LAW AND THEATER
“ANATOMY OF A MURDER” (PART I: HISTORICAL BACKGROUND)
For my next “Law and Theater” project, I’m tackling the stage version of “Anatomy of a Murder,” by Elihu Winer, based on the novel by John D. Voelker under the pseudonym Robert Traver. As is usual, Part I will be a discussion of the historical background of the actual case. Part II will be a dissection of the play itself.
John D. Voelker
Voelker was born in Ishpeming, Michigan, in 1903. After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1928, he practiced law in Marquette, Michigan and Chicago, before establishing a private practice in Ishpeming. He served as prosecuting attorney for Marquette County from 1935-1942 and 1945-1950, and as Ishpeming city attorney from 1943-1944. In 1950, he was defeated in his re-election bid, and returned to private practice full time. He also indulged in writing.
In 1952, he was hired to defend Lt. Coleman A. Peterson. Peterson was charged with the murder of Mike Chenoweth, owner of the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay, Michigan. Voelker’s defense resulted in a verdict of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. This trial became the basis for Voelker’s fifth novel, Anatomy of a Murder.
The Crime and the Trial
In July 1952, Lt. Peterson returned from a bivouac and noticed some strange bruises on his wife, Charlotte. When he questioned her about the bruises, she told him that she had been raped by Chenoweth. Lt. Peterson stormed out of the Peterson’s trailer, got into his car, and sped to the Lumberjack Tavern. He stormed in, found Chenoweth standing behind the bar, and without saying a word, shot him in the chest. After Chenoweth fell to the ground behind the bar, Peterson leaned over the bar and emptied his gun into the body.
Mrs. Peterson’s reputation was one of the key points discussed in the trial. She had a reputation for playing the field when her husband was out of town. Chenoweth also had a reputation as a player. On the evening of the alleged rape, Charlotte had been at the tavern (without her husband), and was seen drinking, dancing without her shoes on, and generally “carrying on,” as one juror stated decades later.
At trial, Voelker argued that Lt. Peterson had succumbed to an “irresistible impulse” to kill Chenoweth. Eventually, the jury agreed and returned with a unanimous verdict of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Lt. Peterson spent one month in a state asylum undergoing psychiatric examination and treatment, and was then released. The Petersons were divorced soon after. Although some reports indicated that Lt. Peterson died in an airplane crash in Alaska, this is apparently inaccurate. He died in 1977 in Corpus Christi, Texas.
In 1953, Voelker began toying with the idea of writing a novel based on the Peterson trial. By 1956, he had completed a draft of the novel, and began sending it out to publishers. Most of them declined. After revisions, a new draft was sent out. On December 31, 1956, St. Martin’s accepted the novel for publication. Coincidentally, on the same day, Voelker received a phone call from the governor of Michigan offering him a vacant seat on the Michigan Supreme Court.
The novel was initially scheduled to be released in September 1957. The Book-of-the-Month Club named it an alternate selection, however, and requested that publication be postponed until January 1958. It quickly became a bestseller.
St. Martin’s made the film rights available in 1958, and they were eventually acquired by Otto Preminger. The film starred James Stewart, George C. Scott, Ben Gazzara, and Lee Remick, with a soundtrack by Duke Ellington (who also appears in the film). It was shot largely in Marquette County, at or near many of the actual locations from the murder case. Most of the jurors in the movie were the actual jurors from the trial (some had moved away or died; they were replaced with local residents).
The film generally received positive reviews. In fact, it is regarded by many critics as one of the best courtroom dramas. According to Rotten Tomatoes, 100% of critics (36/36) gave it a positive review and 89% or audiences gave it a score of 3.5 out of 5.0 or higher.
St. Martin’s intended from the outset to do a stage version of the novel. Playwright John Van Druten was hired to write the play. He completed a rough draft before he died in December 1957. Eventually, in 1963 Elihu Winer completed the stage version, which was published by Samuel French in 1964.
Killing of Michigan bar owner in 1952 inspired film ‘Anatomy of a Murder’