The Alex Grignon Incident

(Yes, I know this should be edited better.)

Alexander George Grignon was born August 24, 1834 in Green Bay, as part of the historic Grignon Family. His father was George Grignon (1800-1849) and mother was Mary Pauline Prickett (1815-1910). This Alexander is not to be confused with others of the name, including the Alexander (1812-1882) who was a fur trader with his brother Charles and served as Kaukauna postmaster starting in 1840.

This branch of the Grignon clan supposedly came to the Kaukauna area when Alex was young and Kaukauna was still “a vast wilderness.” George built a log cabin near what would become Combined Locks, and allegedly the first Catholic mass in the area was in Grignon’s home, performed by Rev. Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli (1806-1864). Exactly when the mass was performed is unclear, but would likely have been somewhere between 1830 and 1835 based on the known travels of the missionary. (To me, it seems more likely the first mass would be at the Augustin Grignon home in Kaukauna, especially considering Augustin may have helped Mazzuchelli construct the first Catholic church in Wisconsin, but who knows? This remains an ongoing archeological debate.) The George Grignon home also served as a resting place for travelers seeking shelter and entertainment.

On November 4, 1857, Alex married Mary Philomena St. Louis (1838-1910) at St. John Catholic Church in Little Chute, with Rev. Edward Francis Daems (1826-1879) officiating. Philomena was the daughter of Ephraim St. Louis (1810-1892), a prominent fur trader who had come to Wisconsin from Quebec, and Marie DesAnges Manseau (1806-1895). Ephraim regularly traded with the Grignon and Ducharme families and it is quite likely Alex met Philomena through her father. Allegedly, Philomene St. Louis Grignon was the first white child born in Kaukauna and Ephraim St. Louis helped built the government canal between Combined Locks and Little Chute.

When the Fox River Improvement Company finished the canal in 1856, Alex became a lock tender at Combined Locks and served in that capacity until roughly 1865, perhaps sooner.

During the Civil War, Alex Grignon carried mail from Shawano to Ontonagon, upper Michigan, using a team of horses when he could and walking with the mail in a backpack when the trails were bad. He would later tell a story that he once reached the Montreal River and the ice was too thin for his horses. He had with him nine bags of mail, each weighing 100 pounds. An Indian man was in the area and offered to carry the bags across the river one at a time in exchange for two quarts of rum on Grignon’s next trip. (The story does not say the man’s name, his tribe, or even if the two were previously acquainted.)

1870: Alex and family live in Grand Chute according to the census, near a few Brouillard families and the family of Joseph Henry St. Louis (1837-1917), his brother-in-law. At this time, Alex was listed as a farmer.

Alex Grignon returned to work as the lock tender at Combined Locks for another 36 years (possibly 1873-1909?).

1900: census has Alex, wife Philomena, and children Edith and James living between Kaukauna and Little Chute. No address given. Alex is a lock tender. Daughter Chrestean and son-in-law Michael Jerome Maher, a blacksmith, lived next door. (Yes, Chrestean. Some records have recorded her as Christina, but the former is the spelling on her headstone.)

On the evening of Sunday, March 14, 1909, various family members gathered in the Alex Grignon home, located along the river between Kaukauna and Little Chute. Alex’s sons Louis (of Shawano) and Robert (of Minnesota) had come to Kaukauna to care of their feeble mother. The plan was that Mrs. Grignon would go to live with Louis, and Alex (being a man) could not remain in his own home and would be taken care of by his daughter Chrestean and son-in-law, Michael Maher of Combined Locks. Up to this time, Alex was taken care of by daughter Mrs. Dennis Murphy, but she was moving to Appleton with her husband.

Robert went ahead with the plan, and left briefly to visit Peter Lewis to secure a team of horses to bring his mother’s possessions to the train depot. Alex had been drinking throughout the day and did not take kindly to his children’s ideas; a bloody family fight broke out! The physical altercation between Alex and Louis left the son stabbed with Alex’s hunting knife, and the father with a broken nose, a cut lip and without the use of his left eye.

Mrs. Murphy ran next door to the home of Michael Maher to summon help. When they returned they found Louis standing over the unconscious body of their father. Louis was saturated with both his and his father’s blood, the only words he could muster were, “I had to do it.”

Dr. A. M. Fischer and the similarly named Dr. A. M. Foster were called and fixed up both men. They found blood pooled on the carpet, and spattered on the walls and furniture. Druggist W. C. Wendt and Marshal Richard Conlon also arrived to assist. The Grignon children bound their father with rope, and when he awoke he said to the marshal, “You know, Dick, you could always handle me and even hold me with a thread.”

Robert Grignon asked that a warrant be served on his father for assault with intent to kill, and Alex was brought to the local jail by Sheriff AG Koch and held on $3,000 bond by Judge Ryan. Louis, still bleeding three hours later, was brought by interurban car (said to be near the Grignon residence) to St. Elizabeth Hospital and was recovering. The blade allegedly went in four full inches and yet managed to miss all vital organs. From jail, Alex swore he acted in self-defense to prevent a further pounding, but those who knew his violent reputation had their doubts. While in jail, Alex was treated by a doctor who feared his age made him susceptible to life-threatening colds if he did not rest.

Robert spoke to the media, explaining that a few years ago Alex had pulled a knife in a Kaukauna saloon and scared everyone out. He said, “When father is drinking, he believes he can whip anyone in existence. He arrived home at 5:00 yesterday afternoon under the influence of liquor. We were all home. We sat there talking for a while when I asked father to come to supper… As we were about to leave, father went into the bedroom and returned with a knife with which he made a lunge at Louis.” Robert said he did not think the fight was about moving his mother, but would not tell the newspaper the real cause.

Reporters visited Louis in the hospital and his story was very close to Robert’s. He said if his father was let out on bail, he would skip trial. “I do not know what action the members of my family will take when his trial takes place. I had nothing to do with his arrest and will not take unless compelled to. If I am a witness, however, I will tell the truth. I carry more scars from his attacks than those which are now bandaged.”

Louis continued, “My sister, Mrs. Murphy, was planning to move to Appleton and after supper my brother and brother-in-law went to see about getting a drayman to move the household goods. I was told to keep my eye on father and see that he did not molest the women. Shortly after the boys left my father went into the bedroom and Mrs. Murphy followed him. She returned and warned me to look out that father was opening up his hunting knife. When he came out I was in the dining room.”

Further still, “He came at me with the drawn knife. He had been drinking enough to be in a fierce mood, although not drunk enough to be unsteady. Twice he struck at me with the knife and each time I pushed him back, but did not strike him. I know they are accusing me of striking my father. The trouble is I did not strike him soon enough. If I had, I would not be lying here now, carved up as I am.”

“The third time he struck his knife penetrated me here.” Louis showed a three-inch cut on his left side below the ribs. “My intestines came out through the hole and I shoved them back. He struck again and as I raised my right arm to guard off the blow of the knife completely penetrated it below the elbow. It cut a large vein but did not prevent me from using it.”

“It was then that I struck him for the first time. I struck with all my might, striking him on the nose. It must have broken it. Father fell to the floor, falling into the sitting room. I sprang to take the knife away from him when he struck at me twice more, just escaping cutting my head with it, and coming close enough to make these scratches.” He showed two scratches on the left side of his head, which had removed hair but had barely cut the skin.

“I then struck him again. This time on the cheek and he lay unconscious. Do you think if a man of my size had struck him first he would ever have used the knife on me? I did not sit down and as the blood was flowing freely from my two wounds, especially my arm, the three rooms I walked in were a mass of blood. I would have bled to death had my sister not tied up my arm and stopped the flow.”

Alex was out of jail almost immediately, his $3,000 bond posted by William LaMure of Buchanan and Hugh J Mulholland of Kaukauna. Both were politically-connected elder statesmen – Mulholland had been Kaukauna mayor in the 1890s, for example.

DA Francis J. Rooney, with defense attorneys A. M. Spencer and Husting.

The preliminary hearing was to be held at the end of March, but was postponed for three weeks in the hope that Louis would be well enough to appear in court. After three weeks in the hospital, Louis was able to go home in early April, walking with the aid of a cane. Alex waived his right to a hearing and a trial date was set for September.

Alex Grignon was acquitted by the jury in September 1909, one day after his trial. Deliberations took two or three hours. The jury ultimately decided that “several members” of the family were involved and the blame should not rest squarely on Alex. (I think I only used Kaukauna newspapers, so the Appleton newspaper may have covered the trial better.)

Christmas Day 1910: Philomena Grignon died at the home of her son, Louis Grignon at Shawano.

1920: Alex was a boarder at the home of Ida Arndt at 1131 Fifth Street, Appleton.

April 19, 1921: Alex died at the home of his son James, 670 Catherine Street in Kaukauna. Grignon had been employed as a mail carrier and lock tender by the government for 41 years and the last 12 years had been working for the Green Bay-Mississippi Canal Co.

Alex was survived by four sons: Louis (of Kimberly), Robert (of Munising, Michigan); Thomas (of Newport, Virginia), James (of Appleton); five daughters, Chrestean Maher (of Kaukauna); Delia May McKenzie (of Portland, Oregon); Theresa Henrietta Earley (of Wausau), Florence Mary Oberley (of Munising, Michigan); and Mrs. E. Murphy (of Milwaukee). Alex was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Kaukauna. Oddly, his wife is buried at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Shawano.

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