arranged by name of the accused or government agency. The bulk of his prosecutions were for petty crimes such as breaking and entering, bastardy, and non-support. These cases enhance the picture of economic and social conditions in Marquette County. Voelker’s most notable prosecution was of Bishop Hayward S. Ablewhite of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan for embezzlement. In addition to handling criminal prosecutions, the prosecuting attorney served as civil counsel to the county departments, provided legal advice to the townships, and to some degree oversaw the municipal courts and justices of the peace. All of this work generated considerable correspondence, particularly with the Board of County Road Commissioners and Road Commission superintendent Kenneth I. Sawyer. The prosecuting attorney was also expected to be present at most coroner’s inquests, particularly those related to motor vehicle and pedestrian accidents and to mining accidents. Transcripts of most of these inquests are in the files.

The Supreme Court Files subseries (2 boxes, 1957-1990) documents Voelker’s service as an associate justice of the Michigan Supreme Court from January 1957 to January 1960. Any case files that still exist are located in the Supreme Court archives, but the subseries includes most of the materials relating to People v. Hildabridle, which concerned a police invasion of a private nudist camp well shielded from prying eyes. Voelker’s minority opinion in this case became the majority opinion and was widely reported by the news media. The most significant correspondence is between Voelker and fellow justice Eugene Black. They discuss various court matters, cases, fellow justices, and politics. This correspondence documents the rise of the liberal wing of the court, which also included Talbot Smith and George Edwards, both of whom had substantial correspondence with Voelker. The files include Voelker’s opinions as they appeared in Michigan Reports. Some observers have called these the most literate opinions ever to come down from the Michigan Supreme Court.

The Politics and Elections Series (4 boxes, 1934-1990) contains material relating to Voelker’s political activities and his campaigns for public office. The prosecuting attorney campaign of 1934 and the Supreme Court campaigns of 1957 and 1959 are thoroughly documented, while the other campaigns have only moderate documentation at most. This series includes correspondence on politics and Democratic Party matters with various local, regional, state, and national political figures, most notably G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams and William Ellman, who served as Volker’s campaign manager in the two Supreme Court elections. The correspondence with Arthur M. Schlessinger Jr. is primarily short items submitted by Voelker for use in Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 presidential campaign.

The Correspondence Series (26 boxes, 1926-1992) consists of all of Voelker’s remaining correspondence except that devoted to revisions of the texts of his writings. The General Correspondence folders contain correspondence with individuals and firms where only one or two letters exist. Voelker’s correspondence covers a wide variety of subjects, but a substantial portion is devoted to a single topic—fishing. Voelker’s fishing friends included Lloyd W. Anderson, Arthur J. Binard, Edgar H. Lotspeich, Craig Matthews, Hugo J. Melvoin, Alfred W. Miller (Sparse Grey Hackle), Alfred T. Pellicane, John Walbridge, Joe Wilcox, Steven L. Williams, and Martha Young.

A second major topic is the publishing process, from the submission of manuscripts of books and articles to the appearance of the finished product. Some of the more important correspondents include Sherman Baker, editor of several of Voelker’s books, Crown Publishers (publisher of Trout Magic), E.P. Dutton & Co. (publisher of Small Town D.A.), Little, Brown and Company (publisher of The Jealous Mistress), editor and publisher Nick Lyons, McGraw-Hill Book Company (publisher of Anatomy of a Fisherman and Laughing Whitefish), St. Martin’s Press (publisher of Anatomy of a Murder, Trout Madness, Hornstein’s Boy, and People Versus Kirk) , Viking Press (publisher of Troubleshooter), and World Publishing Company (publisher of Danny and the Boys). The correspondence with Robert A. Hendrickson, attorney for St. Martin’s Press, contains material related to the legal cases surrounding Anatomy of a Murder. The filming of Anatomy of a Murder was the occasion for correspondence with the cast and crew, including Otto Preminger, James Stewart, Bing and Kathy Crosby, Ben Gazzara, Gjon Mili, and most notably Joseph N. Welch.

Literary matters are another theme in the correspondence. Voelker maintained contact with his English instructors at the Northern State Normal School, James Cloyd Bowman and A. Bess Clark and discussed folklore at length with Bowman while writing Danny and the Boys. Voelker’s interest in dialect and humor is very evident in his correspondence with Heino “Hap” Puotinen and Jingo Viitila Vashon.

A third topic is the environment. Voelker was greatly concerned with pollution in Lake Superior and corresponded with Grant Merritt and Verna Mize on the Reserve Mining dumping issue. He was also concerned about the effect of Cleveland Cliffs land exchanges on trout streams and did not hesitate to contact the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and state his views.

Correspondence with close friends also forms a significant portion of the collection. Voelker routinely shared family news and his thoughts and opinions on various subjects with his close friends. Important correspondents here include Arthur W. Farrell, his roommate at Northern State Normal, Raymond Friend, an associate from his Chicago days, Damon J, Keith, his Detroit driver in the Supreme Court campaigns, Life photographer and collaborator on Anatomy of a Fisherman Robert W. Kelley, Carleton Miscellany editor Erling Larsen, writer John Bartlow Martin, Michigan State University English professor William McCann, Frank J. Russell of the Mining Journal, Jim and Gwen White (Washinawatok), and playwright Elihu Winer.

Letters to and from various relatives beyond the Voelker family is also included in the correspondence. The letters exchanged with cousin Georg Oberthuer illuminate life in West Germany during the years following World War II. Correspondence with Grace Voelker’s uncle, artist Paul Strayer, revolved around Voelker’s attempts to steer commissions such as portraits of judges in Strayer’s direction. Correspondence with other relatives such as the Traver and Taylor families, Jerry Wendt, and Beth Lown concerned family news typical of such correspondence.

The Literary Series (30 boxes, 1933-1990) documents Voelker’s career as a writer of books, articles, essays, and short stories. It includes correspondence directly related to the revision of texts. The Books subseries (22 boxes, 1937-1982) contains the various drafts of each of Voelker’s eleven books as well as notes, replaced pages, lists of corrections, reviews, advertisements, and dust jacket copy. The Anatomy of a Murder files also include the play versions by John Van Druten and Elihu Winer and clippings and other material related to the film version. The Laughing Whitefish files include the articles of incorporation of the Jackson Mining Company and case materials for Jeremy Compo vs. The Jackson Iron Co. (1881-83) and Charlotte Kobogum et al. vs. The Jackson Iron Co. (1887-88).

The Shorter Pieces and Unpublished Items subseries (8 boxes, 1933-1990) contains the articles, essays, and short stories written by Voelker. Included with these is his column “The Traver Treatment,” which appeared in the Detroit News Sunday Magazine during 1967 and 1968. The subseries also includes all of the incomplete and unpublished items, the most notable of which is the unpublished autobiographical novel The Burning Earth. Voelker also tried his hand at playwriting, but neither Busy Fingers nor Iron aroused any interest. Of the shorter pieces, which number a bit over two hundred, only half made it into print. In addition, Voelker also reviewed fiction and non-fiction books, primarily for the Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit newspapers. The subseries also includes the talks Voelker gave at various functions and over radio station WDMJ.

The Miscellaneous Series (13 boxes, 1915-1991) contains various artifacts and media that supplement the other series. Items in this series include scrapbooks, campaign signs and cards, diplomas and certificates, old newspapers, award plaques, and photo albums. The series also includes video and audio tapes of interviews with Voelker, the short films John Voelker: Anatomy of an Author and Trout Madness: John Voelker (Robert Traver), and tributes by Charles Kuralt and Buck LeVasseur. Two other items in this series are American Movie Classics Salute to Michigan and film of the making of the film version of Anatomy of a Murder shot by Gjon Mili.

The Photographs subseries (7 boxes, 1935?-1990?) includes all photographs found in the collection except for a few photos taken as evidence in prosecutions. The bulk of the photos are portraits of Voelker, his family, and friends. Other photo files document the making of the film Anatomy of a Murder, the miners’ strike of 1946, the People vs. Coleman L. Peterson, and Uncle Tom’s Pond, Voelker’s fishing camp.

Immediate Source of Acquisition note

Gift from Grace T. Voelker in 1992.

Separated Materials

The following items were transferred to the Beaumier UP Heritage Center (received by Daniel Truckey on July 31, 2015): Camoflage cloth (2 pieces); Trout Unlimited special tribute plaque; NAACP life membership plaque; and Mark Twain Award-Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature plaque.

John D. Voelker papers
Dr. Stephen H. Peters, Project Archivist
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Central Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan University Archives Repository

Harden Learning Resources Center 126
1401 Presque Isle Ave
Marquette 49855 United States
906-227-1333 (Fax)


This collection guide includes collections from member organizations of UPLINK (the Upper Peninsula Digital Network) as well as the Central Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan University Archives. UPLINK collections document the history of the Upper Peninsula broadly, while the Central UP & NMU Archives focuses on such topics as Northern Michigan University history, the local iron mining industry, and the politics, economics, religion, environment, and culture of the Central Upper Peninsula region.

These finding aids will give you an overview of the contents and context of each collection. Finding aids only exist for collections that each organization has shared with UPLINK or (in the case of the NMU Archives) for processed collections. For a more comprehensive list of collections that might help with your research, please contact the relevant heritage organization(s) directly.

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